Student Question

Why did Socrates avoid politics and public office in Athens?

Quick answer:

Socrates says that he would have been put to death long ago if he had been active in politics. No one can act justly and continually oppose the majority in public life without exposing himself to the anger of the multitude, which will soon want to kill him.

Expert Answers

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In the Apology, Socrates refers to an inner voice, or "daimon," which has always counselled him not to seek public office. He says that this daimon was correct, since he knows that he would have perished long ago if he had tried to be politically active. No one will live long if he attempts to oppose the will of the majority, as he would have to in order to prevent many unjust things happening in the city. To fight effectively for justice, one must therefore live a private life rather than a public one.

Socrates says that he has only once held any sort of public office in Athens, when he had a seat on the council. His conscience forced him to vote against breaking the law on this occasion, and, because he had taken an unpopular stance, there were orators calling for him to be arrested and indicted. This occurred under democratic rule. Under the oligarchy, a group of men including Socrates was ordered to arrest Leon the Salaminian. Socrates alone refused, because this course of action did not seem just to him. If the oligarchy had not quickly been overthrown, Socrates thinks that he may well have died for this. Given such examples, he asks, can anyone doubt that he would already have been put to death if he had chosen to involve himself in politics?

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