Socrates likens himself to a “gadfly attached to the state.” What does he mean by this? Is this a good or bad thing? What would a similar character playing a similar role look like in our age?
In Plato's 'Apology' Socrates tells the court :
... If you say to me, 'Socrates, this time we will not follow Anytus but will let you go on condition that you no longer spend your time on this inquiry and stop philosophizing; if you are caught doing this again, you shall die'- if you were to acquit me on this condition, I would reply: 'Men of Athens, I honour and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you and as long as I breathe and have the capacity I shall never cease philosophizing.. (29 c 6-d ).
The background is that Socrates is not that Socrates upholds a general right of freedom of conscience (as we might express it). He cites two instances in which he has disobeyed the state but not exactly its laws : (1) when he spoke out the wholesale trial of the generals of Arhinousai (32b) and (2) when he would not arrest Leon of Salamis (32c-d).
These cases deserve mention but they are not the heart of the matter. For that we need to track our way to the Delphic Oracle. Socrates takes the answer given by the oracle of Delphi to Chairephon's question as knowledge that the god has chosen him to educate the citizens of Athens out of their ignorance (23 b). He could not give up the practice of philosophy - his method of education - without defying the god (30a 6-7).
There is nothing like a modern appeal to conscience here. No adherence to personal moral judgement is involved, as in the case of Conscientious Objectors in the two World Wars. Socrates believes that his mission to educate and chase out ignorance is the choice of the god.
But what is Socrates' famous 'divine and mysterious something' (31 c 8), sometimes called his 'inner voice' ? Is this not conscience ? Not at all. It is 'the sign of the god' (40 b i)). It is a unique 'voice' communicated to Socrates by the god. It has no internal source or origin.
'Unique' matters vitally. Nobody else has Socrates' divine mission. He is on his own, the one and only gadfly appointed by the god (30e). Under the sacredness of his mission he will annoy, criticise, resist and refuse the state if it crosses the path of his divine mission.
It is only in pursuit of his divine mission, and any ban of his practising philosophy, that Socrates will defy the state and perform his gadfly role. Beyond that role he shows considerable - indeed, self-sacrificing - respect for the state and the law. In the 'Crito' Socrates argues that it would be wrong for his to try to escape from prison and evade the penalty of the law.
He gives three reasons. (1) The organised life of the state or polis would be undermined if citizens decided at will to defy the laws and the courts (50b); (2) the laws have protected Socrates and here is pay-back time. He rpresents himself as like a child under the discipline of adults (50c - 51c); and (3) Socrates accepts the penalty if he has not been able to persuade the state and its courts of their errors (51e - 52a).
There is no inconsisency between the 'Apology' (the trial) and the 'Crito' (Socrates' time in prison prior to execution). Even in prison Socrates continues with his educational mission, engaging in philosophical argument. The state has not blocked this sacred duty.