Mar 10, 2014
Frederic Raphael on Socrates
Posted on Jul 31, 2009
The main issue, Waterfield insists, was political. Socrates had been a close friend of Alcibiades, whose influence on the course of the Peloponnesian War had been disastrous. Rather than blame themselves, the Athenians blamed the Golden Boy, and the Golden Boy’s guru. Socrates’ conduct at the trial was impenitent and, when convicted (by no great majority of the very large jury), frivolous: Asked, in accordance with standard practice, to propose an appropriate penalty, he suggested that he be given free meals for life, the kind of tribute which, in happy times, cities paid to victors at the Olympic Games. It seems as if he wished to saddle the Athenians with guilt for the death of an innocent man. Although Waterfield does not quite say so, it is not that difficult to find Socrates insufferable.
In order to put the trial in historical context, Waterfield goes back, in some detail, over the Athenian conduct of the war. He is more informative than innovative. Not infrequently, he reads things in the moralizing light which makes Thucydides a prose tragedian, lamenting the hubris (violent arrogance) of the Athenians for their fall from grace. The key incident, on this view, was the Athenian ultimatum to the Cycladic island of Melos in 416 B.C. In the famous “Melian Dialogue,” Thucydides describes how the “neutral” Melians (its oligarchs , in truth, favored Sparta) were given the choice of joining the Athenians or being killed or enslaved. The Melian people (Waterfield does not say) were given no vote concerning their fate. The oligarchic regime showed noble defiance and the worst followed. This has often been said to show how “sinful” the Athenians were. It is not noted here that the Spartans adopted precisely the same tactics when intimidating a city in Thrace which supported Athens. In that case, the citizens elected to surrender and Sparta escaped the obloquy has been attached to the Athenians.
Waterfield himself could be accused of Spartaphilia: When he says that “even ascetic militaristic Sparta was prepared to be corrupted by empire,” he gives the impression that the Spartans were only belatedly infected by the Athenian disease. In fact, as far back as the eighth century B.C. when they enslaved Messenia, the Spartans were said to care for nothing but money. Their kings were regularly seduced by gold and they took subsidies, eagerly, from the Persians when finishing the war. The virtues of the Spartans have always had a good press from British scholars, many of whom went to public (i.e. private) schools where flogging and cold baths and manly sports were de rigueur. Sparta has had a better press, starting with Plato and Xenophon, than it deserves. Not many decades after its victory in the Peloponnesian War, it lost its hegemony in Greece, but few scholars drew moral conclusions from its decline.
One of the favorite books of my 1940s youth was entitled “Sixty Famous Trials.” Each was prefaced with a line drawing. In the pertinent case, the drawing was entitled, if I remember rightly, “It was in the house of Critias that Socrates met Alcibiades.” This suggests that the Alcibiades connection, of which Waterfield makes so much, is hardly novel. The strength of his book is in the detail of political play inside Athens during the war which the Athenians failed to win less because they offended the Gods, or History, than because they made bad decisions and failed to sell, so to say, when the market was favorable.
If, in 399 B.C., the citizens were angry with themselves for losing the war and turned on a likely scapegoat, they may have been hardly less riled by a talkative scold whose attitude was a mixture of “I told you so” and “You should have listened to me.” Waterfield dresses Socrates in prophetic robes and says that Athens “terminally rejected his vision of what makes a good citizen and what makes a good state.” He was, we are promised, “caught by his desire to see the moral regeneration of Athens.” That, the citizens of a chastened empire may well have thought, was all they needed.
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