Emulating Socrates

I recently assigned an undergraduate class reading the Apology to consider Socrates’ manner in presenting himself to the jury. Specifically, I asked them to evaluate whether Socrates’ condescension in his speeches to the jury and prosecution rises to insult and rudeness, and whether this matters in seeing him as exemplar for emulation. The results were mixed. Some concluded that Socrates was both rude and justified since the trial was rank persecution by the dangerously unthinking. Others thought Socrates unwarrantedly rude, remarking on how it was no credit even to noble purposes that he should be scornful or even arrogantly dismissive in his self-presentation. What was striking to me in all this was the gender breakdown of these responses in a class with almost equal enrollment of men and women.

Those who found Socrates rudeness warranted and worthy of emulation:
70% of the men enrolled
13% of the women

Those who found it unwarranted and not worthy of emulation:
30% of the men
87% of the women

I have myself long felt ambivalent about Socrates on this score, and I think this result may capture some of why. Many of the women students remarked in their responses what I would characterize as sympathy to human frailty, a sense that if others have to earn our respect rather than respect operating as a default given, then we’re all in trouble. They were not at all sanguine about Socrates’ rightness, which they acknowledged, giving more general permission to anyone in the right to express contempt or scorn for others. Put simply, they were far more skeptical that we can ever be sure enough that we are in the right or that another’s being in the wrong licenses breaking general respect.

I don’t want to over-assign significance to this outcome, but I do think Socrates casts a long shadow even still over how philosophy is practiced and that even if, in his own case, his manner is explicable or even sympathetic, it ends up conferring status and legitimacy on conversational tactics that, in far less dire circumstances, are quite problematic. It is perhaps tempting to conflate Socrates’ general bravery with the manner of his self-presentation, a willingness to “speak plainly” (i.e., often without regard to offense one may provoke) implicitly equated with courage. It’s perhaps too easy to imagine that one is “being like Socrates,” engaging in bold challenge against the unthinking rabble, when one is really but engaging in garden-variety rudeness and evincing arrogance. Put simply, the model of Socrates can alibi bad conduct and tempt all sorts of self-deception about one’s motives and manner. Calling out what one perceives to be the rank wrongness of others can just be power assertion heroicized as noble.

28 thoughts on “Emulating Socrates

  1. This is an interesting exercise. Did the issue of the success of various methods come up in discussion (e.g., did anyone raise the issue of whether/when rudeness is a *successful* strategy, and whether other methods would have had better results?)?

  2. This question of whether Socrates is rude and,if so, if it’s justified is one I find quite interesting, and I do often discuss it in class.

    My own feeling is that we can find two sides to what I’d call Socrates’ abrasiveness, one problematic, the other perhaps not. On one hand, there’s Socrates the comedian, whose real audience is the reader. This Socrates often seems to be less than honest with his interlocutors, feigning ignorance in a way he knows they’ll misinterpret, setting them up for humiliation. This abrasiveness is not really philosophical in nature or end. I think this is in part a Platonic literary device to win over the reader: “Hey, reader, you and I are special, we know what’s what, not like the rest of those fools.” Philosophy teachers often use this tactic quite effectively. How students respond depends on whether they identify with Socrates or with his interlocutors, the teacher or the out-group the teacher uses as a contrast.

    The other side of Socrates’ abrasiveness is, I believe, philosophically necessary (“aversive thinking,” in Stanley Cavell’s sense). His principal targets are twofold: those who have been socially invested with power and authority and, more importantly, the part of the individual’s identity that is invested in, and gives psychological power, to those authorities (in Foucault’s language: that part of us that causes us to love what exploits us). In this respect, Socrates targets are important. He does not mock or belittle just anyone, only the powerful who have some grip on our confidence. This is particularly true in his trial, where the objects of his scorn are not ordinary Athenians but the jury: the ordinary Athenian’s unreflective prejudices raised to the level of justice. In contrast, we rarely see Socrates act scornfully of the ordinary citizens in most dialogues: mockery is reserved for the arrogant, the proud, the violent, the self-important.

