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The Trial of Socrates: The Latest
Peter Rickman drops in on the Athenian court, still convening after millennia.
A Court Room. Members of the public are drifting in.
Andy: I thought the trial ended some 2,500 years ago.
Bert: No, it’s gone on ever since.
The judge and court officials, lawyers etc are taking their places. Professor Socrates is taken to the dock.
The Judge: Professor Socrates, have you appointed someone to represent you?
Professor Socrates: No, I shall defend myself.
Judge: The Prosecutor is invited to open the case.
Prosecutor: My lord, this is the case of the People against Professor Socrates. The charge is ‘Corrupting the young’.
Judge: Professor Socrates, how do you plead?
Socrates: I only teach them to think for themselves.
Prosecutor: Is that an admission of guilt? I shall call some witnesses, but need to make a very general point first. We all know thinking is strenuous and unpleasant. Apart from the social damage the Professor’s labour creates and to which my witnesses will testify, he replaces the innocent joys of youth, the happiness which is its birthright, with misery.
Socrates: Do you deny thinking yourself?
Prosecutor: This is just an example of your usual sophistry. I call Professor X, who is head of a distinguished psychology department, as my first witness.
Professor X: My department teaches laws of human behaviour based on a great deal of research, that is, observation, questionnaire answers and statistical computation. By accurately learning these laws, our students are enabled to help with industrial relations, education, mental illness and the like.
Socrates: What is your success rate? Is there less mental illness, fewer industrial disputes?
Professor X: We are doing our best, and cynicism will not help. Some of our students attended Professor Socrates’ classes, and my colleagues tell me that instead of noting and learning what we tell them, these students question our methods and concepts, even subjecting carefully established laws to critical scrutiny. They are encouraged to think, instead of learning and absorbing.
Socrates: But are your scientific methods and concepts themselves not the product of thought?
Professor X: That was yesterday, and now is now. Even if horse manure was originally needed to grow roses, it doesn’t mean we have to steep them continuously in it.
Laughter around the courtroom.
Socrates: A nice metaphor, though I’m not happy about comparing the development of research to excrement. More seriously, what about the future? The present cannot be preserved like a fly in amber. More thinking will become necessary.
Judge: Perhaps we need not pursue this further; we are talking about the effect on students. Mr Prosecutor, if your first witness has finished would you call your next?
Prosecutor: I call on Mr I, who represents the advertising of industrial products.
Mr I takes the stand.
Mr I: By introducing people to the range of goods available we encourage a pleasurable lifestyle and assure the continued employment of the workers who produce the goods. The law prescribes, and our conscience propels us, to make the information we give –
Judge: So what is this witness’s case against philosophic scrutiny? Any sensible person would welcome the dissemination of correct information and the avoidance of error.
Mr I: Of course we believe that we provide a service, but we are paid not only to inform but to persuade, because some of these goods are luxuries rather than essentials. Such persuasion cannot be purely rational, and is not meant to be subjected to rational and critical scrutiny. For example, our pictures sometimes associate the products advertised with beautiful, scantily-dressed girls, or attractive young men. The product is thus to be associated with pleasant emotions, while cold criticism would point out that a car is no better for being draped with adoring females, and toothpaste is no better for appearing beside a grinning youth. We choose carefully the images of those who on picture or on screen recommend our goods. We do not claim that those supportive housewives are randomly chosen, or the men in white coats are doctors or scientists, but once the suspicion is raised that they may be paid actors performing a role our work of persuasion is undermined. Thus a philosophical training in critical thought takes the fun out of life, and the bread from workers’ mouths.
Prosecutor: My next witness is Mr Y, a well-known politician.
Mr Y: The political party which wins an election provides a team to form the next government.
Judge: We know that!
Mr Y: My point is that it is government which has to do the thinking concerning how to translate pre-election promises into practical proposals and then plan to realise them. If millions of people encouraged by Professor Socrates do their own thinking on these matters, there will be chaos: the orderly political process will grind to a halt.
Prosecutor: I rest my case .The accused not only imposes burdensome tasks on the young but interferes with learning processes, commercial life, and the political process. This is precisely the corruption of which he stands accused.
Judge: Thank you. Has the accused anything to say in his defence?
Socrates: I am on record as holding that the unexamined life is not worth living. I am committed to the conviction that critical thought makes for better persons, more deserving students, more efficient consumers and more responsible citizens. If not forcibly stopped I shall continue to teach in this spirit. If this is corrupting the youth, I have to plead guilty, and might as well drink the cup of hemlock.
Judge: Your admission of guilt concludes the case. But our civilisation is not so intolerant as to impose death on nonconformists. We shall merely close your philosophy department, and all others committed to encouraging independent thought.
© Prof. Peter Rickman 2007
Peter Rickman was for many years head of the (now-closed) philosophy unit at City University in London.