Socrates and Mr. Chabon

In 399 BCE, the philosopher Socrates, then 70 years old, was put on trial in Athens for allegedly corrupting the young and worshiping gods not recognized by the state.  In Plato’s dialogue, entitled Socrates’ Defense (or Apology), Socrates begins his address to the jury — five hundred Athenian citizens who will decide guilt or innocence by majority vote—by saying that he is less concerned about the actual charges than he is about the negative attitudes that some of the jurors may well have formed over many decades while Socrates philosophized in Athens’ public places.

Why, he rhetorically asks, might people have unfavorable opinions of him? Well, first of all, there are stock prejudices against philosophers: they criminally meddle into things below the earth and in the sky, and they also make the weaker argument defeat the stronger and teach others to do the same. But Socrates insists that he in fact never has speculated about such unearthly things, and he also insists he has never taught anyone or charged anyone a fee, which is what teachers do.

The next rhetorical question then arises: if Socrates has been so blameless, why is he being prosecuted?  Surely, his behavior must have been “abnormal” in some way, or he would never have attracted anyone’s attention. And here Socrates admits that he has indeed engaged in some unusual activity — activity that has earned him a reputation for a certain kind of human wisdom.

It happened this way. When the oracle at Delphi said that no one was wiser than Socrates, Socrates was stunned because he knew he was almost completely ignorant with regard to important truths.  So, as an act of religious piety, he decided to determine what the god could have meant by such a seemingly absurd statement.

He decided to invite highly esteemed and talented people—politicians, poets, skilled craftsmen of all kinds — to converse with him in public, and he questioned them about matters with regard to which they were generally reputed to be very wise. But, after these conversations, Socrates decided that, whatever their reputations might be, and however wise they might think themselves to be, they in fact were not wise at all.

The poets and the skilled craftsmen certainly knew their crafts, but they also thought that, just because they knew their crafts, they necessarily knew much more. “I…observed that the very fact that they were poets made them think that they had a perfect understanding of all other subjects, of which they were perfectly ignorant.” On balance, therefore, and because he very well knew that he was ignorant of very many important things, Socrates decided that the god had been correct.  All of them—Socrates as well as those who had a reputation for wisdom—were more or less ignorant, but at least Socrates knew he was ignorant.

Socrates explains that publicly exposing the ignorance of prominent Athenians has “arouse[d] against me a great deal of hostility… But the truth of the matter, gentlemen, is pretty certainly this, that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value.”  We do not know whether the jury accepted Socrates’ explanation, but we do know that a majority found him guilty and sentenced him to death.

And now comes Michael Chabon.  He is undoubtedly a very successful and talented novelist.  But, like the poets of Socrates’ Athens, there is a question whether, because Mr. Chabon has the talent necessary to produce widely-read works of fiction, he therefore necessarily knows everything about everything else.  Does Mr. Chabon know everything about everything else?  Let’s follow in Socrates’ footsteps and find out (and let’s hope that the sentence that was imposed on him will not be imposed on us).

Mr. Chabon gave a controversial commencement address this past May to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.  In that address, which was couched in lively, entertaining prose and delivered with great style, he questioned the value of Jewish inmarriage and attacked quite fiercely Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the border barrier it has erected to preserve its security.  Others have criticized his views on inmarriage.  I want to focus on what he said about walls and security.

This is some of what he said: “Security is an invention of humanity’s jailers.  Anywhere you look it is and has always been the hand of power drawing the boundaries, putting up the separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of people on the other side of the wall.”  And also this particularly arresting formulation: “Security for some means imprisonment for all.”  He ended his address with a charge to the graduating class as “Jewish leaders of the future;” part of his charge was: “Knock down the walls.  Abolish the check points.”

Mr. Chabon is a married man with four children; I don’t know whether his children are still of an age to live with him.  But I would like to ask him one question: when he and his wife would go to sleep with their four children under their roof, did they lock the door to their home or did they leave it unlocked?  I’m betting that that door was locked.  And, if it was, then every single thing he said about the separation barriers, security, walls, imprisonment, check points, etc., is pure, unadulterated, one-hundred-percent baloney.  Mr. Chabon, I am sure, puts a very high value on security with regard to himself and to those who are dear to him, but at the same time he hasn’t the foggiest idea why Israelis might place a similar value on their own security or those of their loved ones.

Some people ought to deliver commencement addresses, and others ought to stick to writing novels.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: