Gadfly

Plato Apology

gadfly is a person who interferes with the status quo of a society or community by posing novel, potently upsetting questions, usually directed at authorities. The term is originally associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, in his defense when on trial for his life.

The term ‘gadfly’ was used by Plato in the ‘Apology’ to describe Socrates’s relationship of uncomfortable goad to the Athenian political scene, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse. The word may be uttered in a pejorative sense or be accepted as a description of honorable work or civic duty.

During his defense when on trial for his life, Socrates, according to Plato’s writings, pointed out that dissent, like the gadfly, was easy to swat, but the cost to society of silencing individuals who were irritating could be very high: ‘If you kill a man like me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me’ because his role was that of a gadfly, ‘to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.’ This may have been one of the earliest descriptions of gadfly ethics.

The Book of Jeremiah uses a similar analogy as a political metaphor: ‘Egypt is a very fair heifer; the gad-fly cometh, it cometh from the north.’

In modern politics, a gadfly is someone who persistently challenges people in positions of power, the status quo or a popular position. For example, Morris Kline wrote, ‘There is a function for the gadfly who poses questions that many specialists would like to overlook. Polemics is healthy.’

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