“The essence of the demand for freedom is the need of conditions which will enable an individual to make his own special contribution to a group interest, and to partake of its activities in such ways that social guidance shall be a matter of his own mental attitude, and not a mere authoritative dictation of his acts.”
John Dewey Democracy and Education
In the West at least the “demand for freedom” which John Dewey argues is predicated upon “conditions which will enable an individual to make his own special contribution to a group interest” finds its outlet in this thing we blithely call democracy, but what exactly is democracy?
The word democracy originates from the ancient Greeks (Athenians). “Demo” means the “the people” and “cracy” means “to rule”. The term therefore means “the rule by the people”. This is the original or true meaning of democracy.
The ancient Athenian vote, a form of true democracy, applied to making decisions directly, rather than voting for representatives as it is with modern “democracy”.
It should be noted that, in ancient Athens, women and slaves (who would have made up the majority of the Athenian population) were excluded from the franchise, meaning that the ancient Athenian Democracy was really a wide oligarchy.
One of the hallmarks of a democracy is what Dewey refers to as the process which enables an “individual to make his own special contribution to a group interest, and to partake of its activities in such ways that social guidance shall be a matter of his own mental attitude, and not a mere authoritative dictation of his acts.” This to my mind at least, is the most important hallmark of democracy and sadly, is the one that is most undermined by so called democratic states. This undermining of individual conscience started in the birthplace of democracy with the trial and execution of Socrates and continues to this day with the heavy handed approach by the police to the ‘Occupy’ protesters.
Socrates as most educated people will be aware was accused of, stood trial on and was executed for “corrupting the young, and not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel” Apology (24b).
Not believing in the “gods in whom the city believes”, execution seems a rather harsh penalty for blasphemy, so what was Socrates real crime?
While Socrates was undoubtedly a superb philosopher and orator, he was somewhat amiss when it came to recording his philosophical thoughts, so we are left to rely on the words of two of his students Plato and Xenophon to try and gain an understanding of the circumstances leading to the sacrifice of Democracy’s first individual to “authoritative dictation of [society’s] acts”.
When it comes to viewing the workings of the world’s first democracy in terms of individual versus group rights, which is really what underpinned the trial and execution of Socrates, an analysis of Plato’s Dialogues Euthyphro, Apology and Crito offer the best vantage point to pierce the mists of time.
The Apology and Crito are set at the scene of his trial and execution and the Apology consists of the speech Socrates gave in his own defence. It is not entirely clear what they are telling us. We might have expected Plato to write an impassioned argument that Socrates was innocent and that the city was making a mistake by executing him. We know that is what he believed, but that is not the way he wrote it. Instead, we have these dialogues.
The first dialogue begins with a conversation that takes place outside on the steps of the courthouse, between Socrates and a person we otherwise know nothing about and who played no obvious part in Socrates’ trial. As we read the Euthyphro, it’s not at all clear what the dialogue is about. Euthyphro seems like a know-it-all, who turns out to know very little. But what does this have to do with Socrates? Socrates, after learning that Euthyphro is there to prosecute his father for murder, steers the conversation to the question, “What is piety?” We know that one of the two charges against Socrates was impiety, so we have a clue that the dialogue is defending Socrates by making a point about piety. We also know that the other charge against Socrates is that he corrupted the young. In Euthyphro, we have a man who has turned against his father, which seems like an understandable, but unnatural, state of affairs.
In fifth-century Athens murder was considered a religious crime. Socrates points out two problems with the way Euthyphro tries to define piety. The first thing Euthyphro says is that piety is what he is doing now, prosecuting his father. Socrates replies that this is an example, not a definition. So Euthyphro tries again, and this time he defines piety as doing what is pleasing to the gods. Socrates raises two questions about this definition. The first thing he points out is that we are told that the gods often disagree and argue with one another, so that something that pleases one will displease another. Because something cannot be pious and impious at the same time, Socrates says, there’s a problem with this way of thinking about piety. The other question he asks is whether the gods are pleased by something because it is pious or whether it pleases them because it is pious. This may not make sense at first, but think about it this way. Is piety just a matter of pleasing the group in power? So whatever they like, we call piety? Or is there something that is pious in its own right, which the gods like because it is what it is? In terms of Socrates’ own situation, is piety whatever the majority in Athens say it is, or might the majority be wrong?
This dialogue asks us to ponder the consequences of the possibility that the city i.e. the majority could be wrong. Is there an aspect of piety that is independent of the preferences of the majority in the city? Is there some way for Socrates to demonstrate that what he does is pious even if it displeases the majority of people? Even more importantly, is it possible for Socrates to benefit the city, even if the city condemns him for it?
