Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. Im Aaron Powell.
Matthew Feeney: Im Matthew Feeney.
Trevor Burrus: And Im Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Brian Wilson. Hes co-founder of Combat & Classics, a program out of St. Johns that organizes free online seminars on classic text for active duty reserve and veteran U.S. military. Hes joining us today to discuss Platos Apology.
Brian, lets maybe kick things off by having you tell us a bit about Combat & Classics.
Brian Wilson: Sure. Combat & Classics is sponsored by St. Johns College. Its an outreach program through St. Johns. Im a graduate of the Graduate Institute in Annapolis and when I was kind of transitioning from student to alumnus, approached the dean of the college and just said, Hey, what can I do for you guys?
They just really wanted to get kind of more involvement with the military and we thought the best way to do that was just by what we do at St. Johns which is just Socratic dialogue and great books, just with the military audience.
Trevor Burrus: And does it come over pretty well? I mean are there any text that you tend to focus on mostly in that or is it pretty broad? Is it classic philosophy or plays or Greek and Roman or anything
Brian Wilson: Yeah. I mean the degree from St. Johns is liberal arts. So we study everything from Euclid to Newton to Aristophanes to Plato to basically the kind of classical liberal education. So we try to represent that as best we can with Combat & Classics. We do probably do a little bit more history and philosophy, a little bit more Thucydides, a little bit more Herodotus, a little bit more Plato.
But we try to get in a good amount of things that maybe somebody whos looking at the great books and is in the military has already started on but for instance, our April and our March and April seminars are both Macbeth. So we will be doing Shakespeare for those.
But our February upcoming seminar is on the Iliad. So we do kind of a marshal theme to a certain extent but its a broad swath of classical literature that we use.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well then I guess lets turn to our text. We chose today Platos Apology which is one that youve done seminars on.
Brian Wilson: Yeah.
Aaron Ross Powell: So give us some background on that.
Brian Wilson: So the Apology is Socrates on trial, right? He has apparently corrupted the youth. He is accused of being a heretic, of not believing in the gods and this is Socrates you would call lackluster defense of those charges, but also a robust defense of what it means to be an individual, to be able to stand up to the state and what is the consequences of that for both the individual and the state.
Trevor Burrus: Why would you call the defense lackluster?
Brian Wilson: I think that and Socrates admits those to a certain extent. Meletus, his accuser, has kind of made his case and Socrates is replying and thats the beginning of the dialogue is Socrates replying. He says like what Meletus has said is and the accusers at large which was not true, right? But it sways the jury, right? And it has obviously swayed the jury and he said, Im not going to do that. Im not going to play this game. Im just going to do what I do, which is seek truth, examine virtue and if you guys dont like that, all right. No big deal.
Hes willing to accept the consequences of that decision of being kind of true to himself rather than Im going to make a case to get myself out of punishment.
Trevor Burrus: Should we interpret this as a Ive never gotten a good handle on the theistic I guess kind of piety of the Greeks, of how much are they kind of like modern day Christians who if you dont believe in their gods because I always thought if you are if you believe in many gods, then you believe that you kind of accept other people who believe in those gods too and dont treat them as atheists as much.
So are these trumped up charges? Sort of like this impiety. Was it the worst thing in ancient Greece to believe in different gods than those gods in this corruption of should we interpret them as trumped up charges?
Brian Wilson: No, I think its pretty clear that they are trumped up. You know, whether or not Socrates was an actual theist or an atheist or what is kind of one of those things that and I know that Cato has talked about this in the pas as far as like how much of a deist was Thomas Jefferson and George Washington?
So its those kinds of things where its like only the people that only you know, you know, how much you buy into whatever religious creed you might or might not espouse. So there were certainly questions that Socrates raised that could make people uncomfortable, but theres no statement that I can think of in the entire kind of platonic canon where he comes out and says, I dont believe any of this stuff, right?
But its the questioning that certainly causes this accusation to get carried forward and certainly has swayed a decent amount of the jury.
Aaron Ross Powell: I mean its pretty clear hes not a straight-up atheist.
Brian Wilson: Yeah.
Aaron Ross Powell: Like he very obviously he defends himself along these lines by saying, look, I talk all the time and tell people all the time about
Trevor Burrus: Demigods.
Aaron Ross Powell: Demigods and demons and other things that assume
Trevor Burrus: Does he mean like Hercules? Is that what he its like the Hercules of
Brian Wilson: Yeah, and he talks about the demigods. He talks about the offspring of gods and man and I think you its very much a Rorschach test I think for the reader, right? If you want to read that as if youre an atheist reader approaching the text, then you can go, Oh, hes messing with these guys.
