How does Socrates Vision of Athenian Democracy Differ from that of Pericles

Both Pericles’ Funeral Oration from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and Plato’s Apology of Socrates describe the Athenian democracy and society, however, they are very opposite views. According to Pericles, the written as well as unwritten laws of democracy, such as the administration being in hands of many citizens who are also the judges and jurors in public matters and in control of the law – which must be obeyed by all and where public service is the most important virtue, are what made Athens become great; while Socrates contradicts those rules and points out the fallacy and criticizes the value of those rules.

In his speech, under the part “Athenian Democracy: “Under What Institution Our Empire Became Great”, Pericles claims that what makes democracy great is that “the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few” (Thucydides 2.37) and that there is “no exclusiveness in (Athenian) public life” (Thucydides 2.37) and any citizen can serve the public “not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty a bar, but a man may benefit his country whatever be the obscurity of his condition” (Thucydides 2.37).

In other words, Pericles say that, many citizens are part of the administration and that it doesn’t matter if somebody is rich or poor and from what kind of family they are from, as long as you are worthy the position they can be a part of public life, which makes democracy (and consequently Athens) better and as a result it also makes the rulings made by the judges and jurors more just.

However, Socrates is exposing the fallacy of those principles by comparing it to horses and horse trainer, where according to democratic “logic” “one man (trainer) do them (horses) harm and all the world good. Is not the exact opposite the truth? One man is able to do them good, or at least not many; -the trainer of the horses, that is to say, does them good, and others who have to do with them rather injure them?” (Plato 24c). With this example Socrates contradicts Pericles’ opinion that “the hands of many and not of the few” (Thucydides 2.37) are what matters in democracy, but the quality not the quantity mattes, as many of them are common man and don’t have the knowledge and wisdom needed to make the right decisions for others and only few of the jurors/judges are truly qualified to do so ( just like the horse trainer).

Socrates also claims that just because some of them are experts at their everyday jobs “and were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadow their wisdom” (Plato 22c9). On that account, according to Socrates, people who are educated and properly trained should be the one the make the decision of high matters. In opposition to that, Pericles claims that “even those (…) who are engaged in business have a very fair idea of politics” (Thucydides 2.40). According to Pericles it does not matter what the citizens do in their private life and what kind of people they are or if they are truly qualified to hold public positions as “there is no exclusiveness in (..)public life and in our private lives we are not (…) angry with our neighbors if he does what he likes (…). While we are thus unconstrained in our private affairs, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts” (Thucydides 2.37).

In Pericles’ view it does not matter if you are good or bad person as long as you take part in some sort of public service and those “who take no interest in public affairs, not only (are regarded) as harmless, but as a useless character.” (Thucydides 2.40). Therefore, any contribution to society made in private life that does not involve some sort of public/ political service makes it worthless in eyes of Athenians.

Socrates argues that it does matter what people do in their personal life and whether they are good or bad as “the good do their neighbors good, and the evil to them evil. Now, is that a truth which (…) wisdom has recognized early in life (…). (Plato 24c9) and for that reason you can’t expect a fair and just decision for others made by a bad person.

Socrates condemns people of Athens for being “prevented from doing wrong by respect for the magistrates and for the laws, having an special regard to those which are ordained (…)”(Thucydides 2.37) while he “shall obey God rather than (humans)” (Plato 29d2).

Pericles’s view of democracy places the value of the public service to the state rather than personal virtues like Socrates, who pours scorn on people of Athens for” heaping greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul (…)”(Plato 29d2) instead obeying and living according to God’s laws that should be superior to the state’s laws. Socrates claims that the administration being in hands of many citizens who are also the judges and jurors in public matters and in control of the law – which must be obeyed by all and where public service is the most important virtue is what makes democracy ineffective unlike Pericles who think that democracy is what made Athens great.

Work Cited.

Plato. Apology. 17a1-42a2. Trans B.Jowett. London, 1892.

Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. 2.35-46, Trans. B Jowett. Oxford, 1900. Modified.

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