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Would Socrates Be Anti-Woke? A Stoic Critique of Identity Politics

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“For the Stoic, however, personal identity is not a fragmented life of intersecting cultural identities but rather a holistic and unified embodiment of rationality endowed by nature.”

At the age of 70, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates had achieved sufficient notoriety in his native city of Athens to warrant a charge that he had corrupted the youth. In attempting to engage people with questions about the nature of wisdom, Socrates had alienated many of the leading members of the Athenian community. In Aristophanes’s The Clouds, for example, he was panned as a foolish sophist, depicted as a man “treading on air and uttering a vast deal of other nonsense.” Fed up with this poor, old, and homely man wooing the sons of Athens with frivolous sophistry, Meletus of Athens brought Socrates before a court of his fellow citizens to face a charge of impiety. Conviction brought with it a penalty of death.

The odds stacked against him, Socrates seemingly had much to fear. He had not murdered, cheated, or slandered anyone. But he cut a sorry figure against the institutional force of the court. He was accused of “investigating the things beneath the earth and in the heavens” and “making the weaker argument stronger,” but what really stirred up his accusers is that he went about teaching “these same things to others.” The ruling class of Athens did not appreciate that so many of its sons were fond of Socrates. They viewed his antics as a threat and were prepared to make an example of this otherwise marginal figure who had no wealth, no youth, no beauty, and seemingly no other privilege with which to sway some person of influence to intervene on his behalf.

Perhaps most gallingly, however, Socrates faced the court with the aplomb of a man who felt no fear and who was convinced of his innocence. With consummate skill and simplicity, he recounted a life of philosophical inquiry that began when the oracle of Delphi told a boyhood friend that no one was wiser than Socrates. Puzzled, Socrates set about in search of men deemed wise. When he found them, he discovered upon examination that they were not, in fact, wise. In each case, Socrates did not conclude that he was wiser than the man he examined. He realized, however, that he was aware that he was not wise, whereas his interlocutor did not. The meaning of the oracle’s proclamation eventually became clear to him: Socrates was aware that he was not wise, in contrast to those who were not wise because they did not recognize that they were not wise.

In this realization Socrates found his calling as a philosopher. He devoted himself to a life in search of wisdom, indifferent to the glories of wealth and fame. His primary concern was to find knowledge of virtue. That is, how to live a good life—doing what is right, as determined by proper reasoning. So, what did he learn? Consider how he responded to friends who wanted to help him escape after he was convicted. Socrates curiously argued that it would be hypocritical to disobey the verdict of the court. It was his duty to obey the law, even if the verdict was unjust. How was this consistent with virtue?

Commitment to an unjust verdict by a man who cared about justice may seem paradoxical. But as a citizen of Athens, Socrates had enjoyed many benefits in return for tacit consent to prevailing laws. Socrates had even played his part in society. He had served in the Peloponnesian War, and, at one time, he served on a Council that had overseen the trial of ten generals, claiming that he “was only [a member of the presiding committee] who opposed doing anything contrary to the laws.” For Socrates, a life of virtue did not exclude participation in a social order and obedience to laws which supported an unjust verdict. It was entirely consistent to engage in critique of the social order without seeking to dissolve his obligations to the social order.

A public life is a short life, however, because “the fact is that no man will save his life who nobly opposes you or any other populace and prevents many unjust and illegal things from happening in the state.” A philosophical life, then, must be a private life. “A man who really fights for the right, if he is to preserve his life for even a little while, must be a private citizen, not a public man,” Plato writes.

This claim does not imply that a longer life is better than a shorter life. Virtue is independent of the length of one’s life, as Socrates emphasized in saying that “death is something I couldn’t care less about” because “my whole concern is not to do anything unjust or impious.” The private life is necessary to ensure a longer life, which is desirable not in itself but because it extends the philosophical quest by which Socrates believes he can be of service to himself and his fellow Athenian citizens. As he says, “if I had undertaken to go into politics, I should have been put to death long ago and should have done no good to you or to myself.”

We, thus, arrive at a resolution to the seeming paradox that maintaining one’s obligations to a social order that allows injustice to occur is itself part of living in accord with justice. The idea is that living rightly is a matter of deploying proper reasoning to persuade oneself and others of the right course of action in a given situation. Socrates assumes the laws are just in the sense that they are necessary to sustain a community which provides many benefits to members of that community. Socrates admits to being the beneficiary of many privileges conferred on him as a citizen of Athens. His challenge to the court was a challenge to the men of the court and not to the law of the court.