But if youre a theist reader, then you can go, No, hes trying to fit it into this theist doctrine thats part of the community and hes just trying to play by those rules. They may not believe him
Matthew Feeney: I mean its certainly the case at least towards the endI dont want to jump ahead too muchbut that he postulates after death are a couple of possibilities and one is that its just an eternal kind of sleep and the other is hey, Ive got to hang out with Homer and all these other guys. But he seems so at the beginning, theres this question when he speaks to the oracle and it seems like hard to believe someone not taking that seriously with some sort of theistic belief.
If you really dont believe that the oracle was the voice of a god, then hes walking around Athens, trying to see if he could find someone wiser than him. It seems a little pointless.
Trevor Burrus: One final question I want to ask before we open up a bag of worms here, but before we get fully into the text is, Is this a history?
Brian Wilson: I mean your guess is as good as mine on that. I think that I always liked Christopher Hitchens kind of description of Socrates versus Jesus. You know, its like its not important if youre looking at Socrates, whether or not he existed at all, right?
You can take his teachings and you can take whatever you want out of that, right? And its not important if he existed or didnt exist or if this is what he said or didnt say.
Trevor Burrus: But its a little different because in this one, I think one of two maybe of Platos dialogues, Plato is supposed to be there. So maybe he was taking notes. It kind of brings that spectrum a little bit more.
Aaron Ross Powell: But I think this is complicated by so we only have two accounts of Socrates defense. We have Plato and the Xenophon, who was another follower of Socrates. But then at the same time, theres this after Socrates death, it was kind of a thing for writers to write their own versions of his defense. It was like just fan fiction.
Trevor Burrus: Its also probably kind of like a Rorschach test. They all wrote it the way that they saw it.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes. So I mean its a little bit different. We have almost no text. What we do know about Socrates largely comes from Plato and Xenophon and Plato very clearly drifts away from presenting anything that even is remotely historical or documentary in his later dialogues where we get to just these are Platos ideas and Socrates is a mouthpiece for them.
Theres the argument made that I think seems relatively persuasive to me that of the two apologies that we have, Platos and Xenophons, like Xenophon, well a smart guy, was not a genius on the level of Plato. So its less so Platos genius probably takes over a bit more in his presentation. But theyre I mean theyre similar enough although its the Xenophon, Socrates is not his speech is not the great work of literature that we read for today and is quite a bit more straightforward.
But the skeleton is relatively the same. So we could probably say I mean theres some level of accuracy there but we dont know. So I think largely when were talking about Socrates, were analyzing Socrates in the way that we would talk about Hamlet, right? We act as if we analyze him as a real person while recognizing too that he was a historical figure but what were really talking about is Platos presentation of him.
Trevor Burrus: So lets talk about that skeleton then. How does the dialogue open up?
Brian Wilson: Well, the dialogue, I mean it rolls right into the defense, right? And theres no which I find always find interesting is that theres not really a presentation of the accusers argument. It is just the defense and you have to kind of start with that question.
I mean there is a dialogue thats supposed to have happened right before the trial which is the Euthyphro, which I know Im pronouncing wrong because my Greek is pretty terrible. But they dont really talk much about Socrates trial, right? They talk about Euthyphros trial for manslaughter. So we open with this and Socrates immediately kind of goes for underwhelming. You know, he says, I do not know what effect my accusers had upon you. Hes speaking to the jury. But for my own part, I was almost carried away by them. Their arguments were so convincing. On the other hand, scarcely a word of what they said was true.
Aaron Ross Powell: Its a wonderful line to read during a presidential election.
Brian Wilson: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Are we picturing him in an amphitheater type situation with like I picture this as a circle with the people sitting on benches around him while he was speaking to them. Is that a
Brian Wilson: I always think about it just like Perry Mason.
Matthew Feeney: This kind of juries I think were done I forget the name of the location but its quite close to the Acropolis and it would have been about for the time, about 500 people then hearing the accusation and the defense on the top of this rather small hill in Athens.
Brian Wilson: I think that the police procedural has just kind of tainted my visualization a little bit too much. Im visualizing Law and Order.
Aaron Ross Powell: And the setup just the setup of this trial and the way it functions is I think something we could talk about because its fairly interesting as a contrast to the way that we do things now.
