Socrates Citizen

182nd Commencement Address
May 25, 2003
Tom Gerety

Years ago, when I was in high school in France, I read some Plato and came under the spell of Socrates. I count it as my beginning in the liberal arts. We know there is no endpoint to inquiry or discussion, but still there are markers along the way. You pass one today, and so do I. I return to Socrates as you and I finish up our work together at Amherst.

When I first read Socrates' words, they were translated into French. I was living alone in Paris, a yearning adolescent, full of rebellion and solitude. Late nights I would sit at my desk with a cup of watery hot chocolate in front of my book. I remember still the curlicue look of the Greek words for soul and virtue dangling at the bottom of the French page. What made Socrates so captivating for me was the constant play, in his life and words, between a passionate idealism and the insistent irony with which he challenged himself and others to think harder and more skeptically.

In Plato's Apology, Socrates gave what may be the most eloquent legal defense ever recorded. He began by saying how poor and bumbling a speaker he was. "My accusers say I am a gifted, fearsome, speaker," he said. "The only clever thing I have to speak is the truth."(1)

He tells the jurors how surprised he was to learn that the Oracle of Delphi, the local soothsayer, was saying that no man was wiser than Socrates. "How can this be?" he asks, in what seems to us completely feigned astonishment. But I suspect that he was astonished. He took the Oracle's word as a kind of mission: why in the world would anyone think Socrates wiser than others? He questioned all those he could find who were known for their knowledge, their wisdom. What he found was that they knew less than they claimed to know. That, in turn, led to the famous but irksome insight, that "I am wise because I know that I do not know." And the corollary to this, proven again and again in his conversations with the great and glorious, was that wise men everywhere were fools to think they knew much at all about what really mattered - "the care," as he said, "of the soul."

At his trial Socrates was condemned on two well-documented charges. Plato tells us in the Apology that the charges included impiety - not believing in the ruling mythology or theology of Athens - and corrupting the young, presumably by teaching them to question their elders, sometimes with the exasperating obsessiveness and skepticism that I found so alluring at 17. In addition to these definite charges, there were others, unstated charges against Socrates - prejudices, really - against his friendships, his questions, his whole way of living and thinking, of philosophizing, in the small world that was classical Athens. Thus Socrates has to insist that he was never one of the natural philosophers whom Aristophanes and others mocked. Socrates says over and again that he had only one concern, the care of the soul. Today we would call him a moral philosopher. One of the most powerful of these tacit or hidden charges against Socrates was that he had remained aloof from the rest of Athens' citizens. He was disengaged - detached - from the civic obligations of his nation-state. He had a good patriotic defense against this charge: he had been a brave soldier holding his ground more than once as an infantryman abroad in Athens' wars; what's more, he had been a brave citizen at home, once resisting a rush to scapegoat defeated generals and, another time, refusing to collaborate with a bloody coup in an Athens humiliated by its rival Sparta. Still, Socrates was undeniably, to his fellow citizens, a troubling presence both as a skeptic and dissenter and, what may be more, as a man detached from the interests and passions of his neighbors and even friends. It's as if one of us were scornful, let's say, of the deeply held religious convictions of all those around us or, more pointedly still, indifferent to their shared sense of outrage and vulnerability after a great national defeat. Many years after Socrates' death, an orator named Aeschines mentioned that Socrates had been executed because he taught, among many others, a tyrant named Critias. Thus some have argued that the real reason for Socrates' execution was that he taught his students to mock the democratic constitution of Athens. When that constitution was overthrown, by Critias and others, Socrates neither protested nor rebelled, critics say.(2) Indeed he lived more or less safely for months under the dictatorship of the Thirty while many others died or fled. Again, Socrates has an eloquent defense of both his action and inaction. Socrates tells this story: The Thirty tyrants ordered him and others to seize a man named Leon from the outlying village of Salamis and to bring him into the city for what was bound to be an assassination. This happened all too often under the dictatorship. The Thirty killed hundreds of Athenians, often seizing the property of the murdered for themselves. But, Socrates tells us, "the regime, with all its might, did not scare me into doing injustice. . .the four others went to Salamis to bring Leon back but I went straight home. . . . And for this I might well have been put to death," had not the dictatorship itself fallen.

Philosophy students have argued for centuries about whether Socrates did the right thing. Leon was murdered after all; Socrates was innocent of that murder, of course. These are plainly judgments based on fact. Still, most of us feel there's little heroism in going home to safety while thugs and cowards murder someone who might have been saved had we only warned him.

The account that Plato gives of this one incident from Socrates' long life can serve as a kind of pivot on which to turn and ask a question about you and me and all of us. Study and inquiry have often been seen as reflective, contemplative, even passive, in relation to the world of action, politics, heroism. Plato's writing shows this clearly. In his greatest work, The Republic, Plato describes the constitution of the state as like the constitution of the soul. He divides the soul into three parts, using the metaphor of three kinds of lives, each representing an aspect of our souls: most people seek wealth, he says; some seek chiefly honor or glory; and some others, perhaps very few, seek knowledge, and with it virtue or goodness. Plato may well have taken this division from an older school of mystical mathematical thinkers who surrounded the great Pythagoras. Among these Pythagoreans it was said that we had to choose among three sorts of lives. We could see the choice most clearly in the people who crowded into the city for the annual athletic contests. "Some come to compete for fame and glory," they said. "Some come to make money by selling and buying things. But some come only to watch." Oddly, at least to us, it was in the spectators that the Pythagoreans found a proper image for themselves as students, as philosophers.

I know that passivity is not the right word for contemplation. Aristotle said that contemplation was the most active of all our mental states. Contemplatives in many, many faiths have agreed. It is not passivity they seek but detachment. Still, detachment in politics and civic life can be a form of passivity. Take voting as a simple example. Less than half of Americans vote these days. Among college students only a quarter vote. I doubt that it is the most philosophical, the most contemplative, who stay home on election day. I suspect the reason is much more ordinary: laziness perhaps; indifference to the issues; postponement of adult responsibilities. But there is one motive that may link up to the intellectual life you have led as students: it is cynicism, a sense, a perfectly rational and sophisticated sense, that individual votes make little or no difference. In a society as large and powerful as ours, one so full of contradictions, it's easy to lose hope in change, in the effectiveness of your own efforts against large social forces, forces that can more easily be steered with fibs and fears than with complex truths. The sheer size of our country, its enormous economic and military power, may contribute to a sense of futility: who am I, you may wonder, to protest or complain about the actions of the mightiest state in human history? How often can one person, or even a handful, turn around policies in an Athens, never mind in an America? The insecurity and anxiety that we have all felt since September 11, 2001 only intensify the sense that futility haunts our best efforts to build good lives for ourselves and for others.

In the last two years, we have fought a pair of wars, both intended to make the world safe -- or safer from terrorism. In the run-up to both of them, we debated the politics, economics and morality of these relatively small wars. In the aftermath of victory, the debate continues. No doubt it will go on for years. There may well be more small, brief wars to come with equally uncertain outcomes and equally unresolved debates. Can these debates make a difference? The temptation from cynicism is to say, as with voting, that none of this talk makes any difference at all. Wars are fought now by specialists, few of whom you will know or influence as your lives and careers unfold. Policy experts in Washington seem to make the key decisions; some of you may join them as the years go on; but necessarily most of you will have little contact with them or their world of think tanks and political appointments. The president of the United States, elected by an increasingly small fraction of those who might vote, has little or no time for the sorts of debates or protests that make campus life interesting. So as you move on you will be tempted to say, "What's the use? All that talk was a kind of educational exercise; now I have better things to do. . . ." By this logic, you will turn away not so much to go home to safety as to go on with work on a scale where you can achieve concrete and measurable results, for yourselves and for others.

That turn makes sense for most of us. But I worry that it represents a surrender of hope that through democracy we can change history even a little. One case (of the sort I will be working on in my first job after Amherst) pushes against my own temptation towards detachment or cynicism. On May 8, 2002, an American citizen named José Padilla returned to the United States from abroad, traveling from Pakistan to Switzerland and then on to Illinois. As he got off his plane at O'Hare Airport outside Chicago, he was arrested by federal marshals. At first he was held as a material witness for a grand jury in New York investigating terrorism. But on June 9, President Bush ordered that Padilla be held henceforth as "an enemy combatant" associated with Al Qaeda. He was transferred to a Navy prison in South Carolina, where, as far as we know, he remains today. Except for the presidential statement, Padilla has never been charged with a crime to which he might plead innocent or guilty. No lawyer or relative can see him.(3) Petitions of habeas corpus filed on his behalf have all been denied on appeal. Newspapers tell us about his childhood and family, his criminal record, and his conversion to Islam and adoption of an Arabic name. Statements from officials suggest that he was followed overseas by intelligence agents. They report that he trained with Al Qaeda to plant "dirty" nuclear bombs here at home.

José Padilla may well be guilty, as President Bush, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and others suggest. The question that nags at me-and the question that should nag at us all-is the one your teachers have put to you again and again in the spirit of Socrates: How do we know that? How can we be sure of it? Have we listened carefully to those - like Padilla or his lawyers - who might disagree?

Under our Constitution, under our laws, we seek answers to such questions through what we call due process, that is, hearings and trials before judges, evidence and arguments presented by lawyers. Socrates defended himself in an ancient version of due process. But our country is grievously threatened, as we all know, and the threat forces hard choices on us as a people. It is, I think, an important and valid question just where and when we may have to suspend or postpone these processes so as to secure our safety. During the Civil War President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. In a case in Indiana, a troublesome man named Milligan challenged the president's power to use military courts to try Americans like himself.(4) His argument was the simple one that citizens of the United States were entitled to appear before civilian judges and juries rather than military officers, even in wartime. The Supreme Court held that the government could not do this "where the courts are open and their process unobstructed." And thus Milligan was released. Does this principle, should this principle, apply now to José Padilla? He is an American citizen, born in Brooklyn and reared in Chicago. The courts are "open and unobstructed." But, again, the nation faces threats we have never known before.

Padilla is said by experts to be a terrorist enlisted in an enemy force. One of the most important precedents in this area of constitutional law was decided by a Supreme Court headed by an Amherst graduate, Harlan Fiske Stone of the Class of 1894. Appointed to the Supreme Court by Calvin Coolidge, Stone was named Chief Justice by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, Stone's Court upheld the conviction and execution of seven German soldiers, all of them onetime residents of the United States fluent in English.(5) They had landed from submarines on beaches in Long Island and Florida, buried their uniforms, and headed toward towns and cities in order to sabotage bridges and factories. Like Padilla, they did not get far. Today we would call them terrorists. Chief Justice Stone said, in upholding their military execution, that unlike Milligan they had violated "the laws of war" and thus could be tried and convicted by military tribunals. These precedents do not close off the question raised by the Padilla case: Can citizens of the United States be arrested on the say-so of high officials? Can they be held indefinitely in military detention? Can they be convicted and punished by the military rather than civilian authorities when the civilian courts are "open and unobstructed?" When the nation is at peace the answer to these questions is clearly no: we are all entitled to the elements of due process from American courts. When the nation is at war, as in these two cases, the answer may well be more difficult.

Our own situation partakes of both war and peace: we have enemies who have or seek to have the weapons of war; we will have such enemies for a long, long time. Yet the nation is in nothing like the disorder and desperation of the Civil War nor the urgency, the stringency, that obtained during the great wars, the world wars of the 20th century. Padilla, whatever wrong he did or planned to do, was and is an American citizen. Like the German soldiers he may well have enlisted with an enemy army, and what is worse, a covert terrorist army. But the question for us - the question for you - is whether our security needs have become so urgent that we need to suspend due process, suspend the Bill of Rights, so as to make the nation safe from terror. If so, any one of us must be ready to be imprisoned without a hearing on the secret report of intelligence and defense authorities.

Socrates may have turned away from the execution of Leon of Salamis. He would not have turned away - he did not turn away - from questions such as these, about the fairness of our laws and the justice of our wars and executions.

I urge you, then, to take up these questions. Neither I nor anyone else can decide them for you. You must debate them; you must vote them; above all, you must take them up on your own. Take them up with a conviction, with a faith, that your thoughts, your arguments, your actions, will shape America in the years ahead. Your active, Socratic citizenship can contribute, in ways large and small, to justice in the United States and around the world. When Socrates was executed in Athens in 399 B.C., his nation, small as it was, stood threatened by both conquest and subversion. America now, and in your lifetime, is not likely to be threatened by either. But Athens, like America, was under a kind of siege. For one reason or another, and partly in self-defense, it had become an empire, if a very small one. We in America are not a true empire, though many say we are becoming one. Certainly we have a kind of military and economic dominion that few of the world's empires could ever claim. What I take from Socrates - what I hope you will take from the liberal arts - is not passivity or detachment but the conviction that even in the midst of great danger we should never fear questions and arguments.

Will our actions make any difference to America and to the world? The cynic in each of us will say no: it's a big and busy world, a stubborn world, and one not likely to listen to you or me as we debate at length or protest or vote. There is an act of faith in all action. You came here in that faith, as I did. As we leave here together then, may your faith and mine remain both strong and stubborn.
Good luck to all of you.

1 I translate the various passages of Socrates' defense from the Loeb edition of Plato's Apology.
2 Most notably I.. F. Stone in The Trial of Socrates.
3 He did see a court-appointed lawyer, however, when first transferred to New York.
4 Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866).
5 Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942).