For Socrates, being a good citizen was part of being a good human being. So what does it mean to be a good citizen? I submit that in a global society, to be a patriot of a nation means being traitor to humanity.
That’s a strong statement, and I need to ‘unpack’ it a bit, to use a funny word from modern philosophy.
Since Socrates’ time up to ours, citizenship has been a function of expanding geography. But now geography has been superseded by a global reality; the only meaningful concept is humankind as a whole. So what does citizenship mean in a global context?
Socrates loved and respected Athens, which was to him, and the people of his time, as a nation is to people in modern times. Sparta or Thessaly weren’t just other cities on the Greek peninsula; as city-states, they were veritable separate countries.
Indeed, there is no equivalent today, because nation-states have become as irrelevant in their demarcations as different cities in the same country are within particular countries.
Socrates had a spiritual view of citizenship, and a skeptical view of democracy, which were not the same thing to his mind.
Unlike many people today, he had a healthy skepticism about majority rule, which is the cornerstone of democracy. In Plato’s Crito, his friend says to him, as they await his death, “You see Socrates, that one must also pay attention to the opinion of the majority. Your present situation makes clear that the majority can inflict not the least but pretty well the greatest of evils if one is slandered among them.”
Socrates responds, “Would that the majority could inflict the greatest evils, for they would then be capable of the greatest good. And that would be fine, but they cannot do either. They cannot make a man either wise or foolish, but they inflict things haphazardly.”
Socrates’ friend, Crito, goes on to try every trick in the book to get Socrates to change his mind and leave Athens, rather than die as decreed by the court for impiety and corruption of the youth.
He says Socrates is abandoning his sons to “the usual fate of orphans.” He adds that he will bring shame on his friends, who could have saved him through payoffs. Most ironically, he even suggests Socrates is being a coward, saying, “You seem to me to choose the easiest path.” One wonders, despite Socrates obvious affection for Crito, if he didn’t feel, ‘with friends like these…’
We tend to forget that borders, which now seem set in stone, were once as porous as membranes, if they existed at all. Destiny may have played a part in the emergence of empires, but fate could have dealt another hand.
As the United States fought its war of independence and became a fledging nation, Tecumseh was the greatest Native American leader. He had a vision of establishing an independent Indian nation of many peoples that would have included the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes region.
And he almost succeeded, uniting distinct tribes into a confederation, and allying with the British after the war before the borders of the United States and Canada had been determined. How different the boundaries of the United States, and the outlines of history would have been.
To form new and flexible political structures that fit the global reality, a sufficient minority of people worldwide first have to shift their psychological orientations, emotionally letting go of the primary identification with particular countries.
That doesn’t mean we lose feeling for the land and people where we happen to have been raised (although many children are being raised alternately in different countries, with different languages and cultures, these days).
Rather, it means that being a ‘citizen of the world’ is no longer an idealistic cliché, but has become a practical imperative.
As Socrates said to his friend Crito, “The good life, the beautiful life, and the just life are the same.” From this lived truth, he asked, as he stared death in the face: “Is it right for me to try to get out of here when the Athenians have not acquitted me?”
The root meaning of the word ‘traitor’ is ‘to hand over, betray.’ For Socrates, to run away would have been a betrayal, first to himself, but to Athens as well.
As then, so it is now. The difference is that the world has become Athens for all of us, and there is nowhere to run.
That includes running back to what no longer exists as a primary reality, the nation-state. We betray humanity by putting our country before humanity now.