Brian Wilson: Sure. I mean he has this jury of 500 people, right? And it seems obvious to me that theyve been fairly swayed by the accusers. What we usually do at St. Johns when were opening a seminar, when were talking about something like this, is that the tutor will just ask an opening question. From there, theres not really were trying to stick to the reading as much as possible. Obviously youre the host and youre the Cato Institute. So if we want to talk about the Iowa caucus, then go for it.
Trevor Burrus: Please no.
Brian Wilson: Probably not. But we just try to stick to the text as much as we can for our points and for our questions. So the question I would like to ask you is, What was Socrates mindset during this trial?
Matthew Feeney: So I think thats a great opening because if you think about the timeline here, hes already an old man. Seventy, which you can say pretty old now, let alone in ancient Greece.
Reading the defense, I got the impression that he might be just sort of resigned to the way this might end and the way it will end because hes an old man and the way hes addressing it, he discusses how death isnt particularly that bad and the important thing is to lead a good life and that you shouldnt calculate the chances of living or dying. You should think about doing the right thing versus the wrong thing and maybe if I die, I will be able to an eternal sleep or talk to people I admire and I can continue these conversations.
So part of me thinks his mindset might be well, I could be doomed but at least I can go out in a great rhetorical flourish and make these people look a little silly. I think he succeeds in doing that, especially with Meletus, that accuser.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I agree with Matthew. I think also that I always read Socrates as so tongue-in-cheek the way he spoke to people that I kind of read the Apology as being kind of angry and his righteousness against the accusing this is who I think it is. A libertarian-ish text or something we can learn just political philosophy about a person standing against a power who has the righteous position which he discusses later on.
If you do think you have the righteous position thats the way Socrates does everything. Do you think he would never say it. He would be like hes like, What do you think? Socrates, do you have the righteous position? Hes like, I dont know, sir. Do you think I have the righteous position? Are cows righteous? He would never say it but you know he does think this. Now hes going to stand in front of the polis which is a much more community-oriented type of concept than the current state and then tell them basically like a on both their houses, all of you. So I see anger.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, that was my reading more so than just resignation was the righteousness coming in because hes so he tells us this story of the oracle Adelphi saying that hes the wisest man alive and that he has basically built a career around trying to assess that because he like he doesnt think of himself as wise. But which of course I think he really does but he just likes to think hes not. Its because he recognizes his lack of wisdom that the oracle thinks hes the most wise.
But to kind of test this, he goes around asking people who are presumed to be wise and testing their wisdom and always finding it lacking. So he he has got this other part where he goes in about the training of the horses, right? Where he says you wouldnt when you want to break a horse, you call in an expert. You dont just have like everyone break the horse because thats not going to work and that seems to be a dig against this system.
So I read this as like a like look, Ive been going around showing all of you up and now youve done this dumb thing where youre putting me on trial and so its not just that Im kind of resigned to my fate and I dont really think that living over 70 would be all that awesome anyway and death isnt all isnt something to worry about. But also that Im going to prove like my last act will be proving that I was right all along by getting by showing the complete lack of wisdom of all of you and that seems to be because hes constantly provoking them. This isnt just like a lackluster defense. This is like come and get me, right?
So even when hes given like every opportunity and we get that in the follow-up dialogue, the credo where hes given the opportunity after he has been convicted to run away and hes just he doesnt take it. Like, in every step, he seems to want them to kill him even when I mean theyve declared him guilty and he offers up these basically absurd alternative sentences that he knows theyre going to reject. He just he seems angry and he seems like he wants to demonstrate the foolishness of the people of Athens.
Brian Wilson: Yeah, I mean he I like the idea of anger just because right at 28, he kind of has an external, internal dialogue and says but perhaps someone will say, Do you feel no compunction Socrates in having followed a line of action which puts you in danger of the death penalty? I might fairly reply to him, Youre mistaken my friend if you think that a man whos worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death.
He gives the example of Achilles, right? Which we have this whole book of Homer about it and the first word of that is menace, right? Rage. Singham used the rage of Achilles. So he kind of brings it off and the whole presentation, I mean you can obviously if youre directing this, you can get a Mickey Rourke in there. You can kind of get somebody a little bit more relaxed.
But the rage is there, right? I mean its right in the dialogue when he brings up Achilles. But whats interesting to me is that he says right there, you know, the idea of even questioning that, right? The idea of thinking about that is but thats what Achilles did for half the book. So I feel like theres kind of a maybe a duality there of hes saying its wrong but he might also be implying that theres a certain bit of human nature in wanting to spare yourself. Do any of you feel like Socrates tries at any point to kind of at least give himself some breathing room in the dialogue to maybe convince the jury Im not as big a threat as you think I am?
