In the previous post, “Not What It’s Cracked Up to Be,” I noted that in the aftermath of the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., the non-propertied, non-educated, common laborer-sort of Greek began to gain increasing influence in the polis. This greatly destabilized the polis by sharpening people’s awareness of the economic disparaties that had always existed but had, for centuries, been simply accepted as “the way things are.” Before Salamis, political leadership consisted of the few, the proud, the financially secure, the educated and virtuous. After Salamis, it began to consist more and more of those who, from the standpoint of the established aristocratic system, had little to no financial stability, little to no education, and little to no sensibility about the common good. A welter of private goods began to replace concern for the public good, and the result was increasing social instability.
But there were other factors at work. Some have suggested that Socrates played a key role in the decline of the polis by his incessant questioning, which reduced everyone’s notions of truth, goodness, beauty, and virtue to nonsense. Socrates himself claimed not to know what these things were, so how could the polis train its citizens to be virtuous if nobody in the polis actually knew what virtue was? Subsequently, Plato, in his Republic, turned away from the Athenian democracy and advocated an ideal monarchy in its place. You don’t advocate an ideal if the real is in really good shape. As the individual’s trust in the polis eroded, a corresponding elevation of the private over the public began to occur. Citizens stopped being overly concerned about the community (just an abstraction the precise nature of which nobody could fathom) and became more concerned with their own agendas. Whereas in the 5th century, the military and civic leaders had been the same people (e.g., Pericles), in the 4th, after Socrates, the two offices became separated and the military leaders came to be more like mercenaries for sale to the highest bidder than loyal defenders of their own city.
It would be interesting to compare this with what happened in Rome after Marius, when the armies became the creatures of popular leaders and private interests took total precedence over the public good. At any rate, as some see it, the Socratic project undermined the already weakened polis system and helped pave the way for the loss of Greek liberty to Alexander the Great. In the world of the Alexandrian / Hellenistic cosmopolis (world-city) which would soon arrive, a welter of conflicting private interests, religions, cultures, and thought worlds continually jostled with each other for dominance, leaving the people in a state of great cognitive dissonance. In this context, philosophy ceased to be the pursuit of wisdom and instead became a form of “therapy” for the individual to use to cope with the massively complex and fragmented world.