This is a guest post from Ari Kohen, assistant professor at University of Nebraska – Lincoln. I met him through Twitter a long time ago after he was discussing heroism. He is currently working on a book-length project, The Moral Hero and the Mortal Hero, as well as articles on both restorative justice and the death penalty. You can read his bio here and his blog here.
In my new book project, I make the argument that the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is meant to stand as an example of heroism on par with more traditional heroes like Achilles and Odysseus from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
And yet, in so many ways, Socrates seems to be the central figure in a cautionary tale that fathers might present to their sons: he is often chastised for speaking about nonsense, debating in an inane manner, and being ironic. Even more obviously, he is put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and is eventually executed by his fellow citizens. Given these critiques, what about him might be seen as heroic or worthy of emulation?
In a paper to be published next year in Polis, I put forward an answer to this question through an exploration of the three Platonic dialogues that deal with Socrates’ trial and execution. First, Socrates attempts a defense designed to vindicate the philosophic way of life. In this, he seems to be successful, as Socrates is today highly regarded for his description of the good life and for his unwillingness to live any other sort of life, a position that is most obviously exemplified by his defense in the Apology. After his sentencing, Socrates’ arguments and actions – in the Crito and the Phaedo – also lend considerable support to the idea that the philosopher is committed to living a particularly good sort of life. While the sequence of dialogues that culminate in Socrates’ execution might seem to be the most obviously critical of the life of the philosopher, I want to argue that these dialogues actually serve to enshrine the character of Socrates as the quintessential moral hero.
Plato manages to turn the ignoble death of his mentor into a virtuous triumph for two reasons: first, he suggests that Socrates has an intimate understanding – perhaps even an appreciation – of his mortality and actively chooses to die. Second and relatedly, he demonstrates that – in choosing to give up his life – Socrates sacrifices himself for those with whom he identifies, both his friends and even the Athenians at large who seem to be his enemies. He explains his decision to several of his students in ways that set an example of proper decision-making and also encourage them to continue to see the life of the philosopher as choice-worthy. In so depicting Socrates’ trial and execution, Plato establishes his mentor as a moral hero who gives up his life to benefit others and who demonstrates that the kind of life one lives – rather than its duration – is of primary importance.
While a great many people would view Socrates’ endless questions as annoying rather than caring – and certainly most of the Athenians did – it is clear that he sees a direct connection between annoyance and care. In questioning his fellow citizens about their beliefs and commitments, Socrates believes he’s doing a great good by showing them a more virtuous path than the one they are, perhaps unknowingly, walking. As he points out, throughout the Apology, he could lead a far more comfortable life if he desisted from these activities; however, in abandoning his questioning, he would be abandoning the Athenians to lives that are devoid of wisdom and virtue. That Socrates will not abstain from philosophizing – even when continuing to do so clearly means a death sentence – is a powerful statement about how important he believes philosophy to be, both for himself and also for the Athenians more generally. His inclusion of even his enemies into the circle of those with whom he identifies sets Socrates apart from the average citizen. It is this ability to personally identify with others, and to extend to even the enemy the sort of care that would normally be reserved for family or close friends, that makes his actions – dangerous though they were in his day – morally heroic and worthy of our emulation even today.