In the two years since Muslim terrorists murdered over 3,000 of our citizens on September 11, Americans have been taking one side or the other in the debate between the partisans of security and public order, led by Attorney General John Ash-croft, and the partisans of free speech, championed by the ACLU and other groups promoting civil liberties and “human rights.” This debate was intensified by the U.S. decision to invade Iraq and by the admittedly small-scale demonstrations mounted by the far left. It is not doing too much of an injustice to characterize the Ashcroft position as the declaration of an unprecedented state of emergency in which some traditional and constitutional liberties must be suspended for the common good and to characterize the ACLU position as the insistence that the rights of free speech, free press, and public assembly take precedence over any threat to national security, especially when that threat has been exaggerated for political purposes. Although I have no sympathy for the ACLU or its argument, we need to preserve our moral balance. Bruce Ackerman, in a recent article in the American Prospect, makes the obvious comparison with the homicidal mania we tolerate on a daily basis:
Last year there were 16,000 murders in the United States. Yet the FBI doesn’t issue orange alerts in response to chatter on gangland cell phones threatening an escalation of murderous hits; it simply beefs up its activities in sensible ways.
In an earlier generation, we might have tried to resolve this issue by appealing to the Constitution and to its sovereign interpreters, the nine political lawyers sitting on the Supreme Court, but, as we have shown in Chronicles a few months ago, the Constitution means something quite different today from what it meant to the Framers and, indeed, from what it meant in the days of Grover Cleveland. We can never go back to the 1880’s, much less the 1780’s, and a solution to this dilem-ma cannot profitably be sought in an examination of how free Americans once exercised their liberties in the Old Republic. That Old Republic died before I was born, and there is little that any of us can do to change it.
The principles of ordered liberty (to borrow a popular conservative expression) embedded in the Constitution are an expression of an Anglo-American political tradition that emphasized the importance of individual liberty (as explained by the theory of natural rights) and the necessity of public order. Since the Constitution was itself more of a contract among sovereign states than a national constitution in the modern French or American sense, it did not have to spell out much in the way of moral, social, or political principles. The exception is the Bill of Rights, which was demanded as a means of curbing the extension of federal power. Throughout most of our history, however, the Bill of Rights has been used to expand federal power at the expense not only of the original parties to the constitutional contract (the states) but even of the more significant constituent bodies of society—namely, the family, churches, and neighborhoods.
Members of authentic communities rarely speak of their individual rights or their claims against that community. In the case of a church parish, the use of such language threatens the very existence of the parish, and the constant harping on rights and the counter-harping on national security is destroying whatever is left of national unity. There are more things at stake than the Justice Department’s prurient interest in your e-mail or in your right to read pornography, and little good can come out of a debate whose question is posed in such trivializing terms. To return to a sane understanding of the citizen—both his rights and his duties—we shall not get very far by repeating the now-exploded social theories of John Locke or Jeremy Bentham. Let us take the radical step of looking beyond the narrow horizons of the American imperium (as it is now the fashion to describe it) and consider a not-so-hypothetical example of a famous political dissident who was executed for his frankness.
The death of Socrates is usually portrayed as martyrdom to the principle of free speech. It was nothing of the kind, as Socrates said himself. The protagonist of this tragedy is Socrates, and the antagonists are not his accusers Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon (mere supernumeraries) but the city of Athens. To understand what happened in the spring of 399 B.C., we have to know something of the life stories of the two principals. Let us start with the older one, the city.
According to local tradition, the ancient city of Athens had never been conquered or occupied by an invader. The Athenians were, so they believed, autochthonous (literally, they sprang from the soil of Attica) and therefore not subject to the same class warfare that wreaked havoc in cities seized by Dorian tribes who reduced the natives to serfdom. Athens had been deeply troubled in the sixth century, when economic crises reduced a significant part of the population to debt-slavery, and the dictatorships or emergency governments of Solon, Peisistratus, and Cleisthenes were aimed, at least in part, at solving economic problems and healing social divisions. After 500, Athens was increasingly unified, and, in the crisis of the Persian Wars (including Athens’ campaigns to liberate Greeks living on the islands and on Asia Minor), they hit upon ostracism as a means of eliminating dissension. Politicians who made themselves too prominent in opposition might find themselves, for no good reason beyond the unity of the city, sent into exile.
As Athens became more democratic in form, the city became more and more subject to ambitious demagogues such as Pericles and men far worse than he. Pericles’ brilliant kinsman Alcibiades courted the mob, despised their religion, and, when his intemperate behavior got him into trouble, betrayed his country to the Spartans. An aristocratic coalition took advantage of the troubled days of Athenian defeat and established a moderate oligarchy, which was taken over by the extreme elements, the so-called Thirty, led by Critias. Critias was a Nietzschean immoralist who believed that religion and morality were invented by the weak to prevent the strong from enjoying power. He and his thugs accused rich men of various crimes, executed them, and stole their property. However, when the demo-cracy returned—and the most guilty of the criminals had been killed or exiled—most Athenians were more interested in restoring unity than in seeking revenge from those who had collaborated with the Thirty.
