Socrates is perhaps the most famous philosophical figure of the last 2,500 years.
If you are new to philosophy then you will come to see that Socrates wrote nothing himself and had most of his conversations (or dialogues) recorded by his student, Plato.
The most famous book of Plato’s is The Republic (Politeia).
The most famous speech of Socrates is called The Apology. It is his defence at his trial in 399BCE in Athens.
If you are familiar with The Republic, you will know that it contains Plato’s suggestions for the ideal society spoken by Socrates. And if you are familiar with The Apology you will know it is where he said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’
We are asking what it might look like if Socrates were to return today. We imagine that he would encounter a modern city that is plagued by prejudice, privilege and populism. But what questions would he ask and what questions would be asked of him? What would he judge the health of critical philosophical education to be? Would he find people’s lives still dominated by the shadows that they lived with in Plato’s cave? Or would he find a population whose critical thinking has led them out of such slavery and ignorance into enlightenment and freedom? And, having learned all about the current state of the world, would he conclude that the examined life was still worth living?
But perhaps he would not be very welcome in today’s society. Perhaps his questions would be too dangerous for the political elite (again)? Perhaps his activities would be suppressed by those whose power and privilege it called into question? Would those invited to justify their wealth and power seek to smear his reputation in the press? Would social media troll him and abuse him? And would he end up on trial (again)?
‘The Return of Socrates’
‘The Return of Socrates’ tries to imagine one way that Socrates might speak on his return. He hears two versions of the history of the West since his own time; one of freedom and enlightenment, the other of privilege, power, prejudice and their legacy of cruelty and suffering and of genocide. He comes to see that the role of education has been deeply ambivalent; on the one hand being the instrument of progressive social change, and on the other being the tool for preserving social inequality and injustice.
The result of the ambivalence is the current crisis of education, distrusted by those it leaves behind, abused by those who control it, and rejected by those who want to replace it. Without trust in education, people are easily encouraged to return to the cave and to the shadows. Here Socrates can see his death being repeated in a new way. On his return, then, can he speak of a rebirth of Socratic education? Can he inspire people to still have faith in education as being able to lead the world away from its ignorance and stupidity?
This story of ‘The Return of Socrates’ runs across the posts below. The Dialogue begins with Politeia 1 after a series of short introductory comments.
A different vision of the possibilities of education is still held by people of various political persuasions for whom education, despite its complicities in oppression