This is the second in a series of posts regarding Socrates and his modern legacy that began with a discussion of the books and authors involved - The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone and Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson . We are also getting some direction from a foremost academic authority on Socrates and Plato, the late Gregory Vlastos in the form of his last book, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher.
The greatest divergence between Johnson and Stone is on the matter of Socrates and religion. This is is some importance because one of the charges leveled at Socrates by his accusers Anytus and Meletus was not believing in “the gods of city”and introducing new ones.
The sincerity of this specific charge is an interesting question. As both authors indicated, the century of pre-Socratic philosophers in Athens laid the cornerstone of empirical and rational thought about nature that were the forerunners of both materialism as well as science in the form of natural philosophy. This coincided with the rise of Athens to greatness and empire and a possible change in Athenian civic culture, not so much a secularization but an emphasis on humanism over mysticism in political affairs. This point Johnson was at pains to emphasize as the core nature of “the cultural revolution” wrought by “the Periclean regime” , where Protogoras was prominent sophist. Stone regards the transition to one where religion was “demoted…reduced to venerable fables and metaphorical personifications of natural forces and abstract ideas” which renders the religious question at Socrates’ trial a “distraction”. The primitive awe in which the Greek gods were held during archaic times, gave way to a more ritualistic and cultural reverence in the classical period, or so this line of argument goes.
I am not certain this interpretation is correct to that exaggerated degree. It strikes me far more likely as a representation of the beliefs of educated elite Athenians at the time than those of the middle classes or the thetes, or of Greeks from other cities. Pagan folk religion probably retained the same influence over public and private life in Athens as Christianity does in America in our own times. That is to say there were likely differences in religiosity between the aristocratic elite and the masses in democratic Athens and between political factions (democratic, moderate and extreme oligarchic).
Some contrasting examples: Nicias, whose political reputation with the Assembly was anchored in trust of his admirable piety, brought final disaster upon the Sicilian Expedition and himself with his obstinate, superstitious, deference to religious signs and soothsayers when the path of escape still remained open. Xenophon, in delicately rebuffing calls to accept rulership over the 10,000 in The Anabasis of Cyrus used pious arguments with the soldiers that he himself probably viewed with some degree of cynicism because they were an effective excuse to pass the leadership to a Spartan. Speaking of the Spartans, they were known in this time as “the craftsmen of war” not because of battle art but because of their zealous adherence to military religious ceremonials and divination of sacrificial animals to discern the will of the gods.
That does not sound much like a people for whom Zeus and Apollo were merely enjoyable campfire fables for children, figures of comic sport in the theater or convenient metaphors for chance or the weather.
Stone argued that Athenian religion had been “demoted” but did so for purposes of rebutting the claim of Socrates that decades of comic poets lampooning him in their plays (like The Clouds, by Aristophanes) had prejudiced the jury against him. Stone was also writing The Trial of Socrates after the time when standards of “traditional morality” had been challenged culturally and theologically during the sixties and seventies and were rejected by a significant part of the Baby Boom generation:
….As for not believing in gods, the Athenians were accustomed to hearing the gods treated disrespectfully in both the comic and the tragic theater. For two centuries before Socrates, the philosophers had been laying the foundations of natural science and metaphysical inquiry. Their gigantic pioneering in free thought still awes us as we pore over the fragments of these so-called pre-Socratics. Almost all the basic concepts of science and philosophy may be found there in embryo. They first spoke of evolution and conceived the atom. In the process the gods were not so much dethroned as demoted and bypassed. They were reduced to venerable fables or metaphorical personifications of natural forces and abstract ideas.
These philosophers were rationalists and rarely bothered with what we call “theology”. The very term was unknown to them. Indeed it does not appear in Greek until the century after Socrates. The word theologia – talk about gods – turns up for the first time in the Republic when Plato is explaining what the poets in utopia will not be allowed to say about the divine powers. In his ideal society a Socrates would have indeed been punishable for deviating from the state-sanctioned theologia, but not in Athens.
….Polytheism was, by it’s pluralistic nature, roomy and tolerant, open to new gods and new views of old ones. It’s mythology personified by natural forces and could be adapted easily, by allegory, to metaphysical concepts. These were the old gods in a new guise, and commanded a similar but fresh reverence.
Atheism was little known and difficult for a pagan to grasp because he saw divinity all about him, not just on Olympus but in the hearth and boundary stone, which were also divinities though of a humbler sort…..
….It was the political, not the philosophical or theological views which finally got Socrates into trouble. The discussion of religious views diverts attention from the real issues.
Stone develops this theme further in his explanation of how Socrates might have won acquittal, had the old philosopher not been determined to antagonize his jury:
The indictment’s two counts are equally vague. No specific acts against the city are alleged. The complaints are against the teaching and beliefs of Socrates. Neither in the indictment – nor at the trial – was there any mention of any overt act of sacrilege or disrespect to the city’s gods or any overt attempt or conspiracy against it’s democratic institutions. Socrates was prosecuted for what he said, not for anything he did.
In other words, the charges against Socrates were of a very different character than the ones which had been made during the Expedition to Syracuse against the close associate and student of Socrates, the ambitious demagogue Alcibiades. The latter had been charged with sacrilege, specifically defaming and vandalizing the Eleusinian Mysteries, forcing his recall as joint strategos over the expedition and summoning him back to Athens for trial. This ill-fated and poorly timed indictment may or may not have been false, but it had certainly been politically motivated and was the catalyst for the subsequent treason of Alcibiades and the military disaster in Sicily, both so damaging to Athens. That charge, unlike the one against Socrates however, was based upon real acts that had taken place, whether Alcibiades had been the culprit or not.
….on the impiety charge, Socrates is as vague as the indictment. He never discusses the accusation that he did not respect or believe in – the Greek verb used, nomizein, has both meanings – the gods of the city. Instead, he traps the the rather dim-witted Meletus into accusing him of Atheism, a charge he easily refutes. But there was no law against atheism in ancient Athens either before or after the trial. Indeed, the only place we find such a law proposed is in Plato’s Laws. In this respect, Plato was the exception to the tolerance that paganism showed to diverse cults and philosophic speculation about the gods.
….it was monotheism that brought religious intolerance into the world. When the Jews and Christians denied divinity to any god but their own, they were attacked as atheos or “godless”. This explains how – to borrow Novalis’s characterization of Spinoza – a “God-intoxicated” Jew and Christian like St. Paul could be called an “atheist” by pious and indignant pagans.”
We will see later that Johnson takes a normatively very different, but logically complementary view to Stone on “Socratic monotheism”, who concludes:
By trapping Meletus into calling him an atheist, Socrates evaded the actual charge in the indictment. It did not accuse him of disbelief in Zeus and the Olympian divinities, or in gods generally. It charged disbelief in ‘the gods of the city”.
This was in the ancient Greek sense, a political crime, a crime against the gods of the Athenian polis. This is a crucial point often overlooked.
In Athens, Democracy was itself deified and personified, at least to the extent of having it’s own ritual priest in the annual theater of Dionysus – and what was old Socrates in the view of Stone but the teacher of antidemocratic and antipolitical doctrines in a city where the Democracy had been overthrown by the Thirty?
End Part II.