Socrates had lived through these stirring times. Born in 469, ten years after the defeat of the Persians at Plataea, he had practiced his father’s trade of stone-cutter and sculptor but began spending more and more of his time in philosophical study and discussion. His method, as described by Plato and Xenophon (and Aristophanes), was a kind of negative dialectic in which he stripped his hearers of their conventional opinions and left them with nothing better. At the beginning of one of these aporetic dialogues, the student will express himself confidently on the subject of courage, for example, but, by the end, he can only confess his complete ignorance. The so-called experts—poets, generals, statesmen, sophists—always turn out to be wrong, but it is not until the middle dialogues of Plato (which may or may not reflect the master’s teaching) that we find the remedy to our dilemma: an absolute standard of goodness or beauty or courage, which our everyday virtues reflect, albeit poorly.
The Socratic method, though it leads ultimately to higher truth, can have a very demoralizing effect on the students whose inherited opinions it undermines, and Aristophanes (in the Clouds) took it seriously enough to single out Socrates for corrupting young men and teaching them to disrespect their parents. Plato, at least, seems to think the play helped turn public opinion against Socrates.
Socrates did not need Aristophanes as an accuser, however, since his students and associates proved to be so troublesome to Athens: the degenerate traitor Alcibiades; the Nazi thugs Critias and Charmides (Plato’s uncles); and even Meno the Thessalian, described in charming terms by Plato but revealed by Xenophon as a master of corruption, greed, and treachery. Socrates had remained in Athens while the Thirty were in power, though he says he refused to do their bidding. Nonetheless, though by law Socrates could not be prosecuted for his friendship with Critias, he could be tried on such other charges as atheism and (closer to the point) corrupting the young.
The trial of Socrates is not the case of the Athenian state versus an individual named Socrates. There is no Athenian state, only a few rough-hewn mechanisms expressing the will (and the whims) of the Athenian people. The hundreds of ordinary people sitting on juries, more than the assembly of the people, were the real foundation of Athenian democracy. A small group of fellow citizens brought the charges, but it was the people of Athens who tried and condemned him.
Socrates did not defend himself on the grounds that intellectuals should be free to express their opinions. He was innocent, he argued, but, if he were guilty as charged, the Athenians would be right to put him to death. In the Crito, he is presented with an opportunity to escape, which he rejects. The city is wrong on the facts, but it has the right to take the life of a citizen, even wrongly. What could he say, he wonders, to the nomoi (laws and traditions) of Athens if he bolted? That he was wrongly condemned? Would not the nomoi respond by asking him if he repudiated the laws that made possible his parents’ marriage and his own birth and upbringing and even his education?
The nomoi explain that the patris, the sum of all the ancestors and descendants of this generation of citizens, takes precedence over the individual citizen. Socrates the Athenian philosopher would never have existed had there been no Athens to nurture his identity. He is a link in a chain that forms a web of relationships that demand his loyalty. Outside of this web of culture and kinship, he makes no sense.
The argument of the nomoi is the correct answer not only to the civil libertarian argument of individual rights but to the doctrine of suprema lex salus publica. Socrates is not executed by “the state” (the concept has no meaning in fifth-century Athens); he goes willingly to meet his death rather than betray the past and future generations of his people. Such a principle of self-sacrifice, however, can only be applied to communities of loyalty (such as Josiah Royce described), not to such abstractions as “the human race,” “the European Union,” or even a North American Free Trade Association. The citizen-body of Attica, which many feared was already too large, was measured in the tens of thousands. In the Socratic sense, it is very difficult to be loyal to a faraway government—the few thousand officials who rule over nearly 300 million people strung out in cities and towns across a continent. We might, however, display such loyalty (though few of us do) in our own hometowns, whose powers have been stripped away by the powerful men who control state and federal governments.
Politicians in Washington tell us we should be loyal to what they call “the American way of life”; if that phrase means anything, however, it should refer to the customs, religion, and culture of the British and European settlers who came to the New World and replanted their traditions in fresh soil, where they yielded a rich harvest. If we are to trust the politicians, we should be loyal to the Christian religion, Western culture, European peoples, and the Anglo-American language, political institutions, and legal traditions.
But all of these are under constant assault from the state and federal government agencies that are now demanding our loyalty. Christians cannot pray in the schools they pay for with their taxes or pretend that their traditions are equal (much less superior) to the religions and cultures of devil-worshipers, cannibals, polygamists, female-circumcisers, wife-burners, and child-sacrificers. Americans not only must bow to the superiority of non-Western cultures; they also have to import their representatives in such large numbers as to threaten the bare survival of their own people and culture.
In the long run, the debate between the Department of Justice and the ACLU is trivial: Both are staffed by the dogged enemies of America’s cultural and religious heritage. The deeper problem is the destruction of that sense of community that demands our loyalty. At this point, it is futile to expect the governments in Washington or in the states to give up their campaign to eradicate the vestiges of the West from American soil, much less to nurture and protect the Christian Faith. We are, nonetheless, subject to the rulers of this earth and should not be found wanting in our duties as subjects. But government, which can command our monies and our lives, cannot command our hearts, and those we should give to the institutions that command our loyalty—our families, the little communities of shop and school, and the Church. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”—even if you remain a republican loyal to the Rome of the Catos—“and unto God the things that are God’s.”