Socrates and the City

In the Apology, Plato records Socrates' defense from his trial against charges of corrupting the youth and making worse arguments appear better. Famously, Socrates was convicted of the charges and sentenced to death. The source of these charges, however, seems to have been public annoyance with Socrates' philosophical practices. Socrates believed that his role in the city was to challenge the unjustified beliefs of the people, and this made him a nuisance to his fellow citizens.

Certainly, Socrates says in his defense that he was put in Athens to challenge its citizens. He says, "I was attached to this city by the god - though it seems a ridiculous thing to say - as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadlfy. It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in the city" (Grube, 33). Socrates thought the role of the philosopher was to challenge people to overcome their complacency and to live a better kind of life.

Drawing inspiration from Socrates' example, Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that our polity needs to be challenged to rise above its complacency. He wrote, "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." Although it may be uncomfortable, society needs men and women of integrity to challenge the accepted notions and unjustified beliefs pervading our culture.

Unfortunately, the need for the proverbial gadlfy did not end with the Civil Rights Movement. American society needs to be challenged today as well. Those who peddle falsehoods and fear must be confronted with truth and reason. This may be unpopular, as it was for both Socrates and Martin Luther King, Jr., but it is necessary to prevent and eliminate injustice within our society.