June 10, 2023


Education is everything you need

The flawed analogy between Joshua Katz and Socrates (letter)


To the editor: 

Nadya Williams’ opinion write-up arguing that character judgments of public intellectuals subject has still left me emotion queasy. Significantly flawed and ill-encouraged appears to me Williams’s suggestion that there is a practical analogy to be drawn between the modern dismissal of Joshua Katz from Princeton and Socrates’ demo and execution at Athens—with the implication that there are just one or two factors in this article which we could learn from the Athenians. 4 facets of the analogy strike me as particularly troublesome.

Initial, in purchase to make the analogy do the job, Williams has to crassly misrepresent the historic realities of classical Athens. She calls Socrates a “scholar” who was in the company of “grooming pupils to be thoughtful and engaged citizens” (incidentally, must citizens not be thoughtful and engaged?) and even slept with a person of his students, Alcibiades. But historic Athens had no universities, and Socrates was not a tenured professor with formal electrical power above students enrolled in his programs and dependent on his grading (and Socrates’ patchy publication history would not have qualified him for a tenured professorship anyway). If just about anything, Alcibiades was Socrates’ social and economic exceptional. Distorting the earlier to make it suit the present is not illuminating it is merely negative history.

Next, in accordance to our historic sources, Socrates was condemned in a court of law for “not worshipping the gods acknowledged by the metropolis, bringing in new gods and corrupting the young.” Even though there has been considerably scholarly discussion about the correct that means of people prices, to manage, as Williams does, that Socrates was condemned due to the fact of his ‘flawed character’ alternatively of specific specific behaviors and actions grossly oversimplifies matters. In truth, if there is any place to the analogy, it should really perhaps be that the Athenians by now comprehended that folks who behave in unacceptable approaches should to be tried by an acknowledged authoritative human body and their conduct proven to have violated set up principles and rules. (Students have normally observed that throughout true trials, like perhaps that of Socrates, Athenian litigants usually tried character assassination anyway—but that is a diverse story, and not a single which I have at any time prior to heard getting mentioned as an interesting or inspiring attribute of Athenian culture).

Thirdly, it is inaccurate to say, as Williams states several situations in her article, that Socrates was condemned by “the Athenians:” he was in actuality condemned by a jury consisting exclusively of white, male adult citizens, several of whom will have experienced enslaved folks in their households. This places the aim on a pressing question which Williams’ report raises, but which she does not answer: who shall be the judges in the trials of character which she advocates? Definitely, she would not sustain that in this respect, as well, the analogy with Socrates’ demo holds great?

At last, and most worryingly, when Williams writes that “Socrates’s protection in the course of action, about the high high-quality of his scholarship as the ‘gadfly’ stinging Athenians into imagining extra deeply, sounded as tone-deaf to these Athenians who voted to condemn him as Katz’s have words ring now to some” (adopted by the assertion that “cancellations of public intellectuals are in no way random”), it is nearly as if she is implying that execution—by hemlock?—rather than “mere” dismissal could possibly be a very good notion in the scenario of Katz and other students convicted of overstepping the mark as nicely. When a lot more, the query rises how much Williams thinks we should press the analogy with the historical Athenians, whom she appears to be to belief so significantly when it will come to judgements of the “decency of character.” It would be fantastic to listen to whether she and the editor of IHE regret the implication of her text.

All in all, the write-up is an illustration of how not to use the past to tutorial the present: it is traditionally inaccurate, conceptually insufficient, unedifying in tone, and sinister in its implications. Some of its argumentative tactics resemble people of the pernicious stories about antiquity instructed by sure groups on the much right of the political spectrum. It would get the job done really nicely as a spoof of this kind of stories, but as it stands, it is an unhelpful—and perhaps even harmful—contribution to a sensitive discussion.

–Luuk Huitink
Assistant professor in Ancient Greek
College of Amsterdam


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