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Socrates And Martin Luther King: Lessons in Civil Disobedience

by June 26, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
At the opening of the Crito, a dialogue by the philosopher Plato, Socrates has been imprisoned. He is awaiting his execution for the supposed crimes of corrupting the youth and believing in strange gods. However, it is only by chance that Socrates is still alive, trapped in his cell. Around the time of his trial, the Athenians had sent a small galley on a religious mission to the Aegean island of Delos. It was believed that the island was sacred to the God Apollo and so while the ship was away, no executions would take place. 
Socrates’ wealthy friend Crito visits with the philosopher in the early hours of the morning. He informs Socrates that the ship from Delos will be arriving soon and that he will undoubtedly be killed once it lands at Athens. There is little time left, Crito assures Socrates that he would be able to bribe the prison guards and allow Socrates to escape from Athens. The philosopher would avoid his execution, and live out his days in Thessaly. And then something very strange happens: Socrates refuses…
Instead, Socrates launches into a series of questions (as he tends to do) and engages in a philosophical discourse with his worried friend, Crito. Socrates first asks if we should concern ourselves with the opinion of the majority, they may harm a man’s flesh, but can they ever damage his soul? Socrates does not believe so; he then asks if it is justified to harm others who have caused us harm. Crito considers this and then concludes that wrongdoing, by nature, is never justified and that we must never do wrong to others even when we suffer under injustice. Socrates consents to this point and acknowledges that many would not agree with him on this matter. He even states…
One must never, when wronged, inflict wrong in return, as the majority believe, since one must never do wrong.
Plato, Crito
Socrates dead

Socrates reaching for the hemlock.

Socrates then embarks on another line of thinking that closely mirrors The Social Contract Theory which would be refined by Thomas Hobbes some two thousand years later. Socrates considers escaping from prison to be an indictment of the entire Athenian society. It would undermine the authority of the Athenian courts and the fledgling democratic government.
After all, Socrates gave no complaint when Athens sheltered him, educated him, attended to his family, and protected him from invaders. Why should Socrates now attempt to destroy Athens simply because the city has brought unfavorable circumstances upon him? As the philosopher puts it, we may either leave a society, attempt to persuade it to change or accept whatever punishment it inflicts upon us. There are no other options for a person of integrity. 
You may disagree with the philosopher on this point. Surely if we were awaiting execution we might rightly consider escape, the laws be damned! However, Socrates has just pointed out previously that one must never harm, even when harm is brought upon us. The only real harm that can be brought on a person is that which harms the soul.  
Socrates' Death

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Socrates, a man who sought to persuade Athens to seek wisdom, would rattle the cages of those in power, embarrassing them in the process. He would inevitably attract the disdain of many prominent men. He would attempt to persuade them to change, to accept wisdom rather than ignorance. He would be punished. And while suffocating under the weight of cruelty, he would gracefully accept his punishment, throwing into stark contrast the injustice of society. 
Some two thousand years after Socrates had had this conversation with Crito, Martin Luther King Jr. found himself sitting in a jail cell as well. It was on April 12th, 1963 that King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama in response to a coordinated series of sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations. During his time in jail, King wrote an open letter that addressed the need for nonviolent resistance, civil disobedience, and the perils of racial inequality in America. 
The Letter From Birmingham Jail would become a centerpiece for the American civil rights movement and a concise proponent for the act of civil disobedience. In the face of racial inequality and injustice, the letter outlines how the use of nonviolent protest must be implemented to bring about lasting and fundamental change. King outlines that active, professed refusal to obey unjust laws is not only necessary for social activists, but should be morally obligatory for any individual who believes in true justice and human dignity. 

MLK in Jail. Don Cravens / The Life Images Collection / Getty; Bettmann / Getty. Source: The Atlantic.

King compares the laws of the American South to the laws of Nazi Germany, where it was “illegal” to aid a Jewish man or woman. And yet, King confides that if he had been in Germany at that time, he would have undoubtedly done so. Refusing to obey laws that, as King puts it, degrade the human personality is the noblest of tasks for anybody looking to seek fundamental change in an unjust society. 
A key to civil disobedience (as Socrates and King would demonstrate) is that once we refuse to obey unjust laws, we must graciously accept the punishment, regardless of what is fair. Socrates accepted his execution without quarrel. King spent time in a jail cell for holding a peaceful demonstration. This is the key to civil disobedience and social activism. By suffering under the weight of unjust punishments, we demonstrate the unfairness of society; in this way, we force others to reconsider the true nature of justice. 
King and Socrates appear to be bound by their struggle for progress. King even mentions the great philosopher in his letter when he writes…
Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
– Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail
MLK marching

30th March 1965: American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. (Photo by William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images). Source: WGBH NEWS

If these two men were indeed engaged in a similar struggle to break free from the chains of oppression, then it is perhaps not surprising that they would bother to suffer tragic endings for the sake of their ideals. Socrates would be put to death by the very state he wished to enlighten; Martin Luther King would be assassinated on April 4th, 1968 while standing on the second-floor balcony of his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had been shot by James Earl Ray, a man who was renting a room at a boarding house across the street from King’s hotel. It is interesting to note that Robert Kennedy, immediately following the assassination, gave a speech where he quoted the great Greek playwright Aeschylus
He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
– Aeschylus, as quoted by Robert Kennedy
Socrates and King would be remembered posthumously with admiration and respect. Their ideas would attract the hatred of many, and they would suffer unjustly for their pursuits. And tragically they would both die for their ideas, struggling to improve this world as best they could.
Separated by thousands of years of history, these two men struggled valiantly for justice in a society that sought to destroy them. United by purpose, Socrates and King remain a reminder to us all that change comes slowly and often painfully. And whatever enlightenment we enjoy, it is often thanks to great individuals throughout history who suffered on our behalf, to ensure that true justice is found. 

