To the Editor:
In his review of I. F. Stone’s book, The Trial of Socrates [Books in Review, March], Donald Kagan states: “The notion that he [Socrates] wanted to die in order to spite the democracy and make himself a martyr to the anti-democratic cause is ludicrous. If there was any martyrdom intended it was in behalf of philosophy and the freedom to seek the truth by inquiry.” I would like to suggest that Socrates’ death was both a philosophical and political martyrdom.
Socrates (and Plato who used Socrates as a mouthpiece in his dialogues) believed that truth could be arrived at through the dialectic. Their fellow Sophists, those teachers Mr. Kagan slyly criticizes because they accepted payment for their services whereas Socrates did not, believed that truth could be arrived at through rhetoric. As Stone correctly points out, rhetoric was used by the people to defend themselves in the courts of Athens. Thus, at least indirectly, the Sophists were promoting democracy. Socrates and Plato frequently condemn these Sophists, supposedly for their teaching of rhetoric, but in reality they were also opposed to their fellow Sophists because they were aiding the cause of democracy which Socrates and Plato hated. . . .
Socrates was faced with a double-edged dilemma. If he used the dialectic and established his innocence, it would support the validity of his philosophical system, but it would also support the integrity of democracy, the political system he adamantly opposed. If he used the dialectic and was found guilty, he would invalidate his own system and democracy would again prevail.
Socrates could not resort to the rhetoric of his fellow Sophists, the rhetoric that his fellow Athenians used to defend themselves in court. If he did, . . . whether he was found innocent or guilty he would be abandoning his whole philosophical system and making a mockery of everything he believed in, and, again, democracy would prevail.
I believe that Socrates’ course of action was . . . the only course he could have pursued in order to protect both his philosophical and political beliefs. He deliberately chose not to defend himself using the dialectic because either he feared that . . . it could not prove his innocence (and thus the truth) or he could not . . . face the possibility of having it prove his innocence while demonstrating that democracy did, in fact, work. . . .
Socrates was not a martyr to seeking the truth by inquiry as Mr. Kagan suggests. If there was any philosophical martyrdom intended, it was in behalf of Socrates’ and Plato’s system of philosophy only and the freedom to seek the truth by dialectic only. After reading Stone’s book it is not ludicrous to think that the drinking of the hemlock was both a political ploy against democracy and a dramatic-gesture to save Socrates’ and Plato’s precious dialectic.
Donald Kagan writes:
William Moyer is wrong to think that I intended criticism, sly or not, of the Sophists for taking pay for their teaching. I take pay for mine and, like Protagoras, think I give very good value for the money. He is wrong in a more important way in associating the Sophists with democracy. Since they charged a considerable fee for their services, their customers were chiefly the rich, most of whom were aristocrats, the chief opponents of the democracy. The ordinary democrat of small means found himself at a great disadvantage in the assembly and law courts when confronted by rich and noble opponents trained by the new rhetoric.
The traditions undermined by many of the Sophists, moreover, were democratic traditions, over a hundred years old by the end of the 5th century. Aristocratic enemies of the democracy, in fact, found a basis for rejecting democracy in the criticism of traditional views and tenets made by these Sophists. The quarrel, then, was not between Socrates the enemy of democracy and the Sophists its defenders, but was deeper than an argument about political systems. Socrates surely rejected democracy as a good form of government, but he was not its fanatical enemy who would die, even in part, as “a political ploy” against it. He lived under its laws for seventy years and never left Athenian territory except to fight bravely in defense of his democratic homeland. He took no part in the two anti-democratic plots to overthrow it. Even when condemned to death by a democratic jury he refused to flee to safety in another land under a different regime. Instead he chided his friends who urged him to escape, for failure to respect Athens’s laws, that is, democratic laws. If such a man chose to die rather than defend himself it was not for political reasons but for something he thought more important.