One curious difficulty that emerges when teaching Plato’s “Apology” is that students often have a difficult time understanding how Socrates could be put on trial for things like corrupting the youth and impiety. At least according to the social studies textbooks students read in 8th grade, the U.S. (and “western societies” in general) have realized that freedom of speech is an essential value, and we have declared that religious worship is an individual matter. The government should not coerce speech, nor should it dictate which God or gods one worships (or does not worship, as the case may be). So Socrates’ trial seems to be an anachronism, perhaps an historical curiosity, but also one with rather few contemporary implications.
In class, I tried to refute this assumption by presenting Socrates’ position in different terms. Socrates isn’t interested in what we call freedom of speech or freedom of religion; he is, I argued, offering a meditation on the fraught relation between politics and philosophy, or between the appearances that sway public opinion, and the philosopher’s orientation toward a truth that transcends such appearances and opinions.
However, I leave this aside for now so as to focus on this contemporary concern about impiety and corruption of the youth. The British government has now published its final version of what it calls the “Prevent” program, which is a counter-terrorism policy designed to prevent youths from being drawn into terrorist networks. The premise of this program is that people are first drawn into “extremist” networks by being exposed to:
vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of the armed forces.
To prevent exposure to such extremist beliefs, “All relevant curriculum areas will need to be engaged, with a single contact point for delivery of Prevent-related activity.” So here we have a call for a curriculum review to prevent students from being exposed to anti-democratic ideas or ideas that challenge individual liberties, and compliance with these principles will be “monitored centrally via the Home Office and through appropriate inspection regimes in each sector.”
I hope the themes of the “Apology” are apparent here. The Prevent guidelines are more or less explicitly concerned with the corruption of the youth, and they have set up certain values (“democracy,” “individual liberty,” and so on) have effectively been set up as gods, such that any challenging of those attitudes becomes an act of impiety.
It is not too much of a stretch to say that these guidelines, if taken literally, would mean the end of political philosophy. Historically speaking, almost no philosophers defend democracy or individual liberty (Plato, as we’ll see, detested such ideas). Even those who defend some notion of democracy often have bad things to say about it. But of course, not to worry: It seems quite unlikely that the overseers of the Prevent guidelines will use them to prevent the teaching of Plato. Rather, it seems much more likely that these guidelines will be used (and abused) to target other groups. I’ll leave it to you all to figure out who these other groups might be….