Roberto Rossellini’s “Socrates” (1971) – A Teacher Who Is Killed for Teaching

The aggression against autonomy of knowledge…is perfectly consistent with the neoliberal politics of submission of the education system to the economic dogmas… Media populism and neo-liberal ferocity go very well together. Ignorance and right wing parties’ elections victories feed reciprocally. When the right wing parties win the election their main occupation is destroying public education and spread media conformism. And in turn ignorance and conformism help the right wing parties to win elections.
Franco Berardi, “After the End of the University”, 5.15.2011

Socrates did not just teach people how to talk sense instead of passionate nonsense but how to talk to one another (how to create a dialogue between minds) – not give themselves to wishful thinking, righteous indignation, and proud prejudices.

Totalitarian governments which (as we learned during eight years of Bushmerican rule) can exist even in formally democratic countries always considered scholarly talk about life as dangerous – “Who is not with ‘us’ is with our enemies”. It is not surprising – intellect is critical (about itself in action – about thinking): to analyze something means to expect change in your conclusions, but totalitarian governments dislikes both – criticism and change. So, it tends to address analytical and critical voice with “Home Land Security apparatus”: with the pernicious inability to differentiate between the hateful voice of the enemy and critical voice of intellectuals.

Socrates has been locked by Athenian democracy into a “choice” between, on the one hand, intelligence in philosophical action, and on the other – his life and his family…

… which is represented in this shot as “human flesh and emotions” – seeds of intelligence (not Socratic intelligence yet). In the center we see Xanthippe confronting fatal separation of whole family with Socrates (a situation every dissenting thinker about societal matters and his/her family members can be ready to face).


By his very existence the disinterested scholar challenges totalitarian power which, as a rule, is intellectually based on poor imagination of culturally illiterate and emotionally crude people even when they use experts to justify their prejudices. But the intellectual also unintentionally provokes the hate of many philistines in formal democracy who cannot forgive him for being more educated and cognitively sophisticated than they are. They call him “elitist” and often try to humiliate and subdue him not less than directly and obviously totalitarian powers.

Rosselini’s Socrates, a temperate and a modest man is a highly democratic thinker – he doesn’t have ideological or theological doctrines to disseminate or artistic exuberance of the great Greek playwrights, he just points out the concrete mistakes and absurdities people verbally produce about human life and the world. He is dedicated to his disciples, to anybody whom he happens to hear. It is exactly why, while his gifted students admire him, so many people hate him for his “arrogance” of being an independent teacher, of being capable of proving to people that they need to learn. Many, who live in totalitarian systems (organized around the despotic ideological fetishes), or in formal democracies where they chase after choices and chances, just cannot swallow it. “What? I need to learn about life? What am I, more stupid than you or anybody else?” To feel like this is the destiny of people without humanistic education. And the task of the social power is to keep population in this condition – in thick (with ticks) forest of intellectual and educational virginity. Cognitive virgins like this are precious reserve of human credulity; gullibility and belligerency ready to be set lose against those capable of critical thinking. Then even in democracy it is not so difficult for the privileged elite to keep even extreme inequality in material means and in social power intact. People without analytical/critical thinking quickly identify with the power of the decision-makers and with political and religious dogma to become hatefully impatient to crush critical thinkers as “agents of discord”. This way the power elites are blessedly intact in spite of “democracy”. This is what Rosselini’s film is all about.

It is easy to observe totalitarian people’s hate for those who are cognitively sophisticated – it expresses itself in everyday intellectual repression and waves of preventive arrests. To observe this kind of hate in a formal democracy you have to wait until episodes like Bush Presidency in US from 2000 to 2008 which are characterized by freezing critical thinking. It was not difficult to achieve in US in an atmosphere of pop-anti-intellectualism that has been nurtured in masses by the conservative politicians and propagandists for decades.

Socrates who had one task in his life – helping people to improve their thinking, became the victim of some “free citizen” of a great Athenian democracy – people who were motivated by envy hidden under their narcissistic revolt against the fact that they, as every human being, need to study life and learn how to think scientifically. Pop-democratic sensibility nurtures contempt for humanistic education – for the idea that to understand life you have to study facts and learn conceptual thinking and that it can be much harder than it takes to develop practical skills which are good for “survival”. Hate as a result of people’s unconscious narcissistic injury/wound of not being already, by the gift of God, as smart as or smarter than Socrates, has oriented their anti-intellectual and anti-scientific stance, their blind posture against thinking as an activity independent of human passions and not identical with “readymade” intuitive guesses.

According to Rosselini’s film, people of Athens, although they were allowed to act not in accord with the despotic commands of a totalitarian masters, but freely, according to their own “will” and “reasoning”, yet are not free from their own unconscious complexes – obsessions, despotic impulses, prejudices and superstitions, which push them to behave in a similar manner as any totalitarian government would.

Rosselini, who knew life under Mussolini and in a post-fascist democracy, suggests that to be formally free from imperative ideological center is not enough, that people without humanistic education are their own despotic ideological center, and they can be prone to be intolerant of anybody who is not following their world views, ways of life and existential tastes. These are the people who put Socrates to his death by following the democratic procedures; like in Germany they voted Nazism in with a sincere enthusiasm and simpleminded belief in their ideals.

If under Athenian democracy it was possible to put Socrates to death, this democracy didn’t include the understanding that humanistic education is more important for democracy than even formal democratic procedures because the art and science of existential reasoning is the internal democracy itself, a psychological democraticity (the human democratic mind, soul and heart). Procedures without the human soul are like an empty shell, like sails without wind or shoes without feet. The fact that today in US there is less and less money for education, that school teachers and college professors are losing their jobs, colleges are more and more militarized in their research programs, and that giant sport-events, pop-music and video-games have become children and youth’s main “interlocutor” during their free time can be a death sentence to democracy. Socrates is killed again and again in history.

The last scene of the film when we see Socrates’ farewell to his children and wife and when he ritually drinks the poison – is very difficult to watch. Socrates’ genius is to understand the limited nature of human being – how much humans are part of their social circumstances and life span (he doesn’t want for the sake of saving himself physically use the cheap chance to run away from the destiny). He prefers to die according to the false “truth” to mark this truth as arrogant and an obscene falsity based on the megalomania of Democracy’s self-image. And Rosselini is tormentedly critical of some of Socrates’ disciples who are like numerous liberals in today’s American academia, media and business betray democratic principles and agenda for the sake of their careers and prosperous life.

Roberto Rossellini (1906 – 1977)

Posted on Mar 9 2015 –   “Socrates” (1971) By Roberto Rossellini  by Acting-Out Politics