Tim Blake Nelson's New Play Reveals How Socrates Predicted Donald Trump—And the Tyranny of Democracy.

Illustration by Britt Spencer

Four years ago, while filming Fantastic Four , Tim Blake Nelson began writing a play. "Especially when doing a superhero movie, I find myself in need of intellectual succor," says the writer, filmmaker and actor, who most recently, and delightfully, appeared as the titular character in the Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

The play was Socrates, now at the Public Theater in New York City (through May 11), starring Michael Stuhlbarg as the ancient thinker. Socrates was a brilliant man—often called the founder of modern Western philosophy—as well as an irascible outlier; he wrote nothing and claimed he had nothing to teach. So accounts of his ideas come from his acolytes, and particularly his most devoted, Plato, who published their dialogues after Socrates was sentenced to death. The charges were trumped up, a way of silencing a man whose mission was to relentlessly question social and moral conventions, as well as the status quo. He was offered the option of paying a fine or of banishment or confinement, but as Nelson's Socrates says at his trial: "To spend every day examining life, and yes, doing so publicly, is to me the only way to exist, and to cease doing so would make life simply not worth living. Why live at all without asking yourself and others how best to live?" He chose, therefore, to commit suicide by drinking hemlock.

Joan Marcus

In challenging the collective notion of "might makes right," as well as revealing the potential for tyranny within democracy, Socrates exposed Athenians to their lies. And that makes Nelson's play acutely timed. "I'd like to think it's an effort to participate in repairing democracy," he tells Newsweek. "That's what Socrates was all about."

How did you come to write a play about Socrates?
I was a classics major at Brown University; I went there with the intention of studying Latin, which I did do. But inside of my classics major I saw there was a course on Socrates, and I thought, I'm going to take that. It was taught by Martha C. Nussbaum [author of the 2018 best-seller Monarchy of Fear] and once she introduced me to that work I was pretty much insatiable; I did Socrates with her, Aristotle, pre-Socratic philosophers, Nietzsche. And then when I went to graduate school for acting, I began writing for my classmates and I came up with idea that I would write a play about Socrates. And I just absolutely failed.

Garlia Cornelia Jones

What year was that?
That was the summer of '87, and I just didn't have the life experience—the sensitivity, the knowledge as a storyteller, the experience as an actor, or enough self-knowledge about the world around me. The play was such a demeaning failure that I'm surprised I kept writing!

So your new play is, in fact, a do-over.
Yes, after 30 years of living life and writing other stuff and acting in other people's material and sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. I married and had three sons. And while filming Fantastic Four in Baton Rouge in 2014, I met my family for a week in New Orleans, where I wandered into a bookstore and saw a book on Seneca and Nero. Seneca was a Stoic, but the Stoics were part of that Greek tradition started by Socrates.

And so I said I'm going to try again. I emailed Martha and got a reading list, and that led me to a lot of other books, like Plato's dialogues, and I started to write.

Just to set the stage, so to speak, your play takes place soon after democracy was founded in Athens, and Socrates made it his mission to his mission to defend freedom of belief, which involved questioning authority But it wasn't just the politicians he was questioning, it was the wisdom of the people, as expressed at the ballot box, and the tyranny of mob rule. Sounds familiar! But you began writing this before Trump's candidacy was announced, in 2015.
I would say if ever there's been an argument in my own life for Hegel, this is it. I almost felt like, when Donald Trump materialized on the escalator, and then began to ascend in the Republican primary, and then won, it felt as though somebody else had written the play.

That's a dangerous thing to say, because I don't think I have some connection to a muse or a God source; I'm not saying that. I really do mean it in the Hegelian sense, that authorship is about a lot more than just a person's personal psychology; it's about the cultural forces at work around a person. And sometimes unwittingly you can stumble into something that has nothing to do with you at all.

How are Socrates's Athens and contemporary America alike and different?
There are extravagant differences between their democracy and ours, with one of the main ones being that we have a Bill of Rights. If you were a woman, for example, you were better off as a Spartan than an Athenian. As Socrates's wife, Xanthippe, says in the play, women were not allowed outside of the home. They had no rights and were little more than breeders. Athens also had a fairly rigorous cast system, as well as a slave culture; citizenship was for those born into it, or of those who could purchase it.

I'd say we're much more of a Republic than they were; Athens was far more indulgent of the plebiscite [the direct vote of all members of the electorate]. We borrowed somewhat from Plato, who advocated for an oligarchy and vesting in experts, which I would call politicians. But what strikes me—and why [director] Doug Hughes and I decided to do it the play in period costume—is that the issues they were facing are all still here.

There's a Jewish saying, "Tikkun olam," which means to repair the world. I would like to think that what this play is about, and certainly the spirit in which I wrote it, is an effort to participate in repairing democracy. That's what Socrates was all about—not so much Plato, but Socrates.

