Socrates on the Impossibility of a Reasonable Politics

  • Stephen M. Gardiner
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 120)


How can Socrates the man be so impressive in his main political acts and yet so misguided (even naïve) as a political theorist? To resolve this paradox, many try to isolate Socrates’ political philosophy from his practice. He was, we are told, simply concerned with a different set of political questions than those that interest us. When we see this, the paradox dissolves, his views are largely rehabilitated, and any appearance of a contradiction is removed. In this essay, I take on three tasks. First, I explore three versions of the isolationist strategy, those offered by Karl Popper, Richard Kraut, and Rachana Kamtekar. Second, I argue that although these accounts make progress, they do not ultimately resolve the paradox. Third, I suggest a rival (“accommodationist”) view that aims to reconcile Socrates’ personal behavior with his theoretical commitments by embracing a strongly pessimistic account of Socratic politics. On this interpretation, Socrates’ fundamental political concern is with the very possibility of a good, well-functioning society that is responsive to both reasons and the well-being of its citizens. His worry is that the demands of a reasonable politics are high, unlikely to be met, and perhaps necessarily so. This pessimism explains the apparent disconnect between Socrates’ theory and his practice, and also why Socratic politics initially seems to have an unusual (and “isolated”) focus. It also casts light on why Socrates is sometimes thought to be a founder of political thought and why his views are of enduring interest.


Political Philosophy Political Theory Political Elitism Open Society Reasonable Politics 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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