Thursday, May 28th, 2009
You are a condemned criminal, convicted of heresy and treason. The judge offers you three choices:
1. You may be exiled, never to return to your home or work.
2. You may recant your teachings and promise to promote the state philosophy.
3. Or you may die.
Two great thinkers were faced with that choice. Each chose differently. How would you choose?
The Socratic Method
Most of what we know about Socrates comes from the writings of Plato, since Socrates did not record his own teachings. However, he was a famous philosopher in his own time and lectured at a school in Athens. Socrates felt that we lived in a world of absolutes, and that there were definite standards of Right and Wrong to which everyone should adhere.
Unfortunately, it seems that the authorities had some differences with his theories and manner of teaching. They accused Socrates of “corrupting the young” and of questioning the State religion. He was brought to trial and given the three choices above. Socrates was a proud man and said that he could not take back one word of what he taught because he spoke only absolute Truth. He also refused to leave Athens, because his school was there, and because he would be turning his back on what was Right by leaving.
It was during this trial that Socrates uttered his famous words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He told the jurors that all assumptions must be questioned and constantly rechecked. If he sometimes made unpopular statements, it was only because he had looked deeper into the matter and found the Truth. He could no more stop speaking it than stop eating or breathing.
While Socrates waited in jail for his execution, a group of friends bribed the guards and came to him with an escape plan. They said that he had much work left to do, and that he could not do it if he let himself be killed. They also appealed to his sense of honor by saying that, if Socrates allowed himself to die, it would reflect badly on his friends. People would say that they did not care enough to save him.
Socrates rejected both arguments. He said that, by the laws of logic, he must stay and allow the execution to take place. Here was his syllogism:
1. One must always do what is Right.
2. We have an implicit contract with the State to obey its laws. To break them (such as by escaping) is Wrong.
3. Therefore he could not escape. To do so would be to repudiate everything he believed in, and life would not be worth living.
Was he crazy? Or was he just very passionate about his beliefs? One thing is certain – Socrates showed an incredible amount of honor and courage by refusing to deny the things he believed in, even if that refusal led to his death.
Where do you draw the line? What degree of honor is important enough that you will sacrifice your life to uphold it? Are your principles enough? Or do you “barter” – Say it is worth giving up your own life if you can save a child… or a family… or a village? If that’s your standard, it may be a good one, but be aware that you’re really doing an economic transaction. You’re setting the price of your own life, and saying that you’re willing to trade it if you can get sufficient value for it, but not otherwise. According to Socrates, that price is Honor. He considered his integrity more important than his own life.
E Pur Si Muove – And Yet It Moves!
More than two millennia after Socrates made his choice, the great scientist Galileo Galilei was confronted with a similar decision. A century or so earlier, Nicolaus Copernicus had published a revolutionary book suggesting that Earth might not be the center of the Universe. In fact, a lot of his observations made more sense if the Earth revolved around the Sun. Galileo made his own observations, from which he concluded that Copernicus’s “heliocentric” theory was correct and the only sensible explanation for the apparent motion of the Sun and planets.
Scientifically, it made sense. However, Catholic Church officials had decreed that Earth must be the center of the Universe, and any contrary theory contradicted Holy scripture and must be wrong. That seems to us a bit like the state legislature that decided that Pi should equal 3, because it made for more convenient calculations. At the time, Catholics were seriously concerned that the heliocentric theory would shake people’s faith in God. They undoubtedly thought that much more important than a matter of theory concerning distant objects.
By all accounts, Galileo was unlikable and undiplomatic. He made many enemies both in the Church and among his fellow scientists. He considered his theories self-evident and proven by his observations, and could not believe that anyone would deny them without at least looking in the telescope for themselves first. This was the same sense of “I know what is True” that Socrates exhibited, and based on more evidence. However, publicly telling scientists and clergy that they are idiots is a good way to make enemies.
Some of those enemies convinced a Priest to denounce Galileo and the heliocentric theory from the pulpit, and arranged for the Inquisition to arrest Galileo. At first, he agreed to drop his “heretical” research and support the official Church stance that Earth is the center of the Universe. However, a couple of years later, Galileo published another work with additional evidence for the heliocentric theory, and he was arrested again.
Again, the choice was put to Galileo: Recant his theory, be excommunicated from the Catholic Church, or face torture at the hands of the Inquisition. To a devout Catholic, excommunication was equivalent to exile, so these were much the same choices as Socrates faced. Galileo once again recanted, and another ten years passed before he again published “heretical” work.
Galileo was obviously unhappy with this decision. He felt that he had to suppress the truth in order to continue to live and work. Despite publicly renouncing heliocentrism in favor of geocentricism, Galileo is rumored to have muttered “E Pur Si Muove” (“And Yet It Moves”) either on leaving the Inquisition chamber or on his deathbed.
Was Galileo a coward? Was he just being pragmatic? Did he feel that he could do more good for mankind and the cause of science by being free to continue his work, even though he did it in handcuffs? How would you have chosen in his situation? What would you do today if you were working on an important project, but were told to stop work on it because it was a dead end? What if you truly believed that your boss was wrong, but you faced the choice of being fired if you insisted on continuing? How much are you willing to risk for the Truth?
What Price Is Too High?
You might not have to face a choice between death, exile, and supporting a lie; but similar situations occur often. In the 1930′s and 1940′s, German scientists performed eugenics experiments on “subhuman” Jews and other captured prisoners. Today these are rightly considered atrocities, and yet that work was done in the name of Science. The experimenters may truly have believed that their work would benefit many more people than were harmed.
On the side of the Allies, what about the research that led to the atomic bomb? Those scientists were discovering fundamental secrets of the Universe in the fields of chemistry, physics, and engineering. Most of them focused on the science and tried to do it as well as they could. But when the bombs exploded over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, they knew that their work was being used to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. Certainly many of them must have realized what an atomic weapon could do. Should they have stopped work, or obstructed it in some way? Did they believe – as President Truman evidently did – that those deaths were worth the cost? If the war had continued, possibly millions of Japanese and Allies would have died.
What price is too high for the Truth? For Science? For what you believe in? That is a choice which each of us must make every day. How you choose is the measure of your personal integrity and of the price you place on life, freedom, and your beliefs. It is worth spending some time considering scenarios such as Socrates, Galileo, Truman, and the Manhattan Project scientists faced, because someday you may find yourself faced with just as difficult a decision.