Socrates famously shunned politics, and this line struck me as particularly of the moment. Someone says of him, "Moderation…..meant making an enemy of everyone." In America today, you are either a Trump supporter or hater; there is no tolerance for the middle ground.
You have put your finger on exactly why that line was added to the play., post-Trump. A good deal of what I did after he came on board was to say, "Okay, there are certain relevancies here that I can now amplify.

Such stark division is one of the most upsetting developments in politics today.
It is. There are those who are now so exercised over Trump that all they can think or talk about is politics. And I find myself in arguments with people who will say that this is the worst, most divided, most corrosive moment in American political history. And I'll say, "Well, what about 1968? Assassinations, riots, the Vietnam war. Or how about the Civil War?" And when you argue that, people will will turn on you for being incapable of understanding how dire the situation is. By saying that Trump is not utterly catastrophic—that we have institutional protections, that Trump will go away and moderation will return—you become the enemy. It's suddenly as if you were a Trump supporter!

I was struck by another prescient insight. Towards the end of the play, Socrates uses an analogy to explain his aversion to having his words written down. He tells Plato that reading about a table is not the same as experiencing it, in the same way that hearing Socrates speak was very different from reading what he said, particularly when filtered through another man. It reminds me of how the majority of us now experience life through our phones and computers.
Yeah, there's that line, "I fear a time when everything is outside ourself and there is nothing in our minds at all." That's a moment in the play where I do veer into this middle ground between Socrates and Plato because that's bordering on a platonic argument. But I think that Plato derived that argument from Socrates's suspicion of writing.

Joan Marcus

Do you believe Plato betrayed Socrates after Socrates expressly forbade him from writing down what he said?
I certainly write that in the play, but the fact is, nobody really knows what Socrates actually said to Plato. This is what I imagine happened. Do I dramatize it a lot more than what perhaps really occurred? Probably. I was interested in taking Socrates's refusal to write to its extreme and giving him that position to illustrate the divide between the two thinkers.

But if I'm going to be totally honest, I think Socrates knew that Plato was recording their conversations, and said, "Oh, just do what the fuck you want."

You have three sons, like Socrates.
Yes. And I also have a very strong-willed wife. [Laughs.]

I'm gathering, though, that you are a more attentive husband and father than Socrates, who spent little time at home and accepted no money for his work, subjecting his family to a life of poverty. There's a rough scene at the end of your play, when Socrates banishes his wife and children from his final moments, allowing only his friends to witness his suicide. His ideas were so progressive; he emphasized being a good man above all else, and that one must never willingly do wrong. And yet, he treated his family terribly.
There's a line I had in there that I've taken out. Antisthenes—a follower of Socrates and founder of the Cynic school of philosophy—wrote that he asked Socrates why he had married this woman, "who is so difficult and harsh and berates you whenever you're home." And Socrates likened it to an expert rider having a very spirited horse in the stable; he married her so he could practice argument at home.

[Laughs.] It was certainly not a conventional marriage, but I think they were in love. I think they were both difficult and challenged one another. She has to have been brilliant, because I don't think someone as wise as Socrates would have married, and stayed married, to somebody that he didn't respect, love and in some sense revere. Plato reports that she and the children were there at his death, and that she was wailing, which was why Socrates had them removed—he couldn't take it.

Socrates, near the end of your play, says, "If I've learned anything it's that nothing…is purely what we think it is. We get rather an approximation at best….Imagine that: An entire lifetime of pursuit, and not a single so called "truth" to show for it." Would you agree?
Yes. I really don't think anything can be defined, ultimately. I like that essay Nietzsche wrote about truth and lies, because I agree that language is itself this mendacious construct—one that is nevertheless essential. But if you drill down at all into the meaning of things, or even if you try to find the thingness of things, you ultimately get back to nothing. You just constantly circle back. But we have to do it, otherwise you and I can't be having this conversation.

Socrates also says that there is nothing more noble than the pursuit of knowledge—"to teach people not what to think, but how, which is far more important." That idea of questioning everything, and of rational debate, is something American people continue to undervalue. If nothing else, I hope your play illuminates how essential they are to democracy.
Questioning, and also the fact—and I do believe this is a fact and a truth—that there are ways each individual can construct a life that orients one toward the good, the happy and toward lasting fulfillment. We aren't just these hapless animals, vulnerable to our genetic makeup and our psychological histories. We can exercise a degree of control and structure in our lives that orients us in ways toward a full and happy life.

Today that's mostly the domain of religion rather than philosophy. Religion back then was about appeasing the gods, who had power over what sort of harvest you were going to have, or whether there would be bounty in your home, and so it was a lot about obeisance. Philosophy had pretty much all the purchase on ethics and living a good life, until the Jews and then Jesus came in and took that over. If a philosopher starts to talk about happiness now, they're sent to Hallmark to write reading cards. But the ancient thinkers took this shit seriously, and that's why I love them.