    I think the implication is that, to put it too simply, one must often be rude to the rude, arrogant to the arrogant. We cannot dismantle psychological power through argument alone, because it is a product of an already existing social and psychological investment in their authority, dignity, and rightness. The rudeness of “taking them down a peg” aims not at harming them but equalizing them, bringing them to our level so we can then rationally disagree with them. The goal is to emotionally detach people from the authorities that exploit them. Those who recognize this internal tie to figures of power will find Socrates’ rudeness liberating, while those who too strongly identify with those figures of power will experience it as an attack on themselves.

  3. Thoughtful exercise and fascinating, if not conclusive results, and observations. Matt’s question is also pertinent and like the experiment itself ‘success’ might relate to the range of empathies of the listening evaluators or jury.

    If we couple these findings with the recent article about women’s workplace performance reviews and the prevalent use of the term ‘abrasive’ (not found in similar reviews of male counterparts), we enter into an extended gender scape of sensitivities to power, its use and possible abuse, and differential access to social legitimacy. Women might be more cautious with respect to a kinder, more spacious, positive skepticism about one’s own sense of certainty and/or sense of courtesy, but also as a learned defensive posture having met with disregard and abusive authority themselves. Rudeness as a ‘successful’ strategy seems not to be generally available to women – or at least not without exacting a professional toll — in addition to being exemplary of a Derridean hosting, welcome and invitation.

  4. Cool! We were just talking about this over on LGM.

    My interlocutor that I describe was, indeed, a woman.

    The Apology is interesting because there’s no depicted interaction, so there’s no hope to develop a sense that Socrates is trying to be helpful (not that he necessarily is). But if you consider the Phaedo (or even the Crito), I think it’s possible to read them with Socrates being very gentle and loving with his friends, even as he brushes aside their help and embraces death.

    Refutation is a tricky thing. I’m less certain than I was that we should work hard to be accepting of refutation without working hard on delivering it well.

  5. #2 gives us some important distinctions. Harsh words to a powerful person causing harm are different from the same said to someone in a weak position, or even one at a middling level with whom one disagrees.

    I think the account in #2 of the context is also important, and it is one we might think about in blog writing. Who is the intended audience? We might also distinguish here between a sort of collusion in values from the more simple loyalty of a pack tracking an outsider. I take it Socrates aims at the first; people making purely personal attacks might be assuming the latter.

  6. This is an interesting post. I also recently taught The Apology, alongside Crito. My students, on their own, where very interested in Socrates behavior, what they believed to be his arrogance, and his refusal to do the things necessary to not be condemned to death.

    I teach the Apology alongside the closing statements of the Pussy Riot trial. Socrates becomes a kind of punk philosopher, alongside members of Pussy Riot. One of the members of Pussy Riot specifically compares themselves to the Socrates of the Apology, and it would be hard not to see emulating Socrates as being stapled to a punk and riot grrl ethos that hopes to speak public truths against cultural and state authorities.

    On the other hand, I take this point to be very solid: “It’s perhaps too easy to imagine that one is “being like Socrates,” engaging in bold challenge against the unthinking rabble, when one is really but engaging in garden-variety rudeness and evincing arrogance. Put simply, the model of Socrates can alibi bad conduct and tempt all sorts of self-deception about one’s motives and manner. Calling out what one perceives to be the rank wrongness of others can just be power assertion heroicized as noble.” I think we all know too many times this happens.

    Thank you for the provocative post.

  7. It still seems strange to characterize his behavior as “power assertion” against an “unthinking rabble.” Even if he’s unjustifiably rude, isn’t his rudeness “punching up”?

  8. I do think what’s raised by anon in #2 is quite relevant, as is the idea of “punching up.” Is Socrates as vulnerable though as the latter suggests? By that I just mean that while he is of course in dire peril in the trial, he is also a citizen, has an audience of many who are sympathetic, and wins posterity (something I think he very clearly has in mind). Relative to most Athenians, he swims in the currents of power, not outside them, and the Apology is a contestation of power in at least that limited respect.

