You are here

Socrates, Gandhi, Derrida

Phiroze Vasunia

Several of Plato’s texts reflect on hospitality, and at least three of his dialogues (Sophist, Statesman, Laws) feature a xenos.  But how does the trial and defence of Socrates raise the question of hospitality?  In order to sketch out an answer, I would like to consider two influential thinkers who have written about hospitality in relation to the Apology.  One of these is Gandhi, who responds to Socrates while he is trying to work out the rights of foreigners in South Africa; the other is Derrida, who responds to Socrates in his seminars on hospitality.  The ancient philosopher motivates two authors who are so distant from one another to reflect on the themes of our panel in intriguing ways.

Gandhi translated Plato’s Apology into Gujarati, in 1908, while he was living in South Africa.  Gandhi had been agitating for the rights of Asians and was serving a jail sentence when he came across the Apology.  He was struck by what he thought were Socrates’ saintly qualities, in the face of Athenian ‘inhospitality’ to the philosopher, and implied that Socrates was a martyr in dying for his beliefs.   But the context of Gandhi’s translation is important: in his words and actions, he was both praising Socrates and drawing attention to the paternalism and violence that lay behind colonial ‘hospitality’.  He was asking his audience, ‘What does hospitality mean in a time of empire?’ and even whether there could be hospitality under conditions of colonialism.  Gandhi was indeed the grateful beneficiary on his visits to England of anti-colonial hospitality from various sympathizers, including anti-imperialists, Theosophists, and vegetarians.  But Gandhi was also enquiring into hospitality in a broader sense, hospitality at the level of nations and peoples, or the hospitality that we offer to migrants, foreigners, and subjects.

In his reading of the Apology, Derrida points out that Socrates is asking to be forgiven as if he were a foreigner.  But the further point that Derrida makes is that Socrates is complaining, in a subtle way, that the Athenians are treating him not even as a foreigner (17d).  If they were to show Socrates the respect that they showed foreigners (what Homer called xenia), then the Athenians would make allowance for his different idiom and way of speaking; but the Athenian jurors are showing little tolerance of Socrates’ difference and paying him less respect than they do even to foreigners.  Secondly, Derrida, in an impassioned moment during his seminar, also talks about colonial Algeria and its relationship to France.  His remarks return us to the world of nineteenth-century empires, the movement of peoples from one continent to another, and to continuing questions of immigration, asylum, and hospitality.  These were questions that Gandhi, too, was grappling with during his years in South Africa, and a striking feature of these authors’ responses is how, for both thinkers, colonialism reframes the issue of hospitality.

Like Socrates on trial, the critics of colonialism put into question the authority of the host.  By whose authority does the host presume to offer hospitality to the other, and how has that authority accrued to the host?  How is one xenos above the other xenos (the ambiguity of the word is suggestive)?  Who should have been in a position to offer hospitality in the South Africa of 1908—the Boer, the British, the Indian, or the Zulu?  And lastly, Gandhi and Derrida also make us rethink our own responsibilities to antiquity: if, in the terms of the old cliché, the past is a ‘foreign’ country or if the ancients are ‘desperately foreign’, then what sort of hospitality is appropriate to our relationship with antiquity?

Session/Panel Title

Response and Responsibility in a Postclassical World

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy