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Socrates, that’s the question

He is one of the world’s best known names, yet we know very little about him. And though some have labelled him the father of Western philosophy, it may be that he was not that father at all. Socrates …

Philip Coppens


The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Socrates. Many are familiar with the name, but do we know the man? He is considered to be the father of democracy and a pivotal character of Western civilisation, but it may equally be that he was largely an invention by Plato. Practically everything that we give Socrates credit for, comes to us via Plato. Greek literature usually featured a dialogue (a question and answer session), which is known to have been a literary device, to aide comprehension with the reader. Plato wrote dialogues, which often cast Socrates in the role of the wise man who initiated his direct audience and the reader in whatever subject that he tackled. Did these dialogues reflect actual conversations from Socrates, or did Plato merely use Socrates as a literary device to put over his own thinking? If Plato did indeed do just that, then Socrates is one of the biggest myths of the Greek world – and we should give even more reverence to the genius of Plato.

Who was the historical Socrates? Most of what is now known about Socrates is derived from information that recurs across various contemporary sources, specifically the dialogues written by Plato, who is seen as one of Socrates’ students, though he is known to have studied elsewhere too (including Egypt). Apart from Plato, there are the works of Xenophon, one of his contemporaries, and writings by Aristophanes and Aristotle. Anything Socrates wrote himself – if he ever did – has not survived. It is very little source material, further complicated by the fact that Aristophanes’ account of Socrates, though contemporaneous, is in fact a satirical attack on philosophers and does not purport to be a factual account of events in the life of Socrates.
As to his private life: it seems that Socrates’ father was the sculptor Sophroniscus and his mother Phaenarete, a midwife. Socrates himself married Xanthippe, who bore him three sons: Lamprocles, Sophroniscus and Menexenus. Traditionally, Xanthippe is thought to have been an ill-tempered scold, a reputation she acquired mainly due to her characterization by Xenophon.
It is unclear how Socrates earned a living. According to Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates was totally preoccupied with discussing philosophy. Although he inherited money following his father’s death, it is unlikely that it was sufficient to keep him and his family for long. Both Xenophon and Aristophanes portray Socrates as accepting payment for teaching and running a sophist school with Chaerephon. Still, in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates explicitly denies accepting payment for teaching. An alternative possibility is that Socrates relied on the generosity of wealthy and powerful friends, such as Crito.

Socrates was not just your typical philosopher, sitting somewhere in or near the Greek Forum, talking. It is commonly accepted that Socrates served in the Athenian army during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the famous war between Athens and the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. Plato’s Symposium indicates that he was even decorated for bravery.
Though he was willing to give his life in battle for Athens, its citizens soon demanded he was executed for corrupting the city’s youths. In his philosophical discussions, Socrates was said to have questioned the gods, a charge he denied.
According to Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ life as the “gadfly” of Athens began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates; the response was negative. Not wishing to take this at face value (he was a philosopher after all), Socrates interpreted this as a riddle and actually set out to find men that were wiser than him. He questioned the men of Athens about their knowledge of good, beauty and virtue, but found that they knew nothing. Still, he himself felt that he knew very little, thus coming to the conclusion that he was wise only in so far as that he knew nothing.
Saying everyone was stupid and had a thwarted self-ego and being something of an uncontrollable agent obviously was a recipe for disaster. Some prominent Athenians turned against him, accused him, and as they had the power, the court had to hear the charges. Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking a cup of hemlock. He turned down the pleas of his disciples to attempt an escape from prison, which had apparently been planned and only required Socrates’ willingness to escape. He did not want to. Socrates stated that he would have to flee from Athens. Having knowingly agreed to live under the city’s laws, he subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would cause him to break his “contract” with the state, and by so doing, he felt he was harming it, which was something that went against his principles. As such, he preferred to drink the hemlock. According to Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates died in the company of his friends and had a calm death, enduring his sentence with fortitude.

Plato shows Socrates as a man of bravery and high morals, a man who tried to act as a mirror to anyone he met and who obviously caused embarrassment amongst those Athenians who didn’t like what they saw in the mirror. This mirroring technique is also visible in the Dialogues, where he answered a question with a question, thus turning the question back onto the questioner. This psychological technique of mirroring is now known as the Socratic Method or “method of elenchos”, which Socrates applied to the examination of key moral concepts such as Good versus Evil, Justice and other concepts that far too many thought – and think – they understand.
Socrates is thus became the father of philosophy, but perhaps he should also be seen as the father of psychoanalysis. In fact, Socrates often compared his approach to that of a midwife, a mediating role, a role very similar to that of psychoanalysis. He may have been inspired to choose this analogy because his mother was a midwife.
The Socratic Method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those which lead to contradictions. It was designed to examine a person’s own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs. Socrates once said that “I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.” It is, alas, something that didn’t go down well back then… and hasn’t really been in vogue at any time of human history.

It is this questioning technique that seems to be specific to Socrates, and not Plato – and thus the father of philosophy does not seem to be Plato’s invention after all. But was Socrates a “hollow philosopher”, who merely confronted people with more questions, and nothing else, or was he actually well-versed in philosophy and did he have ideas of his own?
Socrates seems to have had two teachers: Prodicus, a grammarian, and Diotima, a priestess from Mantinea who taught him about love. He was also familiar with other contemporary thinkers such as Parmenides and Anaxagoras. So he was definitely not uneducated. Still, there are those who claim that Socrates had no particular set of beliefs and sought only to examine; as such, the theories written down in The Republic are considered to be the opinions of Plato. Then there are, of course, those that argue that he did have his own theories and beliefs, but there is much controversy over what these might have been. Thus, for a man who liked to question, there is a huge question mark over his own oeuvre.

Plato and Aristotle, in The School of Athens, by Raphael

Let us explore some of the core beliefs of our man. Socrates offered refreshing insights into the nature of Good and Evil. This classic stand-off seems to be with us from the Garden of Eden via Osiris versus Seth, to East versus West, and other examples in recent history. Today, many Christians believe that Evil actually exists as an “entity” and that both people and nations can fall victim to it. Socrates felt that evil was more the consequence of ignorance, that those who did wrong knew not better. This is a very parental approach, suggesting that we are all, in origin, good, but that temptations and evil acts that are committed against us lead us to do evil things too. In the Bible, the serpent in the Garden of Evil can be interpreted as tempting Adam and Eve, rather than being truly evil. If anything, that serpent seems to be quite like Socrates, asking why certain things in the garden are off-limits to Adam and Eve – and the answer actually leads to self-realisation too! But for Socrates, it is highly ironic – if not sadistic – that for a man who felt that Good and Evil were very powerful subjects and that he was the last to judge, he was actually judged and found guilty – evil.
Many people cling to the idea that they need to live “Good” and “Wise” and live within a solid framework (defined by social and religious boundaries) that keeps their worldview intact. Socrates constantly wanted to question this framework, break it down, so that people could live without self-imposed constraints and social if not false notions of Good and Evil. In a classic war, in which he fought, both sides believe they are Good and Right and the other side is Evil and Wrong. Within the Good vs. Evil framework, one side obviously had to be wrong and normally – then as now – the victor accepts that he was Right and Good, having defeated Evil. Socrates could not accept this; he did not see black versus white, but shades of grey. He tried to question whether one side really did believe they had God on their side, by asking a series of questions: How did they know God was on their side? Why couldn’t God be on the Other’s side? What proof was there that God had said as such? Even if he appeared as a voice in a burning bush, stating he would always support his people, are we sure this voice was truly God? Could it not be another entity impersonating God? No? How are we to know? Etc.
People who question the validity of war are, then and now, unpopular. In Socrates’ time, the city’s fate was intimately linked with the city’s patron saint. And it was believed that Socrates’ endless questioning of the gods was dangerous, as it might result in Athena withdrawing her full support from the fate of the city. As Athens was already going through turbulent times, the patrons of the city decided to show to the goddess their total and unquestioning commitment to her, and found Socrates guilty of questioning the goddess and her relationship with the city.

