Socrates, Travel, and the Social Contract
I’m 22 years old – young by most standards, but transitioning into the life of an adult. I’ll be graduating in a couple of weeks, and then starting at a full-time job a few weeks after that.
I’ve traveled a fair amount for someone my age. Not as much as the sons and daughters of the growing expat community who seem to be constantly shifting between the US, Singapore, London, and the Middle East. Not as little as some of my friends who have never travelled outside of the US. An amount somewhere in the middle, where most of my travels have been vacation-length, with a long stint in London and a short stint in Afghanistan.
Up until recently, I believed that my desire to travel was fueled by the typical wanderlust or ennui of the idealistic and immortal 20-something. The romantic notions of “exploring different cultures,” “increasing my empathy,” and “roughing it” became an easy way for me to justify my desire to explore the world outside of the US. It was fun to imagine myself completely lost in some jungle in Chile with nothing but a backpack, a change of clothes, 100 dollars, and a limited Spanish vocabulary at my disposal: the perfect ingredients for an adventure. Trekking would be a fitting way to gather up the time that leaked ever more rapidly from an infinite horizon, sifting its sands into discrete, country-shaped bottles to be cataloged on a shelf after collection and retrieved later in life during times of thirst.
The other day I found a different way to look at my wanderlust. I was reading The Last Days of Socrates by Plato, translated by Hugh Tredennick. It details the trial, conviction, and execution of Socrates in 399BC. A self-described “gadfly,” Socrates would often engage in dialectics, or pointed conversations, with those who believed themselves to be wise. He embarrassed and enraged many members of the Athenian aristocracy, but his ultimate objective was not malicious. He was simply puzzled by the Delphic Oracle’s divine proclamation that he (Socrates) was the wisest man alive.1 He states this in his appeal to the jury, which was made up largely of the men who he had annoyed:
If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place. It is literally true (even if it sounds rather comical) that God has specially appointed me to this city, as though it were a large thoroughbred horse which because of its great size is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of some stinging fly. It seems to me that God has attached me to this city to perform the office of such a fly; and all day long I never cease to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you. You will not easily find another like me, gentlemen, and if you take my advice you will spare my life. I suspect, however, that before long you will awake from your drowsing, and in your annoyance you will take Anytus’ advice and finish me off with a single slap; and then you will go on sleeping till the end of your days, unless God in his care for you sends someone to take my place.2
After refusing to put on a show for jury, he is found guilty of impiety and corruption of the Athenian youth. He is condemned to death for his crimes. As he is waiting to be executed, Crito, an old friend and admirer, begs Socrates to escape. He tells Socrates that he has arranged all the necessary bribes and that he can have him on a ship out of Athens within the night. Assuming the persona of the Laws and Constitution of Athens as the counterpart in his dialectic, Socrates confronts himself in order to determine whether he has the power to disobey and thereby destroy the laws that were established by his ancestors and the state that raised him:
Any Athenian, on attaining to manhood and seeing for himself the political organization of the State and us its Laws, is permitted, if he is not satisfied with us [the constitution and the laws], to take his property and go away wherever he likes. If any of you chooses to go to one of our colonies, supposing that he should not be satisfied with us and the State, or to emigrate to any other country, not one of us Laws hinders or prevents him from going away wherever he likes, without any loss of property. On the other hand, if any one of you stands his ground when he can see how we administer justice and the rest of our public organization, we hold that by so doing he has in fact undertaken to do anything that we tell him; and we maintain that anyone who disobeys is guilty of doing wrong on three separate counts: first because we are his parents, and secondly because we are his guardians; and thirdly because, after promising obedience, he is neither obeying us nor persuading us to change our decision if we are at fault in any way; and although all our orders are in the form of proposals, not of savage commands, and we give him the choice of either persuading us or doing what we say, he is actually doing neither. These are the charges, Socrates, to which we say that you will be liable if you do what you are contemplating; and you will not be the least culpable of your fellow-countrymen, but one of the most guilty.
If I said 'Why do you [the laws] say that?' they would no doubt pounce upon me with perfect justice and point out that there are very few people in Athens who have entered into this agreement with them as explicitly as I have. They would say 'Socrates, we have substantial evidence that you are satisfied with us and with the State. You would not have been so exceptionally reluctant to cross the borders of your country if you had not been exceptionally attached to it. You have never left the city to attend a festival or for any other purpose, except on some military expedition; you have never travelled abroad as other people do, and you have never felt the impulse to acquaint yourself with another country or constitution; you have been content with us and with our city. You have definitely chosen us, and undertaken to observe us in all your activities as a citizen; and as the crowning proof that you are satisfied with our city, you have begotten children in it.3
Through this logic, Socrates determines that he must decline Crito’s offer of escape and remain in his cell, awaiting execution. After enjoying the benefits and protections of the state, Socrates would be “one of the most guilty” citizens of Athens if he were to break the law for his own selfish purposes. He had a hand, however small, in shaping the laws and the constitution that had condemned him, and could have moved at any time had he found Athens wanting. Socrates would find justice only in death.
The Social Contract
Never before had I seen the concept of the social contract defined so clearly. Although he does not use this terminology, Socrates clearly presents the choice that many (but by no means all) of us are lucky enough to face as mature adults: where to live, work, raise a family, and generally pursue what makes us happy. We gain the stability to pursue these freedoms from the state in which we live by subjecting ourselves to its laws. We expect others who have entered into the same contract to act in accordance, and we expect the state to punish those who break our collective law.
