Influence by Adroit Adulation

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

If a young man wishes to become politically powerful, Socrates argues, his best plan is to resemble the despot or democracy as much as possible, in order to acquire influence by adroit adulation — but giving the people what they want is not giving them what’s best for them:

If Pericles had been the good statesman his admirers called him, he must of necessity have made the Athenians better men than they were when he first began to govern them. But Socrates contends that the result proved that he failed in this first requisite of a good statesman, inasmuch as he left them more unjust and more ferocious than he received them. “A superintendent of asses,” says Socrates, ” or of horses or oxen, would be thought a very bad one, if the animals did not kick, and start, and bite when they were intrusted to him, but did all this when they quitted his charge.”

And he says such politicians bear the same relation to good statesmen as authors of cookery-books and tavern-keepers to good gymnasts or superintendents of the body. As cooks and tavern-keepers cram the body and bring on repletion and disease, and are nevertheless eulogized by the ignorant, in like manner, says Socrates, are eulogized “the men who, having feasted the Athenians and crammed them with what they desire, are said to have made them a great nation: because it is not perceived that the commonwealth is swollen and hollow, through those men of antiquity; for, without making us just or temperate, they have crammed us with ports, and docks, and fortifications, and revenues, and such trumpery.”

Socrates predicts his own fate:

“I shall be judged,” he says, “as a physician would, if tried before children on the accusation of a cook, who would say, ‘See what evils this man has inflicted upon you, cutting, and burning, and emaciating you, giving you bitter draughts, and forcing you to fast! not like me, who have feasted you with everything that is delightful.’ What could the physician say to all this? If he said the truth, ‘I did all these things for your health,’ would not such judges hoot him down?

I well know that I myself should be treated in a similar manner, if I were brought before a court of justice. For I shall not be able to remind the judges of any pleasures that I have procured for them, which are what they understand by benefits. And if any one should say that I corrupt the youth by unsettling their minds, or libel the older men by bitter speeches, either in private or in public, I shall neither be able to say the truth, namely, ‘I say and do all these things justly, and therefore for your good;’ nor shall I have any other defence; so that I must be content to undergo my fate.”

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