The Trial of Socrates (1988)
MacPherson reminds us that in 1992, three years after Stones death, a high officer of the former Soviet Unions former spy service, the K.G.B., revealed that from time to time in the 1960s, Stone did accept luncheon invitations, and the K.G.B. picked up the tab. The K.G.B. agent was Oleg Kalugin, and, in recalling those lunches, he left the impression that Stone might have been a Soviet operative. Stones enemies in the United States, in a delirium of joy, responded to Kalugins remarks by leveling some very serious posthumous accusations at Stone, and they have kept on doing so, as anyone could have predicted.
When ill health forced him to cease publication of I.F. Stone's Weekly in 1971, the author turned to a topic which had fascinated him for many years: How could the free and democratic city of Athens, which he venerated, have tried and executed the world's greatest philosopher for exercising Free Speech? Ever since Socrates drank the hemlock in 399 B.C. this question has been a subject of fierce debate in Western academia. Stone's argument, inconsistent and muddled to some degree, is that Socrates was finally so anti-democratic that he provoked the confrontation and thereupon refused to avail himself of available defenses like the right of free speech because he had quite simply determined that he had reached an opportune moment at which to die. One is put in mind of the notorious excuse of the rapist: She asked for it.
Now I'm not a big fan of psychoanalysis, particularly when applied from a distance, but it's awfully hard not to resort to some pop psychology here. Stone you see, for all his reputation as a civil libertarian, was also at least a fellow traveler and quite possibly, even probably, a paid agent of the Soviet Union, long after even the responsible Left had finally decided that the USSR was too odious to support. In addition, at the time of the book's publication, Stone, like Socrates, was quite an old man.
It seems to me that this work could easily be read as Stone's Apology, since the subtexts of the story attempt to reconcile two of the central problems raised by his own life and career but paralleling Socrates. First, as regards the state and civil liberties, Stone and others had argued during the Cold War that domestic Communists should be protected by Free Speech rights. They argued for an absolute Free Speech standard, but, unfortunately for them, even Athens, the most idealized democracy in human history, had not applied this standard, executing Socrates for his politico/religious teachings. Anti-Communists, on the contrary, had argued that Free Speech protections ended at the point where the speaker began advocating the forcible overthrow of the democratic regime. They maintained, quite correctly it seems to me, that Speech is guaranteed within the context of the Constitution and that those who oppose the very system place themselves beyond the pale. This is perfectly consistent with our historic treatment of criminals, who forfeit constitutional rights, and Secessionist states, which were forcibly returned to the Union. Stone ultimately falls back on the argument that Athens acted untrue to its own ideals, but that Socrates forced them to and moreover, this was essential to his apotheosis as a philosophical martyr. This argument strikes me as inadequate; I'd conclude, instead, that both Athens and America were justified in defending themselves against anti-democratic forces in their midst.
Having failed to convict Athens/America, he likewise fails to acquit Socrates/Stone. For one thing, the Socrates portrayed here is a pretty repellent figure. Much of this derives from applying 20th Century standards of human rights and political philosophy to a pre-Christian man, but even on his own terms, Socrates emerges as a pedantic, elitist, condescending, totalitarian. Can one doubt that when the children of Vietnamese, Chinese and Soviet refugees begin to write our history books in the next century the portrait of those in the West who supported Stalin and Mao and Ho Chi Minh will be similarly brutal? Just as Socrates must bear some responsibility for the tyranny of Alcibiades and Critias, so must the I.F. Stone's of our times share in the responsibility for the gulag and the killing fields and the Cultural Revolution.
One of the issues that Stone takes up is why the Athenians waited as long as they did to silence Socrates. The real answer to this question is once again found in our own Century. There are always going to be people in our society who fundamentally oppose our system of government and want to impose tyranny. In general, we tolerate them and assume that they are annoying but basically harmless. Periodically however, external events lead us to ruthlessly suppress them. During WWI President Wilson launched one of the most repressive assaults in our nation's history on American radicals. When WWII broke out it became possible for the Left to destroy Lindbergh and the America First movement. The outbreak of the Cold War brought blacklisting for Communists. Most recently, the Oklahoma City bombing meant open season on the militias. Regardless of which end of the political spectrum these groups represent and irrespective of which political party is in power, even as open a democracy as ours responds with brutal force when threatened from within.
We do not find the "Fire in a Crowded Theater" concept very hard to accept. You can say what you want until you become a threat to people. Why do folks have so much trouble applying this standard on a grander scale? Ideas should, and do, have consequences. Let citizens advocate Communism, Fascism, Theocracy, whatever they like, as long as they are marginal and unpopular; but as soon as their ideas find traction or a foreign nation with like ideas threatens us, then crank up the House Un-American Activities Committee. It ain't pretty, but it works.
In the final analysis, the book, despite some significant flaws, is an interesting, charmingly idiosyncratic and always entertaining look at the pivotal drama in the life of Socrates, one of the seminal figures in all of Western thought, and, at the same time, an amusing, though unintended, glimpse into the guilty conscience of I.F. Stone, an icon of the modern Left.
-I.F. Stone Breaks the Socrates Story: An old muckraker sheds fresh light on the 2,500-year-old mystery and reveals some Athenian political realities that Plato did his best to hide.(I.F. Stone, Originally published in The New York Times Magazine, April 8, 1979)
-NY REVIEW of BOOKS ARCHIVE stories by I.F. Stone
-A TRIBUTE TO I.F. STONE
-REVIEW: IZZY A Biography of I. F. Stone. By Robert C. Cottrell (John B. Judis, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: (M.F. Burnyeat: Cracking the Socrates Case, NY Review of Books)
The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone
-REVIEW: THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES. By I. F. Stone (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
-REVIEW: DOWN WITH DEMOCRACY! (Julia Annas, NY Times Book Review)
-Who's out to Lunch Here: I.F. Stone and the KGB (Cassandra Tate, Columbia Journalism Review)
-ESSAY: sleaze, smears and spleen (Eric Alterman, Salon)
-ESSAY: "I Lied": Testing the Intellectual Honesty of Eric Alterman (Philip Nobile, New York Press)
-ESSAY: The Anti-War Movement Had It Wrong (Stephen B. Young, Heterodoxy)
SOCRATES & PLATO:
Isn't a democracy justified in silencing someone who's cultivating enemies of democracy?
- Feb-16-2006, 15:30
QUESTION: WERE THOSE WHO PASSED SOCRATES DEATH SENTENCE JUSTIFIED OR NOT AT THAT TIME. OR BRTTER STILL WERE THE ATHENIANS JUSTFIED IN KILLEING SOCRATES AT THAT TIME OR NOT
- Nana Amoo
- Feb-16-2006, 13:37
I thought the principle of Stone's Trial was that Socrates was killed not for what he did (those were convenient charges, like those used against Andrew Johnson or William Clinton) but for what his students had done.
Alkibiades, the traitor (and, yes, later hero) and Kimon the puppet dictator during Spartan rule, both students of Socrates.
It was the first, and a quite violent, anti-intellectual revolt.
About the same time Plato started the Academy, far from downtown Athens, and soon after the Lyceum was founded.
- JS Narins
- Dec-31-2005, 20:59
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