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Brian Wilson from Combat and Classics joins us to discuss the trial of Socrates, as told by his student Plato in the Apology.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Brian Wilson is co‐​founder of Combat and Classics, a series of free online seminars for active duty, reserve, and veteran U.S. military, sponsored by St. John’s College. He is also an alumnus of the St. John’s College Graduate Institute and the U.S. Naval Academy. He served 13 years in the active duty and reserve Marine Corps as a Counterintelligence/​Human Intelligence Officer.

Matthew Feeney is the director of Cato’s Project on Emerging Technologies, where he works on issues concerning the intersection of new technologies and civil liberties. . Before coming to Cato, Matthew worked at Reason magazine as assistant editor of Rea​son​.com. He has also worked at The American Conservative, the Liberal Democrats, and the Institute of Economic Affairs. Matthew is a dual British/​American citizen and received both his B.A and M.A in philosophy from the University of Reading in England.

What does it mean to live a virtuous life? Why was Socrates’ self‐​defense at his trial so seemingly lackluster? Where does his “death before dishonor” attitude originate? W as he actually a heretic?

Brian Wilson from Combat and Classics joins us this week for a discussion on the trial that ended in Socrates ultimately being sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. Why would Athenian jurors vote to execute the man Plato called “the best of all men of the time, the wisest and most just of all men”?

Show Notes and Further Reading

Combat and Classics is a series of free online seminars for active duty, reserve, and veteran U.S. military, sponsored by St. John’s College.

Plato’s Apology is Plato’s version of the speech given by Socrates as he defended himself against the charges of “corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel.” Free versions (with the same line numbers Wilson references in this episode) can be found here and here.

This discussion is continued in Part 2 of this series, on Crito, Plato’s account of Socrates’ last days in prison .



Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.

Matthew Feeney: I’m Matthew Feeney.

Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Brian Wilson. He’s co‐​founder of Combat & Classics, a program out of St. John’s that organizes free online seminars on classic text for active duty reserve and veteran U.S. military. He’s joining us today to discuss Plato’s Apology.

Brian, let’s maybe kick things off by having you tell us a bit about Combat & Classics.

Brian Wilson: Sure. Combat & Classics is sponsored by St. John’s College. It’s an outreach program through St. John’s. I’m a graduate of the Graduate Institute in Annapolis and when I was kind of transitioning from student to alumnus, approached the dean of the college and just said, “Hey, what can I do for you guys?”

They just really wanted to get kind of more involvement with the military and we thought the best way to do that was just by what we do at St. John’s which is just Socratic dialogue and great books, just with the military audience.

Trevor Burrus: And does it come over pretty well? I mean are there any text that you tend to focus on mostly in that or is it pretty broad? Is it classic philosophy or plays or Greek and Roman or anything …

Brian Wilson: Yeah. I mean the degree from St. John’s is liberal arts. So we study everything from Euclid to Newton to Aristophanes to Plato to basically the kind of classical liberal education. So we try to represent that as best we can with Combat & Classics. We do probably do a little bit more history and philosophy, a little bit more Thucydides, a little bit more Herodotus, a little bit more Plato.

But we try to get in a good amount of things that maybe somebody who’s looking at the great books and is in the military has already started on but – for instance, our April and our March and April seminars are both Macbeth. So we will be doing Shakespeare for those.

But our February upcoming seminar is on the Iliad. So we do kind of a marshal theme to a certain extent but it’s a broad swath of classical literature that we use.

Aaron Ross Powell: Well then I guess let’s turn to our text. We chose today Plato’s Apology which is one that you’ve done seminars on.

Brian Wilson: Yeah.

Aaron Ross Powell: So give us some background on that.

Brian Wilson: So the Apology is Socrates on trial, right? He has apparently corrupted the youth. He is accused of being a heretic, of not believing in the gods and this is Socrates’ you would call lackluster defense of those charges, but also a robust defense of what it means to be an individual, to be able to stand up to the state and what is the consequences of that for both the individual and the state.

Trevor Burrus: Why would you call the defense lackluster?

Brian Wilson: I think that – and Socrates admits those to a certain extent. Meletus, his accuser, has kind of made his case and Socrates is replying and that’s the beginning of the dialogue is Socrates replying. He says like – what Meletus has said is – and the accusers at large – which was not true, right? But it sways the jury, right? And it has obviously swayed the jury and he said, “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to play this game. I’m just going to do what I do, which is seek truth, examine virtue and if you guys don’t like that, all right. No big deal.”

He’s willing to accept the consequences of that decision of being kind of true to himself rather than I’m going to make a case to get myself out of punishment.

Trevor Burrus: Should we interpret this as a – I’ve never gotten a good handle on the theistic I guess kind of piety of the Greeks, of how much – are they kind of like modern day Christians who if you don’t believe in their gods – because I always thought if you are – if you believe in many gods, then you believe that – you kind of accept other people who believe in those gods too and don’t treat them as atheists as much.

So are these trumped up charges? Sort of like this impiety. Was it the worst thing in ancient Greece to believe in different gods than those gods in this corruption of – should we interpret them as trumped up charges?

Brian Wilson: No, I think it’s pretty clear that they are trumped up. You know, whether or not Socrates was an actual theist or an atheist or what is kind of one of those things that – and I know that Cato has talked about this in the pas as far as like – how much of a deist was Thomas Jefferson and George Washington?

So it’s those kinds of things where it’s like only the people that – only you know, you know, how much you buy into whatever religious creed you might or might not espouse. So there were certainly questions that Socrates raised that could make people uncomfortable, but there’s no statement that I can think of in the entire kind of platonic canon where he comes out and says, “I don’t believe any of this stuff,” right?

But it’s the questioning that certainly causes this accusation to get carried forward and certainly has swayed a decent amount of the jury.

