Friday, August 04, 2006

Petros: a Dialogue

[The speaker is Aristotle, who repeats to his companion a conversation he heard from Plato, and had already once narrated to Theophrastus.]

Ah, yes, I do know something about the questions you've asked. A month ago, I was talking to a student of mine, who said that he had heard from Acastos about a report by Antisthenes of a conversation in which Xenophon mentioned vaguely that someone had heard of a meeting once between Socrates and Petros at which I was present.

Your informant must have been vague indeed, I replied, if you imagine that the event was recent or that I could have been there. Nor did I hear of it from Socrates himself, but from Plato, many years ago; and he remembered it only in part. Unlike him, I am blessed with perfect recall, so it is easy to repeat the dialogue exactly as he told it to me…

PETROS: Socrates! You don't know me, but perhaps I can be of use. Since coming to Athens from New York City, I've been following the news of your trial. I have prepared what I think is a compelling defence. You should appeal to the right of free speech, which lies at the heart of Athenian democracy. How can the assembly turn their backs on this sustaining principle, and so convict you of corrupting the youth?

SOCRATES: I know who you are, Petros, and if you know who I am, you must know that I would never consider such a defence. I am no friend of democracy and the liberties it protects. Plato, here, rightly depicts me as deriding the license of the city, in his beautiful Republic.

P: I'm well aware of that. In fact I've written a book about it, and about your shameful association with Critias and Charmides, who plotted the dictatorship of the Thirty only five years ago. Why did you teach those monsters? Why did you tolerate them? Why did you never try to intervene?

S: I think, perhaps, you don't accept that I'm sincere! I believe that it's worse for one to do injustice than to suffer it. Critias and Charmides were more deeply harmed by those events than were the ones they killed. In teaching them, I tried to save their souls.

P: I shouldn't have asked. I knew you'd respond with a paradox, some stratospheric nonsense designed to baffle me. But it's irrelevant, in any case. I won't have you convicted for your unorthodox views, or executed through guilt by association. I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

S (laughing): To the death, eh? Yours or mine? No matter. I am interested in your ideas about free speech. Perhaps you would be willing to answer a question or two about them?

P: I suppose so, if that would persuade you to accept my defence.

S: We'll see. Presumably, the speech that should be free is the sort of thing that plays a role in politics, in the assembly, and so on?

P: That's right.

S: And it must be sort of speech that can alter a vote or turn a jury?

P: Sometimes, yes, if the rhetoric is good, and the argument persuasive.

S: Well said! If speech were impotent, why struggle to defend its freedom? But then you agree that speech could deceive the public, rouse an army – or inspire a dictator?

P (cautiously): It could.

S: Ah, but now I become confused. Why do you call the charge against me "guilt by association"? You know that I was the teacher of Critias and Charmides?

P: Yes.

S: And I taught them to despise democracy.

P: That's true; it is part of what my book was about.

S: And they became tyrants: they overthrew the democracy of Athens, participating in a brutal oligarchy.

P: Yes.

S: Then how can you be sure that my words had no effect, and not the most violent? Would you say of a man who brings his children up as thieves that this is "guilt by association", and nothing more?

P (reluctantly): No, Socrates, I would not.

S: Then how can you say it of me? You find it ironic that I stayed in Athens, depending for my freedom to do philosophy on the democracy that I reject. It is more ironic that you are able to defend free speech only by ignoring the power that makes it worth defending. If you were ever to acknowledge that my words could have effects, you would see that your view is indefensible. By your lights, my conversations were the political equivalent of Nazi propaganda, and the "Socratified" aristocrats, the Hitler youth. You frame the trial as a test for my political principles; my influence – or even its possibility – is a sterner test for yours…

At this point, Plato recounts, Petros rolled his eyes in disgust and walked away, muttering that, while Socrates had the freedom to speak, he had the freedom not to listen.

In a final irony, Socrates did employ the freedom-of-speech defence – but was convicted anyway. The prosecutor showed that he was guilty of impiety, on the basis of a dialogue that Plato had written down. At the trial, Socrates denied that he had ever said the things attributed to him, and Plato confessed to having made them up. But he was not believed. Such is the power of words.


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