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Socrates the Elitist?

September 18, 2010

Reflecting on “Crito” after I read it recently, I began to feel that there was a strong connection between one of Socrates’ messages in the text and a topic that has been prominent in modern politics lately. Elitism has, of late, been used as a tool of mudslinging and slandering by various political parties with the purpose of casting an opponent in an exceedingly negative light- one who is elitist is thought to be out of touch with the every-day troubles that plague the “common man.” An elitist is thought of today as someone who cares little for the masses and believes that the upper echelon of society is in some way superior to all others. In light of this, I question whether a parallel can be drawn between the viewpoints of Socrates in “Crito” and modern elitist beliefs.

As Crito ponders the ramifications of reputation and public opinion, Socrates responds “My good Crito, why should we care so much for what the majority think? The most reasonable people, to whom one should pay more attention, will believe that things were done as they were done (44d).” This illustrates that Socrates cared little for the thoughts of the lesser thinkers of Athenian society; he only believed it was necessary to pay attention to the more educated members of the city.  Inevitably, this break from democratic proceedings further exemplifies the tension between the beliefs of Socrates and that of his statesmen. Further, Socrates later states “…do you not think it a sound statement that one must not value all the opinions of men, but some and not others, nor the opinions of all men, but those of some and not others (47a).”

Today, the label of “elitist” is certainly something that politicians try to distance themselves from; the word carries a connotation that is almost undeniably negative in the modern political arena. In light of this, I would like to present the question- Is Socrates an elitist? If so, would you consider that to be a positive, negative, or neutral trait?

  1. joshuacy permalink
    September 19, 2010 4:38 PM

    While reading Crito, I came to the same conclusion: Socrates is most certainly an elitist. However, unlike modern politicians, I don’t find “elitism” to be an inherently bad concept.

    Socrates proposes that most topics are best left for “experts.” Experts, ranging from educators to craftsmen to politicians, are quite knowledgeable in their respective fields, but conversely, are often ignorant in other fields of thought, as Socrates makes light of.
    Socrates also condemns the system of government in Athens, which, he believes, allows the ignorant masses to make important community-related decisions (in this case, his life or death, which, of course, is the most important of decisions). However, he does not propose a better system for Athens to follow. Allow me to pick up where Socrates dropped the ball:

    Perhaps experts should be in charge, but, rather than Socrates’ proposed “Philosopher Kings,” we allow professional politicians to take part in politics, rather than allowing the citizens to vote on every single issue. These expert politicians would be voted on by the people of the community, running campaigns based on their ideals and future voting tendencies on important matters.
    When an important decision is coming up in the government, people can contact their elected officials to put in their two cents on proposed legislation, etc. Taking things another step further, entire communities could come together to form groups dedicated to contacting elected politicians and putting in the entire group’s opinion (their twenty cents).
    Furthermore, each of these elected officials could have a set of advisers made up of many experts fromt heir respective fields, ranging from medicine to education, baking to art, and everywhere in between. These representatives would be the foremost experts in their fields, representing the community by directly interacting with the politician.

    What a fantastic system of government, generated by simple elitism!

  2. greguff permalink
    September 26, 2010 1:36 PM

    After reading “Crito”, I similarly reflected over the idea if Socrates was in fact an elitist. As previously stated in your post, an elitist is, “someone who cares little for the masses and believes that the upper echelon of society is in some way superior to all others.”

    With this definition of the word elitist, Socrates has to be considered an elitist in Athens. Countless times he states that he does not care for the opinion of the majority, and he listens to the experts and educated of the society. Although all of this is true I do think Socrates is questioning Athens, more than acting as a pretentious elitist.

    Socrates has the ability to escape from jail, with a low percentage of getting caught and facing further penalty. Instead, after a convoluted response to Crito, he chooses to obey the laws and stay and jail and wait for his inevitable persecution. Why does Socrates do this?

    The reason Socrates stays in jail can be best explained by martyrdom. Socrates martyred himself for the fact that Athens can question his beliefs and it would stronger Socrates further assessments about Athens. By Socrates dying in the jail, people will then question if his ideas had any validity. Socrates did not care for politics or the political system that took place in Athens, yet he did want every individual to think for them and ultimately be able to compose their own thoughts instead of conceding with majority thought. The majority opinion is crucial in political environments including our present political system; however, he wants more people to have substantial points and voices, opposed to letting the more vocal people persuade and mentally take over the inferiors.

    Socrates can completely be described as an elitist according to the plain definition of the word. However, one has to consider the meaning of the word has strongly changed from Socrates’ time to present day. In our current political world, an elitist contains a strong negative connotation. Socrates, on the other hand, was dealing with far less educated citizens of his state in Athens, and was one of the first philosophical thinkers that expressed his original thoughts. By calling him an elitist would be accurate, yet in his time period it has to contain a strong positive connotation.

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