Socrates and the Failure of Pragmatism

Recently finished a superb book on Socrates by Paul Johnson.  I was intrigued by some of Johnson’s arguments and had to revisit a couple of the original dialogues of Plato, Protagoras and Meno in a very good translation by Adam Beresford as well as to re-read Xenophon’s Apology.  There is a lot of metaphysics in Johnson’s account that associate Socrates with a monotheistic challenge to the religious establishment in Greece.  The implication is that Socrates and Plato (even Protagoras and some sophists) provide a counterpoint to Hebrew Torah as codified by Ezra.  The non-stated but implied conclusion is that Christian dogma is an attempt to reconcile the two theologies.

I am intrigued by potential contradictions in Socratic thought.  This calls for an elenchus of his argument (no pun intended).

Socrate’s conviction and execution (399BC) is a defining moment in the way he has been perceived.  Here is a man who subjects to the laws of his land, making the ultimate sacrifice when his fellow countrymen find him guilty of not honouring their gods and corrupting the youth with new ideas.  It appears he could have avoided this fate and seek exile, like Anaxagoras, by being more accommodating to the jury.  But during the sentencing stage of his trial he instead mocked them by suggesting they should punish him by awarding him free meals for life.  An initial 280/220 guilty verdict deteriorated to a 360/140 vote for a death sentence.

But not all laws and decisions are just. If one accepts the logic that a decision by a jury is just because the law has been upheld the millions of Nazi victims should have accepted their persecution as just.  Those whose land is conquered should submit to the new laws, even when these imply their extermination as we currently witness in parts of Syria and Iraq.  A law can be the will of the many (and often reflect the will of the powerful) and not be just.

To put this in the context of Socrate’s times and understand the case for the prosecution, Socrates was associated to a number of well known autocrats, including the leader of the thirty tyrants, Critias and Alcibiades the traitor of Athens to the Spartans and the Persians.  He was therefore seen to be part of an elite that challenged democracy.  Indeed it can be said that he was seen as part of an elite, most Platonic dialogues have him attend a sumptuous symposium or converse with wealthy men.  Most philosophers at the time, made a living by educating the children of the rich.

I have always been intrigued by the argument that a man who put reason above all could choose a course of action that appears to have contradictory reasoning.  If the record is accurate, he placed his principles above the welfare of others. In Plato’s dialogue Kriton, he is offered the chance of escape, but claims justice is more important than his life and his children’s welfare.  This argument comes from a man who believed many of the laws of his polis were unjust, who in their time have seen these laws often changed, who had himself called for the change of some of them and witnessed the jury (Vouli) take many decisions that were later reversed as unjust.  Indeed only a few years earlier (406BC) Socrates was president of the assembly (epistates) when the generals that won the naval battle of Arginousae were put to death, unjustly accused for their failure to pick-up survivors from the sea.

Of course, our view of the life and demise of Socrates is heavily tainted by the view of his disciples, and particularly Plato, who have all but deified him in creating parables of ethics and justice.  Maybe the man Socrates was as contradictory and prone to errors as other great human beings.  As Xenophon suggests, his decision to subject to his punishment did not have to do with justice but his refusal to face old age.

One thought on “Socrates and the Failure of Pragmatism

  1. Great post on so-crates (Bill & Ted pronunciation). I’ve always been a big fan. Currently I prefer the epicureans and lucretius… maybe it’s my age!

    FYI I’m reading a great book about homer; Why homer matters by Adam Nicolson. Very good.

    I’m still trying to write a book (essay?) on The Leadership Lessons of the Odyssey. But I’m struggling!! Help me.

    I think in each man there are 4 archetypes that ebb and flow situationally and circumstantially;

    Achilles – for honour and love Odysseus – for cunning, strategy and resourcefulness Hector – for reconciliation, family & peace of mind Agamemmnon – for desire and overreaching power (and hubris)

    I love the fact that the Sirens called to Odysseus with songs of how great he was in a nostalgic way. And he was aware of that and doesn’t want to be seduced by looking back – as if his life was over. And that he chose to lose men (by lying to his crew) with Scylla rather than Charibdis. And when his men were taken – he did not seek revenge (a common theme) but ‘he rowed on’. Get over it. accept your disasters and move on. Never look back.


    I enjoy the idea that homer is all about the invasion of gangs of heroes coming down from the north to challenge city states (and community – like troy).

    Maybe we are still trapped in the homeric heroic paradigm with Nietzches superman, Napoleon (this week), Monty, Churchill, Thatcher, Sadam, Putin etc

    Lots to go at with Homer.


    Lots of words – But no word for blue. (is that true?) the wine dark sea etc?

    Please advise on Odyssean leadership.. ( I think it’s much better than Henry V – that Cranfield use as metaphor…Henry was lucky it rained at Agincourt and the french horses got stuck…)

    What is the modern greek interpretation? Good /bad/ indifferent?


    In the meantime – I hope you are all well in middle earth (middle europe) and look forward to catching up at the end of the summer?



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