    Apart from all that, my principal point here is not about historical Socrates but about the temptation to think one is “like Socrates” where the stakes are not nearly so high, where one has more power than one recognizes, and where the freedom to act as Socrates does is unequally distributed. Put another way, I think that there is a rather ham-fisted version of Socrates we heroicize, and modeling oneself on this “Socrates” by enjoying sanction for abrasive interaction, using scorn as argumentation, and dismissing perceived opponents with contempt is just disappointing and to the discipline’s detriment. (And it’s a sadly impoverished reading of Socrates’ heroism to boot. He’s more interesting than that!)

  9. An interesting result! Though it seems problematic to project our concept of “rudeness” onto one of Plato’s texts. Isn’t irony the more central concept? Don’t we have to understand Socrates’ use of (what the scholars call) “complex irony” if we want to make any judgment here? How can your students, male and female alike, be so sure they know what Socrates is trying to communicate?

  10. I’ve always prefaced this dialogue with the politics of Athens at this time (revolt in 404 BCE by Critias & the 30 Tyrants, shift to oligarchy, Anytus and others flee to reorganize, then return–and the trial is in 399 BCE) puts the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo in a different perspective.

    Is Socrates rude in the Apology? Absolutely–by Athenian standards at the time and by our standards. I let my students vote when we read the Apology–first, is he guilty?second, should he be given the death penalty. I haven’t noticed a gender difference in the votes, just by faculty’s response to the fact I assert he is rude (mostly after he’s been found guilty.)

    After teaching the Apology–where the daimon/”inner voice”–is Just and the laws of the state aren’t, I move on to the Phaedo (Socrates: I’ll obey the state laws, that is what is Right, and why are those pesky women here?!) and insert Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” to contrast.

    * Note: this is always in higher level courses, not intro, so I don’t know if that makes a difference with the votes. I suspect it does.

  11. Prof. Manners,

    This is Anon#2. I see you’re point about Socrates’ relative position of power. And I agree, that historical Socrates aside, we do tend do misuse his example as an excuse for poor philosophical behavior.

    Back to the historical question (which I recognize isn’t crucial to your main point): it may not be quite right to say he’s “punching up,” but I do get the impression Plato wants us to see him as a stand-in for or advocate for the average Athenian, for those who can’t directly confront or question the powerful. Sort of punching up on their behalf.

    I try to discourage the misuse of Socrates’ example by putting a lot of emphasis where his behavior doesn’t fit the ham-fisted caricature we often fall back on. For example, his calm, relatively generous response to Thrasymachus’s meltdown in the Republic and his humorous but tolerant behavior toward Sophocles and Alcibiades in Symposium.

    Maybe Thrasymachus is (as the Sophists sometimes seem to be) Socrates’ ethical doppelganger: the bad Socrates he’s always in danger of becoming if he isn’t sufficiently self-critical, the monster he might find in himself in Phaedrus.

  12. I don’t want to lose Socrates as an example of speaking truth to power here, first of all because he has been historically a role model for less powerful groups. Scu mentions that Pussy Riot gives him a shout out. MLK also famously gives him a shout out in Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

    I also don’t want to lose this example because it is rare to have an example of people speaking *philosophical* truth to power. Speaking truth to power, when it happens, is generally about local political conditions. Along those lines, I think it would be wrong to say that Socrates is speaking on behalf of the powerless in Athens. He’s not speaking for women or slaves. He’s speaking for philosophical truth.

    The example definitely can, and is, abused, however. In the US especially, we see a lot of people posing as outsiders and nonconformists, when really they are just bullying people who are weaker than they are.

    I think its important to emphasize to students that the stance you take to the powerful is not always appropriate when dealing with the less powerful. I’m making a note to myself to discuss this the next time I do the Apology.

  13. I am not yet convinced by the claim that Socrates is obviously rude (which to me implies violating the boundaries of acceptable discourse or behavior) in the _Apology_ or anywhere else. The closest he comes in my opinion is the suggestion that he be housed and fed like an Olympic victor. I can see why people argue that he is rude, just as I see why Socrates’ various critics in the dialogues question his sincerity. But what’s the actual evidence that he’s not sincere? What’s the actual evidence that he’s rude? I’d like to hear it before assessing further inferences. The idea that he could ever be somehow “lost” as a paradigm of speaking truth to power is, to be honest, a bit shocking to me.

