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The Conflict of Philosophy and Politics


Of all confrontations in political philosophy, the biggest
is the conflict between philosophy and politics. The
problem remains making philosophy friendly to politics. The
questioning of authoritative opinions is not easily
accomplished nor is that realm of philosophy - the pursuit
of wisdom. Socrates was the instigator of the conflict.
While the political element takes place within opinions
about political life, Socrates asks the question "What is
the best regime and how should I live?" Ancient thought is
riddled with unknowns and can make no such statement as
"how should I live." The Socratic philosophy offers an
alternative and prepares the way for the alternative of
absolutes. This alternative is not without its faults.
Socratic philosophy is plagued by a destructive element. It
reduces the authoritative opinions about political life but
replaces it with nothing. This is the vital stem from which
the "Apology of Socrates" is written. Because of the
stinging attack on Athenian life, and the opinions which
they revere so highly, Socrates is placed on trial for his
life. The question now becomes why and in what manner did
Socrates refute the gods and is he quilty? Socrates,
himself, speaks out the accusers charges by saying
"Socrates does injustice and is meddlesome, by
investigating the things under the earth and the heavenly
things, and by making the weaker the stronger and by
teaching others these things" (Plato, 19b;c). This is the
charge of the "old" accusers. It is seen from an example in
"The Clouds". Strepsiades goes to Socrates in order to
learn how to pursuade his son by "making the weaker speech
the stronger" (Aristophanes, 112). Why does Socrates remind
the assembly about the old accusers? It appears improper
for a man on trial to bring about his other 'crimes'.
Aristophanes, in particular, is implicated by Socrates as
an old accuser. "For you yourselves used to see these
things in the comedy of Aristophanes" (Plato, 19c). The
poets helped to shape Greek culture. Poetry was passed on
and perpetuated the city where thought constantly changed.
Philosphy begins in debunking what the city thinks they
know in order to refute the god. It is evident that
Socrates is not guided by the gods of the city. Socrates
says "it is not part of the same man to believe in
daimonian and divine things" (Plato, 27e). Socrates is
subtly admitting his guilt. Perhaps Socrates believs in
gods, but if so, they are not the gods of the city.
Socrates simply denies that he has had any part in
celestial or subterranean inquiry - he simply speaks
"elsewhere". Socrates goes on to say that those who do are
reported to be atheists. However, Socrates says that "Zeus
does not eveeen exist" (Aristophanes, 367). Socrates
replaces Zeus with nature, the permanent and necessary
things accessable to reason. This is an outrage to any
Athenian. To deny the gods is to deny faith and ultimately
the authoritarian opinions on which their politics is
based. Why does Socrates think that he is being unjustly
punished? Chaerophon had told Socrates that the Pythian
Oracle had said that Socrates was the wisest man. Socrates
admits that "I am conscious that I am not wise, either much
or little" (Plato, 20b). Socrates wonders what the riddle
is and sets out to "refute the divination" (Plato, 20c).
This is a prime example of Socrates' impiousness as is his
statement in "The Clouds" where he states "we don't credit
Gods" (Aristophanes, 248). He is attempting to refute the
god at Delphi. Socrates tries to aid his own defense by
charging that what he does is in devotion to the god. "Even
now I still go around seeking and investigating in
accordance with the god" (Plato, 23b). Socrates makes this
brash statement yet it is unfounded and untrue because it
is not a devine order for Socrates to pursue this line of
investigation. In opposition, Socrates asserts that the
daimonian did not oppose him. Socrates' impiety is not the
only thing that resulted in histrial. Socrates was "the
gadfly" stinging the city of Athens. When Socrates proposes
that the god sent him on his quest, he set out to prove it
wrong. In the process, he questioned "the politicians and
those reported to be wise" (Plato, 21c). After finding that
no one reported to be wise, was worthy of being called
wise, Socrates investigated further "all the while
perceiving with pain and fear that I was becoming hated"
(Plato, 21e). The artisans, poets, and politicians all
thought they were knowledgable in "the greatest things"
but, in fact, did not know anything at all. "They all say
noble things but they know nothing of which they speak"
(Plato, 22c). Socrates, in affirming that he reanked above
them in wisdom, because he knew nothing, in fact became the
oracles main supporter. It must be noted that Socrates'
support of the cities god is based solely on his 'testing'
of the oracle. Socrates accepts the oracles words, not on
divine authority but because it passes his test of reason.
The hatred of Socrates is extended, as the youth of Athens
imitate him and make the elders look foolish by engaging in
Socratic dialogue and showing up their ignorance. This led
to the charge that Socrates corrupted the youth. This too
was added to the impiety charge. Socrates says that the
youth follow him "of their own accord" (Plato, 23c). In any
event, one concludes that the Delphic Oracle was a definite
turning point in Socrates' life. Perhaps it changes
Socrates' interest from the physical and astronomical
studies with moral and political thought. This turning
point brings Socrates into conflict with the city of
Athens. His doubt of the opinions taken on authority also
concerned the cities god and the cities laws. That made him
dangerous in the eyes of the leaders. Socrates' thought was
a painful sting to the glorified convictions of human
conduct that meant so much to the city. Socrates made the
political and moral questions the focus and theme of his
"second sailing" as he suggested in Aristophanes' "Clouds".
By virtue of Socrates' turn, philosophy now becomes
political. The "Apology" presents a critique of political
life from the view of philosophy. Socrates disrupts
prevailing opinions without providing a substantial opinion
to replace it. This may be intentional as to let man decide
between his longings and the necessity of political life.
The problem now is how to make philsoophy friendly to
politics. Whether or not that can be done is not to be
answered here. 



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