>>>>In the last lesson we looked at Sophocles’
Antigone, a classic Greek tragedy. A work that speaks across the ages, but also a work
that was produced in a particular moment, in a particular context in 442 BC. And it’s
a warning to the Athenian democracy as well as a response to the Sophists. In their challenge
to morality, the Sophists said that we cannot know if the gods exist and we cannot say that
morality is truly objective. “Man is the measure of all things”, Protagoras says. But Sophocles
responds in the Antigone by saying that traditional morality is true and just. That there is an
objective law of god, a law of Zeus, that humans should obey. Sophocles is a defense
of tradition. In other words Sophocles grounds his account of justice in tradition. That
is how he says that we can know what is truly just – through tradition and practical wisdom.
But over the next several lessons we’ll see that for many philosophers, this was not enough.
For several philosophers in classical Athens, it was not enough to say that morality is
true simply because it is tradition. That is insufficient. That is not a rational, that
is not a defensible account of what justice, what morality is. And we’ll look in this lesson
at the philosopher Plato. Plato is in some ways the fountainhead of all later Western
philosophy. He is one of the three or four greatest philosophers in all of human history.
He’s the first truly systematic philosopher, who thinks through morality, who thinks through
epistemology that is, what knowledge is. Who thinks through what nature is—metaphysics.
And he thinks these through systematically in a way that would influence all later philosophers.
Plato himself was the student of Socrates: An Athenian of the 5th century who is in many
ways the turning point of the philosophical tradition. In fact, it’s symbolic that we
call all philosophers before Socrates simply the pre-Socratics because Socrates represents
a turning point. With Socrates philosophy turns away from scientific speculation and
turns toward practical morality. With Socrates, philosophy comes to question traditional everyday
kinds of questions about the nature of the good life, the point of life. Socrates became
quite a public figure in late 5th century classical democratic Athens. He was from the
ordinary working classes, but he achieved great notoriety, maybe fame through his public
philosophy. Socrates achieved this notoriety through his philosophizing in the agora – the
public spaces of democratic Athens. He was famous for questioning famous Athenians or
Sophists about their moral beliefs. Now nobody likes to be questioned deeply, especially
by a philosopher, about their moral beliefs. And Socrates would describe himself as a gadfly.
That is, as something that would bite you and would bother you into thinking about the
nature and grounding of your moral beliefs. And Socrates was a profound teacher. He never
wrote anything that so that we know his philosophy principally through the writings of his own
students. And Socrates achieved this notoriety through his public questioning of prominent
Athenians or Sophists by pestering them, by asking them about the foundations of their
personal moral beliefs. Now individuals don’t like to be pestered about their moral beliefs,
especially by a philosopher. And they especially don’t like to be questioned in public, in
front of others, be made to give an account of what justifies their personal morality.
But Socrates made a career of it. He was a profoundly moving teacher, and in the late
5th century, he gathered around him some of the sons of the elite, elite Athenians who
deeply admired and loved their teacher. In fact Socrates wrote virtually nothing down
in his whole lifetime, nothing of his philosophy. And we know his teachings only through the
writings of his students: Principally Xenophon, and above all Plato. Now Socrates became a
public figure. He was famous for questioning other Athenians. And eventually, this caused
his unpopularity to rise to the level that would result in his death. It’s fundamental
to understand the thought of Plato, to understand the trauma of the death of Socrates and the
effects that it would have on Plato. In 399, Socrates was charged with three counts: with
corrupting the young, with introducing new gods, and with not worshiping the state gods
of the Athenians. And in the midst of democratic Athens, Socrates was brought to trial before
a large jury of ordinary Athenians and hailed before the court on these three charges: corrupting
the young, not worshiping the state gods, and introducing new gods, two of them really
religious charges. Socrates was prosecuted. Socrates defended himself and a version of
his defense speech famously survives in what’s known as the “Apology”, that is the defense,
the self-defense of Socrates that was written by his student Plato. And Socrates defends
his questioning. He defends his pursuit of truth and his pursuit of the moral life. Nevertheless
Socrates was truculent. He was refused to give in to the Athenian pressure to change
his ways or to apologize for his philosophy. And Socrates was condemned and sentenced to
death. So in the midst of this democracy, we see an individual fundamentally committed
to seeking the good life, condemned to execution for his beliefs. Now in a particularly striking
way, this calls out the contrast between democracy and liberalism. The Athenian democracy was
democratic. It placed great power in the hands of the people, but it wasn’t necessarily liberal.
We would say that it doesn’t necessarily recognize fundamental individual rights. Socrates is
executed for his religious teachings. This is not a state where there’s a fundamental
or inviolable individual right to the free exercise of religion. It also evoked the dangers
of democracy. And a man like Plato would watch his teacher, his beloved teacher Socrates
be put to death for his beliefs. That would forever undermine Plato’s faith in democracy
as a just constitution. And Plato’s skepticism about democracy would reverberate throughout
his philosophy and throughout his political ideas for the rest of his life.