Notes from the author of Socrates On Trial – Part 3

The book Socrates On Trial is in 3 parts.

Part 3 (The Apology)

The Apology that ends the book acts as a summary of many of these points. But it also gives Socrates the chance to see the way in which he has been continually on trial since his first death. The civil war of education is explored as one between scepticism and dogmatism, but Socrates is able to do more than this. Post-Kant, as it were, he is able to see that dogmatism and scepticism have teamed up to form a totality in which truth is presupposed as knowable or unknowable, but that their difference is nonesuch. Both share the same idea of truth, differing only in its relation to a presupposed shape of subjectivity, presupposed that is, in relation to the notion of absolute truth that they also presuppose and share. Socrates is on trial every time one of these parties opposes the other. But now he is on trial to both of them, trapped so that to be innocent of one of the charges is to be guilty of the other. The strategy is that this trial will kill off once and for all the questions that challenge the dominance they both enjoy in their mutually beneficial war. It will end once and for all the idea that education might be able to offer something else. The result will be something the present city is threatened with: a play of disputes about truth, and an end to the idea that truth might engage in the education (or the tribunal) of know thyself. And here, know thyself means, search for the conditions of the possibility of the civil war, see what presuppositions it rests on and repeats, and see if the experience of such presupposition has a necessity different from the shape it has taken in property.

I hope that the ending resonates with the idea that the necessity of education is that freedom is to learn, and that this spirit is indomitable.


Concluding reflections

The book offers a diagnosis of the history of the city, which is of course a rehearsal of the history of Western society since its ‘beginnings’ in antiquity. In the broadest brush strokes, the idea is that Plato’s Republic still serves as the template for elite rule in society, but always without the kind of education that Plato deemed necessary for justice. Elites have taken from Plato all the rewards of rule, with its attendant privileges and powers, and none of the self-sacrifice, including of private property. The tradition of virtue that has been carried alongside this rule is fully aware of its complicity in this injustice, and it has taken the pious view of its own tragic fate within the realpolitik of society. Benevolence and duty are extolled by the elite class and apologised for by the state of minds of the uneducated classes that have to be managed for their own good. 

The Grand Inquisitor who visits Socrates in his cell acts as the spokesman for this apology. But he also warns of a new class of rulers, those who lack even the tradition of virtue, and who are as it were the new barbarian class who seek power and privilege for themselves, and who will convince the populace to vote for a voluntary tyranny. The old virtuous rulers have enough education to know that tyranny will not make the whole society as happy as possible. They lament this turn of events, but offer no resistance, and fall in line. This speaks very much of the moment in which the book was being written.

At its heart, the book argues that the deepest root of the crises afflicting the city are educational. The rulers have abused it, the populace have come to distrust it, and the new barbarians would sweep it away, or at least any part of it that looked critical. This means that the city faces a paradox of inestimable significance. Education has become the problem­―we don’t need experts anymore, we are post-truth, and the fake is the only truth we need―and yet education remains the path to resolving these problems. Therefore, to try to employ education for such resolution is to become part of the problem, to become another elite. Education is now caught in its own dialectic of enlightenment. It undermines itself. The dialogue in the book pushes this vicious circle into an experience of itself, from which emerges an education that learns about itself differently from within exactly such experiences. It learns that its own truth is to negate, and to preserve the negation without overcoming it. This is offered as something that can be lived as the educational life.

In this series