Democracy, Populism, and the Tyranny of the Experts, Part V
If we wanted to—well, we do want to—we could go back 2,500 years and identify the exact point when human civilization went off the rails on the subject of experts.
It’s 399 B.C. and a fellow named Socrates is languishing in an Athenian prison, awaiting execution. He’s been convicted (albeit by a narrow vote of the citizens of Athens—500 of them, acting as one big jury) of corrupting the morals of Athens’ youth and of being impious.
Needless to say, Socrates’ pals are seriously unhappy about this, and since many of them hail from wealthy and influential families, they’ve identified a way out: they’ll grease the palm of the jail warden to look the other way some dark night while Socrates slips off into exile in Thessaly. But Socrates has other ideas. In the first place, he views Thessaly—as a place to live—the way we might view Death Valley as a place to live. More important, he feels strongly that he needs to abide by the verdict of his fellow citizens.
Socrates’ friends have ginned up a bunch of arguments and they’ve sent a rather dim fellow named Crito to the jail to convince Socrates of the need to escape. Exactly why it was that these friends thought they might win an argument with Socrates, since they’d never won one in seventy years, is a bit of a mystery, but whatever.
Crito arrives at the jail cell and makes his arguments, which Socrates swats away like so many gnats. Finally, though, they get to the crux of the matter, which is how Socrates’ reputation will hold up down through history. After all, Crito points out, if Socrates goes to his death he will be abandoning his family. He’ll make his friends look bad for not saving him. And in any event, continues Crito, anybody who was facing execution and who had a chance to get away would seize that chance. If Socrates doesn’t escape while he has the opportunity, people will think him a fool.
But Socrates is unmoved. During his trial he’d promised to abide by the verdict, whichever way it went. He is a citizen of Athens, Athens formed him, and he is content to be judged by his fellow men. “Men of Athens,” he’d said at his trial, “I honor and love you.” Socrates would rather be executed than go back on his word.
And this is where the dialogue should have ended, and if it had ended there the human race would have been much better off for the next 2,500 years. Socrates, after all, had demolished all of Crito’s arguments and there was nothing more to say about the matter.
Alas, Socrates can see that Crito isn’t getting it, that Crito doesn’t want to get it. Meanwhile, Socrates is getting impatient with the lad. Time is passing by and Socrates is eager to finish off the argument with another win, so he can guzzle the hemlock soup and float off to Mount Olympus, where he fondly hopes to encounter stronger debating partners.
Socrates needs to get rid of Crito, and so he stoops to a sleazy debating trick: he changes the subject on poor Crito without seeming to do so. Socrates does this by dismissing Crito’s argument that men will think he’s a fool if he goes placidly to his death. The only people whose opinions about his reputation matter, he points out, are those who are themselves wise, who understand what it means to behave properly, to be just, to live—and die—as one ought to do. And Socrates has identified who those people are: his fellow Athenian citizens. But now Socrates pivots.
“Look here, my boy,” Socrates says. “Suppose you were ill, I mean really, really sick. Would you wander out into the street and ask random passersby what you should do to get well? Of course you wouldn’t! You’d consult an expert in diseases, namely, your family physician. Am I right or am I right?”
And Crito, slightly dizzied by this sudden question, concedes that Socrates is right. If Crito were sick, he would definitely consult an expert. Argument over. Point, game and match to Socrates yet again. Socrates drinks the hemlock and dies, but whether he drifted off to Mount Olympus and found better debating partners Plato doesn’t tell us.
What we do know is that for the next two thousand years or so human societies idolized experts. And why not? Didn’t Socrates himself tell us that’s where we needed to turn in our hour of need? Who’s going to argue with Socrates?
In fact, however, Socrates’ question to Crito was what the courts call “dictum,” a side issue irrelevant to the main point, which was that when it comes to issues of crucial importance to humanity, issues of wisdom and justice and right, it’s the opinion of the people who matter, it’s they who can best be counted on. Expert opinion has its place, Socrates is saying, when the issue is a narrow, limited one—like the correct treatment for some boring disease. But Socrates only raised that issue to get rid of Crito.
In Socrates’ defense, he undoubtedly considered his trick to be harmless, since experts of any kind were rare as hen’s teeth in third century BC Athens. Athenians didn’t rely on legal experts, they represented themselves in the courts (as Socrates did). Wealthy people—like Crito—consulted physicians, but most people never laid eyes on one.
Unfortunately, over the years experts began to proliferate and Socrates’ debating trick took on a darker hue. If we were to encounter the fellow today—say, on Mount Olympus—we might want to punch him in the nose.
Next up: DP&TE, Part VI