Antigone: Democracy vs. Authoritarianism

by June 5, 2020

Written by Alex Barrientos, Senior Editor, Classical Wisdom
In Sophocles’ Antigone there are several different struggles taking place concerning different aspects of social, ethical, and political thought. The role of the citizen, the role of the leader, the right to rule, piety, disobedience, and other issues are discussed throughout the play.
Indebted as we are to the Greeks for the foundations of our political institutions and political thought, it is no wonder that one should discover parallels between the tensions within the play and those that persist in our society today.
One such tension, and one of the major themes of Antigone, is the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy.  One of the most salient moments of the play regarding this struggle takes place between Creon, the newly appointed king of Thebes, and his son, Haemon.
The dialogue begins with Haemon, Creon’s only surviving son and Antigone’s betrothed, entering the palace shortly after Antigone is condemned to death and taken away. Creon questions whether Haemon will be angry with him or love his father regardless, asking,

And have you now come here
angry at your father? Or are you loyal to me,
on my side no matter what I do?


Antigone in front of the dead Polynices by Nikiforos Lytras (1865)

In response, Haemon expresses his devotion to his father. Creon, delighted, tells Haemon just how important it is to have an obedient son.

Indeed, my son,
that’s how your heart should always be resolved,
to stand behind your father’s judgment
on every issue.

According to him, to be obedient means remaining loyal and standing behind someone no matter what they do. And this is the case for son and citizen alike.

If I foster any lack of full respect
in my own family, I surely do the same
with those who are not linked to me by blood.
The man who acts well with his household
can make manifest justice in the state.

Creon draws parallels between the obedience that is important for a son to show his father and the obedience that he demands from those he rules over. Just as the son must obey the father, so must the citizen obey the leader.

Antigone donnant la sépulture à Polynice by Sébastien Norblin (1825)

But anyone who’s proud
and violates our laws or thinks he’ll tell
our leaders what to do, a man like that
wins no praise from me. No. We must obey
whatever man the city puts in charge,
no matter what the issue—great or small,
just or unjust. For there’s no greater evil
than disobedience. That destroys
whole cities, turns households into ruins,
and in war makes soldiers break and run away.
When men succeed, what keeps their lives secure
in almost every case is their obedience.
That’s why they must support those in control…

In other words, not only “my country right, right or wrong!” but, “my leader, right or wrong!” For Creon, blind obedience to the ruler is the most estimable trait of the good citizen, just as blind obedience to the father is the most estimable trait of a good son. Indeed, authoritarians and tyrants rely on the blind obedience of their followers to rise to power and maintain it.
In response to Creon’s authoritarian rhetoric, Haemon explains that people fear speaking openly to Creon, and that many secretly agree with Antigone’s actions.

Your gaze makes citizens afraid—they can’t
say anything you would not like to hear.


Antigone and the body of Polynices (Project Gutenberg)

Haemon, unlike his father, thinks it is important for a good leader to have an open mind and listen to good counsel.

A man who thinks that only he is wise,
that he can speak and think like no one else,
when such men are exposed, then all can see
their emptiness inside. For any man,
even if he’s wise, there’s nothing shameful
in learning many things, staying flexible.

Obedience does not hold the same value for Haemon that it does for Creon. Haemon recognizes that no one person can have all the wisdom in the world, and that anyone who thinks or says that they are the wisest and knows best what should be done, are fooling themselves and others, for truly such confidence is the mask of emptiness. One who is actually wise will recognize that there are limits to his or her knowledge, and accept that sometimes they may be wrong and be willing to adjust their views accordingly.

For if I, as a younger man, may state
my views, I’d say it would be for the best
if men by nature understood all things—
if not, and that is usually the case,
when men speak well, it is good to learn from them.


Cicero Denounces Catiline, fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1882–88

Too often the Creons of the world conflate criticism with disobedience, mistaking the two as being one and the same thing. Yet, we would do well to realize that criticism is not equivalent to disobedience—that criticism can be made out of respect or even love for one’s parent, one’s leader, or one’s country. Indeed, it is from the very love and obedience to his father that Haemon sees it as necessary to criticize him, just as it is from the very love of one’s country that can lead a good citizen to criticize it when they think the leader or the government is acting wrongly or unjustly.
Not only is it a mistake to conflate criticism with disobedience, but it is also important for a leader to be able to take criticism. Haemon thinks that this ability to take criticism, to take counsel, to listen to the views of others, is a good trait for a leader to have, and that harm is more likely to come from a blindly obedient citizenry than from criticism.

You notice how in winter floods the trees
which bend before the storm preserve their twigs.
The ones who stand against it are destroyed,
root and branch. In the same way, those sailors
who keep their sails stretched tight, never easing off,
make their ship capsize—and from that point on
sail with their rowing benches all submerged.

In other words, someone who does not allow criticism, or who does not know how to adjust their views when rightly criticized, will be the cause of their own undoing, just as the tree which does not bend before the storm is ripped from the ground it so confidently stood on. Indeed, as Aristotle puts it in his Politics, “Tyrannies have generally all been quite short-lived” (Book V.12).


The debate that Creon has with Haemon is, in a very real sense, the debate that continues in free and open societies today. What is the role of criticism, disobedience, and dissent? To what extent are these things necessary for a healthy democracy or republic? Are there certain public officials who are beyond or above criticism? What does it mean to be patriotic?
Creon, the archetype of the authoritarian, rejects anything besides blind obedience to his rule as being a danger to the state. Haemon, the archetype of the lover of liberty, thinks that it is a sign of strength in leaders and the state alike to allow criticism, and that obedience is not a virtue in and of itself.
Were authoritarians to adopt a motto, they could not choose a better one than the line from Creon, that “There is no greater wrong than disobedience.”
Yet, those of us who favor living in a free and open society might want to consider the words of Haemon, and join him in acknowledging man’s corrigibility, and the idea that openness to criticism is a sign of wise leadership and a healthy state.

The Myth of the Greater Good

by May 15, 2020

Written by Wendy McElroy, Contributing Writer, Laissez Faire Books
In entry-level philosophy class, a professor will often present a scenario that seems to challenge the students’ perspective on morality.
The argument runs something as follows: “The entire nation of France will drop dead tomorrow unless you kill your neighbor who has only one day to live. What do you do?”
Or “You could eliminate cancer by pressing a button that also kills one healthy person. Do you do so?”
The purpose is to create a moral dilemma. The questions pit your moral rejection of murder against your moral guilt for not acting to save millions of lives.
In reality, the questions are a sham that cannot be honestly answered. They postulate a parallel world in which the rules of reality, like cause and effect, have been dramatically changed so that pushing a button cures cancer. The postulated world seems to operate more on magic than reality.
Trolley problem

A depiction of the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment in philosophy introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967 that is designed to pose a moral dilemma.

Because my moral code is based on the reality of the existing world, I don’t know what I would do if those rules no longer operated. I presume my morality would be different, so my actions would be as well.
As absurd as they are, these are considered to be the “tough” moral questions. In grappling with them, some students come to believe that being true to morality requires the violation of morality in a profound manner; after all, there is no greater violation than the deliberate murder of another human being.
But how can the life of one outweigh those of millions in your hands? At this point, morality becomes a numbers game, a matter of cost-benefit analysis, rather than of principle. This is not an expansion of morality, as the professor claims, but the manufacture of a conflict that destroys morality. In its place is left a moral gray zone, a vacuum into which utilitarianism rushes.

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill. Bentham is regarded as the founder of modern Utilitarianism.

Suddenly, it becomes obvious that the good of the many outweighs the murder of the one. The collective outweighs the individual. The majority outranks the minority. Hard “factual” utilitarianism is preferable to gray, inconsistent morality.
The philosophical questions lead directly into politics because murdering a person for the greater good is not merely a moral question, but also one of individual rights. If you accept the morality of doing so, you have also accepted the political propriety of murdering an innocent human being.
Phrased in political terms, nonhypothetical versions of the philosophy question come up often. For example, “Should the rich or businessmen (the few) be heavily taxed to provide national health care (for the many)?” Here, a greater good is pitted against individual rights. But more than this, individual rights of two groups conflict, with the rights of a resisting minority viewed as a barrier to the “rights” or entitlements of “the others.” Businessmen are deemed to have no right to their earnings if it prevents the majority from having health care.
Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights, twelve articles of amendment to the to the United States Constitution proposed in 1789, ten of which, Articles three through twelve, became part of the United States Constitution in 1791.

This politically manufactured conflict is as absurd as the philosophically manufactured one.
The 19th-century British individualist Auberon Herbert addressed the issue of the “good of the greatest number.” He stated, “There never was invented a more specious and misleading phrase. The Devil was in his most subtle and ingenious mood when he slipped this phrase into the brains of men. I hold it to be utterly false in essentials.”
Why is it false? Because the phrase assumes as a given that a higher morality requires the violation of individual rights. Or in Herbert’s words, “It assumes that there are two opposed ‘goods,’ and that the one good is to be sacrificed to the other good — but in the first place, this is not true, for liberty is the one good, open to all, and requiring no sacrifice of others, and secondly, this false opposition (where no real opposition exists) of two different goods means perpetual war between men” [Emphasis added].

Auberon Herbert (1838–1906)

Herbert is relying on two intimately related theories: first, “the universality of rights”; and, second, “a natural harmony of interests.” The universality of rights means that every individual has the same natural rights to an equal degree.
Race, gender, religion or other secondary characteristics do not matter; only the primary characteristic of being human is important. A natural harmony of interests means that the peaceful exercise of one person’s individual rights does not harm the similar exercise by any other person.
My freedom of conscience or speech does not negate my neighbor’s. The peaceful jurisdiction I claim over my own body does not diminish anyone else’s claim of self-ownership. Indeed, the more I assert the principle of self-ownership, the stronger and more secure that principle becomes for everyone.
Only in a world where rights are not universal, where people’s peaceful behavior conflicts, does it make sense to accept the need to sacrifice individuals to a greater good. This is not the real world, but one that has been manufactured for political purposes.

A scene from Star Trek’s The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Herbert explained a key assumption that underlies this faux world: the acceptance of the “greater good” itself. He asked, “Why are two men to be sacrificed to three men? We all agree that the three men are not to be sacrificed to the two men; but why — as a matter of moral right — are we to do what is almost as bad and immoral and shortsighted — sacrifice the two men to the three men? Why sacrifice any one… when liberty does away with all necessity of sacrifice?”
Herbert denied the validity of “this law of numbers, which… is what we really mean when we speak of State authority…under which three men are made absolutely supreme, and two men are made absolutely dependent.” Instead of accepting the law of numbers as an expression of greater good, Herbert viewed it as a convenient social construct, calling it “a purely conventional law, a mere rude, half-savage expedient, which cannot stand the criticism of reason, or be defended… by considerations of universal justice. You can only plead expediency of it.”
To whom was the social construct of conflict convenient? Why would a faux world of inherent conflict be created? By solving the manufactured problems, a great deal of power was transferred from individuals to a ruling class.

Cicero Denounces Catiline in the Roman Senate (1888), by Cesare Maccari

Herbert wrote, “The tendency of all great complicated machines is to make a ruling class, for they alone understand the machine, and they alone are skilled in the habit of guiding it; and the tendency of a ruling expert class, when once established, is that at critical moments they do pretty nearly what they like with the nation…”
Rather than solve a social problem, the ruling class had a devastating effect on the welfare of common people, who became “a puzzled flock of sheep waiting for the sheepdog to drive us through the gate.” Ironically, by claiming the collective was greater, the few were able to assume control over the many. The “greater good” devolved to whatever served the interests of the ruling class.
But the process can be reversed. It requires “individualizing” the collective and the nation so that “will, conscience and judgment” can return to every person.
At that point, society offers people “the noblest present” and the greatest benefit possible — “their own personal responsibility.”
[First seen on]

The Druids

by April 24, 2020

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Druids were one of the most important groups in Celtic society, which dominated much of Europe before the rise of the Roman Empire. The druids were the Celts learned class and they were magicians, healers, philosophers, poets and lawyers. They were central to Celtic life and were central to the Celts resistance to Roman expansion.
The Celts and the Druids
The druids were mainly priestly and were a distinct caste in Celtic society. They were members of the elite and they were the priests of the Celtic people. They had esoteric knowledge and practiced rituals that allowed people to communicate with the Gods.
19th century reimaging of a Druid

19th century reimagining of a Druid

Druidism can be likened to a shamanistic or natural religion. The Celtic priests taught that the natural world was a channel to the world of the spirits and the realms of the Gods. The Celts practiced a polytheistic religion that worshipped many gods and goddesses. They held that many natural phenomena such as trees and springs held magical powers. Druids, it was believed, could harness these powers by special rites.
Ancient Greek writers have left accounts of Druids performing ceremonies such as cutting mistletoe off sacred oak trees on nights with full moons. They would then make potions, something the Celtic learned class had a profound knowledge of (along with herbs), that would help women and men to be more fertile.
Their perceived ability to perform magic meant that the Druids had immense social and political prestige. In early Irish chronicles the Druids are recorded as having the ability to change the tide of battle, such as by healing warriors and allowing them to return to the fight. The Druids were also bards and their poetry was held to have magical qualities and it was believed that one of their satires could literally result in the death of the person being ridiculed.
Druidic Philosophy
A carving of a trinity of a Celtic goddess

A carving of a trinity of a Celtic goddess

The Classical writers regarded the Celts as little more than barbarians. However, even they stated that the Druids were very sophisticated and esteemed them as philosophers. The Celtic learned class believed in the transmigration of souls, that is they subscribed to the doctrine that the soul was reincarnated after death. It was believed that Druids could help the deceased to live again in a paradise-like otherworld or be reincarnated in another body. How this was done is not known.
Druid philosophy was based on the idea of eternal cycles and for this reason they revered the solstice and equinox. The Celtic priests believed that the number three was sacred and that the cosmos was divided into three parts. The also believed in Trinities of Gods. The symbol of three interconnected spirals was a very important religious symbol for the Celts and it was often inscribed onto their monuments.
Druids and Human Sacrifices
The Druids were condemned in Classical accounts of the Celts, because they practiced human sacrifices. Julius Caesar, in his work on the Gallic Wars, describes Druids sacrificing humans to the gods. In one memorable account, he describes Druids in white robes, having people placed in giant straw figures. These ‘wicker men’ were set on fire and those inside all burned to death. This was done to win the favour of the gods. There are some who claim that accounts of Druids conducting human sacrifices are merely Roman propaganda.
Druids inspiring Celtic warriors to fight

Druids inspiring Celtic warriors to fight

The organization of the Druids
The Druids were a special caste and they had certain privileges in Celtic society. The Celts adopted Greek writing and became literate. However, the Druids did not write down their beliefs or practices. All their knowledge and philosophy were passed down orally and this was done to protect their status as a special group.
It is believed that some of their lore data back to the Stone Age. Much of their learning on magic, healing, etc., was handed down by verses that were memorized. Some Druids were specialists and focused on wizardry or were traveling poets. According to Caesar there were High Druids who commanded the order of Druids. They were elected or else they won their position through battle. Interestingly many leading Druids were females’, and this is indicative of the high status of women in Celtic society.
The End of the Druids
The Romans greatly feared the Celts or Gaul’s, as they called them. This was because they had sacked Rome in the 5th century BC. During Julius Caesar’s campaign in Gaul he destroyed many Druidic shrines and sought to curtal their influence. He, like other Romans, knew that they were among the most determined to resist their rule.
Caesar receiving the surrender of the Celts

Caesar receiving the surrender of the Celts

After the conquest of Gaul, the Druids were all but outlawed and many of their rites were prohibited. During the Roman invasion of Britain, the Druids were at the forefront of the opposition to the legions. It is known that they were often counsellors to local Celtic kings and rulers. The Druids staged a desperate last stand on the Welsh Island of Anglesey in the final phases of the Roman conquest of Britain.
After the legion’s conquest of Britain, the Druids were outlawed as in Gaul. They went underground, and they continued to practice many aspects of Druidism. In Ireland, the Druids continued to practice their ancient religion and remained the learned class.
However, it was the arrival of a new religion, Christianity which really led to the demise of Druidism, even in Ireland. In various saint biographies, Christian saints are shown as defeating the Druid’s magic with the power of prayer. However, the Druids remained and continued the traditions of the ancient Celts even in the Early Middle Ages, as can be seen in the figure of Merlin in the tales about King Arthur.

Democracy’s Fatal Flaw: Us

by March 25, 2020

Written by William Giovinazzo, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
When I was a kid, I was taught by the good sisters of Saint Joseph that democracy is a wonderful thing, something ordained by God. In the United States in the early 1960s, it was seen as God’s gift to man, the bulwark against godless communism.
Kennedy was telling us that we needed to spread democracy throughout the world as a radical idea that would free humanity from the shackles of oppression. We all stood proudly before the American flag, chest out, arms akimbo, defenders of truth, justice, and the American way which was decidedly democratic.
That is what we were taught. As with many things the good sisters told me, reality is a bit more complicated.

Marble statue of the ancient Greek Philosopher Plato. Academy of Athens,Greece.

In book 6 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates discusses democracy with Adeimantus. To describe the shortcomings of democracy, Socrates uses the analogy of a ship whose crew mutinies against their captain. Although they have no understanding of navigation or how to pilot a ship, they take command. When someone disagrees with the ideas held by the crew, even those ideas based on actual knowledge, the dissenter is jettisoned. Decisions would be made by the consent of the crew, all equal, regardless of knowledge.
Is this the type of ship you would choose if you were planning to undertake a long journey? Wouldn’t you rather have someone at the helm who is trained in piloting a ship? In plotting the course, wouldn’t you prefer to have someone who understands navigation? Yet, a ship run by the votes of the equal and unequal alike is how the democratic ship of state is piloted.
Plato understood that such a ship is ripe fruit for a demagogue. To demonstrate this point, Socrates imagined an election between a doctor and a candy store owner. The doctor would tell the populace what they didn’t want to hear.
Socrates' Death

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As Socrates described it, the candy store owner would say of the physician that he works many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions, tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. What fun is that? The candy store owner, however, would offer sweets and tasty things. He would appeal to what people wanted, not what they needed. He would provide easy and popular answers to all their difficult problems.
Democratic leaders who value their position over what is right, or even what is good for the country, have learned to be candy store owners. They pander to whoever will help them maintain power. The result is a vision not of the long-term future, but the next election.
Just consider one of the many issues in today’s headlines. Do you raise taxes or reduce spending? Neither! Simply raise the debt. Better yet, increase spending and reduce taxes. So sweet. So tasty. By the time the repercussions of the decision become clear, if you are lucky, you will be dead. It will be someone else’s problem.

The Acropolis at Athens, Leo von Klenze (1846).

Democratic leaders are relatively free to do what they like, as long as it is popular. The masses have little tolerance for complex reasoning and the minutia of various policies. The clever demagogue will appeal to emotion, more concerned with imagery than substance.
In democracies, political debates become superficial. The focus is on how the candidate is perceived. Do they seem presidential? Are they strong and decisive? Do they tell it like it is? President Bush seemed like the type of person with whom people would like to have a beer. This was seen as some measure of his likability, an attribute, in the minds of the masses, more critical than competence or knowledge.
Of course, Plato wrote the Republic before the modern era and mass communication. Technological advancement only amplified the importance of a politician’s public persona. In 1962 Daniel J. Boorstin published The Image, in which he describes how television and radio have created pseudo-events, events that are staged with the intent to be reported or reproduced and have an ambiguous relationship with the reality of the situation.
Daniel Boorstin

Photo of Daniel J. Boorstin

The intent is to shape public opinion. As Boorstin said; “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.” These pseudo-events, such as the presidential debates, reduce “great national issues to trivial dimensions.” Boorstin likened the debates to the quiz show The $64,000 Question. If you answer the questions correctly your prize is the presidency. Of course, the correct answer here is defined as the most popular answer.
Boorstin was just one milestone between Plato and ourselves. Since the historian’s time, we have become subjected to the 24-hour news cycle where news networks compete for a larger share of the viewing audience.
It was also well before the ubiquity of the internet and social media. We live in an age of celebrity, where people are human pseudo-events, as Boorstin describes them. They are known for their well-knowness. It is the time of influencers, people who can affect the purchasing decisions of others not necessarily based on their expertise, but the size of their audience. It is a society of superficiality and little substance. Plato’s predictions have come through with a vengeance.

Thomas Coutre, The Romans in Their Decadence, (Museo de Orsay, 1847)

There is an even deeper challenge posed by democratic societies. The ancient thinkers understood that our politics could not be separated from our values. In past societies, authority and values flowed from the top down.
Gerhard Lenski in Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification showed how religion supported the ruling class, establishing conduct and values that gave legitimacy to the authority of the governing elite. In contrast, democracy’s authority flows up. As we are told; governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Along with the flow of authority, so too flows the values of the people; that is to say, from the bottom up in democracies. This creates a chaotic situation in a pluralistic society with people of differing cultures, differing values. In this confusion, there is no one definition of the good, no one set of values, to which one can appeal.

Plinth of kouros statue, bas-relief depicting wrestlers, circa 510 B.C., detail, from Kerameikos necropolis in Athens, Greece

When there is a lack of a standard, individuals pursue their desires and interest. Of course, such individualism is not necessarily a social evil. It becomes an issue, however, when we become so self-absorbed that we become unwilling to sacrifice for the common good. Many today feel any provision for the commons is seen as an intolerable threat to liberty. They see themselves as buckskin-clad plainsmen staring steely-eyed into the horizon free of all government encumbrances.
In looking at these shortcomings, Plato saw democracies not only as morally confused with little agreement on values, but so focused on image that political discourse is superficial. Plato said, “democracy is a charming form of government full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” Given these flaws, it is not at all surprising that democracies are relatively short-lived forms of government.
Unfortunately, Plato’s solution for how best to govern ourselves is just as unrealistic as democracies. He proposed a regime that is ruled by a philosopher-king. This may seem somewhat self-serving: that a philosopher, Plato, believes that philosophers should be king. But this expression could be a bit misleading.
marcus aurelius

Piazza del Campidoglio (Rome, Italy). Statue of Marcus Aurelius, perhaps the only person worth the name of “philosopher-king.”

Plato described the philosopher-king as a man who loved wisdom more than power. Such a leader would understand the good. His goodness and moral leadership would pass down to the people providing society a unified moral standard. Such a vision is naïve. History has shown the rarity of such leaders; it has proven that such a model is even less sustainable than democracy.
“I have met the enemy and he is us” to quote that ancient philosopher Pogo. The flaw in democracy is not the quality of the leaders, but of those that are led. We, the people, need to take responsibility to ensure good government. We all must be philosophers. We cannot look to a man (or woman) on a horse to rescue us. We, the people, need to ensure a society that promotes individual self-actualization. We all must come to love wisdom, to cherish what is good over what is profitable or expedient.
Of course, believing that the masses could, or even would, become lovers of wisdom might turn out to be just as naïve a solution as the others.

Man: The Political Animal

by March 20, 2020

Written by David Hooker, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Tragic Road to Tyranny 
Imagine your leader is a brilliant and bold military genius who, through multiple conquests, has expanded the borders of your country by orders of magnitude.  He does it because he and some of your leaders have ambitions of empire, need of new wealth, and access to more slaves (to keep building the domestic economy and staffing the army).   His campaigns are tremendously successful as a result of a crack military.
Your leader also gets his way at home,  manipulates the politicians, is a serial adulterer who sleeps with some of the wives of prominent men of your country, and is generally feared. Having shared power earlier in his career with two other leaders (as a “Triumvirate”), his military successes as Imperator (supreme military commander) fuel his ambition to consolidate his power and rule the country by himself.

Julius Caesar, bronze sculpture in Rome.

With the Triumvirate no more (one has died, the other was defeated by your dear leader in battle and subsequently killed in another country), he is free to assert his will to power and assume sole possession of rulership.  He initiates several domestic “works” programs – land reforms, calendar reform, support for his military veterans, and construction projects, which increase his popularity with the public.  They now revere him as the classic, beneficent “strong man” leader.
All of this angers many of the elites of his country, since it has heretofore enjoyed a republican form of government for quite some time.  After unconstitutionally declaring himself “dictator for life” (dictator perpetuo), he is finally murdered by stabbing (23 times!)  in a conspiratorial plot by several influential senators.  One may even have been his illegitimate son by one of his several lovers.
Of course, I’m speaking of Gaius Julius Caesar, who was killed on the 15th of March, 44 B.C.  (“Beware the Ides of March”!). Several episodes of political intrigue and civil war ensued over the next thirteen years and the glory days of Roman constitutional government were never restored.
Destruction of empire

The Course of Empire (Series of paintings by Thomas Cole): Destruction (1836).

Octavian, the adopted heir of Julius, eventually defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.  In 27 BC, after vanquishing his remaining rivals to power, Octavian is granted the title of “Augustus”  (“the Venerable”).
Though pretending to “restore” the Republic, Augustus himself retained all real power as the Princeps (“first citizen”) of Rome.  He had eventually become the autocrat that Julius had aspired to be.  He was ruling over an Empire now.

I support the left, though I’m leaning to the right,

I support the left, though I’m leanin’ leanin’ to the right, yeah

But I’m just not there when, when it’s coming to a fight.

“Politician” – Eric Clapton & Cream

Let’s face it: the business of politics can be nasty in the extreme, and some politicians are highly skilled in being greedy, equivocating, disingenuous scumbags (as alluded to in the lyrics above from the classic Cream song).
Many countries have experienced the assassination of a significant leader at a critical historical time, such as Julius Caesar in ancient Rome.  Think Abraham Lincoln in America (the actor John Wilkes Booth cried sic semper tyrannis – “thus ever to tyrants” – after doing the dirty deed),  John F. Kennedy, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary (precipitating the First World War), Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi of India, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, to name a few in just the last two centuries.
Death of Caesar

Assassination of Caesar by William Holmes Sullivan, c. 1888, Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

All of these leaders had significant popularity and followings, but there was just enough bitter dissent that bad actors hastened their demise in evil fashion. Just as in the case of Julius Caesar, these assassinations often precipitated times of social and cultural upheaval following the event.
Politics in America
As I write this, we’ve just begun the nomination process for Democratic candidates for President in 2020 here in the USA, and the name-calling and mudslinging have begun in earnest.  This promises to be a very bitter, partisan, and divisive year in the US politically, as half the electorate supports the Populist incumbent Donald Trump, and the other half of the electorate will support whichever candidate emerges from the Democratic Convention in July.
There are many in America who wish there would be a viable alternative to the two major political parties (such as the Libertarian party), both of which have abandoned their traditional mandates and principles, for the most part, in order to pander for votes. The labels “Republican” and “Democrat” have little meaning today.
Donald Trump, hugely popular in his base, is a billionaire real estate developer and television show entertainer who basically usurped the Republic party and moniker through his very popular debate performances back in 2015 and 2016, against a very deep team of professional “Republican” political candidates.

Cicero in the Roman senate. Photograph: Baldwin H Ward/Kathryn C Ward

I refer to him as a Populist because, according to his rhetoric, that is what he actually is.  This year promises to be highly entertaining for people watching the Democrat side, as we see several people coming from all different political and financial angles jockeying for their party’s nomination.  (“Let’s get ready to rumble!” as big time boxing announcer Michael Buffer would say.)
Many people would rather avoid the topic of politics, with its inherent divisiveness and messiness, but I’m afraid we need to take a more practical view.  Whether we like it or not, we are part of a larger political community, and we all need to (somehow) live together in relative peace and order, and we all need political representatives to take care of the business of our various nations.
The Political Animal
We are indeed a “political animal” (to use Aristotle’s phrase), whether we care to be or not.  What kinds of government are the best?  What kinds of leaders are the best and most efficacious at governing and taking care of the people’s business?  Should power be autocratic or shared?   Furthermore, are these leaders and political representatives ruling truly for their people, or are they just interested in serving themselves and lining their own pockets?!

Cicero attacks Catilina at the Roman Senate, from a 19th-century fresco

These are questions human beings have struggled with for millennia, ever since we stepped out of Africa in small groups of hunter-gatherers.  Even small groups need a leader of some sort, a decision maker of last resort – one with experience and wisdom to enhance the outcome of the struggles of the group.
Eventually, humans migrated all over the planet, discovered agriculture, domesticated animals, bred like rabbits, and settled down with larger groups of other humans in villages and eventually cities (hence, the polis) to live. The growth of survival skills and entrepreneurship enabled the division of labor (specialization of trades and professions), which allowed the city to work more efficiently.
Large groups of humans need ever larger and more knowledgeable groups of leaders, so it was inevitable that more complex forms of government (some with written charters, or laws) evolved, involving larger groups of local “politicians” – magistrates, judges, priests, and some kind of supreme leader (a king, or tribal chieftain, or religious figure) to head up the organization and lead the city.  The city-state was born.
The Forms of Government 
What does Classical Wisdom have to say on the evolution of government?  Our wise readers know the answer:  a lot.
Funeral Oration

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)

As you might imagine, over centuries, governments have oscillated back and forth from various types of despots and autocrats, such as kings, dictators, and tyrants, and on to the other extreme of pure Democracy (as sometimes in ancient Greece), where all the citizens of a polis  (or city-state, like Athens) traded places in the work of governing and tending to the people’s business.
Sometimes the various cities in Greece were ruled by oligarchs (rule by the few), plutocrats (rule by the very wealthy), military generals (“strong men”), and enlightened Democrats (think Pericles in Athens) coordinating policy with other representatives of the people.
The Greek historian Polybius (ca. 208-125 BC) wrote a terrific book entitled “The Histories,” which covers the period from 264-146 BC.  This work is especially enlightening for us moderns, as we tend to think that our governments must be more evolved and enlightened than any from the distant past.
A more accurate description of political history is one characterized by an ongoing oscillation back and forth between autocracies and republicanism (with written constitutions guaranteeing certain rights to all, with at least some elected representatives and an elected Executive, or President). And all points in between.
Many ancient kingdoms and nations had a supreme religious leader and government was looked upon as the means by which their divine mandates and holy scriptures were adhered to (a theocracy).  There was no “separation of church and state.”  This idea is still very much alive and well today.
The modern tripartite form of government (with executive, legislative, and judicial branches) may be said to draw a great deal from the writings of Polybius.  (With assistance from Baron de Montesquieu and John Locke, both of whom wrote extensively on the separation of power via checks and balances in the tripartite system, as argued for in the Federalist Papers in the case of  the newly-born American Republic.)
In parsing the various forms of government popular in Polybius’ days – kingship (monarchy), aristocracy (government by “the best”, or the highly accomplished and well-placed), and democracy, he explains that the “best constitution is that which partakes of all these three elements.” As he wrote,
“And this is no mere assertion, but has been proved by the example of Lycurgus, who was the first to construct a constitution – that of Sparta – on this principle.  Nor can we admit that these are the only forms:  for we have had before now examples of absolute and tyrannical forms of government, which, while differing as widely as possible from kingship, yet appear to have some points of resemblance to it; on which account all absolute rulers falsely assume and use, as far as they can, the title of king.  Again there have been many instances of oligarchical governments having in appearance some analogies to aristocracies, which are, if I may say so, as different from them as it is possible to be.  The same also holds good about democracy.” – Polybius, TheHistories

Polybius, statue in Vienna. © alessandro0770/

Polybius goes on the explain that these three forms of government can all, under the right cirumstances socially, deteriorate into three associated forms; namely, “despotism” (tyranny), “oligarchy” (rule by the few), and “mob rule” (perverted democracy, where non-virtuous citizens use the power of government to illegally allocate resources to themselves and selfishly pervert justice –   the “tyranny of the majority”).
No One-Size-Fits-All
It’s often surprising for moderns to read of severe criticism of democracy coming from ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and Polybius, but they knew by first hand experience how direct democracies could get out of hand.
Of course, Greece had experience with democracy in small city-states where direct participatory democracy could be practiced by all citizens. What we have today (in the USA, for instance) is a democratic republic, whereby eligible citizens who have registered to vote participate in elections  that elect representatives from their various districts (for the House of Representatives) and states (Senators), and a President.
Republics (from the Latin res publica – “public thing”) have written constitutions, which have naturally evolved over the centuries.  This form of government is very well suited to western countries comprising large geographic areas.
Constitution of Athens

The Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, now in the British Library (Papyrus 131)

Personally, I believe that government should be malleable.  In other words, there isn’t one form of government entirely suitable to all countries.  Democracy (specifically republicanism) is suited better for western countries who have evolved from the Greco-Roman civilization.  Other countries, depending on their religious make-up, the temperament of their people, and the histories of their countries and peoples might be more amenable to another sort.
I know many in the west think that “democracy” (sometime ill-defined) is the “be all” and “end all” of governmental forms and should be foisted on all the other countries of the world, whether they like it or not! I beg to differ. Many of the wars in my lifetime have been waged with this premise, and it has often led to disaster; enormously wasteful of human life and taxpayer (usually American) money.
The Vietnam conflict is a case in point, from the involvement of the French in the 1940s and 1950s on up to the involvement of the USA in the early 1960s up until 1975 . Having visited that wonderful country many times in my travels, I can guarantee to anyone that the Vietnamese people, very resourceful and hard-working, all want a better life for themselves and their families. They want better jobs, more money, more “good life,” just as most people of the world do.

