Sadly, gadflies are out of style

March 22, 2009|By Allan Powell

In ancient Athens, to be precise - 399 B.C.E., a trial took place in the marketplace that called for a sentence of death to a future celebrity in the field of philosophy. The story of this trial is told by Plato, a very close friend and admirer, in a small essay - "The Apology." The life of Socrates was in the hands of a popular jury composed of 501 citizens.

Socrates was charged with impiety toward the gods of the state and of corrupting the minds of young men by repeated assaults against the democracy in power. Plato, it should be remembered, proposed rule by an educated elite - "philosopher kings." It is very likely that Socrates held the same views. The vote was 360/140 for death, which was accomplished by drinking hemlock poison.

In his own defense, Socrates compares his role as a citizen to that of a gadfly - an ordinary horsefly - which stings horses and cattle. Socrates was, therefore, a social irritant who stings the state to get its attention. As he puts the case, " ... the state is like a big thoroughbred horse, so big that he is a bit slow and heavy and wants a gadfly to wake him up. I think the god (sic.) put me on the state something like that, to wake you up and persuade you and reproach you everyone, as I keep settling on you everywhere all day long."


The dictionary defines a gadfly as "a person who annoys or irritates others." But, in ordinary usage, the term is stretched to include those who flit from one thing to another with the attendant lack of focus. This was not the case for Socrates because he was so intense that he was considered a threat to society. He was a completely focused nuisance.

Nor was the situation of Galileo quite the same as that of Socrates. His clash with the Catholic Church came about because his interpretation of the relative positions of the earth and the sun were at variance with biblical statements. Galileo was put under house arrest and escaped the fate of Socrates by recanting his belief. He was a threat to orthodoxy, not to society.

With the advent of open societies there is an expectation of a clash of opinion. Indeed, we cultivate dialectical disputation as a means to filter out the most desirable outcome for public policy or the clarification of intellectual differences. This happened in the post-Civil War era when journalists labeled "muckrakers" exposed the squalid conditions in the meat packing business or revealed the conduct of huge corporate conglomerates called "trusts."

At present we have a small number of public figures who might properly be called gadflies because they flit from one issue to another with the ostensible intention of being recognized as "reformers" but are actually seeking notoriety. Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lieberman, Ralph Nader and Al Sharpton might qualify as mild irritants - more or less harmless "gadflies."

Ralph Nader might be treated differently in that, in his early career, he was widely recognized as a certified reformer when he exposed the faulty performance of automobiles and was heavily committed to consumer protection. His failed efforts to organize a third political party brought down the wrath of many voters who thought he took just enough votes from candidate Al Gore, in the 2000 election to give the presidency to George W. Bush. These modern gadflies will probably not earn the place in literary importance that Socrates has achieved. This is because he is so closely linked to the stature of Plato.

The story of Socrates and his death as a "gadfly" working to change society is a challenge to all who want to make a difference by the power of will and intellect. As Socrates said in ancient Athens, "The unexamined life is not worth living." This calls upon each person to use reason and moral sensitivity to make life a purposive venture. That's a pretty powerful message from a mere "gadfly."

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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