Socrates' Struggle: Philosophy over Society When dealing with the extent to which Socrates is a good example for following the ideals of democratic citizenship, a good source to use as a point of comparison to his life is the principles laid out about that citizenship by Pericles in his Funeral Oration. In the Oration, Pericles brought forth certain ideas about Athenian democracy and how its citizens should live their lives in accordance with it. He held these views to be paramount and used them in association with the principles of Athenian Law to prove a persuasive point that Athenian democracy had to be one with the people to survive. Above all other ideals he held first the thought that politics was the highest calling and second that the citizens should strive to improve themselves socially/politically to better the state. These ideas prove to well founded when their validity is examined in answering questions of what is the best form of government, and does that form better serve the nature of freedom, equality and justice. However, when one looks at the actions and words of Socrates (such as his lack of participation in politics or lack of desire to further himself in society), it is clearly seen that he did not believe in or live by these standards.
In the Funeral Oration, where Pericles professed that the core aspect put forth in Athenian democracy was that politics is the highest calling, Socrates believed philosophy to be the eternal endeavor of life. Pericles believed that representing the people of his city was the best way to serve the ideals for which it stood and he proved this by depended on the majority rule inherent to that democracy to preserve freedom. He saw that through hard work and dedication to the state, self-determination would be preserved by the voice of the many, not of the few. Furthermore, in the mind of Pericles, any citizen who did not take some part in the realm of politics was not just missing the core of Athenian democracy, but was essentially useless. This is so because Athenian democracy stood on the idea that people would take an active role in the government that represented them in order to protect their freedoms, and anyone who shunned that responsibility was a detriment to society. The arguments that Pericles puts forth are persuasive in the sense that theoretically in order for a democracy to survive as intended (which is self-representation and majority rule) then people must take politics sincerely.
Socrates, at the other end of the spectrum, saw politics as a wasted venture for him because his life was devoted to a quest for knowledge. He stated his way of life, which conflicts with that of Pericles' model, to differ from that of the democratic system of Athens because he saw the government to be corrupt and the majority to not be just. Socrates did not bother to lead a life of servitude to the ideals of the state because he showed through his actions that an unexamined life without critical thinking was not a life at all. As is made clear by the admittance of Socrates himself, his defense plea is the first time he has appeared in a court of law, even by the age of seventy. Socrates' life was dedicated to the pursuit of further comprehension and debate with the Athenian people on the deeper issues of life, not to a court of law; and he saw this as noble. The most concrete example of the divergence in political beliefs can be seen in Socrates' "Apology" written by Plato when Socrates states, "….I have neglected what occupies most people: wealth, household affairs, the position of general or public orator, or public clubs and factions . These statements that Socrates admitted to not having interest in were inherently the core principles of Athenian Law and society.
Pericles, in his Funeral Oration, also discusses the importance of self-improvement/interest and striving for excellence as features of Athenian citizenship, while Socrates chooses to pursue neither as prescribed by the state. Pericles thought that in order to further society and in turn benefit the city, its citizens had to strive for excellence by giving of themselves unselfishly to the cause of democracy. This is shown in his praise of the men who gave their lives and received the Oration. He praises them for striving in the name of self-improvement by fighting and dying for the republic they loved. However, within that search for self-improvement Athenian principles also dictated that equality among its citizens is also an important part of citizenship. If the system is to truly work as a republic of equals, each citizen must have the same access to law and opportunity to better themselves socially. Contained within that ideal of Pericles and Athenian principles that everyone should have a chance to be equal is the idea that a man's social class has no bearing in Athens. No man was looked down upon because of his social status and was further given equal access to the laws; however if that said man did not try to improve his social status at all, he was considered a bad example of the Athenian model. Pericles makes a persuasive argument here because in order for a society to grow and develop, each member of that society has to contribute to that expansion by giving of himself/herself via whatever means necessary. Moreover, the idea that all people are equal under the laws is one of the cornerstones of Athenian democracy in the form of majority rule and the opportunity to participate in government in any social class. In the life that Socrates chose to live, self-improvement was only attained through the search of knowledge, not service, and social betterment was a cause for only those immersed in the political life. Socrates in the "Apology" says, "Because of my occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent…but I live in great poverty because of my service…" (23b). Socrates lived a life where the ultimate purpose was to serve the quest of betterment and to debate with his fellow citizens about the questions of life. Therefore, he did not have the time to worry himself about his social status and in turn in no way did anything to improve it. Socrates shows this because he professes he is not like the other men of his profession who collect fees. He proclaims that teaches for the spread of knowledge, not the betterment of society or wealth. He could not be seen as meeting the criteria for democratic citizenship precisely because as with the other principles, he did not see the thoughtless process of social promotion and social improvement in the eyes of the state would bring him closer to the answer of life's questions.
Perhaps one of the best ways to test the theories of Pericles' persuasive argument put forth here and look at their validity is to find the true answer to whether or not Socrates was a model of democratic citizenship in line with Athens' definition of a good citizen, a patriot. It is this question in which the issue becomes more complicated because Socrates shows signs of being a patriot and being against the notion at the same time. Those who claim that Socrates is a patriot and therefore a good model of citizenship argue that he loves the law and will not beg for his life because he believes the city's honor to be at stake and he would not tarnish that by begging. They wonder why would a man who was not a good model for citizenship fight for the virtue of its citizens. However, on the other side of the argument are those who argue that Socrates stands outside of politics because he chose to not participate in the political process or in office. Others would contest that he held a questionable opinion about the majority because they could cause as much trouble as a group of a few men with power. Therefore, when put to the test of being a patriot, it is not just proven that he appears to be less a patriot then a man of philosophy, but that he appears even further away from the criteria of democratic citizenship by being against majority rule and public office.
The final question then is raised about the depth to which Socrates meets the criteria of democratic citizenship, and a sound way to bring it to light is to put to the test the model of citizenship laid out by Pericles. That test must be used to find if he persuasively answers the deep questions of whether or not democracy is the best form of government, and does that democracy which he supports truly serve freedom, justice and equality in a manner to discredit the life supported by Socrates. Pericles considered Athenian democracy to be an education and model of government to the rest of the world . Through the treatment of his people and, for the most part, positive dealings of his government, Pericles proved that democracy was the best form of government because it lived up to his ideals of equality and majority rule. Pericles' model for Athenian democratic citizenship proved that living through his principles; the people could best live a life of freedom (freedom from an oligarchy or unfair taxation), equality (represented in self-determination and equal access to the law no matter class) and justice (in that people were given fair trials and governed humanely). This view not only helps to prove that Pericles' model is persuasive in showing the nature of democratic citizenship to be successful; it also serves to show that only to the least extent, in the light that Socrates supported some aspects of Athenian society, does he serve as a good example of citizenship. The model of Pericles that dealt with self-governing citizenship proved to be the guide that helped the Athenian democracy last as long as it did; and although Socrates did not wholeheartedly believe in those principles or meet all the criteria to become a good citizen in the eyes of Pericles, he undoubtedly helped to shape the deliberations of the day and set in motion the future of debate on philosophy, government and the nature of man.
Bloomfield, Louis A. The Politics of Ancient Rome. Oxford Hill Publishing: New York, 1988.