Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (470 – 390 BC), is deemed a founder of Western philosophy and ethical tradition. The widely accepted narrative is that he was an honest man who asked uncomfortable questions that his fellow Athenians did not like. So in a great miscarriage of justice, they railroaded, tried and executed him. At least that is how his most famous pupil, Plato, put it. In many ways, it is an inaccurate account, and if one digs into the historic context, that narrative begins to lose its shine.
To many of Socrates’ Athenian contemporaries, he was a guru who taught some nasty people and filled their heads with anti-democracy views. His students then went on to do horrible things. To be fair, there is no historic evidence that Socrates personally did any of the bad things done by his worst pupils. When called upon to personally participate in evil, he went home instead. However, when one considers how his fellow Athenians might have seen it, Socrates could be compared to a modern radical imam. One who might not personally get his hands dirty, but whose sermons fires up others and inspires them to do awful things.
11. Many of Socrates’ Contemporaries Saw Him as a Jerk, and a Dangerous One at That
Socrates was a well-known and controversial figure in his native Athens. A gadfly, he often stopped people and asked them a series of questions that ultimately got them to contradict themselves and tied them up in logical knots – the Socratic Method. That made him unpopular with many, and comic dramatists often mocked him in their plays. He emerged in the context of a powerful Athens that bestrode the Greek world – a flourishing democracy that was the most powerful polis, or city state, of the era. Basically, the USA of the Greek world.
Socrates questioned democracy, which was music to the ears of Athens’ snobby rich young – think the equivalent of modern trust fund preppy spoiled brats who had just discovered Ayn Rand. He validated their view that privileged people like them had a natural right to lord it over the unwashed masses. One of those students, Alcibiades, went on to betray Athens and turn it upside down and inside out during the Peloponnesian War, which ended catastrophically for Athens. As seen below, that reflected badly on his teacher, Socrates.
10. The Students Mentored by Socrates Went on to Form a Bloodthirsty Government
It would be inaccurate to claim that Socrates was responsible for the actions of Alcibiades, who was a live wire and dangerous force of nature. However, Alcibiades is an example of the kinds of privileged youth who liked Socrates because they thought he was “edgy”. In of itself, Socrates’ street trolling was an annoyance, but it did not anger his fellow citizens enough for them to kill him. Nor was the fact that he inspired and was liked by Ancient Athens’ version of preppy snobs sufficient to rile up other Athenians so much that they wanted Socrates dead.
The context that took Socrates from an irritant to a hated menace was the rise of the Thirty Tyrants – a cabal of rich Athenians who overthrew the democratic government. Their leader was Socrates’ student Critias, and their numbers included other pupils of the famous philosopher. They installed a collaborationist regime supported by Sparta, Athens’ longtime enemy which had defeated it after a decades-long Peloponnesian War. The Thirty Tyrants’ government was an oligarchy dominated by aristocrats, and as seen below, it was a bloodthirsty one at that.
9. A Regime Whose Leaders Were Taught by Socrates Killed 5% of Ancient Athens’ Population
In the short time it held power, the Thirty Tyrants’ regime carried a deadly purge against the supporters of democracy. About 5% of Athens’ citizens were murdered, and others had their property confiscated and were forced to flee into exile. To put that in a modern context, picture if America’s 1%, led by radical devotees of Ayn Rand, carried a coup backed by China or Russia, and overthrew the US government. Then they installed a radical libertarian government, and rolled rights back to the days when only the propertied upper class got to vote. To cow the population into submission, they then sent out death squads that killed about sixteen million Americans – 5% of the country’s 2022 population.
Socrates’ students led the Thirty Tyrants, but he refused to get his own hands dirty in their reign of terror. In one narrative, he was ordered to participate in the roundup and execution of some people, but he heeded the dictates of his inner conscience and went home instead. Laudable as that might have been, to many Athenians it was not enough. When a popular revolt eventually overthrew the Thirty Tyrants and restored democracy, Socrates had a target on his back.
