Socrates was condemned to death by his accusers during his trial. The charges were so severe – failure to worship the city’s gods, introducing religious novelties and corrupting the minds of the young men of Athens.
Human civilization has gone past the barbaric notion of convicting to death those who espouse contrary opinions. On second thought, maybe not.
Although today one does not get the capital punishment for expressing views opposite to public opinion or against the state, public censure or ostracism that befell most critics in some ways would have almost an equivalent effect. In ancient Greece, they had the practice of banishing anyone by a popular vote because that person is regarded as dangerous to society. The same could very well be true today, e.g., extra-judicial killings or disappearances. A similar result happens when a critic is publicly rebuked. The same pain is felt by a critic when the public showers him with boos of displeasure. When a critic becomes a social pariah, it is almost like being banished.
What then is good from being a social critic?
Alain de Botton, in The Consolations of Philosophy, wrote about the consolation for unpopularity:
“But it is not only the hostility of others that may prevent us from questioning the status quo. Our will to doubt can be just as powerfully sapped by an internal sense that societal conventions must have a sound basis, even if we are not sure exactly what this may be, because they have been adhered to by a great many people for a long time. It seems plausible that our society could be gravely mistaken in its beliefs and at the same time that we be alone in noticing the fact. We stifle our doubts and follow the flock because we cannot conceive of ourselves as pioneers of hitherto unknown, difficult truths.”
Writing about Socrates’ self-intransigence, de Botton spoke of true respectability not being conferred by the majority, but something that comes from proper reasoning. If Socrates sounded like elitist in his attitude, it did not have any trace of snobbery or prejudice. In the views of those who listened to him, Socrates might have been guilty of discrimination, but such discrimination was not on the basis of class or money, but on the basis of reason, which was an ability accessible to all.
But the story of Socrates has a redemption, too. Soon after his death, the mood in Athens began to change. People burst into tears, his accusers were eventually lynched, and the Athenians denounced his accusers. Out of despair after being socially shamed, his accusers in the end hanged themselves.
Alain de Botton warned us, however, about the danger that Socrates’ death may seduce us for the wrong reasons, that it may engender a sentimental belief in a positive nexus between being hated by the majority and being right.
De Botton, instead, wrote: “This was not Socrates’ intention. It would be as naive to hold that unpopularity is synonymous with truth as to believe it is synonymous with error. The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic. It is not because an argument is denounced by a majority that it is wrong nor, for those drawn to heroic defiance, that it is right.”
Another sympathetic figure who passionately questioned the status quo and state authority was Dr. Jose Rizal, Philippine national hero. Rizal assailed the atrocities and corrupt practices of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities in the Philippines that the Spanish colonial government and the clergy hated him so much. They had him arrested, banished to Dapitan, then tried by a military court and sentenced to be shot to death.
Rizal was ambivalent about the revolution and was a man of contradictions. Miguel de Unamuno described him in “Rizal: the Tagalog Hamlet,” as a “soul that dreads the revolution although deep down desires it. He pivots between fear and hope, between faith and despair.” This contradiction was clearly evident in Rizal’s two novels where he opposed violence in Noli me Tangere but appeared to advocate it in El Filibusterismo.
Nonetheless, Rizal was a towering figure in the Filipinos’ quest for self-determination. If his criticisms of the Spanish colonial government stung his enemies, it was because he spoke the truth. Just like during the time of Socrates, Rizal’s accusers found it most convenient to put Rizal to death in order to stifle criticism.
A consolation from studying and reading the works of great critics is that we learn, according to Alain de Botton, that philosophy offers us “a way out of two powerful delusions: that we should always or never listen to the dictates of public opinion.” To follow the example of Socrates and those critics after him, we will be most recompensed if we do our best instead to listen always to the dictates of reason.