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 and Antigone. 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 or Antigone. 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 living an “examined life”, which would allow citizens of a state to critically examine their state and its wielding of authority.
In conclusion, it is fair to state that contemporary liberal-democratic societies offer more protections and privileges for its citizens than what Socrates or Antigone could avail. As the example of radical dissident opinion in the US political discourse shows, human civilization has indeed progressed from the days of Socrates. But it should be remembered that the United States is only the most illustrious example. The world of today is comprised of a diverse range of nations, each with its own cultural, economic and political configuration. Some of these nations have not progressed beyond the status of 5th century Athens; some others in Sub-Saharan Africa have barely stepped out of Stone Age mode of living. Indeed, it is fair to say that for much of the human population today, survival on a day-to-day basis is a paramount challenge. In these backward regions the task of resisting dominant institutions for fundamental rights of individuals and the right to live a dignified life is an onerous and an almost impossible task. But there is no doubt that the world would be better-off if all people could enjoy the rights, privileges and civil liberties that we in modern liberal-democracies seem to take for granted.