According to Socrates, a commitment to moral reasoning is an essential condition of a well-lived life. An individual should base his actions upon the outcomes of such internal dialogues. The exercise of self-examination and introspection as a way of arriving at moral truths is of paramount importance to Socrates. So much so that he unequivocally declared that “an unexamined life is not worth living”. This commitment to truth by way of rational, critical enquiry would eventually cost Socrates his life. But, even when in sight of his impending death, Socrates calmly reasoned with his friends and supporters that accepting the judgment of the state is to follow the moral course of action and he refused to escape into exile.
Socrates was brought to trial by the democratic Athenian jury, which had scores to settle with prominent members of the previous regime. Socrates’ association with the previous regime made him a target of persecution, irrespective of the validity of the alleged charges. He was accused of undermining religious and state authority and for also corrupting the minds of Athenians. But in reality, Socrates made no deliberate attempts to bring down the religious, state authorities. Instead, he encouraged his students to adopt a critical approach to moral actions, also suggesting that the Athenian rulers themselves are not exempt from such scrutiny.
Socrates lived during 5th century A.D. Fifteen hundred years later, there are pockets in contemporary world that have remained backward for ages. An obvious example is the Islamic world, wherein some states are strict theocracies with no refuge for dissenting opinion. In the more progressive and liberal democracies of Western Europe and North America, the situation is markedly different, with a whole array of civil rights offered to citizens. This includes the right to “freedom of speech” as well – a right that was not available to Socrates. While there is no doubt that modern democracies offer their citizens rights and privileges that were unknown of before, dissidents still don’t find it easy to get their views across. To cite an example from present times, it is fair to say that those from far left of the political spectrum face plenty of hostility from the mainstream establishment. Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political activist based in Masachussets Institute of Technology, Boston, attracts wrath from mainstream polity for his critical assessments of American foreign policy. The mainstream media and political institutions simply ignore his analyses and proposals for remedy.
While it is true that dissidents such as Noam Chomsky cannot be prosecuted for charges of sedition, their role in public life is nevertheless subdued and marginal. It is an acknowledged fact that the religious right in American polity also owns and runs a majority of media houses. They thereby control the editorial stances on various public issues. Only those opinions and views that get through their filters get published. It is true that the challenges faced by people such as Noam Chomsky is not as grave as the life or death situation confronted by Socrates. But it does point out that modern liberal democracies are far from ideal and utopian. There is still progress to be made in terms of fulfilling Socrates’ notion of an living an “examined life, which would allow citizens of a state to critically examine their state and its wielding of authority.