The Gadfly Syndrome: The Tension Between the Good Individual and the Good Citizen

In the Apology, Socrates describes himself as a “gadfly” cast upon the city of Athens to awaken it from its slumber.[1] Herein lies the tension between the individual and the social aspect of the philosopher – the act of existing as both a good human being and a good citizen. For Socrates, the “unexamined life is not worth living,” [2] therefore it is the duty of every individual to engage in the search for the truths about society and one’s self. However, the individual’s duty to self-discovery is reliant upon his interaction with the city. Unfortunately, it is precisely this activity which makes the philosopher a nuisance to the public good. His inquiries subject the city to repeated offense, as the philosopher continuously questions the moral foundations upon which the city gains its legitimacy. The contradictions that are presented serve as a constant reminder of the city’s own self-deficiency. Thus, the gadfly eventually gets swatted.

This is the paradox presented by the lifestyle advocated by Socrates. The human being and the citizen have a mutual claim on the philosopher’s life. Like a bad marriage, they can’t seem to live with each other, nor can they seem to live without one other, but are simply forced to coexist in a conflicting state of mutual necessity. The two are perpetually at odds with one other due to their separate allegiances; the one to philosophy and the other to the city. This is the dilemma I hope to resolve. In doing so I will look to several texts to examine (1) the solitary life of the philosopher and its claim on the human being, (2) the social life of the citizen and his responsibility towards the city, and (3) the conflict between the philosopher’s two natures.


One aspect of the philosophical life is its radical call to forsake the material comforts of home, family, and wealth in pursuit of the truth. In the Symposium, Socrates describes the life of the philosopher through his portrayal of Eros: “First of all, he is always poor; and he is far from being tender and beautiful, as the many believe, but is tough, squalid, shoeless, and homeless … always dwelling with neediness … Eros is — necessarily — a philosopher.”[3] Much like Eros, Socrates has chosen to be “careless” for his own things by accepting a life of poverty.”[4] Although the Socratic depiction of Eros seems to contain an element of self-reflection, it also serves as a metaphor for the self-discipline required to live a truly philosophic existence.

Socrates’ Myth of the Soul in Phaedrus, gives us an ample word picture of the soul, and how the philosopher directs it. The soul is likened to a “natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer.”[7] The charioteer is in charge of two horses; a white one of good stock (the spirited part of the soul), and a black one of bad stock (the desirous part of the soul). The driver, or ruling part of the soul,[8] is responsible for steering the chariot (soul) clearly, although the two horses pull the chariot in different directions. On Socrates’ account, this makes “chariot driving … a painfully difficult business.”[9] The success of the chariot driver rests on his ability to guide the two horses to catch a glimpse of the transcendent forms of the truths, “visible only to intelligence.”[10]

The ruling part of the soul must gain control over the spirited and desirous part of the soul if it is to keep from being prejudiced by their competing passions. As Socrates notes, it is the desirous part of the soul which is the most difficult to conquer: “The heaviness of the bad horse drags its charioteer towards the earth [away from the truth] and weighs him down if he has failed to train it well, and this causes the most extreme toil and trouble the soul will face.”[11] Thus, the more control the philosopher has over his passions, the more truth he is permitted to see.

The philosopher must become a “skilled hunter” [5] in recognizing the truth for the correct governance of his soul.[6] The soul can never be led to true understanding if the ruling part lacks authority over the soul; the discovery of true knowledge is ultimately found by recollecting those eternal, permanent truths that are only perceivable through disciplined thought. Therefore, Socrates contends the individual who is unable to subdue his passions can never truly achieve the status of a good human being:

A soul that never saw the truth cannot take a human shape, since a human being must understand speech in terms of general forms, proceeding to bring many perceptions together into a reasoned unity. That process is a recollection of the things our soul saw … when it disregarded the things we now call real and lifted up its head to what is truly real instead.[12]



The philosopher exists on the continuum between “being wise and being without understanding,” thus, he can never use himself as the sole standard for truth. No matter how skillful the chariot driver the soul needs dialogue with the city; for “all the great arts require endless talk and ethereal speculation about nature.” [13].

Dialogue is a way of conditioning the receptivity of the soul towards learning: “the rhetorical art, taken as a whole, [being] a way of directing the soul by means of speech.”[18] It is the virtue of speaking the truth,[19] for the person who speaks “well and nobly” must understand the reality of what he speaks of.[20] This form of artful speaking forces the orator to engage in the activity of philosophy by carefully examining the nature of the things he speaks about. It is a systematic art of “divisions and collections”[21] by which to differentiate and categorize things as to gain a fuller understanding into their nature.

After the Oracle at Delphi prophesies there is no one wiser than Socrates, the philosopher’s first impulse is to measure his knowledge by speaking to those in the city who are “reputed to be wise.”[14] Socrates discovers that “those with the best reputations” seem to be the “most deficient,” while those with lesser reputations seem “to be men more fit in being prudent.”[15] He accredits this to the fact that because each “performed his art nobly, each one deemed himself wisest also in the other things, the greatest things.”[16] Therefore Socrates recognizes his wisdom to be the realization of his own ignorance: “for probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I … do not even suppose that I do.”[17]


Thus, Socratic dialogue becomes a method for transmitting knowledge,[22] enabling the philosopher to lead himself, and others to knowledge by directing souls[23] through the process of recollection. The Meno slave narrative provides a vivid example of how the process of recollection operates. The conversation with Meno’s slave takes on the form of a cross-examination by which he is skillfully led to distinguish a recognizable form of truth. Without any prior knowledge of geometry, Socrates directs the slave to acknowledge a simple geometrical reality through a series of leading questions. Socrates goes on to explain that “the truth about the beings is always present for us in the soul.”[24]

Simple truths, such as mathematical proofs, serve as a springboard in the dialectical education for grasping the recognizable form of the truth through the mind’s eye: “whoever has been educated up to this point in erotics, beholding successively and correctly the beautiful things, in now going to the perfect end of erotics shall suddenly glimpse something beautiful in its nature.”[25] The dialectician can only lead the student towards the answer to these truths; he can never directly provide the solution. This serves a twofold purpose, 1.) for the student to fully recognize the truth, he must take the final dialectical leap himself, and 2.) it provides confirmation to the philosopher of the existence of the truth.


