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A History of Freedom of Thought by J. B. Bury

Who thought differently Socrates


[30]

for the common people. Men who did not believe in its truth believed in its usefulness as a political institution, and as a rule philosophers did not seek to diffuse disturbing "truth" among the masses. It was the custom, much more than at the present day, for those who did not believe in the established cults to conform to them externally. Popular higher education was not an article in the programme of Greek statesmen or thinkers. And perhaps it may be argued that in the circumstances of the ancient world it would have been hardly practicable.

There was, however, one illustrious Athenian, who thought differently--Socrates, the philosopher. Socrates was the greatest of the educationalists, but unlike the others he taught gratuitously, though he was a poor man. His teaching always took the form of discussion; the discussion often ended in no positive result, but had the effect of showing that some received opinion was untenable and that truth is difficult to ascertain. He had indeed certain definite views about knowledge and virtue, which are of the highest importance in the history of philosophy, but for our present purpose his significance lies in his enthusiasm for discussion and criticism. He taught those with whom he conversed--and he conversed indiscriminately

[31] with all who would listen to him--to bring all popular beliefs before the bar of reason, to approach every inquiry with an open mind, and not

to judge by the opinion of majorities or the dictate of authority; in short to seek for other tests of the truth of an opinion than the fact that it is held by a great many people. Among his disciples were all the young men who were to become the leading philosophers of the next generation and some who played prominent parts in Athenian history.

If the Athenians had had a daily press, Socrates would have been denounced by the journalists as a dangerous person. They had a comic drama, which constantly held up to ridicule philosophers and sophists and their vain doctrines. We possess one play (the Clouds of Aristophanes) in which Socrates is pilloried as a typical representative of impious and destructive speculations. Apart from annoyances of this kind, Socrates reached old age, pursuing the task of instructing his fellow-citizens, without any evil befalling him. Then, at the age of seventy, he was prosecuted as an atheist and corrupter of youth and was put to death (399 B.C.). It is strange that if the Athenians really thought him dangerous they should have suffered him so long. There can, I think, be

[32] little doubt that the motives of the accusation were political. [1] Socrates, looking at things as he did, could not be sympathetic with unlimited democracy, or approve of the principle that the will of the ignorant majority was a good guide. He was probably known to sympathize with those who wished to limit the franchise. When, after a struggle in which the constitution had been more than once overthrown, democracy emerged triumphant (403 B.C.), there was a bitter feeling against those who had not been its friends, and of these disloyal persons Socrates was chosen as a victim. If he had wished, he could easily have escaped. If he had given an undertaking to teach no more, he would almost certainly have been acquitted. As it was, of the 501 ordinary Athenians who were his judges, a very large minority voted for his acquittal. Even then, if he had adopted a different tone, he would not have been condemned to death.


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