Politeia 1

Looking back now, no one was really sure just how long Socrates had been back in the city. Given many of the things he said he must have been there some time before anyone recognized him.

When he was last in the city, he engaged in dialogues with some of the great and the good of his own day. He would talk with them, ask them to state their knowledge on a particular issue, listen carefully to their answers and then begin to question them in his own inimitable style. Famously, he refused to accept that he was a teacher because he said he had nothing to teach anyone. All he had were questions which, he claimed, like his mother, made him a midwife. His questioning, he said, was only ever designed to draw ideas out from people, and then to test these ideas to see if they could survive in the world. But this midwifery delivered him a very poor reputation, for it always appeared as if Socrates questioned everyone else’s ideas but offered none of his own. Now that he had returned, anticipation was rife that it was probably only a matter of time before he would begin his midwifery in the city again.

Why he returned when he did was never made clear, any more than how he returned. That he did return, however, raised the possibility that the city might once again examine itself at a time of extraordinary anger, uncertainty, and division, at a time when the city’s health was poor and declining, and at a time when some even suggested that the city itself was broken, perhaps irretrievably so.


The man in sandals and a long coat, looking a little dishevelled, was standing in the marketplace, listening intently to what he could hear of people’s conversations. He knew the city, of course, and yet he felt he was again seeing it for the first time. The familiar was strangely unfamiliar, and it had taken some time before his eyes had adjusted to it.

When they did adjust, he was confused by what he saw. Those who had once been prisoners in chains were now unbound, able to roam freely, and to see all of the city for themselves. They could see the shadows, but also the path on which people walked carrying objects, and the fire behind them whose light cast the shadows of these objects. The world that had been hidden was now demystified. The people carrying the objects were no longer strangers to the ex-prisoners. Indeed, the emancipated city-dwellers had access to the same path and were able to cast shadows of their own making into the city. Equally shocking for Socrates, when he looked past the fire at the steep ascent out of the city, no matter how hard he strained his eyes he could not see the light that marked its entrance.

It was not long before he was engaged in conversation, hoping to make sense of what he saw.

A: Socrates, is it really you? Is it true that after all this time, you have returned to the city?

S: I have. 

A: How is that possible?

S: That is not important. Perhaps I never really left the city. Perhaps wherever two or three people gather to examine life, I am there with them.

A: Then why have you returned?

S: I have heard that the examined life in the city is in deep peril.

A: Indeed it is. The city is caught in a downward spiral of interminable self-destruction. Internally it is riven with division and conflict, often based on age-old prejudices, while externally it finds enemies wherever it perceives threats to its power and wealth and influence. In addition, through greed and indifference its lifestyle has become unsustainable. In relation to the natural world it bites the hand that feeds it. Indeed, life in the city is destroying the conditions of its own possibility, both its ecological conditions and its social conditions. And within the city, personal relations are being deeply affected by a technology which, while claiming to be neutral in its operations, is in fact deeply implicated in nurturing fear and anger and resentment which the powerful owners of the means of such communication use unrepentantly to their own advantage. There is no peace. There is no tranquillity. And there is little if any justice. 

B: And yet, at the same time, the city has made enormous progress since you were last here Socrates.

S: In what ways?

B: The city has slowly unfolded the story of human freedom and democracy. The liberal values that first saw the light of day with some of your immediate contemporaries have been put to work to reduce inequality and overcome prejudice. Statesmen, for example, are no longer exclusively male, and they are no longer just those with hereditary power and influence. The weak and the vulnerable have their representation in the government of our now democratic city. Leaders are accountable to those who elect them. Crucially, these leaders accept that the most important pillar of democracy and freedom is that they are ready to leave office and all its entitlements when the electors choose someone else. And on the long road to freedom the city has banished slavery. One human being can no longer be the property of another human being. Each individual, male and female, or non-male and non-female, of any colour or creed or culture, religious and non-religious, simply by the fact that they are a living individual, has equal respect and entitlement to life and liberty. 

C: You have told the story of the city in the usual whitewashed fashion. 

S: What do you mean?

C: The story of freedom in the city is one of horror and hypocrisy. The highest of the liberal values―virtue―has been a mask behind which lurks greed and ambition and ruthless intrigue. Virtue was defined by the propertied, the wealthy, and the powerful in their own image. The city has simply been the playground of these masters. Whenever they could enjoy a life of leisured scholarship, and indulge their desires, they did so. There was no limit to the amount of other people’s blood they were prepared to spill in defending and extending their own sphere of influence. There was no limit to the ways they invented by which they could define those different from themselves as lower in the great chain of being. That naturalised hierarchy was one of the most ingenious apologies for the gross iniquities of the city that they ruled in their own interests. And since they considered it virtuous to have to run the affairs of the city, including having to manage the lives of those who were judged incapable of mastering their own lives, they considered themselves entitled to all the rewards that the city could afford in return for their so-called service and self-sacrifice. 

B: You are also telling a one-sided story. Even if there has been a cost, the city’s advancements are undeniable. 

C: The achievements do not outweigh the cost. They carry them. Freedom is also not freedom. Equal rights to own property are not equal opportunities to access that right. The welfare systems of the city do not eradicate poverty or hunger or homelessness. Universal education does not overcome prejudice and persecution. Enhanced communication technology does not elicit deeper and more meaningful lives, socially or individually. Democracy is regarded as something of a nuisance by an elite who have learned how to manipulate it to ensure the preservation of their power. And the global village of cities, all easily within reach of each other and therefore also of each other’s weapons, has increased, not decreased, the number of justifications that can be manufactured for conflicts and wars. 

S: And yet, despite all you say, I can see no prisoners tied up staring at the shadows on the wall at the extreme limit of the city. 

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