8. The Perception That Socrates Was a Mere Harmless Gadfly
Any account of Socrates’ death would be inaccurate, or missing context, if it does not include just how upset Athenians were with the Thirty Tyrants and all who had anything to do with them. Imagine if Americans rose up in revolt to overthrew a radical libertarian regime of Ayn Rand devotees that had killed sixteen million of their fellow citizens. If Ayn Rand was still alive, even if she had not personally killed anybody, she would probably not fare well. That was the context in which Athens’ most famous gadfly was viewed by many after the Thirty Tyrants’ bloody regime.
Many saw Socrates as a loudmouth troll who preached a philosophy that catered to rich snobs’ sense of entitlement and resentment that jumped up commoners had a say in government. His teachings inspired them to commit treason and cooperate with a foreign enemy to overthrow the government and slaughter said commoners. Seen from that perspective, the Athenians demonstrated remarkable restraint when it came to Socrates. They afforded him a trial – a fair and open one in which he got to defend himself, unlike those slaughtered by his Thirty Tyrant acolytes. They could have simply dragged him out of his house, and tore him limb from limb with their bare hands as soon as democracy was restored.
7. This Protégé of Socrates Left an Inaccurate Account of His Trial
The narrative that the trial and execution of Socrates were grave miscarriages of justice was penned by Plato (427 – 347 BC). Socrates’ Athenian contemporaries would have seen it as an inaccurate account. Plato was Socrates’ most famous student, and a giant of philosophy in his own right who went on to teach yet another great philosopher, Aristotle. That trio laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Plato ranks among history’s most influential figures, and for over two millennia has been one of the world’s most widely read and studied philosophers. In addition to his writings, he founded the Western World’s first institution of higher learning, The Academy in Athens.
Plato’s sympathetic narrative about Socrates should be understood in the context of his background and political leanings. Plato was born in a wealthy and conservative, even reactionary, family. He was related to two of the Thirty Tyrants who overthrew Athens’ democracy. That family influence is reflected in Plato’s political philosophy, which is skeptical of democracy and favors enlightened authoritarianism. When the Thirty Tyrants were overthrown and democracy was restored, a counter reaction set in against anti-democratic thought, which culminated in the execution of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, in 399 BC.
6. Socrates Was Not a Harmless Old Man Asking Questions
The account that Socrates was a harmless old man who merely asked uncomfortable questions would have been challenged as inaccurate by many of his Athenian contemporaries. Instead of harmless, they would have and did see him as a pernicious guru who taught a subversive philosophy that catered to aristocrats hostile to democracy. Many of Socrates’ students had committed treason and joined the enemy to fight against their city during the Peloponnesian War. Most infamous among them was Alcibiades. Athens lost that war, and Socrates’ acolytes overthrew the democratic government and replaced it with the Thirty Tyrants regime, which engaged in widespread murder.
When democracy was restored, people looked back at Athens’ glory days only three decades past, when their polis was at the height of its power and prosperity. The Athenians contrasted those days with their reduced circumstances in the aftermath of catastrophic defeat and violent repression, and asked themselves “what went wrong?“ Socrates and his boat rocking were among the answers. Athens became unhealthy for Socrates’ students, and Plato fled to travel around the Mediterranean. He returned years later, after passions had cooled, and founded The Academy in the 380s BC. It is in that context that Plato penned his sympathetic account of Socrates.
5. The Inaccurate Belief That the Aztecs Thought the Spanish Were Gods
Many people have across inaccurate narratives that explain why the greatly outnumbered Spanish conquered the New World. Most common is the story that Hernan Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs was eased by the fact that the locals and their ruler, Emperor Montezuma II, thought that he and his men were gods. That is a myth. It is true that the Aztecs were extremely religious, and had many notions that seem weird today. However, their depiction as so idiotically naïve that they believed that the Conquistadores were gods is inaccurate.
The Aztec ruler, for example, was fully aware that the Spaniards who had landed in Mexico were humans who came from faraway lands. Indeed, Montezuma was sufficiently informed so as to know that Cortes had mounted his expedition without the consent of his sovereign, Charles V (Charles I of Spain). The Aztec ruler even tried to go over Cortes’ head, and attempted to negotiate directly with King Charles. He failed, but it is clear that Montezuma knew that he was faced with people, not gods.
