Mar 9, 2014
Frederic Raphael on Socrates
Posted on Jul 31, 2009
Waterfield is more historian than philosopher: He prefers to deal with the political reasons for Socrates’ condemnation. To what degree did Socrates provoke the Athenians to condemn him? Since Socrates is always said to have said that only the “examined life” is worth living, Waterfield tells us that Socrates “would have been the last to leave a cultural icon unexamined, and that is what I do in [my] book.” If what this sentence means is the exact opposite of what Waterfield intends, well, only a purist would allow that to spoil his lively revision of the evidence and, more interestingly, of the historical background to what was, in many respects, a show trial. Socrates stood in for a defendant who was already dead but whom the Athenian demos blamed for everything that had led to the defeat of their city by the oligarchic Spartans: the brilliant, rich and egotistic Alcibiades, the man who made swinging both ways a lifetime’s activity.
That the Athenians had themselves to blame for a number of the decisions which had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory did not make them less vindictive. By 399 B.C., when the trial took place, the city had already begun to recover from the catastrophe of five years before. Defeat had led to the institution of a regime known later as The Thirty Tyrants. It had something in common with Pétain’s Vichy government after the defeat of France in 1940: Democracy itself was said to be the reason for national humiliation. A reactionary oligarchy, backed by the Spartans, the victors in the late war, took over. In Athens, it was led by Plato’s uncle, Critias. Although intelligent (he wrote good tragedies), he made such a hash of government that the Spartans washed their hands of him. He was quite soon evicted and replaced by a democratic regime which, as even Plato acknowledged, showed itself more magnanimous than could be expected of any ancient government. Nevertheless, those conspicuously contaminated by Critias and his friends could hardly expect to escape prosecution by those whose family and friends they had, in many cases, done to death. One of Socrates’ principal accusers, Lycon, had lost his son to the Terror.
Alcibiades was the Golden Boy of the Periclean age; glamorous, wealthy, precocious and promiscuous, he even had his personal goldsmith. The source of his wealth is somewhat mysterious, since his estates, at least in Attica, extended to no more than a hundred acres. Maybe, like his great rival Nikias, with whom he shared command (they were the accelerator and the brake on Athens’ disastrous expedition, in 415 B.C., to add Sicily to its empire), he owned slaves, the energy source of the ancient world, whom he rented out. Just before the fleet set out for Sicily, the Athenians were horrified to wake and find that the herms – ithyphallic statues of the god Hermes – which stood outside almost all their houses had had their phalloi knocked off in the night.
Blame fell on the upper-class clubs, hell-raising fraternities in which the blue-blooded celebrated drunken revels and, it was rumored, mounted the equivalent of Black Masses: satirical versions of the Mysteries, ceremonies of initiation which ordinary Athenians regarded with solemnity. This kind of thing had happened before, so Waterfield says: “we know of five or six occasions when Mysteries were illegally performed, a heady brew of impiety and oligarchy. And the Athenians may well have felt that this was the tip of an iceberg.” The reader may well feel that this is a feeling that the population of a city on the Mediterranean will absolutely certainly never have felt, since icebergs were unknown to them, but sensitive phrasing is not Waterfield’s style. He writes witlessly, but with well-researched enthusiasm.
Denunciations were made and withdrawn, but Alcibiades became a prime suspect. A ship was sent to recall him from Sicily to stand trial. He absconded to Sparta (where he had grand connections) and gave its leaders shrewd strategic advice, then bedded the wife of one of the kings and went off to Persia, only to rejoin the Athenians toward the end of the war. So great was his charisma that he was greeted by many of them as a returning prodigal, but he was murdered by a Persian satrap (whose wife he had enjoyed) before he had a chance to retrieve his reputation. Not long afterward, the Spartan Lysander finished off the Athenian fleet and Athens was starved into surrender.
Socrates had had a long, improbable friendship with Alcibiades ever since the latter’s boyhood. The improbability lay in its chastity: Although Alcibiades declared that he was available, Socrates restricted the relationship intimacy to intellectual intimacy. Was Alcibiades more infatuated with the pug-faced little philosopher than the reverse? Perhaps, unlike the great tragedian Sophocles, Socrates was not hot for boys (a disreputable anecdote gives him a mistress as well as a wife). Waterfield follows Peter Green in arguing that homosexuality was more of an upper-class foible than, for recent instance, James Davidson’s “The Greeks and Greek Love” would have us think. In any case, the charge against Socrates of corrupting the youth had nothing to do with sexual deviation. It concerned his alleged impiety, not least in having more faith in his personal daimon, or conscience, than in the same gods as other Athenians, even though he never showed the Olympians any disrespect. Indeed Plato banished poets from the Ideal Republic because Homer, in particular, had depicted Zeus and the others behaving in a salacious manner.
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