This is what Socrates argues in the next two dialogues, the Apology and Crito. The Greek word apologia means defence and you will notice that Socrates does not actually apologize in the speech he gives at this trial, but instead defends himself by explaining who he is and why he does what he does. I’ve often thought it ironic that when Socrates asks others to define something like piety or justice, they usually begin by saying, “It’s what I’m doing now”, and Socrates says, “That’s an example, not a definition.” But here Socrates himself seems to say piety is what I’m doing now. He tells the story of his encounter with the Oracle of Delphi and how he responded to it. At first he questioned people in order to confirm that he was not the wisest, but after he realized that people who thought they had wisdom really did not he interpreted what the Oracle said to mean that it was his task to hold the city to account for not pursuing wisdom and for valuing the wrong things. He believed that he was on a mission from the gods, and that it would in fact be impious for him to stop. He believed that his questioning improved the city and in fact that he improved the city more than anyone else.
This leads to another paradox in the dialogue. In the Apology, Socrates makes his famous pronouncement to the city: I will obey the gods rather than you. This is often seen as a foundation for civil disobedience. If it comes down to a conflict between my conscience, or my religious obligation and obeying the law, I will obey my conscience rather than the law. But it’s not quite as simple as this, because in the next dialogue, the Crito, Socrates compares the laws of Athens to his mother and father and says that he could not possibly disobey them, because to disobey them would be to destroy them and because he asserts it is never right to do harm. The answer is found by looking closer at the text and the context of the two statements. In the Apology, he says that if the city were to say to him that he would be acquitted if only he would stop questioning people and doing philosophy, then he would have to say that he would obey the god rather than the city. In the Crito, his friend Crito urges him to escape the city, but it is in this context that he says he cannot harm the city by leaving. In both situations, the thing he says he cannot and will not do is the same: he refuses to stop questioning people and leave the city. Why not? Because he believes that what he does benefits the city, and that he would harm the city if he were to stop.
As for the city’s punishment, Socrates goes to great lengths to explain that the city is not really harming him. This is a crucial point for Socrates, because he wants to persuade people—even if only a few will agree with him—that what is good is also good for you. He does not portray himself as a martyr who is sacrificing himself for a greater good.
Socrates and the Occupy Movement
Whereas the Occupy movement actually begins with the feeling of anger and dismay at the way in which American politics has been taken over by the oligarchs, and the political forces allied with the oligarchs. So, even though Americans may be unhappy about some of the tactics and some of the identities of the people they see via media in the encampments, they actually agree overwhelmingly by supermajorities that the power of the oligarchs were to be curbed, that economic inequality has gotten out of bounds, that the taxes were to be more progressive, that public investment needs to recover from the drainage of resources into vast private wealth. So, that’s the major difference. This is actually potentially more popular movement.
Secondly as many people have noticed it’s a movement without formal leaders, without known leaders, without a hierarchical structure, it’s a movement that has spread laterally, horizontally, if you will. There is only the most rudimentary organization involved in it now. And those are two huge differences.
Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology at Columbia University
The Occupy Movement started out and to all intent and purpose remained a movement of individuals against the oligarchy of greed, corruption and self-interest. This oligarchy cannot ever be seen as being in the interests of the body corporate anymore than a cancerous growth can be seen as being in the interests of an otherwise healthy individual. In the end both are potentially destructive to their host bodies unless exorcised at an early stage. Let’s hope that the cancerous growth known as the oligarchy of greed, corruption and self-interest has not become terminal to the body corporate of the Western democracies.
The true hypocrisy of those opposed to the occupy movement is best examined from the perspective of Dewey’s observation that “[t]he essence of the demand for freedom is the need of conditions which will enable an individual to make his own special contribution to a group interest…” Is the group interest best served by greed, corruption and self-interest, or by those individuals willing to follow their conscience for the benefit of the body corporate as a whole?
The crucial point for Socrates was that what is good is also good for you. Conversely we may argue that what is bad is also bad for you. In the final analysis can the oligarchy of greed, corruption and self-interest be seen as being good for anyone other than those in receipt of the proceeds of the greed, corruption and self-interest of the Oligarchy of Power that the Occupy Movement has been protesting about?
If we consider the current state of the Western style democracies which are overwhelmingly concentrated in the European Union and North America, with a few isolated examples in the Asia/Pacific Region, they appear to be in something approaching terminal decline. Senior executive greed, public sector corruption and societal self-interest have brought entire countries and trading blocs low. The Greek, Spanish and Irish economies are in chaos. Italy is hanging in there by the ‘skin of its teeth’, the United States unemployment rate sits stubbornly around the 10% mark and the British are complaining that they are being treated harshly because their much cherished triple A credit rating is under threat. All of these problems have their genesis in the actions of the Oligarchy of Power that the Occupy Movement has been protesting about. It is a protest that pits the rights of the individual against the self interest of oligarchy in the same way that the Socrates pitted his rights as an individual against the might of the Oligarchy of Power that oversaw the total destruction of Athens as an economic and military power within the half century that followed Socrates’ death.
I’ll leave readers with this to ponder:
One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner … and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
—W.E.B. Du Bois (Black Reconstruction)
Once we forget the past we lose the future, it’s not too late to seize our future back from the cancerous growth of the Oligarchy of Power, but the longer we wait for our carpe diem the harder it will become. Just look at what happened to Socrates and his beloved city Athens!