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A really old white guy, the Athenian Socrates (469-399 B.C.), is considered by many to be the Father of Western Civilization. He was an epistemologist, a philosopher who was primarily concerned with theories of knowledge, justification, and rationality. And a pretty good example of why when asked what type of government the Founders had given us, Ben Franklin replied not “a Democracy” but a “a Republic… if you can keep it.”
Socrates, the son of a stonemason and a midwife, was what we would consider today as middle-class. His family had enough money for him to join the military and, as an infantryman, Socrates had the opportunity to save one of the future leaders of Athens, Alcibiades, at the battle of Potidaea (432 B.C.) who he probably would not have chosen to save. Alcibiades was not a good dude, not if you like personal freedom. Socrates went on to fight against Sparta in the .3 version of what we call The Peloponnesian War (478 B.C.)
When not bashing the enemy, he liked to hang with the young people of Athens and chat. The playwright, Aristophanes lampooned him in the comedy “Clouds” as an unkempt fellow teaching the youth the benefits of clever talking — aka, “rhetoric” — who used the lesson to avoid paying their debts. The play was not well received.
Socrates was unconventional, both in appearance and philosophy. He questioned everything and had a keen desire for knowledge. He did not settle for status quo. He liked kids. Naturally, he became a teacher. His most famous student was Plato, whose most famous student was Aristotle which is one of the reasons he is thought to be a father of civilization.
The method of teaching that bears his name, the Socratic Method, is basically the use of questioning – relentless questioning – until the student is guided around contradictions and misinformation to the only logical answer. Despite current trends, the Socratic Method is still used in many law schools today. The goal is to learn how to think, not what to think.
What happened to the Father of Western Civilization?
He was put to death.
Athenians invented “direct democracy.” In fact, the government of Athens was the direct democracy. They had tried a few attempts at something akin to democracy earlier but it wasn’t until 507 BC, when the Athenian leader, Cleisthenes, responded to pressure from the middle-class and introduced a reboot of governance that stuck around for a while. It gave the people (“demos”) the power (“kratos”).
The new system had three branches: 1. The “Ekklesia” or Assembly, to write the laws, 2. the “Boule,” a council of representatives from the ten Athenian tribes and 3. the “Dikasteria,” a court system. (No relation to Mike.) Any similarity to our House, Senate, and Judiciary is purely intentional.
Cleisthenes’ new system broke the stranglehold aristocrats had on policy-making, but despite the good press releases, did not guarantee governing power to all. There were about 100,000-150,000 citizens in Athens, persons whose parents had been citizens. The population was filled out with approximately 10,000 resident foreigners and 150,000 slaves. That impressive slave number is only an “impression”; they didn’t really know.
Of the actual citizens, only males over the age of 18 could participate in government as the “Demos.” That group numbered 30,000- 40,000.
The Assembly met 40 times a year and the Demos could attend at any time. Even with the guys off at war, or busy in careers, or spending afternoons with their favorite haetera, Demos attendance usually numbered in the thousands. No professional ball, sexting, or Netflix, so what else did they have to do? They met at an “auditorium” called the Pynx built in the side of a hill.
Socrates was not much of a politician and he gained attention, unfavorable attention, while serving in the Boule during a decision regarding the punishment of six commanders who had left their casualties at the Battle of Arginusae in order to continue pursuing the Spartans.
The people considered this a terrible violation of duty and voted for the death penalty for the six. Socrates blocked the vote saying, “in no case would he act except in accordance with the law” because their decision was not based on actual law but emotions. Eventually, the Court decided Socrates was correct, but that was after the executions took place. “Justice” outside the rule of law is not justice. One of the commanders executed was the son of Pericles, the Athenian leader who advanced this people-power concept during the Athenian Golden Age. No kind deed goes unpunished, right?
Socrates lived in a time of chaos. The Peloponnesian War(s) had gone on forever. And then Athens lost the war. The Demos started questioning their own government. And the victors, the Spartans, were debating whether to flatten and salt Athens or just put them under a very rigid thumb. Failure in government usually means someone will be looking for a scapegoat.
All the while, Socrates kept asking questions: like why the Boule was ignoring its own laws and procedures. He was even questioning this thing called democracy! Seems he was concerned if the Demos are not educated to reason, they would use their votes unwisely.
A friend of Socrates asked the Oracle of Delphi who the wisest Athenian was. The oracle replied that it was Socrates. When Socrates heard the pronouncement, he – of course – questioned it. And he went about interviewing prominent Athenians to find the real wisest man. He eventually concluded that it was, indeed, him, because all the Betters thought they knew everything. On the other hand, he knew he didn’t know everything. “I know that I know nothing,” is what he said. Therefore, he was the wisest.
That just irked his Betters even more. In addition to the unkempt, misfit teacher questioning authority and insisting on following the law, the real law, not popular mob rule, he had made the prominent Athenians, the new Aristocrats, look foolish. And he refused to play ball with The Thirty Tyrants, that group of Vichy-like overseers the Spartans had installed. Something had to be done about this “gadfly,” as his pupil, Plato, called him.
He was charged with corrupting the youth and impiety. Seems he never spoke of the gods in the plural as if he might actually believe there be but one God. And corrupting the youth; teaching students how to think for themselves … can’t have that.
The Demos had become the mob he had predicted it would become and the Boule ruled against him.
In a stunning act of condescension, The Snits even asked him to propose his own punishment. He suggested a wage from the government and free dinners for the rest of his life. The Demos didn’t think that was funny, but they did brew him a nice warm cup of herbal tea: hemlock.
Socrates died in 399 BC at the age of 71. Because he did not try to flee and drank the poison willingly, his death was considered a suicide. Our Father of Western Civilization … destroyed by politics and mob rule wearing the sanctimonious cloak, democracy.
The Old White Guys who founded this Republic knew the story of Socrates and were well-versed in the infamous history of democracy. And this is why we are a Republic. Although, it’s getting harder and harder each day to recognize it as such.