Many of us probably remember hearing about Socrates in school. He was the great philosopher of Athens whose teaching method was to constantly ask questions. Answers he received back were always met with more questions, helping students to dig deeper, analyze more accurately, and think more critically. Socrates may have referred to himself as a gadfly, an annoying insect buzzing around as a constant irritant. Perhaps he was a bit like the Tea Party of today.
His way of teaching came to be known as the Socratic Method. It must have been powerful, because like many others in history who asked too many questions, Socrates was considered a dangerous man. According to his student Plato, he was condemned to death by the Athenians–his life cut short by the consumption of hemlock.
What many people don’t know is that he was given the opportunity to escape. He refused to do so, in great part because of his loyalty to the state. Like our parents who brought us into this life, the state makes our peaceful existence possible. According to Prof. James Rachels, Socrates believed “that if he disobeyed the law, he would be destroying the state” (Problems From Philosophy, 4).
Political theory has evolved a great deal since the days of Socrates and Plato (about 2,400 years ago). But what I might call “the sin of Socrates” is still with us. What is that so-called sin? I would express is as an excessive reliance upon the state, a myopic and unrealistic focus that tends to suggest that whatever is good and just about American society is a product of strong, centralized government.
In a text called Crito, Plato personifies the laws and constitutions of Athens and has them say the following to his teacher Socrates: “Do you not realize that you are more bound to respect and placate the anger of your country than your father’s anger? That if you cannot persuade your country that you must do whatever it orders, and patiently submit to any punishment that it orders, whether it be flogging or imprisonment? If it leads you out to war to be wounded or killed, you must comply, and it is right that you should do so” (51).
As a constitutionalist, I recognize the need for government. I also recognize that everything government accomplishes is done by coercion and threat. Government doesn’t make requests. It commands. It gives orders. Even when its dictates are promulgated in friendly terms, they come with punishments intended to force compliance. Recognizing this, constitutionalists demand that severe limitations be placed upon government. It appears to be the most moral of all political philosophies. If it’s necessary to coerce behavior and force compliance, then this should be done only when absolutely necessary.
Must we have limits and restrictions? Of course. But among some in our country today, there appears to be no limit on the limit makers as long as they announce the good intentions that supposedly justify the restrictions being placed upon the rest of us.
Think about political argumentation as it currently takes place in the United States today. It won’t take long for you to realize that it revolves around all sorts of limits being proposed upon the hard-working, law-abiding citizens who have made the country a success. How much money should you be allowed to make, and keep? What types of private contracts will you be allowed to enter into? With whom can you be forced to live, or do business? What can you do with your own land? How much “rent money” (better known as property taxes) must you pay for the right simply to possess what is yours? How easily can a local government seize your land and give it to another simply because the new owner wishes to develop it and pay higher taxes? What benefits can you be forced to offer to your employees, and what unions can they be forced to join, even if their own desires differ from the commands of those in power?
How often I am told that these concerns of mine are unreasonable! All such governmental limits, I’m told, are for the good of society. Only a selfish person would deny this. I’m astounded at the unquestioning loyalty given by many to government. If it weren’t for government, it seems, we’d all be living in caves, owning slaves, and dying of cancer. “For the public good” is now the rallying cry of limitless power to those who run government.
Like Socrates, there are many today who think that our salvation is to be found in obedience to the state. The limits placed upon us by government, they too often insist, are an absolute good and a social necessity.
So here’s my question, and it comes earnestly: if limits are so very good, why are they not acceptable upon the limit makers? Why is the Tea Party so dangerous and so reviled by many?
I’ll tell you why. They have dared to question the power of the state. They insist that the people who make the limits must themselves face limits.
Politically speaking, we’ve come a long way in 2,400 years. Socrates could not persuade the state, so he took the execution cup as a sign of his faithful citizenship. In November I predict that many more of us will prefer tea to hemlock.