According to most societies, we are able to enter into this contract upon our 18th birthday.4 This is known as the age of majority, or the legal threshold at which “minors cease to legally be considered children and assume control over their persons, actions, and decisions.” This is not to be confused with the age of sexual consent, drinking, driving, smoking, etc. – it is simply the age at which a minor becomes a major; a mature and self conscious adult. The premise that most 18 year olds can make rational and well-informed decisions without the help of a parent or guardian is debatable, but the US sees it as reasonable and just for them to join the army, to emancipate themselves, and to enter the workforce of their own volition at this age. I will refer to this phenomenon as Socrates does, as the attainment of manhood.
Here we come to the problem: before we turn 18, or graduate from college, or get a job, or move out of the house, or some combination of these things – whatever constitutes the attainment of manhood in the eyes of the state and the society – we know nothing of the practical matters of the world. Parents or circumstances have dictated our place(s) of upbringing, which are generally confined to 2-3 countries maximum. For most who were born and raised in the US, myself included, studying abroad in college represents a first glimpse of life as an emigrant, however brief and touristy it might be.
Even if we move around while young, as children we are unequipped to view the important parts of a country's laws and structures with a practical eye. Judicial, political, historical, racial, economic, and executive constructs are abstract ideas that bore us to tears, to be memorized for our exams and then forgotten once we have secured a respectable job with a decent salary. We subconsciously pick up values, customs, and beliefs from our parents and the communities around us, but it is hard for us to see how the organization of the state and its laws affect society and vice versa. The practical and tangible constructions of the state (laws, fiscal & monetary policy, diplomatic actions, etc.) become real once we attain manhood and begin to fully participate in society.
Once you start to pay taxes you also begin to question how your money is being spent by the state. Are the police truly looking out for my best interests and protection? Do I agree with my country’s gun, abortion, capital punishment, medical, property, business, and tax laws? Do I trust the NSA, FDA, FCC, SEC, DoE, DoT, DoD, Homeland Security, Senate, Congress, and the Federal Reserve? Do I even know 1/100th of what my government does for me? Does my vote to change the system even matter? All the things you couldn’t care less about as a kid suddenly begin to affect you and your friends.
What if I don’t like what I see around me? What are my options? According to Socrates, you have two options:
- Convince those around you (in a democratic nation) to change the laws and the constitution of your country.
It is with respect to 2) Moving that I have come to see my wanderlust. It is fueled not only by the thrill of the unknown and the glamor of travel, but also by the practical obligation of researching different forms of government, different climates, different ideologies, and different ways of life. I feel the need to conduct due diligence before I implicitly accept the tacit social contract of living in the US.
I’ve heard about life in other countries. The money is good as an expat in the UAE. Singapore too, but the laws and punishments are strict. The work/life balance and social welfare policies are great in Western Europe, but it’s hard to get a visa and a job. China has high earnings potential if you can learn the language and don’t mind some pollution. Thailand is good for working remotely as a consultant and real estate is cheap. Denmark and Sweden have created functional and progressive societies by sitting on the income of a properly managed oil fund, but they’re xenophobic and muted. Don’t bother with Russia, Mexico, or Brazil unless you have mafia connections – corruption is prevalent. Japan is quirky and the people can be racist, but you’ll have fun working there for a couple of years. Forget about Greece, Italy, and Spain – the unemployment rate is crazy.
These generalizations are broad. They can never be applied to an entire country. And yet there must be some truth to them: they are still perpetuated by many of those who have worked and lived as expats in these countries. At the same time, I could apply the same descriptions to different states, cities, and neighborhoods in the US. But we place weight on these generalizations without conducting thorough research in the field. Why?
Because I am risk-averse and complacent. Because spending a couple of years working in each country is hard and expensive. Because what about the time I could’ve spent climbing the corporate ladder? Because what will my friends and family think? Because my life isn’t in danger here. Because I don’t know the language. Because sometimes, we aren’t lucky enough to have the opportunity to shop around for a well-tailored suit, and we just have to grab what we are given and hope to trade up in the future.
Most importantly, because a second option to emigration exists: change. Which is why I worry that I, like many of my generation, don’t seem to care about the old, political mechanisms of change. But this is a topic for another time.
The social contract stands before me and I have yet to perform my due diligence. If I stay, I am tacitly signing the contract identified by Socrates 2,400 years ago. One of the most gifted minds in the pantheon of great thinkers, he performed an invaluable service for his corrupt, festering country.5 He was rewarded with death. A death he did not deserve, but one that he was forced to accept in order to complete his end of the contract.
Do I have a choice? Do you have a choice?
Thank you to Nick Duckwiler, Noorissa Khoja, and Radhika Chouhan for reading drafts of this essay, sharing different perspectives, and providing extremely helpful feedback.
Plato, p. 49: (Socrates speaking to the jury) ‘You know Chaerephon, of course. He was a friend of mine from boyhood, and a good democrat who played his part with the rest of you in the recent expulsion and restoration. And you know what he was like; how enthusiastic he was over anything that he had once undertaken. Well, one day he actually went to Delphi and asked this question of the god – as I said before, gentlemen, please do not interrupt – he asked whether there was anyone wiser than myself. The priestess replied that there was no one.↩
Plato, p. 62.↩
Plato, pp. 92-93.↩
There is one very notable exception: Under the Shari’a-informed laws of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the age of majority for females is 8 years old. For males it is 14 years old. This means that girls older than 8 and boys older than 14 can be tried for crimes as adults. See Nayeri .↩
Socrates was sentenced to death in 399BC, 5 years after Athens had suffered a huge and unprecedented defeat in the 27-year-long Peloponnesian war as a result of the arrogance and deceit of the Athenian aristocracy. The once-proud nation lost its independence a mere 60 years later to the Macedonians.↩