Skip Navigation

Socrates and Coates: Moments of Particular Acute Fragility



From the Fall 2016 Gallatin Today

It’s no accident we begin our time together in community reading two powerful texts about democracy—one from the fifth century BCE, the other from last year. Socrates and Ta-Nehisi Coates, two sons of democracy/democrats, of very different stripes, challenging their communities, their standards of authority, their account of themselves, the way they reproduce themselves—their norms and values—particularly through regimes of education. It may seem a long distance from Socrates to Coates: they write out of and into different communities and contexts. Yet both pursue the difficult path of self-examination and critical dialogue with others.

As part of the reforms that led to the creation of the extraordinary innovation that was democracy in Athens about forty years before Socrates was born, it was established that any citizen could bring a charge against another in the case of “things that are bad for the community,” and this was how Socrates was brought to court on a charge of impiety—graphê asebeias. This was very likely the first time a person was taken to court for his beliefs or for his speech, rather than his actions. It bears repeating that “apology” is the technical term for the speech by a defendant in a court case, in the legal system of democratic Athens in the fifth and early fourth centuries BCE. Literally, it means a speaking out—nothing whatsoever to do with “I’m sorry.” It was a requirement of Athenian law that defendants in lawsuits represent themselves, but they could— and typically did—have their speeches written for them by professional speechwriters. But Socrates preferred to speak for himself. One of the most famous orators of his day did write a speech for him, but he declined to use it, saying it was “too beautiful.”

Socrates addresses the jurors (and others present in court) as his fellow citizens. He speaks precisely as a citizen, one who has long annoyed various authorities but one who has also long been centrally aligned with the project of Athenian democracy. The only citizens of Athens were free-born males above the age of eighteen, and after a certain point it became a requirement for citizenship to be the son of two Athenian parents—so not everyone was included. Still, the Athenian political form that established that citizenship was celebrated (and sometimes decried) as a great innovation, dispensing with kings and aristocratic clans, and insisting on the free and open and active participation of all citizens.

But Socrates speaks at a moment of particular, acute fragility in the democracy. Athens had been defeated a few years earlier in its decades-long war with the city of Sparta, following which Sparta had installed a brutal, murderous oligarchy consisting of men who came to be known as the Thirty Tyrants. At the time of Socrates’s trial, that regime had recently been overthrown and democracy perilously restored. So a “gadfly on the horse of the state,” as Socrates calls himself, wasn’t exactly what most Athenians thought they needed. The polis—or city-state—had been endangered from inside and outside—most visibly from outside by the Spartans, but just as damagingly by the terror brought about by the regime of the Thirty. The democracy had been restored—but at great cost. Thus Socrates’s continuing public inquiries and challenges were felt as a particular affront: Couldn’t he just leave things alone?

Now, Socrates speaks from within; it is worth thinking about what that perspective affords him—a critique from within, of the community. This is part of the force of his refusal of the option of exile: it was legal practice to propose a penalty for oneself, and exile was often what defendants opted for. But Socrates’s whole philosophical project depends on the political community within which and at times against which he individuates himself. The true philosopher, from a Socratic standpoint, remains in the community where he teaches, and lives out with others the effects of his teaching. Socrates’s Apology is, among other things, then, a mediation on belonging—what it means to belong to a democratic community, to refuse expulsion from it, to challenge its very foundations, to become, with profound irony—the irony Socrates himself so brilliantly practiced—perhaps its most famous citizen in history. Athens may not have wanted Socrates, but Socrates insisted he belonged to Athens and made by his death the extremest legal and juridical point of belonging he could: a freely chosen belonging. At no point does Socrates doubt his status as an Athenian citizen; he rebuts or ironizes every charge against him; he does so from within the polis and its own established mechanisms and discourse—a discourse he was in fact transforming from within.

Coates writes from a differently diagnosed place—as a member of a group long “at the bottom of the well” of the nation (quoting Derrick Bell). Coates may be at best ambivalent about the project of “America” and of “democracy,” yet also says he calls America to account precisely because of its long history of claims that it is “exceptional.” The idea that the unexamined life is not worth living recovers, in the context of Socrates’s Apology, its original force as a powerful challenge and question: an unanswerable one, because it must be lived out. And certainly this is one point of entry into Coates’s essay: its beautiful tracking of the way one young man has undertaken a richly examined, intellectually probing life. His examination unfolds in dialogue with, and sometimes in opposition to, his parents, his reading (not least of Malcolm X), formal education (in benighted schools and then transformatively at Howard University), and ongoing conversation with peers, friends, and enemies—the fruits of which examination he wishes to share with his son, and implicitly of course with any reader.

Both works ask, what is the relation of citizen to community, and both speak to the pleasures and pains of belonging: Who can afford to belong? to what? and at what cost? We who teach, study, and work here all belong to the Gallatin community: what that is, what it becomes, what it obscures, what it costs, what it enables is something we discover, we make, we experience—together. Let’s hope that individually and collectively we can do what Jesmyn Ward calls for in her new edited anthology, The Fire This Time: “To discover a new type of belonging.”