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Duty to Others and Plato’s Apology

3 July 2020

Can a person be good yet spend all their time and money on themselves, their family, and their friends?

For example, my children are fed, educated, and even entertained. We own a house. We’ve saved, so we won’t need to work until we are bent. But there is always more—we want to travel, own art, and buy a summer home. Would we be selfish to continue spending mostly on ourselves?

I think so. But what is the right balance between duty to others and duty to family? And how should we fulfill our duty to others?

Many Christians give a tenth of their income to the church or charity. This rule is reassuringly concrete, but as Jesus illustrated, the principle matters more than the particulars. Perhaps, on our good life odyssey, we must stop to answer these questions for ourselves. Plato’s Apology, which I read this week, has helped me reflect on my duty to others. In it, Socrates defends himself before an Athenian jury and gives us his life as an example.

Socrates fulfilled his duty to others by urging the men of the city “like a father or an elder brother” to prize virtue more than their body or wealth. He believed, due to an oracle and a divine voice, that the gods sent him as a gift to make the city more excellent; he was like a gadfly stirring up a great and noble horse who had become sluggish. Although most of us don’t have divine signs directing us, we can still learn from Socrates’ example.

Socrates sacrificed to fulfill his duty to others. He neglected his personal affairs, even subjecting his wife and children to poverty. While he concedes that such neglect goes against human nature, he clearly was willing to sacrifice to fulfill his duty. His commitment is further illustrated when, facing a death sentence, he refuses to grovel or reject his past behavior.

Socrates considered the impact of his actions. For example, he avoided political discourse because he thought it was dangerous, saying if he engaged in public affairs “I should have died long ago, and benefited neither you nor myself.” So although he didn’t overvalue his life, he also didn’t uselessly dispose of it. We should also think about how best to help others.

Socrates thought life and wealth were good, but virtue and piety were better. Thus, teaching the ignorant should be preferred to helping the poor or healing the sick. If we agree, our philanthropy should emphasize moral education over wealth distribution or medical research. But are we presumptuous to think we can make people better, or that we know what excellence is? Socrates says he did not know what virtue or piety is, yet he strived to find it. As he says in the Apology, “we should discuss virtue every day.” Maybe we can emphasize virtue while not claiming to know what is best for everyone.

Even so, I think Socrates, as depicted by Plato, over-emphasizes the mind. Should we really discuss virtue every day? And is the unexamined life really “not worth living?” After being sentenced to death, he says that if he were to go to heaven, he would spend his time “testing and examining people there, as I do here, as to who among them is wise, and who thinks he is but is not.” While I don’t begrudge Socrates enjoying his work—after all, we will be more effective if we do—this comment suggests his love of discourse led him to overvalue it.

Socrates’ emphasis on the mind likely stems from his beliefs that virtues can be precisely known and that, once known, a person will always follow them. I don’t believe either of these. Furthermore, since often action guides our thinking, we may want to intersperse our discourse with experience.

Still, I worry that I too will over-emphasize the mind but for different reasons. I enjoy pursuits of the mind—reading, thinking, and writing—and so I will be tempted to dally, pondering how best to help others long after I should begin doing so.