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Socrates and Athenian Democracy and Citizenship

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Athenian democracy has provided a fundamental, archetypal foundation for the contemporary political landscape witnessed present-day. Socrates’ vigilant efforts to democratize truth are demonstrative of an exorbitant level of consciousness which irrefutably exceed that of the polis by comparative measure; Socrates renounced this sociopolitical structure to focus on seeking higher forms of truth. As a result, Socrates’ possessed the philosophical insight necessitated to distinguish the difference between the true nature of justice and its respective antithetical form, injustice. By nature of philosophizing, Socrates was considered an “outside critic” to which he thoughtfully produced a more refined perspective of citizenship referred to as Socratic citizenship, or otherwise known as rational citizenship. The essence of his political model enables the sociopolitical rectification of perceived injustices in order to permit the citizenry to rightfully achieve happiness and live the good life through his perceptual model. This analysis posits the contentious notion that Socrates’ averse nature toward the status quo set forth by the Athenian state is representative of a true paradigmatic citizen, as opposed to the aforementioned model of citizenship executed by Pericles. To put simply, the nature of progress as it pertains to the state is predicated on rational thought and a comprehensive understanding regarding the origins of recurrent injustice. By this, it is understood that philosophizing or the philosopher is integral to societal progression and the underlying reasoning as to why being an outside critic is more important than that of an active participant.

Pericles’ ideal civilization is characterized by community, relationships, and ultimately a society of friends. Building upon this premise, Aristotelian theory concurs with Pericles’ ideology of citizenship which emphasizes the intrinsic desires of humankind and the “good life” – ideals of the Athenian state which, according to Aristotle, are attainable in a state where a citizen “shares in the administration of justice and in the holding of office” (33-34)3 The attainment of the aforementioned ideas are arguably neglectful of “leisure time” as a result of a particular focus on specialized labor contributive of sustaining the individualized needs of each and every citizen. Pericles’ expounds on this premise to which he states, “here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well”. It is paramount to highlight the Athenian preoccupation with selfless devotion to specialized labor for the betterment of others and that of the state. In addition, Pericles’ ideological premise for citizenship encompasses a state which consists of a social caste system, drastic gender inequality, slavery and legal disenfranchisement which highlights the oppressive nature that coincides with collectivized labor. In this regard, Athenian democracy was more oppressive with respect to its hierarchical social structure and its enforced prerequisites to citizenship. Citizenship in Athens was solely reserved for males and generally afforded via inheritance within familial lines. Civic participation for females did not include voting, rather they were often confined to a “homemaker” role and were not permitted to roam the city freely as those who were more privileged. Lesser status individuals within the stratified hierarchical structure were underprivileged with respect to state-led protection and were considered no more than working individuals. Pericles’ predominant focus was on building a sense of community and serving one another. This claim is substantiated by his speech at the Funeral Oration to which he states, “we make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them. This makes our friendship all the more reliable, since we want to keep alive the gratitude of those who are in our debt by showing continued good will to them”. In essence, this is not to imply any degree of inefficiency with respect to Athenian democracy, rather, it serves as a basis to explicate the injustice witnessed by Socrates as a result of interdependency and absence of opportunity with respect to social mobility. Nonetheless, Pericles’ political model of citizenship otherwise prohibits the Athenian people from truly satisfying their underlying individual needs and the subsequent human desire to discover what inspires happiness within themselves.

It is at this particular juncture where challenges precipitate upon Pericles’ model of citizenship and otherwise impinge upon the philosophic and political premises Socrates devoutly promotes and subscribes to. Socrates abstained from the collective actions of the city as he perceived active participation as a submission of complicity to authority and tradition. Socrates is predominantly fixated on developing a conscious awareness to which one’s soul experiences a philosophical ascension toward truth; this soulful transcendence is the catalyst behind the metaphorical attunement of the soul with all that is true and good in the world. As a result, one may distinguish between what is just versus unjust and act in accordance with such realizations in order to create a more perfect, adaptive and ever-changing society. Socrates’ indiscriminately accosted all who would listen to his public exposition of true ignorance, a notion that was a respective corollary for his preoccupation with uncovering higher truths forming his political model of Socratic citizenship. Socrates inquires to the men of Athens to which he states, “do you suppose, then, that I would have survived so many years if I had been publicly active and had acted in a manner worthy of a good man, coming to the aid of the just things and, as one ought, regarding this as most important?”. His relentless questioning of Athenian citizens stemmed from an innate desire to provide the precursory instruments purposive of individual discovery; ideals which refer to truth, wisdom, and justice which are both conducive and essential for state progression. The use of the word progression connotatively refers to the refinement of social norms, in order to create an inclusive society with considerable equality, as opposed to Pericles’ model of citizenship which is systemically oppressive and unjust by nature.

In his defense, Socrates states, “I will certainly not stop philosophizing, and I will exhort you and explain this to whomever of you I happen to meet, and I will speak just the sorts of things I am accustomed to”. The preceding statement is contextually devoid of the origins of injustice, particularly in a relatively successful democratic regime such as Athens. Nevertheless, the main point of Socrates criticism of Athenian democracy is that it is predicated on intuition and the caprices of the majority. In other words, the democratic process is arguably devoid of rational thought or philosophic principles with respect to governance and decision-making. Instead, in reference to the principle of justice, Socrates argues against the disordered structure of the Athenian state by stating “every man believes injustice to be much more profitable for the individual than justice” creating the presupposition of state-led corruption led by vices, or self-interested behavior Socrates apparent issue with the Pericles’ model of citizenship is that a state’s responsibility to preserve justice may contradict the enthymematic foundation or schematic principles that are fundamental to Athenian democracy. By this, it is Socrates is implying that contradictory acts antithetical to the basic principles of the governing body, in essence, render that very political body incapable of executing true justice. Because of such, Socrates is implying the importance of a rational state that possesses the capability to adapt and deliberate issues of inequities for the sake of state continuity. To remain a state propagated by oppressive injustice is to accept the inevitable fate witnessed historically time and time again, the reality of political upheaval which plagues countless regimes as a result of an oppressive schematic structure.

Socrates’ detestation to civic participation and subsequent philosophic inquisition served as an impetus for his refined political framework on citizenship. His overt defiance of Athenian social norms and his predisposition to discovering truths and acquiring wisdom were instrumental in solidifying the importance of philosophic thought. Through rational thought, reconciliation may solve issues of justice where there is an apparent injustice. Philosophers’ practice of independent thought enables one to reach higher levels of consciousness to which societal progress is irrefutably owed. For that reason, being an “outside critic” is far more valuable in creating a more appealing, inclusive society, in addition, to a state devoid of injustice and oppression.

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