This is to say that the philosopher does not seek to impose his will on the world but, rather, to persuade others that his will is in accord with justice. Hence, the importance of what came to be known as Socratic dialogue. The philosopher who seeks the good and just life must lead a private, not a public, life not because he is a quietist, a pacifist, or even a masochist, but because virtue stems from the integrity of the will and not the coercive force of the state or some other external force purporting to speak in the name of virtue. There is, of course, no guarantee that the philosopher will succeed in his attempt to persuade others of the virtue of some act or idea under consideration. There is no guarantee that he will succeed in persuading the men of the court that he is innocent. 

The outcome, however, is beyond his control. What he controls is his capacity to use reason to persuade others. Escaping or resisting the law would be a diversion from the right path. It would undermine the laws that provide benefits in other aspects of life, which means committing a vice rather than adhering to virtue. Moreover, it would distract the will from its ongoing attempt to focus on living virtuously and helping others to do the same. The laws may support a court of men who send an innocent man to his death, but the innocent man can attempt to persuade the men of the court not only to exonerate him but to modify laws to advance the cause of justice. If he should fail, he can nevertheless acknowledge that the law also has its benefits and that it would be wrong for one man to resist them simply to avoid the death that comes to everyone. 

What matters is virtue. The ideal of living the private life of a philosopher committed to Socratic dialogue in pursuit of wisdom (one of the four cardinal virtues) led Socrates to reject any offer of acquittal in exchange for ceasing his activities as a philosopher. For Socrates, it was of utmost importance to do what is right. Only a life of virtue could make one entirely self-sufficient in the living of a good life and the lack of fear in the presence of imminent death. Wealth, fame, and long life may lead to public acclaim, but only the inner satisfaction of a virtuous life makes one privately content. The happy man is one who maintains a well-ordered soul guided by virtue. As this is a matter of one’s own will making use of one’s own reason, the happy man is also invulnerable. No harm can come to the man who is utterly intact in the embrace of virtue. He can rest easy knowing that he made his best attempt to persuade others of his virtue without resorting to (or encouraging) the vices of anger, recalcitrance, or lack of gratitude.

The Influence of Socrates

The story of Socrates is thousands of years old, but it has been a key inspiration in the history of Western philosophy. The philosophers who came before Socrates are called the pre-Socratics, and the philosophers who came after him are part of a Western philosophical tradition that has been said to be a footnote on Plato (whose dialogues introduced Socrates to Western philosophy and often have Socrates playing a leading part). Generations of philosophy students have written first-year papers on the teachings of Socrates as conveyed in the works of Plato. The Socratic method is taught in law schools to this day as a way of cross-examining beliefs and knowledge.

The story of Socrates is not only inspirational; it is also instructive. The questions that arise in Plato’s Apology and Crito about virtue and the good life in the presence of injustices that persist in an existing social order remain highly relevant in a contemporary world in which identity politics has become a recurring source of conflict in the social justice activism of the 21st century. The focus on virtue was also of crucial importance to an ancient school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

Stoicism was founded in the fourth century B.C. by a man named Zeno of Citium, who was so captivated by the Socratic dialogues of Xenophon’s Memorabilia that he devoted the rest of his life to developing a school of philosophy in which virtue took center stage. In Stoicism, named after the stoa poikile (“painted porch”) where Stoic philosophers and students convened to partake in their studies, the goal of life is eudaimonia, which essentially comes down to what many translate as a “flourishing life.” How does one flourish in life? If one guessed virtue, he is right.

The question of what constitutes virtue is, of course, a complicated one. It depends on many aspects of thought that revolve around the themes of physics, logic, and ethics. Once mastered, virtue is regarded as an achievement of which we are all capable. Few ever achieve it, but striving toward virtue is regarded as worthy in itself and as moving us closer to being happy. In happiness, or eudaimonia, we find the self-sufficiency that makes us better people, with respect to ourselves and with respect to the society around us. Stoicism, then, is about being better as a function of virtue. It should not come as a surprise that Socrates inspired the Stoics as an ideal role model.

To illustrate by returning to our opening story of the trial of Socrates, it would be easy to view Socrates as the unhappy victim of herd opinion in a city whose laws do not prevent execution of a man who simply asks people questions about the nature of wisdom. Moreover, as an old man, he was up against what is known as “ageism” in the lexicon of contemporary identity politics. As a poor man, he was up against “classism.” As an unseemly man, he was up against “lookism.” 

This is, of course, a modern perspective, and we risk anachronism by judging a man of the ancient world by the standards of identity politics in a modern crusade of social justice activism that examines social identity as a key part of its critique of institutional authority. But, in this case, it is by no means far-fetched to see Socrates as first in a long line of philosophers for whom the mission of a philosophical life is the critique of existing authorities with the aim of discovering wisdom and envisioning a better world constructed on principles of justice. In fact, Socrates can be regarded as the world’s first “Critical Theorist”—i.e., someone who engages in systematic critique of the beliefs that underlie a prevailing social order in the attempt to persuade his fellow citizens that there is a better way to go about things.