Socrates also believed that the best way for people to live was to focus on self-development, rather than the pursuit of material wealth. Where there was division, he felt people should try to concentrate on friendships and a sense of true community (“common ground”), for Socrates felt that this was the best way for people to grow together as a populace. For Socrates, Evil was nothing more than an outcome of Ignorance and an unwillingness to learn about the other side. This, of course, fit in line with his own belief that he was merely wise because he knew that he knew nothing, whereas most people believed they could actually distinguish Good from Evil.
Many philosophers have a view of an ideal world; that of Socrates very much coincided with the Miss Universe’s popular vision of “World Peace”. Whereas most Misses Universe leave the implementation of world peace blank, Socrates did not. He felt that a philosopher was the only type of person suitable to govern others. According to Plato, Socrates was in no way subtle about his particular beliefs on government and openly objected to the “democracy” that ran Athens during his adult life. It was, of course, another ingredient in the recipe that led him down a path that forced him to drink a poisonous cocktail.
Plato had obviously placed the bar very high: he objected to any form of government that did not conform to his ideal of a perfect republic led by philosophers. Philosophers often fail to realise that their high ideals are too high for the masses, or feel that they need to speak about their high ideals in the hope that people can aspire to them, even though meeting them will be nigh impossible. But in reality, their ideals sit so visibly above everything else that they are easily shot down by those who feel threatened by them… and that is what happened to Socrates.

Plato placed Socrates on a plinth and since, we have rather unquestioningly left him on it and worshipped him. But Socrates had flaws. His biggest weakness was that he spoke of how philosophers were the only ones to govern, but at the same time he failed to engage himself in government, permanently sitting on the fence. He constantly refused to enter into politics, however many of his friend told him to. He often stated that he could not look into other matters or tell people how to live when he did not yet understand it himself. It was a useless stand-off: those who were supposed to lead, felt incapable of doing so! He did fulfil his duty to serve as prytanie, a 24/7 type of court that could be assembled ad hoc to pass judgement. But when the trial of a group of generals who had presided over a disastrous naval campaign was judged, he maintained an uncompromising attitude, refusing to proceed in a manner not supported by the law, despite intense pressure. It shows his integrity, but also an unwillingness to comprise or strive for a solution – key ingredients that anyone should have in politics.
As such, Socrates is a psychoanalyst who could perfectly diagnose, advice, but was ill-equipped to operate in the real world. Worse, he seems to have forgotten to apply the messages he preached onto himself. For a man who acted like a mirror, there was no-one who acted as a mirror for him… after all, he was the wisest of all man! And indeed not wise enough to occasionally turn the mirror on himself…

Socrates, more so than Plato or other Greek philosophers, is seen as a “modern man” placed in a world that did not understand him; he is considered to be closer to our age than that of the ancient Greeks. The Socratic Method is one of the most logical approaches known and thus popular in our “rational age”. But Socrates was not the agnostic some have made him into. In fact, it seems that Socrates was very much a religious man, who believed that his live was guided by his daemon, what we today would call a “guardian angel”. Socrates stated that he only heard this voice when he was about to make a mistake. It just said “no” and it was this voice that prevented Socrates from entering into politics. Today, we would call this our inner voice and some type of externalisation of our subconscious or our own thinking processes. But for Socrates, it was not that; his description of the phenomenon as being “daemonic” shows that he considered the origins of this voice to be independent of his own thoughts.
Trying to make Socrates into the Father of All Logic is unfortunately something that too many historians and philosophers have desperately wanted to do. The daimonic voice is therefore seldom discussed, with too much emphasis pushed onto the Socratic Method. In Plato’s dialogues, it is explained that the soul, before its incarnation in the body, was in the realm of Ideas. There, it saw the things the way they truly were, rather than the pale shadows or copies that we experience on earth. By a process of questioning, the soul can be brought to remember the ideas in their pure form, thus bringing wisdom. These concepts were typical for the Greeks and are known to have been those of Plato – so why do we think they are not Socrates’, when Plato suggests they are? Questioning is precisely what Socrates did. He practiced precisely the approach that was meant to liberate the soul and provide insight into a reality that was larger than our own.
It seems that historians should hold a mirror to themselves too, to see whether they have perhaps not projected their own thinking onto Socrates and made him – and by extension themselves – a martyr for their cause. Then again, perhaps I should do the same in my own willingness to accept that Socrates indeed believed in this philosophy of the soul. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…”