The Philosophical Apprentice

“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” Albert Einstein

Socrates, Philosophy, and the Military Virtues

One of the facets of history that i find most amusing is to reflect on the differences between the Greeks and the Romans. I think it is safe to say the Romans when they were virtuous were hardworking, sober, pragmatic, disciplined and devoted to their state and to their duty. And as a whole the Romans were not very interested in abstract matters; philosophy was not their forte. The Greeks on the other hand were almost polar opposites. While they were brave and disciplined in battle, the Greeks in general were fractious and argumentative. While such characteristics may make for good philosophers, the Greeks, good philosophers though they were, nonetheless were a challenging people to govern. And for this reason several Roman Emperors at times resorted to banning Greek philosophers from Rome.

I can sympathize. Having been affiliated with the military for as long as i can remember, I recognize that the philosophical spirit presents a challenge to the military virtues. It is not that the military is inimical to the life of the mind. Indeed, the military for it to be effective requires that its members be crafty and resourceful, to be able to make good decisions on the fly. In fact the best Generals in history such as Caesar and Macarthur have been avid students of history. That being said one thing is certain what a military requires above all is respect for authority and for the institution itself. Without that authority a military will lose it cohesion and its effectiveness as a fighting force. It can even become a threat to the state itself.

This is evident in the case of Socrates. the rise of philosophy in Greece had undermined traditional mores. And much like our experience in Vietnam free thought in Athens was associated with military defeat, in this case the victory of Sparta over Athens in the Peloponnesian War. As Anthony D’Amato, a law professor at Northwestern University puts it:

The Athenian establishment recognized certain gods, certain duties, and a certain lifestyle; these institutions served as a cement keeping the society together and making it strong in battle. Socrates’ disinterested pursuit of truth chipped away at this cement and therefore at the foundations of Athenian society. In this basic sense, Socrates’ very life, devoted to teaching philosophy, was perceived as a threat to the state. Therefore, it was not by random accident that
Socrates was prosecuted. Although the immediate cause of his prosecution may have been a petty vindictiveness on the part of certain poets, orators, and politicians, the basis for their trial of Socrates was nothing less than this perceived threat contained in Socrates’ own teachings. This situation is analogous to a modern dictatorship or totalitarian government silencing an individual for having addressed fellow citizens about the true nature of their political system.  (1)

I find much to agree with in D’Amato’s passage above but leads me with a nagging question-is philosophy and the disinterested search for truth inimical to loyalty to our own country or good social order?

The answer I think is no. Philosophy and the search for truth is never harmful to the individual or to the city, What is harmful is sophistry. Sophistry is like the evil doppelganger of philosophy. It arises whenever Philosophy appears on the scene. It needs the fertile soil of freedom of thought but where philosophy seeks the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, Sophistry seeks power by subverting traditional moral restraints and like a philosophical parasite it attacks and weakens its host. We must remember that one of the reasons Plato began writing his dialogues was to exonerate Socrates from being a Sophist.

And it is easy to see Socrates as a sophist. For many years Socrates, from what little I had read of Plato, always struck me as a bit of a jerk quite frankly, forever walking around making people look foolish. But the more I read the dialogues and learn about the historical context context in which the dialogues were written a different Socrates emerges. Far from being innocent victims most of the people Socrates interviewed were the sort of shysters, self-help gurus and flim-flam men that parade through our own democracy. Who can forget Euthyphro who is on his way to prosecute his own father when Socrates interviews him, or Thrasymachus, St John the Baptist to Machiavelli’s Prince. No what Socrates wanted was for people to practice philosophy so that they would become ore virtuous.So that they wouldn’t pursue foolish adventures that brought them to ruin like the Peloponnesian War.

Socrates’s very life proves that philosophy does not preclude the practice of the military virtues or weaken the moral fabric of society. Unlike many of the sophists who were itinerant foreigners, Socrates had served as a soldier to defend the Athenian state and while he was a philosopher he also accepted the authority of those military leaders who commanded him in battle. Likewise Socrates accepted the authority of the States laws and the decision of the jury who convicted him even the outcome was clearly unjust.

(1) D’Amato, Anthony. “Obligation to Obey the Law: A Study of the Death of Socrates.” 2010. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.


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