Matthew Feeney: I think that he certainly does make fools of the accusers and make the charges sound ridiculous but I think as a as Aaron alluded to earlier, after the vote where hes found guilty, but not by a particularly large margin. And Socrates as well, Im glad that you didnt that I got some support here. But then goes on to propose that they give him a pension or that they you know, comparatively, a meager fine be imposed and he seems to he must have known that that would lose him what support he probably did have and then instead of a sort of sensible negotiation or proposal, hes sentenced to death and I think that thats quite telling.
Trevor Burrus: Well, I think that that interesting he does try to some extent but this at the beginning, he mentions Aristophanes The Clouds which kind of parodies Socrates. But he seems like a guy who believes the popular opinion is one thing about him. Like if you imagine a star today and everyone thinks that like theres some sort of rumor about someone and that theres really nothing he can do to change this, especially because I do think that he believes it.
Most people are stupid and so he says, Well, I get up there and I talk to a bunch of stupid people who have an idea about me because of this opinion thats in the clouds and other sort of just rumors about me. Im not going to convince them at all.
But I think he does try or really tries to make a case for the few people who might be willing to listen to him to some degree.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, that was I mean teasing out this he defends himself but whether its an attempt to soften it as you ask or just to not I guess give in to what he sees as false charges, because he he could have just said, OK, youre right, and then throw himself on the mercy of the court or not really mounted much of a defense if he didnt care one way or another or but it seems like his defense is I guess what I had a difficult time figuring out is how much of the defense was like him trying to like I dont want to be punished. So Im going to try to defend myself versus I totally dont care what happens to me and in fact would like to be punished because it would prove me right.
But I cant stand by because he talks about how much what ultimately matters is not wealth. Its not prestige. Its the kind of person you are. Its your principles and so hes not going to hes going to defend his honor and his principles against these false charges but it doesnt matter what happens to him ultimately.
Trevor Burrus: Can we compare this to I mean it has been of course, but can we compare this to Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate in the sense of Jesus offering a defense against a crowd with a huge bias against him and saying nothing in response to their claims of his own type of disobedience of the Pharisees? I think its very similar except for Jesus was a little bit more taciturn.
Matthew Feeney: Yes. So I havent actually heard much about that comparison but I think what they both have in common is that that to a contemporary 21st century reader in Washington DC, its the thing that Socrates and Jesus do seem to have in common is that theyre being accused of whats effectively thought crime in the like you have the wrong kind of ideas and youre being too persuasive to people and all this other sort of stuff.
Trevor Burrus: But in our post-rationalization because they kind of both start movements these texts are at least written for the purpose of starting a movement. Both of these are just like, well, Im going to die and my death is going to be a lesson. I mean its a really big lesson for Jesus but its they just sort of resigned themselves to their fate and so we see a trial which again has a righteousness of standing against the power that is arrayed against you.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah, and it is the case that Socrates does say I think at the end something look, youre going to think yourself a little silly and I think he has been proven right.
Trevor Burrus: Well, theres a Pharisaic equality to the people who are accusing him. These three accusers who I think are just some sort of they represent classes, if I read that correctly.
Brian Wilson: Yeah. I mean I the way that I kind of tie this in more is I feel like that Plato I mean obviously this is an important part of the canon, right? Of the platonic canon, an important part of Socrates. I dont know if you need it. You need the Pontius Pilate story to have a serious impact on Christianity. I dont know if you need the Apology to make Socrates understood. But it is important. I would compare it more to something like Kafkas The Trial, something like Orwell, something like Eileen Changs Naked Earth where its youre against the state, right?
Socrates lays it out, right? He says very specifically around 31-C he basically says, he says, I dont mess with the state because I know whats going to happen, right? The last part of 31-C, The true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even for a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone, right?
Hes trying to go out of his way to do this but the state doesnt care, right? The state just by questioning any aspect of its doctrine is going to get insulted, right?
Trevor Burrus: I like how he was bringing up how he makes no money. There are a lot of things that as a lawyer, there are a lot of things in the world where the state cant get you until youre making money off of it. They dont have any jurisdiction over you until youre making money off of it. So its like, hey, Im just doing this, my own private life. Private is private.
