Each of us, right now, is presented with a choice: to be Meletus or Socrates. Most of us haven’t heard about Meletus and so, to be on the safe side, we may incline toward Socrates. But that is the dangerous option, as will be seen shortly.
Meletus is one of Socrates’s accusers in Plato’s Apology, the dramatic text whose protagonist Socrates will be tried and convicted–perhaps–for corrupting the souls of the youth and for believing in other gods (or for not believing in any gods at all) or perhaps for reasons of slander or perhaps for political reasons.
In his cross examination of Meletus, Socrates is groping for a concept that, I suspect, was not yet available to Classical Athens because, I conjecture further, it hadn’t yet been invented. Among other things, Socrates charges Meletus with “dealing frivolously with serious matters,” and what we see, in the brief dialogue that ensues, is just this–and a whole lot more.
Meletus panders to the jurors, cheerleading them, saying whatever is most likely to achieve a guilty verdict. You might think: “Well, that’s just how the law court works,” and without a doubt you have a point. Yet, it can be seen, Socrates is trying to make a larger point stick.
This starts to become clearer as Socrates demonstrates that Meletus is not being consistent. In the initial charges, Meletus alleged that Socrates believed in divine beings that are different from those in Athens. In the trial, however, he states that Socrates doesn’t believe in any gods at all and thus is what, in later centuries, would come to be called an “atheist.” For one engaged earnestly in Socratic dialogue, falling into contradiction means something. It means that some premise must be false, and often it implies that the initial proposal must be discarded or revised. A contradiction has consequences, has teeth.
But not so for Meletus. He just doesn’t care. Specifically, he just doesn’t care either way. Tell the truth? Good enough. Lie? All right. Confabulate? Fine by me.
Are you starting to see Socrates’s point? Meletus is essentially a bullshit artist, and bullshitting, as Harry Frankfort sought to show in On Bullshit, is not only pervasive in modern culture; it is also pernicious. The truth gleaned from The Apology is that if you have no care whatsoever for the truth and if, to boot, you’re too thoughtless to even want to care one way or another about investigating the truth, then you can have no care for the souls of the youth. We can generalize this conclusion: then you can have no care about the souls of any human being. Worse, your carelessness and thoughtfulness, once these become grist for bullshitting, actually corrodes others’ characters.
Using the words available to him, Socrates calls Meletus “a jester,” but Meletus is much worse than that. Because a jester recognizes that he’s acting in jest and thus holds onto some point of reference called “truth” or “truths” whereas a bullshitter does not.
If you think that Meletus is just a fictional character or a historical personage, think again: Meletus is all around us. Observe on social media, in organizations, in political forums how a lack of any genuine care for the truth makes possible the power-driven theatricality–the optics of Instagram, the kudos for leaders at Google, the strict bullshit of a Trump–that Alasdair MacIntyre sought to skewer in his book After Virtue (1981). The Meletuses of the world are like acid: given enough time, they’ll eat through everything but not because all becomes strictly frivolous. No, because all becomes idolatry as the frivolous masquerades increasingly in the guise of “serious matters” or “ultimate concerns.” In the end and by such means, the ultimate becomes veiled.
Much can be said, and has already been said, about the figure of Socrates, but one seminal, albeit oft-repeated, thing must be reasserted in this context. “Socrates” or “Socratic” is the name we give to anybody who relentlessly investigates her own beliefs with a view to realizing that she doesn’t know what she she thought she did. These were just presumptions or strong convictions–all the way down. She’s empty-handed. Period.
If you’re Socratic through and through, then you start to see–at first dimly but then with greater clarity–that you don’t know how to live; that you don’t have any reason to believe that others do either; that, to be utterly candid, you’re pretty much clueless and therefore–and this too is certain to you–routeless. To say that you’re confused is an understatement.
(I do not say that all of one’s life will be purely Socratic, but I do say that some periods of one’s life, if it to be wholesome and good, ought to be.)
But why call this the “dangerous option” as I did at the outset? Simply because Meletus achieves wealth, status, and power, and Socrates (had he not had a Plato and had he not died in the dramatic way he did) would likely have remained a nobody. If you care more about gain, then be Meletus, the proto-Macchiavelli. No one will be the wiser anyway. However, if you care about ultimate things, about the quality of your soul, and about the quality of others’ souls, then dare to be Socratic. Nota bene: it does come with one hell of a warning label: your life will be turned upside-down.