4. The Inaccurate Perception That the Real Mob Was Like That Depicted in The Godfather
The Godfather is one of the best movies of all time. With one of Hollywood’s greatest casts, memorable music, and an awesome plot, it is hard not to love it. However, admiration for the film has blinded many to the fact that it is not real. What it depicts is fiction created by author Mario Puzo, brilliantly brought to the silver screen by director Francis Ford Coppola. It is an imagined version of organized crime, and in many ways, an inaccurate depiction of the real thing. In the real world, the mafia has always been a collection of often psychotic, parasitic, backstabbing, and grubby thugs who would do anything for money.
The real life mafia has always been more like a malignant cancer than the romanticized band of criminals portrayed in the movie. As seen below, rather than paragons of loyalty and disciples of omerta, mobsters from the mafia’s earliest days have been more than happy to snitch, and betray bosses and underlings alike. And far from the inaccurate perception popularized by The Godfather about the mafia’s avoidance of drugs, the mob has been heavily involved in narcotics from its birth. Indeed, until the rise of the Colombian drug cartels after cocaine caught on, the mafia, whose specialty was heroin, were America’s biggest drug traffickers.
3. The Notion That the Mafia Used to Avoid Drugs is Historically Inaccurate
A key theme throughout The Godfather is “good” Mafiosi, the Corleones, who don’t deal drugs, at war with “bad” mobsters who want to sell narcotics. In real life, all mafia families have dealt drugs. The mafia were never ones to leave money on the table, and illegal narcotics was too lucrative a trade to ignore. Those who did would have soon been eclipsed by the greater wealth of others who did not, and accordingly they would have been outcompeted for influence, soldiers, and loyalty.
However, there is one difference between real life Mafiosi from the era depicted in The Godfather, and today’s mobsters. Earlier generations of Mafiosi tried to be more discrete and circumspect about their involvement in drugs. As seen below, they did not avoid the drug trade – indeed, they went out of their way to corner the market on the stuff. However, they did try to avoid attracting attention to the fact that they were up to their necks in illegal narcotics.
Don Corleone was created by Mario Puzo, The Godfather’s author, as a composite character based on several real life mob bosses. The fictional Don Corleone’s raspy and quiet voice is like that of the real life Frank Costello’s, the onetime boss of the Luciano – now the Genovese – crime family. Don Corleone had all the judges and politicians in his pocket. The real life Frank Costello, nicknamed the “Prime Minister of the Underworld” because of his political clout, effectively dominated Tammany Hall in the mid-twentieth century. Don Corleone used his olive importation business as cover for his criminal activities. That is based on the real life Joe Profaci, founder and longtime boss of the Colombo crime family, who also posed as an olive oil importer.
The “honorable” traits ascribed to Don Corleone are based on the real life Joseph Bonanno, a pretentious and quite dishonorable head of the Bonanno crime family. Bonanno, who wrote a self-serving memoir after his forced retirement, referred to mafia bosses of his generations as “Fathers” who headed “honorable societies”. He claimed that he and the mob avoided drugs for the reasons listed in The Godfather – moral revulsion, and avoidance of the heat drugs draw. As Bonanno put it: “My tradition outlaws narcotics. It has always been that ‘men of honor’ don’t deal in narcotics“. That is quite inaccurate. In reality, mobsters of all levels, including Bonanno, were involved in illegal drugs since the birth of the mob.
1. The Mafia Were NOT Champions of the Weak, Downtrodden, and Exploited
The mafia were never champions of the weak who stuck it to the rich and powerful. Instead, Mafiosi were often hired as muscle by rich Sicilian landowners and magnates to intimidate or kill peasants who objected to their exploitation and de facto serfdom. When they made it to America, the mafia kept up their routine of goons for hire by the rich to keep downtrodden workers in their place. Mafiosi were routinely used as strikebreakers and to intimidate or kill union organizers, and cow working stiffs who sought better conditions or higher wages from their employers.
Mafiosi, in short, were not some modern equivalents of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, who stole from the rich to give to the poor – or at least stole from the rich, rather than the poor. Instead, they were closer to the Sheriff of Nottingham’s thugs. They helped further oppress the already oppressed, exploit the already exploited, and rob the already impoverished. The mob’s money making schemes and rackets seldom targeted the rich and powerful. Instead, Mafiosi enriched themselves at the expense of the weak and poor.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading