Passages from Socratic Citizenship by Dana Villa
April 26, 2011
“The fact that Socrates’ ‘true political art’ stands at an explicit (and carefully preserved) remove from the world of the assembly and its political leadership indicates that the kind of ‘moral improvement’ he aims at is not something that can easily be measured…. The virtue Socrates attempts to awaken is not something that can be inculcated by political means or through the standard channels of moral education. It consists, first and foremost, in getting his fellow citizens to think about what they are doing. The life of active, engaged citizenship – celebrated by both Pericles and Callicles, as well as by the civic republican tradition – militates against this possibility. Thinking what we are doing necessarily slows us down, if only because it demands that we stop acting in order to think. It moderates what Arendt (in On Revolution) calls the ‘love of public freedom’ and ‘joy in action.’
“Socrates’ radical suggestion to the Athenians and to all ‘lovers of action’ is that political deliberation and judgment are no substitutes for thought or moral reflection, and that thought itself provides no solid results that can serve as the basis of further action. If his fellow citizens become at least episodically philosophical, Socrates can be said to have ‘improved’ them by slowing them down, by loosening the grip the Periclean idea of greatness (or the Calliclian idea of power) has on their imaginations. His ‘true political art’ can thus be understood as the attempt to de-aestheticize the public realm – not, however, by moralizing this realm but rather by making care for the city something distinct from and secondary to the (thoughtful) care for one’s soul. Only when their moral sense has been sobered by an appreciation of the worst wrong can citizens begin to free themselves from the communal intoxication of the Periclean vision and from the Calliclean corruptions which flow from it….
“In his role as dissenting citizen, Socrates is careful to appeal to the Athenians’ established sense of proper conduct. In his role as philosophical critic and ‘gadfly,’ however, he goes well beyond the sensus communis. It is therefore misleading to say that Socrates calls his fellow Athenians ‘back to the best ideals of [their] past as criticized by philosophy.’ The sheer intensity with which Socrates demands the avoidance of injustice puts him in diametric opposition not only to the power-worshipping of Polus and Callicles but also to the ideals of civic greatness and self-sacrifice articulated in the Funeral Oration. Callicles gets it right: if what Socrates says is true, then ‘surely the life of us mortals must be turned upside down and apparently we are everywhere doing the opposite of what we should.’ (481c) Where, in Euben’s words, ‘being great becomes being good, courage becomes the willingness to suffer injustice rather than commit it, and the purpose of life is not to conquer Syracuse, avenge one’s friends, build an empire, or leave monuments behind but to conquer tyrannical impulses [and] harm no one,’ we have not a purified or refined table of values but a substantively different one. Socratic negativism dissolves the Periclean ideal, using the imperative of avoiding injustice to reveal the moral hollowness of aesthetic monumentalism. It points to a new moral world, one where the principle of conduct derives not from the collective desire to demonstrate greatness or cultural superiority but from the individual’s desire to preserve his or her moral integrity, to not be a party to injustice.” [pp. 38-40]