Yet when Socrates argued that the court was acting unjustly in bringing forth trumped-up charges of impiety, he did not argue that the law itself was unjust. Moreover, when he was found guilty and sentenced to death, he resisted attempts to help him break out of jail. How is it, then, that a man who engaged in the critique of men deemed wise (i.e., institutional authorities) obeyed the verdict and then confronted death with his famous aplomb despite his belief that he was wrongfully accused?

Above all, Socrates was concerned with how to live a good life. It was, in fact, a consistent ethical theme in ancient Greek philosophy to regard happiness as a matter of living a good life. How could a man like Socrates live a good life when faced with the institutional injustice of a court whose representatives would not tolerate the way he went about searching for wisdom? From the modern perspective of social justice activism deeply informed by Critical Theory, Socrates was already up against the forces of classism, ageism, and lookism. He had been asking questions about the good life that apparently challenged the beliefs of what we would now call a “ruling class” which presumably reinforced beliefs that it was better to be rich, young, and good-looking.

For Socrates, however, his personal characteristics and circumstances were incidental. They are aspects of life to which one should be indifferent with respect to virtue, which is the ultimate source of happiness in life. Happiness is virtue, which in the final analysis, is “up to us,” not things “external” to us that reflect the degree of “privilege” we have in relation to class, age, looks, or other social identity. It is up to us because virtue arises from knowledge of our natural inclination for wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. We obtain this knowledge through reasoned reflection cultivated by way of Socratic dialogue. Knowledge is power—i.e., virtue is a state of empowerment (autonomy) in which we act on the basis of our own reason and our inclination for the four cardinal virtues.

The example of Socrates stands in stark (but helpful) contrast to profound modern concerns about alienation in societies that are deemed to be unjust. For Socrates and many ancient Greek philosophers, “alienation” was akin to an unexamined life, the defect of a human being not sufficiently developed in his reason. For modern thinkers steeped in what has come to be known as Critical Theory, however, alienation is the result of a structural defect in the societies in which people live. 

Socrates, Stoicism, and Social Justice in Today’s World

This notion of alienation as symptomatic of a structural defect in society is also a curious, if not entirely strange, development from the perspective of the ancient school of Hellenistic philosophers who were among the philosophers of the ancient world most influenced by the example and teaching of Socrates. For the Stoic philosophers of the ancient Greek and Roman world, whose lives spanned from the founding of Stoicism by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. to the death of the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D., a release from institutional hegemony seems to imply that the achievement of happiness is not “up to us” but depends instead on minimizing, if not eliminating, exposure to potential “external” sources of harm. 

In his 2006 book The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought, Christopher Gill connects the Stoic notion of the human self as a holistic psychological and physical being to an ethical self for whom “virtue is self-sufficient for happiness and [who] does not require external goods, and that the virtuous person is characterized by ‘freedom from passion’.” As such, Gill explains, “it is ‘up to us’ to achieve happiness through rational reflection and virtue, that happiness involves time-independent perfection of character, and that only those who achieve this state are psychologically and ethically coherent.”

From a modern perspective, this idea conjures up a notion of autonomy from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that serves as the basis for what the Stoics called the eudaimonistic life. That is, a life that flourishes in the full bloom of virtue. What are these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and how does virtue help us navigate the specific adversities they present to us?

21st century social justice activism—or what many critics call “woke”—is heavy on the politics of identity, whereby identity is conceived in terms of intersecting affiliations of social groups. For example, one is a black heterosexual, lower middle-class man or a white homosexual, upper middle-class woman. For the Stoic, however, personal identity is not a fragmented life of intersecting cultural identities but rather a holistic and unified embodiment of rationality endowed by nature. The Stoic cosmos is one of “double-aspect monism,” in which the material world and the inherent order and intelligibility of the universe (the Logos) are two aspects of the same reality. In this pantheistic naturalism, the human being is a kind of rational microcosm of a rational society in a rational universe. 

The human being, then, has a responsibility to live up to his potential as a rational being capable of virtue. Wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice are the four cardinal virtues that follow from this ethical worldview. These virtues are derived from a Socratic conception of virtue as the condition of living a good life, as laid out in Plato’s Republic. This worldview led Plato to a tripartite division of the soul into reason, spirit, and appetite. The proper functioning of reason, spirit, and appetite guides a well-ordered soul to wisdom, courage, and temperance. The upshot is a society grounded thoroughly in the realization of justice. The well-ordered life, then, is one in which the exercise of wisdom, courage, and temperance makes justice a central concern of thought and action.

