Professor Steven B. Smith at Yale gives a wonderful course on Political Philosophy. You can watch it online here, and I strongly suggest that you do so. It is a remarkable experience. I was so inspired, that I will provide, on this blog, five quotations from this course. The first one will, naturally, be on Socrates.
The one thing that Plato does not argue is that Socrates should simply be tolerated. To tolerate his teaching would seem to trivialize it in some sense, to render it harmless. The Athenians at least pay Socrates the tribute of taking him seriously, which is exactly why he is on trial. The Athenians refuse to tolerate Socrates because they know he is not harmless, that he poses a challenge, a fundamental challenge to their way of life and all that they hold to be noble and worthwhile. Socrates is not harmless because of his own professed ability to attract followers, a few today, a few more tomorrow. Who knows? To tolerate Socrates would be to say to him that we care little for our way of life and that we are willing to let you challenge it and impugn it every day. Is that good, is that right? The trial of Socrates asks us to think about the limits of toleration, what views, if any, do we find simply intolerable? Is a healthy society one that is literally open to every point of view, freedom of speech is naturally a cherished good, is it the supreme good? Should it trump all other goods or does toleration reach a point when it ceases to be toleration and becomes in fact a kind of soft nihilism that can extend liberty to everything precisely because it takes nothing very seriously. And by nihilism, I mean the view that every preference, however squalid, base or sordid, must be regarded as the legitimate equal of every other. Is this really tolerance or is it rather a form of moral decay that has simply decided to abandon the search for truth and standards of judgment? There’s a danger, I think, that endless tolerance leads to intellectual passivity and the kind of uncritical acceptance of all points of view.