The Gadfly and the Sluggish Horse

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

When we think about what it means to be “eudaimon,” it helps to keep the example of Socrates in mind. Socrates has been called the first political philosopher of Athens. Not much is known about him for certain, because he never cared to write anything down – this may say something about what he considered important. He engaged people in conversation, and this was his way of introducing a philosophical approach to life to people. It seems that he was followed around by a coterie of young men, who would immensely enjoy watching him interrogate people and, in a sense, deconstruct their claims to knowledge. He would sometimes embarrass politicians, poets, and other experts on these occasions. This, combined with the unconventional ideas he sometimes expressed, led the city of Athens to eventually put him on trial for allegedly corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of the city; he was convicted and sentenced to death in 399 BC.

The claim that he was the first political philosopher of Athens is a controversial one for a couple reasons: first, because we do not know of anything he said for certain (most of what we know comes from the partly fictional dialogues of his student, the philosopher Plato). Secondly, he seems to have been more concerned with interrogating each individual’s sense of virtue and wisdom, rather than discussing the polis (or city-state) as a whole. One reason put forward to justify the claim is Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that what made him political was not necessarily the subject-matter of his philosophical discussions, but his involvement of the whole polis in those discussions. (Worth noting here that the world “political” actually comes from the word “polis”!) He would move around from person to person, trying to understand what the person believed and why, and implicitly urging a higher level of self-examination on everyone. And he himself depended on them in order to advance his own understanding, because he did not think wisdom could be attained only through solitary reflection. He needed the polis, just as he believed the polis needed him.

As I looked again at Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates, the Apology, I was struck most by Socrates’ view of his own mission vis-à-vis the city of Athens. While he explains that his greatest concern throughout his life has been to live in a virtuous and just way, he also seems to have viewed himself as playing a unique role in the city of Athens, in the form of a necessary counterweight to certain trends. Socrates lived through the height of the strength of the Athenian city-state (the so-called golden age between the Persian wars and the Peloponnesian wars), but into the subsequent period in which, arguably, the unscrupulous pursuit of power and wealth had begun to lead to Athens’ decline. The naked concern of many Athenians with wealth accumulation seems to make Socrates’ decision to live the life of a poor stone mason, and never to earn any money from philosophy (in contrast to the sophists who regularly charged fees), even more significant. He explained that it was his divine mission to examine his fellow citizens and himself, to chastise them if they had prioritized the pursuit of wealth or reputation over truth and the wellbeing of the soul, and that he had to live in great poverty within a wealth city-state in order to fulfill this purpose. He said, “if you kill me, you will not easily find another like me” (see Grube translation). He had been “attached to the city by the god…as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly.” It was almost as though Socrates sensed that the great polis of Athens was in a kind of spiritual decline, and that he had to serve as a counterweight to this by asking inconvenient questions of others, and presenting to them the example of willful poverty and ill-repute.

Socrates was eudaimon, one could say, in a very literal way: he claimed that there was a daimon (a divine sign, or voice) in him, which had guided him since he was a child. This daimon had frequently turned him away from things he was about to do if they were unwise or unjust. It had often even interrupted him in the middle of his sentences and prevented him from finishing. And it had barred him from entering politics, because it knew (as he reasoned) that, as a just man, he would not have survived for long: “A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time.” It had kept him alive so that he could be a more lasting benefit to himself and the city. Socrates’ equanimity in the face of death, during his trial and even after the verdict, was owed to a large extent to his confidence in this voice. He believed that it would have prevented him from speaking in the unapologetic, confrontational way he did, if death was really something to be feared. Socrates' respect for this voice made him impervious to the attempts of others to intimidate and humiliate him, because he considered that maintaining fidelity to this inner voice of right was the only necessary thing, and that all else could be lost without injury to himself.