The citizen is dependent on the city for his physical and intellectual well-being. The city nurtures, educates and protects its citizens from birth through death via its laws and social institutions. [26] This is the duty of the city; its legitimacy depends on the good that it claims to provide its citizens, that of justice executed through the law. In exchange for the city’s protection, the citizen enters into a willing covenant to preserve the laws of the city through his obedience. This is the duty of the good citizen. In Crito, Athens makes a claim on Socrates’ life; his obedience to its laws in exchange for the good it provides. So long as Socrates chooses to remain in the city, he has willingly consented to this arrangement. [27]. Nevertheless, while the city may own the philosopher’s body, it cannot own his soul.

The allegiance of the good human being is to the protection of the soul through philosophic activity. A tension develops between the human being’s obligation to truth and the citizen’s duty to the law. Philosophical intercourse within the city will ultimately challenge the city’s integrity by inquiring into the basis of its laws. This eventually places both, the philosopher and the city in jeopardy: “For there is no human being who will preserve his life if he genuinely opposes … [the] multitude.” [28]. Anytus reminds Socrates of how “very easy” it is to be harmed for speaking against the city, when he objects to Socrates examination of the esteemed fathers of Athens. [29]. Therefore, the philosopher must protect himself and the city by engaging in private, rather than public dialogue.

The skilled lawgiver must recognize the correct application of the truth. The problem with Athens is that it has fallen asleep, thus lacks the necessary self-awareness to distinguish justice from immorality. Socrates contends that for the law to be viewed as legitimate, it must be universally accepted as noble:

“Noble things, it would seem, are everywhere considered noble, and base things base; not base things noble or noble things base … And thus, as a universal rule, realities, not unrealities are accepted as real, both among us and all other men.” [30].

This forms the basis of the Socratic notion of the law’s responsibility to truth. Only when the good is applied can the law and justice coexist.

What the city fails to realize is that it has a need for the philosopher. In order to maintain its legitimate claim to authority, the City’s laws must provide a benefit to the citizen. For the laws to provide a benefit they must be founded on truth. The ancient standards of law based on prophecy, tradition and the opinion of the many contain contradictions that incessantly leave them open to question, making them detrimental to the city’s continued existence. Once corrupted by bad governance, the City loses its legitimate claim of authority over the citizen.
The skill of lawmaking is to apply the good which benefits the citizen. Socrates duty as a citizen requires him to become the “gadfly” which alerts Athens of the deficiencies which would undermine respect for its laws. His duty as a philosopher requires him to prod lawmakers into gaining control over their passions and correctly assess the Good. By doing so, Socrates’ is able to find consistency between his obligations of being a good citizen and a good human being. He becomes a useful nuisance to the City through his constant diagnosis of the social ills which threaten its health.


By Lawrence Christopher Skufca (2008)

Some Rights Reserved

 (Cover Art: Ezra Pound‘s “Gadfly” Signature)


[1] Plato. Apology of Socrates. “4 Texts on Socrates.” Trans Thomas G. and Starry West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984); 31a.

[2] Ibid.; 38a.

[3] Plato. Symposium. Trans Seth Benardette. (Chicago, Il: Chicago Univ. Press); 203d-204b.

[4] Plato. Apology of Socrates. “4 Texts on Socrates.” Trans Thomas G. and Starry West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984); 31b,31c.

[5] Plato. Symposium. Trans Seth Benardette. (Chicago, Il: Chicago Univ. Press); 203e.

[6] Plato. The Republic. Trans Alan Bloom. (New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., 1968); 591b.

[7] Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1995); 246b.

[8] see footnote 69, p. 31, Phaedrus.

[9] Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1995); 246b.

[10] Ibid.; 247c,d.

[11] Ibid.; 247b.

[12] Ibid.; 249c.

[13] Ibid.; 270a.

[14] Plato. Apology of Socrates. “4 Texts on Socrates.” Trans Thomas G. and Starry West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984); 20c.

[15] Ibid.; 22a.

[16] Ibid.; 22e.

[17] Ibid.; 21d.

[18] Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1995); 261a.

[19] Plato. Apology of Socrates. “4 Texts on Socrates.” Trans Thomas G. and Starry West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984); 18a.

[20] Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1995); 261a.

[21] Ibid.; 266b.

[22] Ibid.; 270d.

[23] Ibid.; 271d.

[24] Plato. Meno. “Protagoras and Meno.” Trans. Robert C. Bartlett. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2004); 86b.

[25] Plato. Symposium. Trans Seth Benardette. (Chicago, Il: Chicago Univ. Press); 211a.

[26] Plato. Crito. “4 texts on Socrates.” Trans Thomas G. and Starry West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984); 51d.

[27] Ibid.; 51e.

[28] Plato. Apology of Socrates. “4 Texts on Socrates.” Trans Thomas G. and Starry West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984); 32a.

[29] Plato. Meno. “Protagoras and Meno.” Trans. Robert C. Bartlett. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2004); 94e.

[30] Plato. Minos. The Annenberg/CPB Project. (Internet:, 2008); 316b.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s