The flawed analogy between Joshua Katz and Socrates (letter)

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To the editor: 

Nadya Williams’ opinion article arguing that character judgments of public intellectuals matter has left me feeling queasy. Particularly flawed and ill-advised seems to me Williams’s suggestion that there is a useful analogy to be drawn between the recent dismissal of Joshua Katz from Princeton and Socrates’ trial and execution at Athens—with the implication that there are one or two things here which we might learn from the Athenians. Four aspects of the analogy strike me as especially troublesome.

First, in order to make the analogy work, Williams has to crassly misrepresent the historical realities of classical Athens. She calls Socrates a “scholar” who was in the business of “grooming students to be thoughtful and engaged citizens” (incidentally, should citizens not be thoughtful and engaged?) and even slept with one of his students, Alcibiades. But ancient Athens had no universities, and Socrates was not a tenured professor with formal power over students enrolled in his courses and dependent on his grading (and Socrates’ patchy publication record would not have qualified him for a tenured professorship anyway). If anything, Alcibiades was Socrates’ social and economic superior. Distorting the past to make it fit the present is not illuminating; it is simply bad history.

Secondly, according to our ancient sources, Socrates was condemned in a court of law for “not worshipping the gods acknowledged by the city, bringing in new gods and corrupting the young.” While there has been much scholarly debate about the exact meaning of those charges, to maintain, as Williams does, that Socrates was condemned because of his ‘flawed character’ instead of certain specific behaviors and actions grossly oversimplifies matters. Indeed, if there is any point to the analogy, it should perhaps be that the Athenians already understood that people who behave in unacceptable ways ought to be tried by an acknowledged authoritative body and their behavior shown to have violated established rules and laws. (Scholars have often observed that during actual trials, including perhaps that of Socrates, Athenian litigants frequently attempted character assassination anyway—but that is a different story, and not one which I have ever before heard being discussed as an attractive or inspiring feature of Athenian society).

Thirdly, it is inaccurate to say, as Williams states several times in her article, that Socrates was condemned by “the Athenians:” he was in fact condemned by a jury consisting solely of white, male adult citizens, many of whom will have had enslaved persons in their households. This puts the focus on a pressing question which Williams’ article raises, but which she does not answer: who shall be the judges in the trials of character which she advocates? Surely, she would not maintain that in this respect, too, the analogy with Socrates’ trial holds good?

Finally, and most worryingly, when Williams writes that “Socrates’s defense in the process, about the high quality of his scholarship as the ‘gadfly’ stinging Athenians into thinking more deeply, sounded as tone-deaf to those Athenians who voted to condemn him as Katz’s own words ring now to some” (followed by the assertion that “cancellations of public intellectuals are never random”), it is almost as if she is implying that execution—by hemlock?—rather than “mere” dismissal might be a good idea in the case of Katz and other scholars convicted of overstepping the mark as well. Once more, the question rises how far Williams thinks we should push the analogy with the ancient Athenians, whom she seems to trust so much when it comes to judgements of the “decency of character.” It would be good to hear whether she and the editor of IHE regret the implication of her words.

All in all, the article is an example of how not to use the past to guide the present: it is historically inaccurate, conceptually inadequate, unedifying in tone, and sinister in its implications. Some of its argumentative strategies resemble those of the pernicious stories about antiquity told by certain groups on the far right of the political spectrum. It would work quite well as a spoof of such stories, but as it stands, it is an unhelpful—and potentially even harmful—contribution to a sensitive debate.

–Luuk Huitink
Assistant professor in Ancient Greek
University of Amsterdam

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