  14. re #4, there is an interaction embedded in socrates’ defense. not much of one, by the usual standards set by platonic dialogues, but it’s there.

    i think it’s helpful to remember that socrates addresses himself to various people in the dialogue. for example, his fellow citizens, those who may have spread or believed falsehoods about him, those who voted to convict, his friends, etc. but also, re thinking one is being ‘like socrates’, to remember that socrates was giving an account of his life, of how he lived, with a major implication directed at his fellow citizens; quick quotation from the jowett translation, just after he rejects staying alive and unexiled at the cost of shutting up:

    ‘Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this? And if the person with whom I am arguing says: Yes, but I do care; I do not depart or let him go at once; I interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less. And this I should say to everyone whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren. For this is the command of God, as I would have you know; and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed.’

    part of his account of how he lived is to give reasons for doing so and to demonstrate his commitment to it, which i take to include sticking with people, to question them, to try to show them the implications of (and potential inconsistencies in) what they think and say, in order to effect this persuasion (‘not to take thought for your persons and your properties…’).

    i think it’s rare to find that commitment, or very much investment in the other(s) at all, from people who purport to emulate socrates. they’re more apt to say ‘you are wrong/bad because…’, then drop the mic/close the comment box. socrates seeks the agreement of the person he questions.

    and that can be touchy and full of pitfalls, as #2 suggests.

  15. 1. People who do not argue in good faith do not deserve to be treated with civility.
    2. Many of those opposed to Socrates were not arguing in good faith.
    3. Socrates is under no obligation to treat them with civility.

  16. I’m not sure that perceptions about Socrates’ rudeness do risk losing him as an example of speaking truth to power. My own sense is that discussing his abrasiveness is a way of talking techniques for that. One can agree wholeheartedly with much of the substance of what is offered in the Apology absent signing on to the manner of delivery, I think. Likewise, to say that he is not an exemplar to be emulated *in this respect* would not disallow emulation of myriad other qualities he possesses (e.g., the dialogic methods he employs in interaction within friendship). This at least is how all of my students took the question – none doubted that Socrates is a formidable moral model, but they diverged over his manner. And this sort of debate over means does seem to refract through all sorts of social movements.

    Ligurio, how does one tell when someone is not arguing in good faith? Assuming you mean this to generalize to license rudeness in other contexts than Plato’s dialogues…

  17. Ligurio, I agree with #1 in principle, but don’t think it’s very helpful in practice, since, as Prof. Manners points out, we can’t be certain someone is arguing in bad faith.

    I do admit there are cases where we can have a high degree of certainty that someone is arguing in bad faith–indeed, sometimes our opponent will try to make clear they’re doing so. But that’s rare, so as a rule it’s better to err on the side of civility.

    In the case of apparent exceptions, we should carefully weigh the degree of moral harm we believe we are preventing against the risk of moral harm we might do if we’re mistaken. So we still shouldn’t be cavalier about it, even if incivility is sometimes appropriate.

  18. Well, there are lots of scenarios in which it can become clear that somebody is not arguing in good faith. Here’s just one: when it becomes clear, over time, that the reasons people use to justify in public their positions or actions are not the real reasons behind those positions or actions. I take it that governments, politicians, think tanks, lobbying groups, and lots of other people do this all the time. Because such people are not *really* willing to open themselves to rational argument, they have no right to be treated as if they are. (And, in fact, treating these people “politely” is often merely to enable their bad behavior.) I take it that this is Socrates’ position vis-a-vis many powerful Athenians.

    I wish more journalists would throw their shoes at the President. We’d live in a better country were that the case.

  19. And I’m not a consequentialist, so I don’t really worry so much about the (impossible?) project of forecasting the relative amount of moral harm in these cases. (If you are wrong about somebody’s good faith, and realize you are, then you should apologize, learn from it, and be more careful next time. But recognizing that you are fallible doesn’t mean that you can’t still call a spade a spade.)