The Stoics shared this idea of the unity of virtue, though they differed from Plato, as they seemingly would differ from the views of identity politics in today’s world, in viewing the soul as a holistic entity rather than as what Gill calls a “core-centered” coordination of otherwise fragmented parts. The unity of virtue provides the basis for an ethic of life that sees human beings as creatures of nature who share in the endowments of reason and the potential for a life of eudaimonia. Cosmopolitanism naturally ensues, as summarized by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “If what philosophers say of the kinship of God and Man be true, what remains for men to do but as Socrates did: never, when asked one’s country, to answer, ‘I am an Athenian or a Corinthian,’ but ‘I am a citizen of the world.'”

While this all sounds fine in theory, the challenge arises in its application. How are we to apply these virtues in our lived experience in a way that improves not only our own lives but the lives of our fellow human beings? This question has particular salience in the context of Western societies becoming increasingly polarized on the basis of disputes about the nature of social justice. Many of these disputes are rooted in the rise of identity politics witnessed in the last half-century.

Lived experience is key. A great deal of the discourse of social justice activism deals with the question of what we can learn from the stories and experiences of people who are seen as marginalized within an existing system of institutions, laws, customs, beliefs, and habits that make up the social order and confer consistent benefits to groups deemed to be privileged and not to groups considered to be marginalized. From this perspective, well-being is directly related to the degree of privilege one enjoys as a result of his or her group identity in the existing social order. 

Identity, then, becomes the basis for political action in the pursuit of social justice. We must act on an understanding of social identity that is interwoven with the ideological apparatus of society. Social justice activism is significantly motivated by Critical Theory, which adopts the view that alienation results from a structural defect of society by which some groups are more likely to be happy as a function of their privileged status in society. Critical Theory employs a method of social analysis designed to uncover the ways in which our understanding of ourselves—and, thus, our well-being—is embedded in the beliefs, habits, customs, and attitudes that we enact as members of social groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age, and so on.

It would be naive not to appreciate the importance of intersecting identities in the analysis of social justice. Presumably, it would have been a lot harder for Meletus to bring charges against Socrates if Socrates were a less marginal figure in the politics of Athens with respect to his age, poverty, and appearance. But it would also be obtuse not to appreciate how unfazed Socrates was in the face of great adversity. For Socrates, there was no material conflict between personal well-being and being the victim of institutional injustice. Socrates would agree that it is certainly preferable not to be a victim of institutional injustice. Otherwise, he would not defend himself in courts. But as a matter of one’s inner contentment, Socrates was able to rest easy in virtue.

As a man of virtue, he focused on doing what is right. In the context of the charges brought against him, Socrates did not resent, slander, or attack his accusers as perpetrators of injustice. In part, this was because of his view that no one does wrong willingly. If virtue is an inherent potential within us, we can only do harm unintentionally. Doing harm is an error in our reasoning. The corrective course of action for Socrates is not to rebuke and repudiate his accusers but, instead, to show them their error and persuade them to seek virtue rather than vice.  The same principle applies to him. As he says in response to the charge that he corrupts the youth of Athens willingly, he tells his accusers that “the law is not to hale people into court, but to take them and instruct and admonish them in private. For it is clear that if I am told about it, I shall stop doing that which I do involuntarily.”

In short, Socratic dialogue provides a productive path to greater understanding of how we can live a virtuous life. Justice being one of the four cardinal virtues, Socratic dialogue also provides a helpful path toward greater understanding of what we need to do away with when it comes to social injustice. Crucially, however, Socratic dialogue is effective only with proper training. It requires the proper functioning and deployment of reason to gain knowledge of how to act upon our natural (initially uncultivated) inclination for virtue. In virtue, we are content with ourselves because we do what is right. Undisturbed, we do not succumb to vices such as anger, focusing instead on the integrity of our reasoning as we engage in dialogue about what the right course of action is.

This was the way of Socrates. It was also the way of the ancient Stoics who came in his wake. The philosophy of Stoicism, inspired by the life of Socrates, can help us navigate the controversies that bedevil our time as Western societies come to terms with profound differences of perspective on how to make the world a better place. In taking virtue as its guide, Stoicism can be applied in our lives by examining controversies that arise from the focus of social justice activism on identity politics as a means of advancing the cause of justice. We can address disputes about free speech, cancel culture, trigger warnings, microaggressions, diversity training, critical race theory, and other issues arising from the social justice crusade which has taken root in Western societies over the last decade. As such, Stoicism is a practical philosophy but also a viable alternative to identity politics. The key idea is that identity—and thus happiness—depends on virtue.

Jonathan David Church is an economist and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University and has contributed to a variety of publications in addition to Merion West. He is the author of Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality and Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice.

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