Reading the one in the age of the other reminds us of how our personal choices affect society.
ATHENS — When Socrates was condemned to death by a court of his fellow Athenians in 399 B.C., his friends arranged his escape. They had the money to bribe the prison’s guards and understood that the authorities would be quite happy to see the troublesome philosopher flee into exile.
All that was needed was that Socrates agree. He refused, arguing that he had lived by the law and would not violate it now.
My father told me this story when I was too young to understand. All I remembered — maybe it was all that mattered — was that a famous man chose to die because obeying the law was more important than living. Reading Socrates in the age of Trump adds another dimension to the story: our responsibility for the personal choices that affect society.
President Trump is roughly the same age as Socrates when he died (70) and is just as stubborn. There ends any resemblance between the American president and the Athenian gadfly.
Socrates lived his life as an endless examination of what is good and true and right, seeking neither office nor wealth; Mr. Trump is a know-it-all demagogue who treats the highest office as his right. Socrates served his city as a soldier in war when called upon; Mr. Trump played the system — avoiding military service, exploiting legal loopholes and connections, amassing riches. Socrates said he pursued knowledge because he knew nothing, and that people had to learn from experts, not follow the crowd. Mr. Trump proclaims himself the best at everything and gives the crowd what it wants, in order to make it his. He belittles experts, even his own country’s foreign service. “I’m the only one that matters,” he declares.
In arguing for his life before a jury of 501 of his fellow citizens, Socrates rejected the charges of corrupting Athens’s youth and of creating new gods. But he refused to make a plea for exile, saying that rather than punish him the city should reward him for asking questions. When the death sentence was handed down, he accepted his fate calmly. He had chosen to live in Athens and this meant that he would respect its laws even when they worked against him, he said.
The United States president calls his country’s judiciary “a laughingstock.” He rails against any check on his authority, disagreeing with investigations into his associates, demanding the prosecution of political rivals. His lack of interest in the Constitution that he is sworn to uphold is breathtaking.
Socrates’ rational arguments should have easily refuted the charges against him, but to him this was secondary to the fact that he had been tried and sentenced according to the law. The process did not allow for an appeal.
“Both in war and in courts and everywhere else, one must obey the commands of one’s city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice,” Socrates tells his friend Crito, in a dialogue written by Plato, another of his friends and pupils. The law, Socrates argues, provides two alternatives: Citizens can either use persuasion to change it, or they must do as it says.
Agreeing with laws only when they suit us is not an option. By choosing to live in Athens and to raise children there, Socrates had shown in both words and deeds that he agreed to live in accordance with its laws. Violating them now would be a rejection of all that he had said and done throughout his life. Clinging to life, in other words, would make living worthless.
Unable to best Socrates’ arguments, his friends are obliged to agree with him. All they can do is be with him in the hours before he is given the poison that will kill him. Socrates uses the time to discuss how one should live, because, as he said at his trial, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
At the time of Socrates’ trial, Athens was a dangerous place for principled citizens. Just five years earlier, the city lost an almost three-decade war with its great rival, Sparta, and a harsh oligarchy had been imposed. During their reign of terror, the oligarchs ordered Socrates and four others to arrest a fellow citizen so that he might be executed. The philosopher refused, and escaped death only because the oligarchy collapsed when exiled democrats rebelled.
The democracy that followed was unsettled, vindictive and suspicious of new ideas. Socrates had been a figure for debate for decades. In 423 B.C., in “The Clouds,” the comic playwright Aristophanes lampooned him as making wrong appear right — inspiring the later charges that cost him his life. Furthermore, Socrates had also once taught a younger man, Critias, who became one of the oligarchy’s leaders, and some saw this as a reason to prosecute him. Socrates’ trial and execution would prove an indelible blot on democracy’s legacy, but other leading intellectuals, too, were prosecuted, including the natural philosopher Anaxagoras, who left the city after being accused of “impiety.”
Directing his most probing and provocative questions against the pompous and self-righteous, sharing his thoughts with rich and poor, Socrates was the quintessential anti-populist. This was bound to gain him enemies from all quarters. He knew the risks. But having seen no reason to bow to the oligarchs, he would not compromise with the many, either.
“No man will survive who genuinely opposes you or any other crowd and prevents the occurrence of many unjust and illegal happenings in the city,” he told his prosecutors and jury. “It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs much faster than death.”
In 406 B.C., after a naval battle that was the last Athenian victory in the war with Sparta, the Athenians tried their own generals for not picking up survivors and their sailors’ corpses (a violent storm had prevented this). Socrates, who was serving on the citizens assembly presiding committee, was the only member to vote against trying all the men as a body. Of the generals, all six who had chosen to return to Athens were executed in a verdict that, along with Socrates’, was later seen as regrettable.
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, rode a wave of nationalistic populism to power. He presented himself as a man of the people not through shared struggles but in a communion of simplistic denunciations of anyone outside his supporters’ circle. His common touch was not humility, but pandering to prejudice.
Choosing death before dishonor is not unique to one person, one era or one society. But when a person responsible to no one but himself sees the law as more important than himself, even when it has been unjust, we must ask: Should not the leader of the world’s most powerful nation hold himself to a similar standard?
Ephemeral tweet storms and voracious news cycles may cause us to forget that history judges its protagonists on what they contributed to their society. Socrates’ shameful murder is eclipsed by the majesty of his devotion to the institutions of the city that sentenced him to death. This, in turn, reflects well on his city — that it should have such a citizen. Donald Trump’s disdain for truth and institutions, his chaotic words and deeds, do not augur well for his country or his legacy. What will parents tell their children about him?