The Acropolis at Athens, Leo von Klenze (1846).

Capitalism has won out there (especially in the South), as Vietnam is today a highly productive and prospering place, as I figured it would be.  It’s up to government to follow along and do what’s best for their people. Perhaps democratic republicanism will win out there over time, as well. Only time will tell.
Lessons from Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin’s fantastic series “Game of Thrones” wrapped up last year, and I will miss it terribly.  I loved the series, all its characters (with superb actors and chemistry among the cast), the story lines, the music, etc.
Like thousands of other men all over this planet, I’m sure, I fell in love with the young, beautiful, platinum blonde Queen Daenarys Targaryen (played so well by the British actress Emilia Clarke).  I really enjoyed watching her story line unfold throughout the series, having no idea how the show would end.  Being a romantic, I was always hoping for a “happily ever after” ending between her and her paramour and defender, Jon Snow, of Winterfell (the North Country).
Dany and Jon

© Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd

The ending of the final episode was massively disappointing to me. Not at all because of the actors, or technical production, etc. all of which were at the highest level throughout the show’s run. The story line took a twist that I only slowly caught on to, and it is very germane to my article here on politics.
Having been on a series-long quest to reunite the land of Westeros and eventually reclaim Targeryan dominion over the Iron Throne,  Queen Dany slowly builds allies and a formidable army along the way to reach her goal.  She also manifests very clever political skill during her journey.
In the final episode, the series comes to its denouement with the expected final battle between the über-females of the series, Queen Dany and her final nemesis, evil Queen Cersei Lannister, who holds the Iron Throne at King’s Landing.  Extremely angered by the killing of one of her beloved dragons, which begins the final battle (and the murder of her close friend and female attendant at the command of Cersei), Queen Dany, totally consumed by a thirst for vengeance,  goes on an absolutely murderous rampage!
Queen Daenerys

Daenerys Targaryen in the series finale of Game of Thrones. Courtesy of Helen Sloan/HBO

It isn’t pretty…  Riding atop her one remaining dragon, Queen Daenerys unleashes an incredibly brutal wave of death onto the inhabitants of King’s Landing, with no discrimination between innocent women and children and the actual soldiers still waging battle for  Queen Cersei.  With the aid of Jon Snow’s  Northmen, and the “Unsullied” (her army of liberated slaves),  Queen Dany prevails.
But the aftermath is astonishing:  death and destruction lies all over, with few of the inhabitants of King’s Landing left alive.  Her nemesis Queen Cersei dies a terrible death while trying to escape the castle, as she is crushed by the collapsing building.
Following the carnage, Queen Dany gives a chilling speech to her victorious army, laced with fascistic, triumphal overtones of her autocratic (tyrannical?) rule to come over all of Westeros, “freeing” all peoples remaining under other leadership (whether they want it or not).
War, bitterness, and personal vengeance have changed her soul dramatically. (Was she this way all along?)  She has succumbed to the allure of power – “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said the British 19th Century Lord Acton so aptly. Queen Dany was, sadly, so corrupted.
Jon Snow, with the battle being long over (those still alive had long been ready to surrender), is incredulous (as I was) that his beautiful Queen Daenerys remained airborne on her dragon raining death indiscriminately on all who remained alive. Overkill, indeed.
Finally, the carnage ends, and after listening to Dany’s chilling speech, Jon meets the Queen in the Iron Throne room. Sadly, after a tender moment he puts a knife into her and she dies in a pool of her own blood.
I have to say he did the right thing, especially since Jon knows that Dany would’ve eventually killed his sister, Sansa Stark (Queen in the North), for not submitting to her rule. A tragic end to a great series.  And so politics – and the endless quest for ultimate power – sometimes goes…
Of, By, and For the People
Politics is full of tragedy, yet also has been the vehicle of great human progress and advancement.  Governments, properly instituted, can empower the creativity, ingenuity, and drive of their people, all of whom just want better lives and various degrees of freedom.
“That government governs best which governs least,” said the Classicist President Thomas Jefferson.  I believe he was quite correct.  We definitely do need laws and government enough to enforce those laws and protect the people and their rights, and checks and balances in our governmental systems to ensure that no murderous autocrat, corrupted by lust for power, does something either amazingly stupid or evil (Hitler, for example).
And, as Aristotle reminds us in his Nichomachean Ethics, a people of sufficient virtue is needed to keep the system running optimally.  The American Founding Fathers knew this. They are like demigods to me when compared to what we have now!
As the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was wrapping up in Colonial America, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the newly-independent America would have. He replied:  “A Republic – IF you can keep it.”
Ben Franklin

Benjamin Franklin c. 1785 by Joseph Siffred Duplessis (1725-1802). (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Franklin knew very well that a people of virtue were required to make this form of government work.  A people who were moral, educated, civic-minded, hard working, and involved in government as a free people.
I would remind anyone, wherever they happen to live, to get involved in your governmental process however you can contribute.  Any freedoms you now enjoy can easily be taken away if people are too lazy, indifferent, and apathetic to get involved in the process.  By all means, should you enjoy the privilege of voting, VOTE!  Let your voice be heard, no matter how “small” it seems.  Ultimately, it does make a difference.
As our friend Plato said, all those centuries ago:  “The punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government is to live under the government of worse men.”