“Did Socrates Love Athens?”
December 29, 2008
I love that question – though I don’t have any good answer to it. I think that any simple answer is prevented by the following sets of (reported) facts:
- Sokrates fought with noted bravery at Amphipolis, Potideia, and as the Athenians were routed at Delium, dragging Alkibiades off the field even though himself wounded.
- Sokrates took on as students those who carried themselves in a “Spartan” fashion – during the war, no less – and among The Thirty were some who would be his followers; while he did not offer his support to this latter group, he did not, as a “good citizen” would, denounce them.
Add in the sheer weirdness of his trial and the supposed defense speeches, and it’s all a perfectly muddled jumble. But there is something too purely human about a man risking his life for the democracy, stalwart though well past his physical prime, even though he was not a supporter of that government. He was no democrat, but he was an Athenian.
It’s tempting to attribute this to a sense of place, or “from-ness,” but there’s simply no evidence. If, for example, we knew that someone in his immediate family were landed, or held employment in the country – but then again, the city-dwellers also had an exceptionally strong (albeit democratic) sense of place; indeed, that’s what the rise of the Athenian military is often attributed to.
What with the generally vague and often contradictory (or at least not helpfully complementary) details of Sokrates’ life given by Plato and Xenophon, and his drift into near-myth over the course of 2500 years, it’s easy to lose sight of him as a man, particularly a man who existed in flesh and blood. I think there’s something in that contradictory relationship to Athens that rings very true, within and despite the obfuscations of time and his own devilishly smart students, and from which we might be able to catch a bit of light glinting off the truth of him. I don’t pretend that it’s much less fragmentary a truth than any piece of Heraklitos, but it seems so purely human (do I daresay Southern?) that I can’t bring myself to deny its truthfulness.