  20. Ligurio, do you not believe that Socrates treats others (i.e. those opposed to him) with civility?

    Prof. Manners, when I think of abrasive ways of speaking truth to power my mind springs to philosophers like the ancient Cynics, but I still don’t think of Socrates. Obviously he offended people, but is that because he was being rude?

  21. Laura, do you think tact a part of civility? If so, do you think Socrates’ interactions with his less friendly conversation partners exhibit tact, particularly tact in exposing others’ weaknesses or vulnerabilities? That might be where I’d start in making a case.

  22. It might be worth noting, on the point of whether it makes sense to attribute rudeness here, that Xenophon’s Apology seems to take it as obvious that he was deliberately antagonizing the jury, and argues, rather remarkably, that it was because he was trying to force a death sentence. To be sure, it’s difficult to imagine Plato going quite that far (and Xenophon, unlike Plato, is going by report since he wasn’t actually there).

  23. I actually think that Socrates exemplified “civility” throughout his life–indeed, he could afford to be civil since he was himself an aristocrat. But he was not always “polite,” though to be fair most instances of the famous Socratic irony are obvious to other people in the dialogue, and taken in good humor as a kind of avuncular joshing.

    The political meaning of “civility” is, roughly, using words rather than force to settle disputes. Being a “citizen” means that you have certain rights– not being hauled away for speaking your mind about Flavian, or whomever–and certain duties, like not using force to shut-up other citizens whom you don’t like. Civil behavior, then, is behavior between citizens–not between a citizen and a slave, and not between a citizen and a foreigner.

    Civility is reciprocal; when one party acts in such a way that undermines the conditions for civility obtaining, that person has ceased to be civil. “Ceasing to be civil” usually means: using force instead of argument to advance political aims. It is in this way that governments, lobbyists, etc. regularly cease to be civil. When this happens, you really *can’t* act civilly in relation to them, even if you wanted to. And you have no need, moreover, to be polite to them either.

  24. Considering how weak Socrates’ argument was at times (signified by his over-reliance on false dilemmas), a little politeness may have gone a long way.

  25. I don’t think civility always requires tact, and the absence of tactfulness doesn’t entail rudeness. In any event, I still don’t know the precise grounds for suggesting Socrates is rude. Perhaps it’s because he renders a harsh but accurate judgment of Meletus, yet even this occurs only after Meletus has laid a number of false and malicious charges against Socrates and then refused to cooperate in answering the cross-examination. Some of the claims made by various people above rest on a premise that Socrates’ manner is rude, scornful, impolite, or arrogant, but first I would like to see what evidence we have for that premise.

    The point about Xenophon is interesting but I’m not convinced that’s how to interpret his version of the Apology. Socrates is not willing to compromise his truthfulness or rehearse the usual craven appeals to pity to appease the jury, and if that means he must die, then so be it – he’s aging, perhaps this is a better way to go anyway. That view is different from the claim that he deliberately antagonizes the jurors with the goal that he be sentenced to death. Yet even if one assumes that some such interpretation of Socrates’ defense is correct, what exactly did he do to antagonize them, and how does this compare to the “civility” of jurors who think Socrates is innocent of the actual charges but are nevertheless willing to sentence him to death?

    Anyway, I agree with this: sometimes we may think we’re telling difficult truths or offering refutation for the sake of the good (like Socrates), when we’re simply wrong or being needlessly rude. My take would be: since most of us aren’t wise enough to do this like a Socrates, we should err on the side of being nice. Hopefully I’m not violating my own guideline!

  26. It certainly depends on (1) how one interprets the phrase Xenophon claims to be addressed by the Apology, namely, Socrates’ apparently crazed big-talking that Xenophon says has been depicted by others but not properly explained, particularly in light of the fact that Xenophon at one point says that the uproar Socrates created in the jury was unsurprising; and (2) how one takes his Apology actually to be explaining it, particularly the explicit claims that Socrates had come to regard it as his time to die. But I think it is enough to argue with some probability that, however we may take it or it should be taken, it came across as Socrates repeatedly exalting himself at the expense of his fellow citizens (hence the uproar at, e.g., the anecdote about the Oracle), and that even someone as firmly pro-Socratic as Xenophon thought that it needed some clarification.

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