Tim Blake Nelson's 'Socrates' Draws Parallels Between Modern American Democracy And Ancient Greece

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Alan Mendez, Ro Boddie, Michael Stuhlbarg and Joe Tapper onstage in the Public Theater production of "Socrates." (Joan Marcus/Courtesy of the production)
Alan Mendez, Ro Boddie, Michael Stuhlbarg and Joe Tapper onstage in the Public Theater production of "Socrates." (Joan Marcus/Courtesy of the production)

What does Socrates have to do with modern-day American democracy? Quite a lot, according to writer and director Tim Blake Nelson.

His new play called “Socrates” chronicles the Greek philosopher’s life traveling Athens in the 5th century BCE.

Socrates, considered one of the founders of Western philosophy, was a “self-described gadfly,” Nelson says. He’d make his way around Athens, questioning anyone who would talk to him, in search of “truth or some sense of what is good and what is bad.”

“Socrates gave us a method for the pursuit of knowledge, truth, wisdom, good and evil that is still used to this day. We call it the Socratic method,” Nelson tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.

Nelson admits researching Socrates for the play changed how he thinks — and opened him up to how Socrates’ philosophies parallel the ways democracy works and doesn’t work today.

“I've become more passionately, firmly interested in the responsibility of the voter to be informed and to think of a polity of a democracy as something larger than what's within eyesight of the individual,” he says.

That message was at the core of Socrates’ mission, focusing on the “efficacy of democracy” and voting issues in one of the world’s first examples of that form of government.

“I believe that democracy is always vulnerable to how we are persuaded,” Nelson says. “One of the reasons that I wanted to write this play and that the public decided to produce it is to explore how that happens.”

Playwright Tim Blake Nelson (left) and director Doug Hughes in rehearsal for "Socrates." (Garlia Cornelia Jones/Courtesy of the production)
Playwright Tim Blake Nelson (left) and director Doug Hughes in rehearsal for "Socrates." (Garlia Cornelia Jones/Courtesy of the production)

Interview Highlights

On who Socrates was

“He was primarily an ethicist as a philosopher, who got sideways with the powers that were in Athens and was eventually tried on three counts: one of corrupting the youth of Athens, another one of worshiping unsanctioned gods and another one of practicing atheism. He was sentenced to death and in carrying out that sentence, he took his own life by drinking hemlock. That's the bare-bones description of who the guy was.”

On telling the story of the famous philosopher

“Well, what I did not want to do in this production is this hagiographic sanctification of Socrates. If we're in pursuit of the human being, who was flawed some might say narcissistic, callous, intolerant. But one of the focuses of his questioning was the efficacy of democracy. Democracy in Athens had a very limited appreciation, at least in its practice, of what we'd call right now the Bill of Rights. And so in exploring democracy in the play and in going after democracy as something sacred in Athens, a kind of third rail particularly around the time Socrates was put on trial, which was right when Athens was coming out of tyranny at the hands of the Spartans, Socrates wondered about what sort of leaders were put in charge, why people voted the way that they voted, whether it was because they were vulnerable to the rhetoric of great speakers or because they actually had studied the topics at hand. And he suspected it was the former, that Athens had become a place in which the power of democracy was abused in, I think, two very significant ways. One which was the trampling of individual rights, and also the way that decisions were made by the voting populace who weren't maybe as educated.

“Now if anybody's listening who's studied this stuff in depth, I'm just going to say to them I realize I'm on shaky ground because I've ventured over into perhaps Plato's critique of democracy and I'm putting that in the mouth of Socrates. I'll only say that I think that while Socrates wasn't anti-democratic in the way that Plato exposes himself to be, I think he had a lot of really significant questions about democracy in his day and I think that's in part why he got into so much trouble.”

On the current state of democracy in the U.S.

“I think that right now, although I didn't write this play about the present occupant of the White House, I think that there's a valency to that question when we wonder, ‘Well why did — at least through the electoral college, not the popular vote — why did we vote a person in who by almost any metric was not as qualified to be president as his opponent?’ But sometimes when the person less qualified on paper has been elected, that's probably been for the better because some of those people have turned out to be extraordinary leaders and have surprised us. So I guess in the spirit of Socrates, I'm interested in why this happens and in exploring as Socrates would have said, and Plato as well, ‘Is this best?’ And if not, how do we repair it? I believe that democracy itself is like any form of government: an evolving form.”

On voters’ responsibility to stay educated and engaged

“I think that in a strange way, right now if one is responsible in pursuit of that knowledge even though there's a lot of shouting going on and a lot of partisanship, really we all have a plethora of venues where we can go and hear or sometimes experience different points of view. And it's a real cornucopia out there. You can really get a taste of everything.”

Ciku Theuri and Julia Corcoran produced this interview, edited it for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on May 7, 2019.


Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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