Socrates on stage, with notes on the problem with democracy

The other night I went to see “Socrates,” a play (currently at the Public Theater in New York), by Tim Blake Nelson, with the title character played by an awesome Michael Stuhlbarg. (In the accompanying photo, he is facing his disciple, Plato, on the right, played by the impressive Teagle F. Bougere).

Despite the mandatory grumpiness by New York Times’ reviewer Laura Collins-Hughes, the play is well worth seeing, and not just for people interested in Ancient Greek philosophy. The performance is almost three hours long, and yet it feels like a breeze because you can’t take your eyes off Stuhlbarg whenever he is on stage, nor can you avoid being transported in the time and place of Socrates, in part because of the set, designed by Scott Pask (the walls include passages from Pericles’ funeral oration — in Greek).

The play begins with a young Aristotle (played by Niall Cunningham), being introduced to Plato, and inquiring in a rather pointed way about why the Athenians killed their most famous philosopher. Plato begins to explain, and we are treated to a spectacular scene taken out of the Symposium, the Platonic dialogue in which Aristophanes explains the concept of soulmates, Socrates says he got instructed in love by the philosopher Diotima, and the flamboyant general Alcibiades crashes the party, telling the audience that — despite his best attempts — he was unable to (sexually) seduce Socrates.

From there, the play moves on to the charges against Socrates and the beginning of his trial for atheism, worshiping foreign gods, and corrupting the Athenian youth — never mind that the first two charges, as Plato points out, are logically contradictory. We first hear Socrates’ accusers, who are eery stand-ins for modern rabble rousing populists, and then the man himself, passionately defending his self-appointed role as gadfly to the rich and powerful.

At this point the play begins to alternate between the trial and a number of scenes from selected Platonic dialogues, where we see Socrates in action with his friends and opponents. In the end, of course, Socrates is convicted. When offered the opportunity to suggest an alternative punishment to the death penalty, instead of proposing exile — as expected — he says that the Athenians should offer him housing and a stipend in thanks for all the work he has done for them, and will continue to do until his last breadth. No wonder, as Plato points out on stage, he was condemned to death by more votes than found him guilty in the first round.

The famous death scene ends the story, and is poignant not the least because we get to see the distress of Socrates’ friends, as well as of his wife, Xanthippe (played by Miriam A. Hyman). We also watch Socrates’ last moments, which show how horribly painful death by hemlock actually is. The philosopher’s last words where to one of his close friends: “Crito, I owe the sacrifice of a rooster to Asclepius; will you pay that debt and not neglect to do so?” A reference that Plato explains to young Aristotle: Asclepius is the god of healing, and that’s all Socrates ever wanted to do in his life.

Why go to see “Socrates,” or indeed read the Platonic dialogues that inspire it? One clue lies in the fact that the production is the centerpiece of the 2019 Onassis Festival on democracy. Socrates himself wasn’t exactly a fan of the Athenian implementation of the concept, but he also certainly did not support the inter-reign of the tyrants that were put in charge by Sparta after the end of the Peloponnesian War. Rather, true to character, he went around questioning the politicians of the day, and was put to death as a thank for his troubles. There is a poignant moment in the play when one of his accusers foams at the mouth while shouting that Socrates is a traitor for daring to question democracy. To which the philosopher responds that no idea is sacred, and that everything needs to be questioned, especially if it appears that people hide behind an idea without understanding it, or while being blind to its limitations. Churchill, of course, famously said that democracy is the worst kind of government except for all others. Then again, Churchill wasn’t exactly a paragon of virtue when it came to the imperial attitude of his own country.

Today we are once again witnessing the trouble with democracy that Plato highlighted in his writings: it has a tendency to slide into tyranny. Whether or not there is a better system out there remains to be seen. But questioning the institution and its implementation is a must for any thinking person who is truly interested in justice and human flourishing.

As we know, Socrates’ sworn enemies were the Sophists, who — at least in Plato’s caricature — would find themselves at home in our modern world of alternative facts and fake news. After all, they did argue that one can convincingly defend any point of view as well as its opposite, implying that there is no truth of the matter in human affairs. Man is the measure of all things, and all that. Socrates — whom the Oracle at Delphi had declared to be the wisest man in all Greece — did not claim to have the truth, but was stubbornly searching for it, in open defiance of the Sophistic attitude.

The sage of Athens himself did not think he was wise, and set out to demonstrate that the Oracle was wrong. In order to do that, he started to question the most important (and self-important) men of his city, discovering to his astonishment that they just pretended to know things, and perhaps were even convinced by their own pretensions. In modern philosophical terminology, they were bullshitters. And a major lesson to be drawn from both the play and the historical account by Plato (and by another of Socrates’ close friends, Xenophon) is that people (be they 4th century BCE Athenians or 21st century Americans, Italians, Brits, and so forth) readily fall for bullshit. And moreover that when the bullshitters are called to task they have a tendency to swat the gadflies that annoy them. Such unfortunate outcomes can be avoided if we don’t rely on the occasional Socrates, but rather get into the habit of questioning on a regular basis both our cherished institutions and the people who run them. It’s much harder to swat a nation, or a planet, of gadflies.

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