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The Parallels between Socrates and Liu Xiaobo

January 13, 2011

Socrates questioned the fundamental ideas of Athens, and his line of questioning sent him to jail.  He made elders who thought they were wise, look like fools in front of the youth.  Socrates wanted the youth, through observation and experience, to also question others and examine themselves. Nevertheless, Socrates’ vision for fostering questioning youth did not simply extend to the young Athenians he questioned vis-a-vis, but rather his vision was to inspire the youth for many generations.  I believe Socrates has inspired the contemporary thinker, Liu Xiaobo. 

Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the Nobel Prize in 2010, parallels Socrates in that they both want their governments to reflect on themselves.  Liu Xiaobo wrote Charter 08 in 2008, which was a critique of the current Chinese government.  The Charter advocates for more human rights, the expansion of the private sector, truth in reconciliation and calls for the Chinese government to examine these issues directly.  When Liu Xiaobo states “truth in reconciliation” he means for the Government to examine itself for its past wrongdoings and injustices.  Likewise, Socrates wanted his government to examine itself and to pursue the ultimate justice, truth.  Similar to Socrates’ defense for living a more private life, Xiaobo advocates for Chinese citizens to have freedom of religion, expression, and assembly. Such rights allow for individuals to make their own decision, live private lives, and thus empower them to examine their own lives.  Analogous to Socrates, Xiaobo was convicted of spreading rumors, slander, and of questioning the fundamentals of the Chinese government. Written formally, the charge against him was inciting subversion of state power. 

Contrary to Socrates’ trial, which has posterity solely because of Plato’s writings, Xiaobo’s trial has worldwide recognition and reaction.  Some in the Western World view Xiaobo as a martyr who is willing to serve a long prison sentence for his beliefs.  

Xiaobo further parallels Socrates in the way Xiaobo handled himself in trial and his statements about the Chinese government.

“I hope to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love… While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities… The order of a bad government is better than the chaos of anarchy.” – Liu Xiaobo

“Is your wisdom such as not to realize that your country is to be honored more than your mother, your father, and all your ancestors, that it is more to be revered and more sacred, and that it counts for more among the gods and sensible men, that you must worship it, yield to it, and placate its anger more than your father’s?” – Socrates (speaking as the Laws of Athens)

 Both Socrates and Xiaobo respect their governments’ laws, as even a bad government is better than anarchy.  Liu Xiaobo statements indicate that his intentions are not to dismantle the system, but to make the government think about itself and the ways it can be more just. Likewise, Socrates’ defense was a critique of Athens and not about the charges against him. Thousands of years since Socrates notwithstanding, Liu Xiaobo experiences imprisonment for his critique of the Chinese government.

  1. roninglehart permalink
    January 13, 2011 11:23 PM


    You’ve made some very interesting points in your post, and do a great job outlining why it is appropriate to compare Liu Xiaobo to Socrates. Indeed, I find myself agreeing with you. At present, there seems to be a fad for comparing modern public figures to Socrates, and some of those comparisons are better than others. I would personally say that it seems more fitting to compare Liu Xiaobo to Socrates than it is to compare Julian Assange to that philosopher.


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