Does the traditional Athenian conception of piety contribute to political stability or instability

I. Preliminary Thoughts

To begin, lets articulate the distinction between the activities of philosophy and politics.

A. What does philosophy do? What does it desire? Do you think that everyone is capable of being a philosopher? Should everyone philosophize, and philosophize about politics?

B. And, what is the nature of politics? What does politics do for us? What are its goals? Upon what do our moral, social, and political norms typically rest?

C. Bringing A and B together, tell me about the ways in which philosophy may be helpful to politics. And, in what ways may politics be dangerous to the city?

II. Getting The Facts Straight

A. In Aristophanes’ Clouds, Aristophanes argues that Socrates and philosophy (1) lead us to distort our physical natures; (2) that philosophy makes one a bad citizen (at the very least); (3) and, that philosophy is actually dangerous to the city due to its possession of, and willingness to teach, the unjust speech.

Explain what each of these charges means, and give examples.

B. Plato’s first response to Aristophanes’ accusations comes in his dialogue the Euthyphro. Here we see Plato trying to rehabilitate Socrates and philosophy. What is Plato, through Socrates, saying about the contribution of philosophy to the politics of the city?

Here, I just want you to get the story straight. For example, where does Euthyphro’s conception of piety come from? Why is Socrates suspicious of Euthyphro’s “knowledge” and his arrogance? Why is Socrates ironic with him? Is this acceptable, or just mean spirited and nasty?

Does the traditional Athenian conception of piety contribute to political stability or instability? Why does Socrates think that his idea of piety may be more useful politically?

Socrates talks about the form or idea of piety. What are the characteristics of the forms? (Here, also, you should take a few minutes to reflect on Socrates’ important question: Is it pious because the Gods love it, or do the Gods love it because it is pious. Put simply: Do we love something because it is ours [thought in terms of our city, our church, and our ethnicity…] or do we love it because it is worthy of love?).

What does Socrates’ questioning of piety do to the traditional Athenian conception of piety? Does Socrates corrupt, or help, Euthyphro?

C. Continuing our “Collection of Facts,” let’s get straight about the Apology of Socrates.

Socrates claims that he is facing two sets of accusers, one old and one new. Who are the old accusers? What are their accusations? Why does Socrates fear them more than the new accusers? How does Socrates defend himself? Do you think this is sufficient? Do you think that Socrates knows he’s a goner? What about the new accusers? What are their charges? How does Socrates defend himself?

Also, in this dialogue, we get an explanation of Socrates’ life, and an explanation of the activity of philosophy. Why does Socrates claim that he is a benefit to the city? Why does he claim that he avoided participating in the politics of the city? What does this say about the tension between philosophy and the city?

D. Finally, we must engage the Crito.

What does the very setting and opening of the dialogue symbolize? Why has Crito come to see Socrates? What are Crito’s reasons for doing this? What does this say about Crito, and his relation to Socrates? What does this indicate about the relationship between philosophy and the city? What do the Laws say to Crito? Why does Socrates have the Laws say what they do to Crito?

III. Exam Questions

With sections I and II in mind, consider the following:

A. Compare and contrast the Socrates of the Clouds, with the Socrates of the Platonic dialogues. Is he against nature, or following it? Does Socrates use the “unjust” speech? Does he invent new Gods? Does he corrupt the youth? What is your opinion? Realize that a good answer will bear witness to the truth of both sides

B. On one hand, in the Euthyphro and Apology, Socrates seems to suggest that philosophy is good for the city. Why does he claim that he is a benefit to the city?

On the other hand, the Apology and Crito seem to suggest that philosophy is unable to help the city. Why is philosophy unable to help the city? And, what does this tell us about the relationship between philosophy and politics?

C. Compare and Contrast Aristophanes’ accusation that Socrates uses and teaches the “unjust” speech, with Socrates’ treatment of Euthyphro, with his reaction to the “unjust” laws of Athens in the Apology, and with Socrates’ story of the Laws in the Crito. What is going on here?

D. During the Fifth Century BCE, there existed an intellectual and political struggle between the philosophers and the poets in Athens. What was at stake in this struggle? What was going on during this time? What does philosophy think it is responding to? How is this struggle portrayed in Aristophanes’ Clouds and Plato’s dialogues? Given what we know about the nature of politics and philosophy, which perspective seems to be more useful?



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