The book Socrates on Trial is in 3 parts.
The book opens with Socrates witnessing exchanges between people who represent some contemporary and conflicting opinions. These exchanges reflect the atmosphere of the time in which they were written, and of Brexit and Trump’s first election victory in particular. They also point towards other perspectives that are taken up again later in the book.
The theme of part 1 is injustice It rehearses arguments about elites, about race and gender, material inequalities, and the tools of prejudice and inequality, including thinking about the shadows in Plato’s cave as a form of ideology. Central to this are the angry voices of what might be seen as a nationalistic viewpoint and ways that leaders can manipulate this to their own ends as forms of populism. Most of the contributions here share a view of power in the city as corrupt. The undercurrent here is that this anger at corruption can disrupt traditional political perspectives. It can, for example, lead people from a commitment to a universal class to a commitment to national or even racial identity, with all the lessons from history that this invokes. Here, one kind of universalism is replaced by another. Both are vulnerable to seduction by various shapes of authoritarianism.
The issues of gender, race and slavery are returned to in book 2 with Celia. She is the only character in the book who has a name, apart from Socrates. She names the nameless. The name Celia is taken from the true story of a teenage girl, bought by one Robert Newson as a slave in 1850 for his farm in Callaway County, Missouri. He abused her for 5 years until in 1855 she retaliated by beating him twice with a stick and killing him. She was executed later that same year. In this section Celia reminds us of Ralph Ellison’s notion of invisibility. She also restates something from Ijeoma Oluo
‘And as much as I’d like you to see me — as much as I’d like systemic racism to simply be a problem of different groups not seeing each other — I need you to see yourself, really see yourself, first. This is the top priority.’
And towards the end Celia says to Socrates: ‘it might be that we already have the truth you seek, just as you might have the visibility that we deserve.’ This serves as something of an agenda for the rest of the book.
At the end of Book 2 Socrates is arrested.
Books 3-4 take up the court case.
For reasons that only slowly become apparent Socrates faces two charges brought by two different parties. The first charge is that in the Republic he set out a programme that served as an apology for elite rule in the city. This is a fairly standard reading of Plato’s Republic. The second charge is brought by the elites who complain that they had to try to live up to this programme, but that its prohibition on personal desire and wealth was unrealistic and also fundamentally misunderstood human nature. As such, the elite blame him for the cruelties that they have been forced to impose in keeping order in the city.
Socrates responds with his own charges against each party. The first party has been complicit in their own oppression by being dominated by their own desires for things that the masters have been only too happy to produce for them. The latter have been complicit in their pretense that they represented the highest values possible for the city. But Socrates begins to see that the real trap of the trial is that both charges have been brought together, and that with this pincer movement he becomes trapped—being innocent of one of the charges will make him guilty of the other. This is returned to in his Apology at the end of the book, where it is put into the philosophical context of dogmatism and scepticsm.
Socrates’s conversation with the Judge in Book 4 gives an example of how, with a little skilled encouragement, curiosity and questioning are easily drawn out from those who encounter Socrates. The Judge enters into a Socratic dialogue, even discussing matters that are dialectical, until at the end the Judge speaks of the spell that Socrates has cast. The trial is adjourned, and since the next day is a festival day, the Jury is sequestered within the grounds of the courtroom, and Socrates is taken to a cell in those same grounds.
This creates the opportunity for a Grand Inquisitor to visit Socrates in his cell (Book 5). The character here is a member of the ruling elite, one who apologizes for the mastery that has been necessary but blames Socrates for making it necessary, just as Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor blames Christ for leaving the Church with the responsibility for its flock, and the cruelties that attend such responsibility, or such shepherding. Socrates’s Inquisitor is one of the old guard; he―and I think it is clear that he is male―does believe in virtue but has long ago excused himself for enjoying the privileges that go with it as his entitlement. He also laments the arrival of changes that upset the old order of things, the new populist leaders that don’t share any commitment to virtue and seem to have no sense of honour, something that the old tradition, he says, always tried to hold to. He accepts that he and his educated class have recently become the swamp that others want drained.
At no point in the book are clear boundaries established around each group. Instead, accusations of elitism, of what the swamp is and who is in it, of who the establishment is and who opposes it, are left fluid, and follow trends rather than classifications.
At the end of his apology, the Grand Inquisitor makes a prediction that Socrates will be sentenced to a meaningless life in the playground of the modern city in which truth and education have finally been deposed by desire, amusement and gameplaying. In an early version of the book, this was the verdict that the Judge reached at the end of the trial, and Socrates was duly sentenced to go and learn how to play.