Brian Wilson: Yeah. The thing is that this is the only thing that the only two things that they could threaten, right? It was first saying you cant do this anymore, right? And it was important for him to be able to do it and in Athens and then the only other thing was his life, right?
So if he wants to take that kind of binary look and say, If this or that, it does show how necessary he sees exploring what is the virtuous life as a at least critical for him and I think that that example obviously shines through in a very robust way in what hes talking about.
You know, something that we talk about because weve done this seminar a couple of times with the military audience is around line 29. He says, The truth of the matter is this, gentlemen. This was right after the Achilles comparison. The truth of the matter is this, gentlemen. Where a man has once taken up a stand either because it seems best to him or an obedience to his orders, there I believe he is bound to remain and face the danger, taking no account of death or anything else before dishonor. This being so, it would be a shocking inconsistency on my part, gentlemen, if when the officers whom you chose to command me, assigned me at my position at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delium, I remained at my post like anyone else and faced death, and yet afterward, when God appointed me, as I supposed and believed, to the duty of leading the philosophical life, examining myself and others, I were then through fear of death or of any other danger to desert my post.
So, well, thats like super firey-uppey for like libertarians. You have to wonder how effective that is. How effective is that analogy to you as readers? How effective potentially is that for a military reader? I mean it certainly puts like a lot of military readers kind of on the horns of the dilemma is you know, there is this idea of death before dishonor.
You know, why is Socrates so set on either not teaching philosophy as more dishonorable than death?
Matthew Feeney: Well, I think it might strike us as maybe a little odd as readers now to hear that rhetoric, especially coming from someone who was a philosopher. But I think its important to remember that Socrates was also a soldier for a while and that one of the accusers is a general who fought the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War and that a lot of people in Athens at the time would have understood the role of the military and would probably have served. I think its some sort of appeal and of course saying, Im just like Achilles, is a clear everyone in ancient Greece would have known the reference clearly and who legends were very popular.
Of course Achilles had this living with dishonor is worse than death and that even if I know Im dead after I fight and kill Hector, thats worthwhile. He seems to view his own death I mean I think that Socrates arrogance is on display in a number of places. But my favorite example of that was when he says, Maybe if I die, my death will be like other people who died unjustly, and he cites Palamedes who was of course sent to get Odysseus, the great trickster, to come to Troy and Palamedes tricked the trickster because of Odysseus tried to pretend to be insane, was so insulting to the earth and Palamedes put Odysseus son Telemachus in front of the plough and tricked Odysseus because Odysseus wasnt going to cut his own son in half off the plough.
I just find that a really interesting that when he says, My death will be like other unjust deaths, and that is death of at least one particularly clever person is really quite telling. But no, I think going back to the original line of inquiry here that the military rhetoric is very deliberate and I think he must have known that it would have pulled on the heartstrings of a few of the people on the jury.
Trevor Burrus: Well, a lot of this tradition of death before dishonor or anyone from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to people standing against and saying, I will not forsake my principles for this thing thats standing against me that has none of these principles at all, it resonates with almost everyone. I mean movies, everything, is made after this and you could always sort of put a libertarian spin on this.
But I think its interesting that this is something I had noticed before that I dont have the exact locations unfortunately that you do for the official version. But he has done this before. Socrates talks about the Thirty, in like how he had done this before. He had stood against this the Thirty
Aaron Ross Powell: The tyrants.
Trevor Burrus: When the oligarchy of the Thirty was in power, they sent me and four others into the rotunda and bade us bring Leon the Salaminian from Salamis as they wanted to put him to death. This was a specimen of the sort of commands which they were always giving with the view of implicating as many as possible in their crimes.
So we get this theres basically some sort of Stalinist despotism, just killing people left and right. And then I showed not in word only but in deed that if I may be allowed to use up an expression, I cared not a straw for death and that my great and only care was lest I should do an unrighteous or unholy thing. For the strong arm of that oppressive power did not frighten me into doing wrong and when we came out of the rotunda, the other four went to Salamis and fetched Leon, but I went quietly home. For which I might have lost my life, had not the power of the Thirty shortly afterwards come to an end. And many will witness to my words.
Its kind of interesting that at some point Im not sure historically how long that was. He had the habit of this death before unrighteousness kind of thing.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah. The historical context here is interesting because this sort of this oligarch, this pro-Spartan set of tyrants were in charge effectively, in charge of Athens and
Trevor Burrus: Do you know what years?
Matthew Feeney: So this was 404 BC.
Read the original: