The improper analogy between Joshua Katz and Socrates (letter)


To the editor: 

Nadya Williams’ opinion article arguing that personality judgments of public intellectuals topic has left me feeling queasy. Specifically improper and ill-advised turns out to me Williams’s advice that there’s a helpful analogy to be drawn between the new dismissal of Joshua Katz from Princeton and Socrates’ trial and execution at Athens—with the implication that there are one or two issues right here which we may be told from the Athenians. 4 sides of the analogy strike me as particularly tough.

First, in an effort to make the analogy paintings, Williams has to crassly misrepresent the ancient realities of classical Athens. She calls Socrates a “student” who was once within the trade of “grooming scholars to be considerate and engaged voters” (by the way, will have to voters no longer be considerate and engaged?) or even slept with considered one of his scholars, Alcibiades. However historic Athens had no universities, and Socrates was once no longer a tenured professor with formal energy over scholars enrolled in his classes and depending on his grading (and Socrates’ patchy e-newsletter report don’t have certified him for a tenured professorship anyway). If anything else, Alcibiades was once Socrates’ social and financial awesome. Distorting the previous to make it are compatible the existing isn’t illuminating; it’s merely dangerous historical past.

Secondly, in line with our historic assets, Socrates was once condemned in a courtroom of legislation for “no longer worshipping the gods said through town, bringing in new gods and corrupting the younger.” Whilst there was a lot scholarly debate in regards to the precise that means of the ones fees, to handle, as Williams does, that Socrates was once condemned as a result of his ‘improper personality’ as an alternative of sure particular behaviors and movements grossly oversimplifies issues. Certainly, if there’s any level to the analogy, it will have to in all probability be that the Athenians already understood that individuals who behave in unacceptable techniques must be attempted through an said authoritative frame and their habits proven to have violated established laws and rules. (Students have regularly seen that all the way through exact trials, together with in all probability that of Socrates, Athenian litigants regularly tried personality assassination anyway—however that could be a other tale, and no longer one that I’ve ever prior to heard being mentioned as a gorgeous or inspiring characteristic of Athenian society).

Thirdly, it’s faulty to mention, as Williams states a number of occasions in her article, that Socrates was once condemned through “the Athenians:” he was once in truth condemned through a jury consisting only of white, male grownup voters, a lot of whom could have had enslaved individuals of their families. This places the focal point on a urgent query which Williams’ article raises, however which she does no longer resolution: who can be the judges within the trials of personality which she advocates? Without a doubt, she would no longer handle that on this admire, too, the analogy with Socrates’ trial holds excellent?

In the end, and maximum worryingly, when Williams writes that “Socrates’s protection within the procedure, in regards to the top quality of his scholarship because the ‘gadfly’ stinging Athenians into considering extra deeply, sounded as tone-deaf to these Athenians who voted to sentence him as Katz’s personal phrases ring now to a few” (adopted through the statement that “cancellations of public intellectuals are by no means random”), it’s virtually as though she is implying that execution—through hemlock?—relatively than “mere” dismissal could be a good suggestion with regards to Katz and different students convicted of overstepping the mark as neatly. Over again, the query rises how a long way Williams thinks we will have to push the analogy with the traditional Athenians, whom she turns out to accept as true with such a lot in terms of judgements of the “decency of personality.” It will be excellent to listen to whether or not she and the editor of IHE remorseful about the implication of her phrases.

All in all, the thing is an instance of ways no longer to make use of the previous to lead the existing: it’s traditionally faulty, conceptually insufficient, unedifying in tone, and sinister in its implications. A few of its argumentative methods resemble the ones of the pernicious tales about antiquity advised through sure teams at the a long way proper of the political spectrum. It will paintings moderately neatly as a spoof of such tales, however because it stands, it’s an unhelpful—and probably even damaging—contribution to a delicate debate.

–Luuk Huitink
Assistant professor in Historical Greek
College of Amsterdam



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