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.