Aaron Ross Powell: I mean it’s pretty clear he’s not a straight‐​up atheist.

Brian Wilson: Yeah.

Aaron Ross Powell: Like he very obviously – he defends himself along these lines by saying, look, I talk all the time and tell people all the time about …

Trevor Burrus: Demigods.

Aaron Ross Powell: Demigods and demons and other things that assume …

Trevor Burrus: Does he mean like Hercules? Is that what he – it’s like the Hercules of …

Brian Wilson: Yeah, and he talks about the demigods. He talks about the offspring of gods and man and I think you – it’s very much a Rorschach test I think for the reader, right? If you want to read that as – if you’re an atheist reader approaching the text, then you can go, “Oh, he’s messing with these guys.”

But if you’re a theist reader, then you can go, “No, he’s trying to fit it into this theist doctrine that’s part of the community and he’s just trying to play by those rules.” They may not believe him

Matthew Feeney: I mean it’s certainly the case at least towards the end—I don’t want to jump ahead too much—but that he postulates after death are a couple of possibilities and one is that it’s just an eternal kind of sleep and the other is hey, I’ve got to hang out with Homer and all these other guys. But he seems – so at the beginning, there’s this question – when he speaks to the oracle and it seems like hard to believe someone not taking that seriously with some sort of theistic belief.

If you really don’t believe that the oracle was the voice of a god, then he’s walking around Athens, trying to see if he could find someone wiser than him. It seems a little pointless.

Trevor Burrus: One final question I want to ask before we open up a bag of worms here, but before we get fully into the text is, “Is this a history?”

Brian Wilson: I mean your guess is as good as mine on that. I think that – I always liked Christopher Hitchens’ kind of description of Socrates versus Jesus. You know, it’s like it’s not important if you’re looking at Socrates, whether or not he existed at all, right?

You can take his teachings and you can take whatever you want out of that, right? And it’s not important if he existed or didn’t exist or if this is what he said or didn’t say.

Trevor Burrus: But it’s a little different because in this one, I think one of two maybe of Plato’s dialogues, Plato is supposed to be there. So maybe he was taking notes. It kind of brings that spectrum a little bit more.

Aaron Ross Powell: But I think this is complicated by – so we only have two accounts of Socrates’ defense. We have Plato and the Xenophon, who was another follower of Socrates. But then at the same time, there’s this – after Socrates’ death, it was kind of a thing for writers to write their own versions of his defense. It was like just fan fiction.

Trevor Burrus: It’s also probably kind of like a Rorschach test. They all wrote it the way that they saw it.

Aaron Ross Powell: Yes. So I mean it’s a little bit different. We have almost no text. What we do know about Socrates largely comes from Plato and Xenophon and Plato very clearly drifts away from presenting anything that even is remotely historical or documentary in his later dialogues where we get to just these are Plato’s ideas and Socrates is a mouthpiece for them.

There’s the argument made that I think seems relatively persuasive to me that of the two apologies that we have, Plato’s and Xenophon’s, like Xenophon, well a smart guy, was not a genius on the level of Plato. So it’s less – so Plato’s genius probably takes over a bit more in his presentation. But they’re – I mean they’re similar enough although it’s the – Xenophon, Socrates is not – his speech is not the great work of literature that we read for today and is quite a bit more straightforward.

But the skeleton is relatively the same. So we could probably say – I mean there’s some level of accuracy there but we don’t know. So I think largely when we’re talking about Socrates, we’re analyzing Socrates in the way that we would talk about Hamlet, right? We act as if – we analyze him as a real person while recognizing too that he was a historical figure but what we’re really talking about is Plato’s presentation of him.

Trevor Burrus: So let’s talk about that skeleton then. How does the dialogue open up?

Brian Wilson: Well, the dialogue, I mean it rolls right into the defense, right? And there’s no – which I find – always find interesting is that there’s not really a presentation of the accuser’s argument. It is just the defense and you have to kind of start with that question.

I mean there is a dialogue that’s supposed to have happened right before the trial which is the Euthyphro, which I know I’m pronouncing wrong because my Greek is pretty terrible. But they don’t really talk much about Socrates’ trial, right? They talk about Euthyphro’s trial for manslaughter. So we open with this and Socrates immediately kind of goes for underwhelming. You know, he says, “I do not know what effect my accusers had upon you.” He’s speaking to the jury. “But for my own part, I was almost carried away by them. Their arguments were so convincing. On the other hand, scarcely a word of what they said was true.”

Aaron Ross Powell: It’s a wonderful line to read during a presidential election.

Brian Wilson: Yeah.

Trevor Burrus: Are we picturing him in an amphitheater type situation with like – I picture this as a circle with the people sitting on benches around him while he was speaking to them. Is that a …

Brian Wilson: I always think about it just like Perry Mason.

Matthew Feeney: This kind of juries I think were done – I forget the name of the location but it’s quite close to the Acropolis and it would have been about for the time, about 500 people then hearing the accusation and the defense on the top of this rather small hill in Athens.

Brian Wilson: I think that the police procedural has just kind of tainted my visualization a little bit too much. I’m visualizing Law and Order.

Aaron Ross Powell: And the setup just – the setup of this trial and the way it functions is I think something we could talk about because it’s fairly interesting as a contrast to the way that we do things now.

Brian Wilson: Sure. I mean he has this jury of 500 people, right? And it seems obvious to me that they’ve been fairly swayed by the accusers. What we usually do at St. John’s when we’re opening a seminar, when we’re talking about something like this, is that the tutor will just ask an opening question. From there, there’s not really – we’re trying to stick to the reading as much as possible. Obviously you’re the host and you’re the Cato Institute. So if we want to talk about the Iowa caucus, then go for it.

Trevor Burrus: Please no.

Brian Wilson: Probably not. But we just try to stick to the text as much as we can for our points and for our questions. So the question I would like to ask you is, “What was Socrates’ mindset during this trial?”

Matthew Feeney: So I think that’s a great opening because if you think about the timeline here, he’s already an old man. Seventy, which – you can say pretty old now, let alone in ancient Greece.

Reading the defense, I got the impression that he might be just sort of resigned to the way this might end and the way it will end because he’s an old man and the way he’s addressing it, he discusses how death isn’t particularly that bad and the important thing is to lead a good life and that you shouldn’t calculate the chances of living or dying. You should think about doing the right thing versus the wrong thing and maybe if I die, I will be able to – an eternal sleep or talk to people I admire and I can continue these conversations.

So part of me thinks his mindset might be well, I could be doomed but at least I can go out in a great rhetorical flourish and make these people look a little silly. I think he succeeds in doing that, especially with Meletus, that accuser.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I agree with Matthew. I think also that – I always read Socrates as so tongue‐​in‐​cheek the way he spoke to people that I kind of read the Apology as being kind of angry and his righteousness against the accusing – this is who I think it is. A libertarian‐​ish text or something we can learn just political philosophy about a person standing against a power who has the righteous position which he discusses later on.

If you do think you have the righteous position – that’s the way Socrates does everything. Do you think – he would never say it. He would be like – he’s like, “What do you think? Socrates, do you have the righteous position?” He’s like, “I don’t know, sir. Do you think I have the righteous position? Are cows righteous?” He would never say it but you know he does think this. Now he’s going to stand in front of the polis which is a much more community‐​oriented type of concept than the current state and then tell them basically like a – on both their houses, all of you. So I see anger.

Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, that was my reading more so than just resignation was the righteousness coming in because he’s – so he tells us this story of the oracle Adelphi saying that he’s the wisest man alive and that he has basically built a career around trying to assess that because he – like he doesn’t think of himself as wise. But – which of course I think he really does but he just likes to think he’s not. It’s because he recognizes his lack of wisdom that the oracle thinks he’s the most wise.

But to kind of test this, he goes around asking people who are presumed to be wise and testing their wisdom and always finding it lacking. So he – he has got this other part where he goes in about the training of the horses, right? Where he says you wouldn’t – when you want to break a horse, you call in an expert. You don’t just have like everyone break the horse because that’s not going to work and that seems to be a dig against this system.

So I read this as like a – like look, I’ve been going around showing all of you up and now you’ve done this dumb thing where you’re putting me on trial and so it’s not just that I’m kind of resigned to my fate and I don’t really think that living over 70 would be all that awesome anyway and death isn’t all – isn’t something to worry about. But also that I’m going to prove – like my last act will be proving that I was right all along by getting – by showing the complete lack of wisdom of all of you and that seems to be – because he’s constantly provoking them. This isn’t just like a lackluster defense. This is like come and get me, right?

So even when he’s given like every opportunity and we get that in the follow‐​up dialogue, the credo where he’s given the opportunity after he has been convicted to run away and he’s just – he doesn’t take it. Like, in every step, he seems to want them to kill him even when – I mean they’ve declared him guilty and he offers up these basically absurd alternative sentences that he knows they’re going to reject. He just – he seems angry and he seems like he wants to demonstrate the foolishness of the people of Athens.

Brian Wilson: Yeah, I mean he – I like the idea of anger just because right at 28, he kind of has an external, internal dialogue and says – but perhaps someone will say, “Do you feel no compunction Socrates in having followed a line of action which puts you in danger of the death penalty?” I might fairly reply to him, “You’re mistaken my friend if you think that a man who’s worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death.”

He gives the example of Achilles, right? Which we have this whole book of Homer about it and the first word of that is “menace,” right? Rage. Singham used the “rage” of Achilles. So he kind of brings it off and the whole presentation, I mean you can obviously – if you’re directing this, you can get a Mickey Rourke in there. You can kind of get somebody a little bit more relaxed.

But the rage is there, right? I mean it’s right in the dialogue when he brings up Achilles. But what’s interesting to me is that he says right there, you know, the idea of even questioning that, right? The idea of thinking about that is – but that’s what Achilles did for half the book. So I feel like there’s kind of a – maybe a duality there of – he’s saying it’s wrong but he might also be implying that there’s a certain bit of human nature in wanting to spare yourself. Do any of you feel like Socrates tries at any point to kind of at least give himself some breathing room in the dialogue to maybe convince the jury I’m not as big a threat as you think I am?

Matthew Feeney: I think that he certainly does make fools of the accusers and make the charges sound ridiculous but I think as a – as Aaron alluded to earlier, after the vote where he’s found guilty, but not by a particularly large margin. And Socrates as well, I’m glad that you didn’t – that I got some support here. But then goes on to propose that they give him a pension or that they – you know, comparatively, a meager fine be imposed and he seems to – he must have known that that would lose him what support he probably did have and then instead of a sort of sensible negotiation or proposal, he’s sentenced to death and I think that – that’s quite telling.

Trevor Burrus: Well, I think that that interesting – he does try to some extent but this – at the beginning, he mentions Aristophanes’ The Clouds which kind of parodies Socrates. But he seems like a guy who believes the popular opinion is one thing about him. Like if you imagine a star today and everyone thinks that – like there’s some sort of rumor about someone and that there’s really nothing he can do to change this, especially because I do think that he believes it.

Most people are stupid and so he says, “Well, I get up there and I talk to a bunch of stupid people who have an idea about me because of this opinion that’s in the clouds and other sort of just rumors about me. I’m not going to convince them at all.”

But I think he does try or really tries to make a case for the few people who might be willing to listen to him to some degree.

Aaron Ross Powell: Well, that was – I mean teasing out this – he defends himself but whether it’s an attempt to soften it as you ask or just to not I guess give in to what he sees as false charges, because he – he could have just said, “OK, you’re right,” and then throw himself on the mercy of the court or not really mounted much of a defense if he didn’t care one way or another or – but it seems like his defense is – I guess what I had a difficult time figuring out is how much of the defense was like him trying to – like I don’t want to be punished. So I’m going to try to defend myself versus I totally don’t care what happens to me and in fact would like to be punished because it would prove me right.

But I can’t stand by – because he talks about how much – what ultimately matters is not wealth. It’s not prestige. It’s the kind of person you are. It’s your principles and so he’s not going to – he’s going to defend his honor and his principles against these false charges but it doesn’t matter what happens to him ultimately.

Trevor Burrus: Can we compare this to – I mean it has been of course, but can we compare this to Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate in the sense of Jesus offering a defense against a crowd with a huge bias against him and saying nothing in response to their claims of his own type of disobedience of the Pharisees? I think it’s very similar except for Jesus was a little bit more taciturn.

Matthew Feeney: Yes. So I haven’t actually heard much about that comparison but I think what they both have in common is that that – to a contemporary 21st century reader in Washington DC, it’s – the thing that Socrates and Jesus do seem to have in common is that they’re being accused of what’s effectively thought crime in the – like you have the wrong kind of ideas and you’re being too persuasive to people and all this other sort of stuff.

Trevor Burrus: But in our post‐​rationalization because they kind of both start movements – these texts are at least written for the purpose of starting a movement. Both of these are just like, well, I’m going to die and my death is going to be a lesson. I mean it’s a really big lesson for Jesus but it’s – they just sort of resigned themselves to their fate and so we see a trial which again has a righteousness of standing against the power that is arrayed against you.

Matthew Feeney: Yeah, and it is the case that Socrates does say – I think at the end something – look, you’re going to think yourself a little silly and I think he has been proven right.

Trevor Burrus: Well, there’s a Pharisaic equality to the people who are accusing him. These three accusers who I think are just some sort of – they represent classes, if I read that correctly.

Brian Wilson: Yeah. I mean I – the way that I kind of tie this in more is I feel like that Plato – I mean obviously this is an important part of the canon, right? Of the platonic canon, an important part of Socrates. I don’t know if you need it. You need the Pontius Pilate story to have a serious impact on Christianity. I don’t know if you need the Apology to make Socrates understood. But it is important. I would compare it more to something like Kafka’s The Trial, something like Orwell, something like Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth where it’s – you’re against the state, right?

Socrates lays it out, right? He says very specifically around 31-C – he basically says, he says, “I don’t mess with the state because I know what’s going to happen,” right? The last part of 31-C, “The true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even for a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone,” right?

He’s trying to go out of his way to do this but the state doesn’t care, right? The state just by questioning any aspect of its doctrine is going to get insulted, right?

Trevor Burrus: I like how he was bringing up how he makes no money. There are a lot of things that – as a lawyer, there are a lot of things in the world where the state can’t get you until you’re making money off of it. They don’t have any jurisdiction over you until you’re making money off of it. So it’s like, hey, I’m just doing this, my own private life. Private is private.

Brian Wilson: Yeah. The thing is that this is the only thing that – the only two things that they could threaten, right? It was first saying you can’t do this anymore, right? And it was important for him to be able to do it and in Athens and then the only other thing was his life, right?

So if he wants to take that kind of binary look and say, “If this or that,” it does show how necessary he sees exploring what is the virtuous life as a – at least critical for him and I think that that example obviously shines through in a very robust way in what he’s talking about.

You know, something that we talk about – because we’ve done this seminar a couple of times with the military audience is – around line 29. He says, “The truth of the matter is this, gentlemen.” This was right after the Achilles comparison. “The truth of the matter is this, gentlemen. Where a man has once taken up a stand either because it seems best to him or an obedience to his orders, there I believe he is bound to remain and face the danger, taking no account of death or anything else before dishonor. This being so, it would be a shocking inconsistency on my part, gentlemen, if when the officers whom you chose to command me, assigned me at my position at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delium, I remained at my post like anyone else and faced death, and yet afterward, when God appointed me, as I supposed and believed, to the duty of leading the philosophical life, examining myself and others, I were then through fear of death or of any other danger to desert my post.”

So, well, that’s like super firey‐​uppey for like libertarians. You have to wonder how effective that is. How effective is that analogy to you as readers? How effective potentially is that for a military reader? I mean it certainly puts like a lot of military readers kind of on the horns of the dilemma is – you know, there is this idea of death before dishonor.

You know, why is Socrates so set on either not teaching philosophy as more dishonorable than death?

Matthew Feeney: Well, I think it might strike us as maybe a little odd as readers now to hear that rhetoric, especially coming from someone who was a philosopher. But I think it’s important to remember that Socrates was also a soldier for a while and that one of the accusers is a general who fought the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War and that a lot of people in Athens at the time would have understood the role of the military and would probably have served. I think it’s some sort of appeal and of course saying, “I’m just like Achilles,” is a clear – everyone in ancient Greece would have known the reference clearly and who – legends were very popular.

Of course Achilles had this living with dishonor is worse than death and that even if I know I’m dead after I fight and kill Hector, that’s worthwhile. He seems to view his own death – I mean I think that Socrates’ arrogance is on display in a number of places. But my favorite example of that was when he says, “Maybe if I die, my death will be like other people who died unjustly,” and he cites Palamedes who was of course sent to get Odysseus, the great trickster, to come to Troy and Palamedes tricked the trickster because of – Odysseus tried to pretend to be insane, was so insulting to the earth and Palamedes put Odysseus’ son Telemachus in front of the plough and tricked Odysseus because Odysseus wasn’t going to cut his own son in half off the plough.

I just find that a really interesting – that when he says, “My death will be like other unjust deaths,” and that is death of at least one particularly clever person is really quite telling. But no, I think going back to the original line of inquiry here that the military rhetoric is very deliberate and I think he must have known that it would have pulled on the heartstrings of a few of the people on the jury.

Trevor Burrus: Well, a lot of this tradition of death before dishonor or anyone from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to people standing against and saying, “I will not forsake my principles for this thing that’s standing against me that has none of these principles at all,” it resonates with almost everyone. I mean movies, everything, is made after this and you could always sort of put a libertarian spin on this.

But I think it’s interesting that – this is something I had noticed before that – I don’t have the exact locations unfortunately that you do for the official version. But he has done this before. Socrates talks about the Thirty, in like how he had done this before. He had stood against this – the Thirty …

Aaron Ross Powell: The tyrants.

Trevor Burrus: When the oligarchy of the Thirty was in power, they sent me and four others into the rotunda and bade us bring Leon the Salaminian from Salamis as they wanted to put him to death. This was a specimen of the sort of commands which they were always giving with the view of implicating as many as possible in their crimes.

So we get this – there’s basically some sort of Stalinist despotism, just killing people left and right. “And then I showed not in word only but in deed that if I may be allowed to use up an expression, I cared not a straw for death and that my great and only care was lest I should do an unrighteous or unholy thing. For the strong arm of that oppressive power did not frighten me into doing wrong and when we came out of the rotunda, the other four went to Salamis and fetched Leon, but I went quietly home. For which I might have lost my life, had not the power of the Thirty shortly afterwards come to an end. And many will witness to my words.”

It’s kind of interesting that at some point – I’m not sure historically how long that was. He had the habit of this death before unrighteousness kind of thing.

Matthew Feeney: Yeah. The historical context here is interesting because this sort of – this oligarch, this pro‐​Spartan set of tyrants were in charge effectively, in charge of Athens and …

Trevor Burrus: Do you know what years?

Matthew Feeney: So this was 404 BC.

Trevor Burrus: So just five years …

Brian Wilson: Yeah, it was very recent.

Matthew Feeney: It was very recent and I think that—apologies to historians if that’s wrong—but it was recent and I think there are certainly people who claim that are part of the accusation against Socrates, was that he stuck around in Athens and certainly knew the leader of these tyrants and was – that was not perceived as a particularly –

Aaron Ross Powell: Because I – I mean he was a mentor of Critias who was the leader of the tyrants. So that’s …

Trevor Burrus: So he was like a …

Aaron Ross Powell: So to some extent, like because we – reading this thousands of years later, we look – this looks very bad for the people of Athens, right? But I think that we can defend them a bit in the sense that this – the historical situation you had. Athens’ democracy, it was taken over by these tyrants. Things were very bad. Socrates had been the mentor of the leader of the tyrants. He had also been the friend and mentor of Alcibiades who had – worked against the democracy, had been kicked out, had run off to Sparta, was pro‐​Spartan.

Socrates is at least presented by Plato who seems to like a lot of elements of the Spartan regime. He didn’t leave when the Thirty took over and so – and then my understanding is when the Thirty left, there was a treaty that was signed that granted some degree of amnesty to people who were involved in it. So if the people of Athens were mad at him for what looked like support of the Thirty and then there was this also – notion in Greece at the time that like the mentor was to some degree always responsible for the actions of his students because it was his job to teach them and they were carrying out his teachings.

So they could blame Socrates for what happened. But the treaty prevents them from trying him for that and so this is possibly a runaround the treaty. So it doesn’t look – so we can still judge them harshly but there may have been complicating factors here, which is why these charges look so silly.

Trevor Burrus: Kind of like the …

Brian Wilson: Yeah. So if we can – this is all good background. I don’t mean to turn this off of this but within the text and taking into account those kinds of historical precedence, why did Socrates stick around through all this, through the tyrants, through Alcibiades’ defection and through this trial? He has no property, right? I mean that’s what ties us to the state in a lot of ways, right? We usually have property and it’s hard to move it. Why did he stick around?

Trevor Burrus: Righteousness again I want to say.

Matthew Feeney: Yeah, I don’t know. I think he’s an old man. He might just not be up for this political uncertainty and going into fleeing Athens, although – you know, whatever his reasons, I think it would be mistaken to think that he was some sort of supporter of this oligarchy, that he was pro this tyranny. I think it would be a little unfair.

Aaron Ross Powell: But he does seem anti‐​democracy.

Matthew Feeney: Sure. But these can be mutually exclusive, right? You can be anti‐​democracy and also anti the tyranny at the time. So yeah, that’s a good I think historical question. I don’t know. I don’t know of anyone …

Aaron Ross Powell: I mean he gives reasons – this is on the next text. So I won’t – he does give some reasons for sticking around in the credo which is when his followers show up while he’s in jail waiting execution and say, look, we can get you out of here. It will be easy. We just bribe the guards. Kind of everyone is expecting you to do …

Trevor Burrus: It’s like El Chapo, yeah.

Aaron Ross Powell: And – yes, and he says no and he presents these reasons and every intern semester, I give a talk to the interns about the credo and about obligations to obey the law and say that Socrates’ arguments are all terrible. But he does have these arguments. My sense – I mean from this and from just what we know of him as his character is – I mean Athens is his own. He like – he seems to be – Socrates seems like a creature of habit. I mean it’s agreed that – one of the more delightful parts of this text is at the end when he’s talking about – so Socrates is – he would be a hard guy to live around. I mean he just goes around harassing like – and he’s a pain in the ass.

Trevor Burrus: He would be like a Jehovah’s Witness …


Aaron Ross Powell: He’s a historically epic pain in the ass.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah.

Aaron Ross Powell: And then he doesn’t – when he’s talking about death at the end and he’s like death is nothing to fear because on the one hand, it might be oblivion, which he – which is a really good night’s sleep or there’s an afterlife and in the afterlife, I can go and harass all of those people too. You can imagine all of these like great Greek heroes looking down from the afterlife and just saying, “Please don’t kill him. Please don’t kill him.”

But he just seems to be like – he just knows this way of life. This is what he does and that’s my reading of – to a large extent why he doesn’t leave. There’s the principal reason. Like, he doesn’t think he should have to but he just – this is what he knows. This is his home. This is what he has been doing for years.

Trevor Burrus: Your comment about being anti‐​democracy but before the passage I read about the Thirty. He seems to call that the days of the democracy. Again, I don’t know how much he supports it but he says – right before the – “I made up my mind that I would run the risk, having law and justice with me, rather than take part in your injustice because I feared imprisonment and death. This happened in the days of the democracy. But when the oligarchy of the Thirty …”

So that’s – does that sound to you also – like you’re saying that that was the same time as the Thirty, the democracy? That was unclear to me but I – he is pretty anti‐​democratic. I think that’s quite clear.

Aaron Ross Powell: I wanted to – this question of the orders and what sort of orders he used to obey and the death before dishonor. I want to tease that out a bit from this libertarian perspective because it is – I mean it’s a really – it’s a fairly radical notion, right?

And especially in the context of military people that there are principles that he thinks were knowable via philosophy, principles of honor, principles of justice, and that those trump the state, that they – you know, the orders of the king, the orders of the democracy are not synonymous with justice and that when they conflict with justice, when they conflict with basic morality, our duty is to this – these higher principles. It’s not to the state, which is – I mean important from a libertarian perspective because many of our arguments – libertarianism when argued from a moral background, instead of in – as opposed to say just like an economic efficiency argument is often like look, what the state does is morally wrong.

It’s morally wrong to take people’s money in these ways. It’s morally wrong to lock them in cages for taking certain substances and that it’s your duty to follow morality and not the dictates of the state. But this is – I mean Trevor, you said everyone kind of believes the death before dishonor.

Trevor Burrus: To some degree.

Aaron Ross Powell: But it’s also – it’s an extremely controversial thing. I mean I – like does this mean that – I think it’s true that this means that say like a district attorney has a moral obligation not to prosecute people for unjust – under unjust laws and that in fact if they do, they are behaving immorally and should be condemned for it. But you could take it to the extreme in the military.

Remember, there was a Twitter trending topic a while back of like express your own popular opinion and I think it was Will Wilkinson who used to be at Cato and now he’s not. His thing was soldiers who kill in unjust wars are murderers, which is an extremely controversial and radical claim to make and certainly is not something that like you would have higher‐​ups in military say is the case, right?

Brian Wilson: I think there’s a lot more grey area than you might think. I mean it’s something that’s kind of shocking to folks that haven’t spent a lot of time with military folks, who have been in the military themselves and it was something I was kind of surprised at. I went through the Naval Academy and I had spent 13 years in the Marine Corps. There’s almost a dual‐​pronged education system there.

There is – you would be shocked at the amount of time that we spent in situations like this, sitting around and talking about what’s the right thing to do, you know, and how much it is reinforced that, you know, you have to make unpopular decisions. You have to make decisions that are contrary to what somebody told you to do because it’s the right thing.

For a lot of folks, they just look at me after I say something like that and they’re like, “No, that’s not how it is.” I go, “I’m pretty sure it is. I was there.” And that helps you a great deal I think in your kind of own personal moral education and the troubling thing that you find is that you find people that – in the military that ignore that. They’ve had that training but they err on the side of not examining that maybe as closely as you would like them to.

But I’m consistently kind of gratified by the number of folks that seem completely at ease more or less with – I know if I’m told something to do and it’s wrong that I’m not going to do it and I will accept the consequences of that and it’s fascinating.

The kind of trite piece of that is you make an oath to the constitution to the orders of your higher‐​ups, right? The key thing there is that you just have to accept the consequences, right? So no matter what it is that you’re choosing to do or not do, you have to accept the consequences and the example that I always like to give is Omar from The Wire where it’s – you know, a man has got to have a code, right?

A lot of people in the military kind of understand that going in and there’s really from my experience a fairly small minority that don’t get that, that don’t understand that and the way that I would describe it, you know, having been to Iraq is that I suited up for game time today. I got my uniform on. I’m here to play, right?

If somebody else wants to suit up and get on the field with me, that’s fine. They are in the game. But if they’re not on the field, they are spectators, they should not have anything happen to them at all, to them or their property or their family or anything. They are not in the game and that is something that is – you know, reinforced I would say a significant amount in the military and it’s clear in our rules of engagement to assert – there’s ambiguity there. There are certainly folks that buck against that.

But with my experience and kind of the counterinsurgency realm, it’s how you – I won’t say win but it’s how you don’t lose.

Trevor Burrus: So how do the military then in your program Combat & Classics like – you probably talk about this in regards to Apology. Like, could – is this something we can learn lessons from in our jobs as military about what happens when you’re in a Nuremberg type situation or something like this?

Brian Wilson: Yeah. I mean I really like – the people that show up for these are already kind of questioning a lot of things and they’re already wondering what else is out there as far as education. I mean another reason that I started this program was because I was enrolled in Command and Staff College, which is a requisite for field grade officers and Marine Corps.

I did that after St. John’s and I just did not have a very good time. It was not something that was edifying and enlightening. When I’m in Annapolis or in these online seminars, there are these moments of tremendous joy in reading this kind of limitless works and just talking with other people and having them help me learn in the Socratic fashion what this means. Is it logical? Does it make sense and does it represent human nature?

If not, where are the flaws? And picking those things apart is something I think that a lot of military audience want to do to a greater degree because too often it is – it is a Nuremberg example. It is Lieutenant Calley and My Lai. Those are the examples that are drawn out.

So I think that our type of audience wants something like Socrates’ Apology where it’s like it’s not – it’s not 100 percent clear because – you know, was the state right in doing this? It’s another question. Do they have the power to do this within their purview to do something like this? Was Socrates a threat to the state? Does the state have a moral obligation to act against those kinds of threats? Well, I would love any of your feedback on any of those questions because that’s what I do.

Trevor Burrus: Well, that was part of my question too and I thought you guys would have more – these accusers, because I wanted to try and get a grip on what the state is in this because it’s not totally analogous to what we would – you know, post‐​Westphalian, Bavarian definition of a state, but these accusers, if they’re real – if they were even real people which is probably a silly question. But they seem to just represent classes of Athenian society and he calls all of them idiots basically. I mean is there a mention – like Socrates went around and was trying to figure out if anyone was wise and all these people are really smart. But they’re all not wise at all.

Aaron Ross Powell: Well, that – take this opportunity to – there’s a wonderful – I love this line where he’s talking about his attempt to go and find people who are wise and he talks about looking at artists and poets. He says poets are by far the worst because they think that they are wise but they totally aren’t, which is interesting in light of how much he and everyone else cites Home and other poets as authorities.

But he says – he’s talking about why they might overestimate their wisdom and so he says because he is someone who is – say a very good poet or a very good artist. “Because he excelled in the practice of his art, he thought he was very wise in other most important matters and this mistake of theirs obscured the wisdom that they really possessed.” I just – that explains so much of human behavior and political opinions and Washington and …

Brian Wilson: That’s why there’s no topic under the sun that Paul Krugman won’t write about.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah, or Aaron’s big thing about people who have some knowledge of tech therefore have large knowledge of how to reorganize healthcare.

Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, or – I went to a dinner with a Nobel laureate who had – in economics and had done work on a fairly narrow field in economics and then received his Nobel Prize and then wrote a book about basically the decline of America and American culture and it was everything that’s wrong with basically the kids these days and it was very clear after listening to him talk that his real problem was he just didn’t understand what the internet was and like didn’t – he didn’t understand what like – he had his tastes and he liked classical music and so rock and roll was the decline. He liked Baroque art and so graffiti artists were an example of the end of Western civilization. So is this like – he thought – you know, I’ve been awarded this – there’s no prize that says you are wise more than the Nobel Prize, right?

But it was for this narrow thing and he was very good in that line of his art. But he thought that represented wisdom everywhere else and this seems to be a very – Paul Krugman being another Nobel laureate who thinks he knows everything about everything.

Trevor Burrus: I mean on that – going off that, with these critics, who represent these different classes of Athenian society, or at least the way I read it, who are all – it’s called idiots by Socrates and I would say by Plato and I mean at this point – it’s a kind of a democracy and so there’s also – there’s a huge condemnation of the way that society and the state is currently made up and the kind of idiots who run it, which again – again, very similar to Jesus, the trial, because a huge part of the gospel writers’ intention was to lambast the Jews who “killed” Jesus and the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These different groups that were just bad and so like there’s a subtext there in the gospels.

Here, we can read Plato’s condemnation of everything about it. Then we know from the Republic what he really thinks a good society looks like and it’s not very similar to what – the one that killed Socrates.

Brian Wilson: Yeah. I mean I think that – for me, this – it might be self‐​congratulatory, right? But as libertarians, we say, “I don’t know how to live your life.” I don’t know what you should do with your property. I just know that you shouldn’t hurt me and you probably shouldn’t hurt other people too. But a lot of that is none of my business.

So we want to pat ourselves in the back and say to a certain extent like we’ve accomplished some kind of Socratic ideal. I don’t know how well we hew to that too much because I think that our instincts are like most humans’ instincts of wanting to get involved in things that we potentially shouldn’t.

But it also causes me – you know, because we think we kind of figured it out, right? We think we got – oh, it’s property, right? It’s property.

Trevor Burrus: Libertarians?

Brian Wilson: Yeah. It’s voluntary interaction. It’s – we’ve got these principles. So I think actually while we can pat ourselves in the back to a certain degree and say we have the Socratic ideal of I don’t know what’s best for you, there’s still a long way to go and maybe I’m not sure that this is actually right. When we read kind of the foundational authors, if we’re reading Mises or Hayek or something like that, even in technical economic terms, we go, “I don’t know if this is right.”

So I think that from the libertarian audience, they can get a ton from this kind of seminars, from this kind of readings and the military audience as well because the military audience, I think, is also fairly sure how certain things are. But when you actually peel away those layers and you say, “Well, define your terms,” and Socrates doesn’t really do that either.

But I think that that’s probably – at least for me, that’s kind of how I found libertarianism is because I thought I was part team red because that’s basically what it is, team red, team blue. I thought I was part of team red and I was like, OK, let me read about this conservative republican stuff. I went, “Oh, this doesn’t make any sense.”

You have to dig through those principles and you have to question and question and question. When you think you figured out the right answer, you’re probably a Meletus and you’re probably wrong.

Matthew Feeney: Yeah. I think what I especially like about the text – what you just said reminded me of this that it was – what Socrates does is he’s asking his accusers to answer questions truthfully and they do and they look dumb. It’s this sort of amazing – and I think that’s why these are such profound text. That you read these accusers digging themselves into these logical holes and Socrates is left with the truth on his side.

Trevor Burrus: I’m imagining like going to a White House press conference and being like, “You must answer truthfully now.” You’re making them look like idiots.

Matthew Feeney: It’s sort of a grey image to think of these hundreds of people staring down on Socrates asking, I just want you to – you know, just lay it out for people to hear exactly what you think I’ve done and why you don’t like my response. I think the power of that – I mean I think it’s the reason why it remains so poignant is that it’s not some sort of crime novel where there have been trumped‐​up evidence or whatever.

These people really believe that what Socrates has – admits that he’s doing is wrong and that’s what I think makes it really great reading.

Aaron Ross Powell: And I think that’s what – your point about even these principles that we guess libertarians believe are correct and holds very strongly. We should have this degree of why and might I be wrong and might I change my mind, which is a point that we make a lot on Free Thoughts.

This notion – I mean Socrates, when he presents like this is – look, the choice is between sticking to justice or doing what I’m told and we want to read the Apology as look, he’s – Socrates is standing up for justice and principle as opposed to the Athenians who are just angry at him or want to kill him off.

But these are arguments about principle that’s going on here. I mean the Athenians think that they have principle on their side, that there is such a thing as impiety and he has been impious and being pious is really important on a basic principle level and democracy matters and that respecting your elders matters and the teaching the youth to disrespect their elders or doubt the wise is harmful to society. These are important principles and so they disagree with Socrates on the core principles of what really matters and that’s what the argument is about. That’s a very important thing for libertarians to think about, for everyone to think about, that you’re closely – when there’s political disagreement say, that it’s often at the level of – it can happen at the level of principle. It’s not that you are principled and your opponents aren’t, right?

It’s that they hold different views and they may be wrong but before we condemn them, we should make an attempt to really dig into them, to really understand them, to really learn from them.

Brian Wilson: That’s the trick thing and that’s part of the reason why I wanted to ask about the mindset because it’s always staggering for me to read any Plato and not put myself in Socrates’ situation and just say, “I just want to punch this guy.”

Like, it’s so – it just seems so demanding to both – you know, having done it, I’m sure we’ve all done something, tried to do some type of Socratic dialogue and whether you’re talking with another libertarian who’s just like a little bit off from what you think is more important or whether you’re talking to a socialist or republican or democrat and you feel that anger begin to swell. That’s the whole point. Either anger or just you start laughing inside at least.

Trevor Burrus: That they’re not giving the right answers?

Brian Wilson: Yeah. I mean they’re not being truthful. They’re not examining and so it’s yet another kind of thing that we try to bring to that military audience is saying like, you know, really take a look at what you’re sure of. Really examine what you’re sure of and then be open to other interpretations.

I had a very fortunate job in the Marine Corps and then I did human intelligence. So while – you know, while I was in Iraq, a lot of Marines are having language barrier issues. They’re having kind of confrontational issues with Iraqis where I’m seeing Iraqis who are risking their lives every day to come and talk to me and tell me this guy is killing people, this guy is killing your guys, this guy is doing the wrong thing. I see that level of bravery and I see that level of self‐​sacrifice.

So I generalize and say the Iraqis I dealt with are some of the bravest people I’ve ever met and I bring that up in – you know, not in these seminars but in – you know, just kind of conversations with other Marines and they just kind of look at me like, “What are you talking about?” because it’s not their impression.

But that really helped me kind of understand the big divergence that can happen within the military, between – you know, I’m in the same place as you are. I’ve got the same things happening to me that are happening to you and I have this completely diametrically‐​opposed thing. But it also – you know, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m wrong about this stuff. I think that’s very helpful for that military audience to kind of be able to – if they can’t do it in a situation like that, at least do it through the lens of Socrates and say, “What am I more certain about and what am I less certain? Maybe I should take a look at those.”

Aaron Ross Powell: So we’ve touched on this a bit but maybe close by – your courses, your seminars are for military and ex‐​military people.

Brian Wilson: Yeah.

Aaron Ross Powell: So the value of these texts in particular, these classic texts, to – because most of what we’re talking about is these are lessons that we can all learn and we all have – we all see like just a certain side of things and peeling back the layers and seeing the other side is valuable. But what if anything in these texts is uniquely important for the military and ex‐​military audience to learn? And then also I’m just curious. Is there – when they respond to the text in the seminars, is there a difference in the way that they respond to the text if they’re active duty or reserve or veterans?

Brian Wilson: Yeah. I mean to your first point, you know, what we’re really trying to get at is what is the nature of man in conflict and what is the nature of man in cooperation. How do those two things differ? And the other thing we’re trying to offer is an alternative, right? So for me, it was, OK, I can go to Command and Staff and not enjoy any of this or I can just kind of go back and hang out at St. John’s or start a program like this. Well, the people that need to stay in need to accomplish things like that. At least I can hope to give them some little bit of a different avenue to educate themselves that might keep them sane during the kind of less sane education that goes on within the military. I think your last question was …

Aaron Ross Powell: When they’re responding to the texts. Do you see a difference in the way that they interpret or respond to the text if they’re active duty versus say reserve or veteran?

Brian Wilson: I think that the actual – we don’t see a huge difference with active duty versus veteran or even versus service. What’s most entertaining and most enlightening for me is seeing the difference between the more senior and more junior members that come to the seminars.

The more senior members have read, at least they think, a decent amount about this and have many times kind of been within a certain world view for a much longer time. So they have a lot of problems with some of the bigger questions that we raise and they’re very defensive sometimes about the idea of doing it. Somehow they got harangued into doing it or just the idea of asking some of these questions.

The junior folks are much more open to really examining, really critiquing what the reading means to them and also how it impacts their military career.

So I mean most of the people that stick with the program are really company grade, field grade type officers. These are folks that are really in their like late 20s, early 30s. You know, haven’t made that step of saying, “OK, I’m going to stay in for 20 years,” and it just – it’s one of those things where it’s like if you can just reach like one or two people every seminar and get them to really kind of say, “Wow, this is not something I knew was this important. It was not something I knew was this rich,” and it’s something that they’re going to carry with them for the rest of their lives and go, “I need to do this.”

Aaron Ross Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more about libertarianism and the ideas that influence is, visit us on the web at www​.Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.