Archive for March, 2014

SOCRATES (470-399 B.C.), PART IV
Socrates was concerned: If the government was an absurdity (at times, it seems to me that ‘we the people’ – the true government in a democracy – are enabling our elected officials to move in this direction of becoming an absurdity; forgive me, for I digress); if it rules without helping, and if it commands without leading, how can we, Socrates wanted to know, persuade the citizen (remember, Socrates is referring to free, Greek men) to support and obey the laws and work for the common good?

Given this situation (whether in Greece or elsewhere) it is no wonder that there is chaos for lack of thought; the crowd will decide in haste and ignorance. Is it not pure superstition that mere numbers will give wisdom? Is it not universally seen that men in crowds are more foolish and more violent and more cruel than men separate alone (see Reinhold Niebuhr’s great work: ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society’ – written in the 1930s it remains deeply insightful)? Surely, Socrates noted, that the management of a State is a matter for which men cannot be too intelligent, a matter that needs the unhindered thought of the finest minds. How can a society be saved, or be strong, except it be led by its wisest men [our Founding Fathers believed this and so they insisted on ‘public education’ for the citizens so we could choose the wisest to lead; Jefferson warned that if the citizens were not educated then democracy would eventually fail for we would not be educated enough to know who the wisest are and hence we would not elect the wisest].

Now, gentle reader, imagine the reaction of the popular party in Athens to this Socratic gospel at a time when war seemed to require the silencing of all criticism (again, sound familiar?) and when the wealthy were plotting revolution. THEN the revolution came and men fought for it and against, bitterly and to the death. When the wealthy won, the fate of Socrates was sealed; he was the intellectual leader of the revolting party, however pacific he might have been; he was the source of the hated aristocratic philosophy; he was the corrupter of the youths who were drunk with debate and desirous of dialogue. It would be better they said, that Socrates should die. The rest of the story all the world knows, for Plato wrote it down in prose more beautiful than poetry.

Today each of us has the privilege and opportunity to read for ourselves that simple and courageous ‘apology,’ or defense, in which the first martyr of philosophy proclaimed the rights and necessity of free thought, upheld his value to the state, and refused to beg for mercy from the crowd whom he had always challenged. They had the power to pardon him; he distained to make the appeal. It was a singular confirmation of his theories that the judges should wish to let him go, while the angry crowd voted for his death. Had he not denied the gods? Woe to him who teaches men faster than they can learn!

So they decreed that he should drink the hemlock. His friends came to the prison and offered him an easy escape; they had bribed all the officials who stood between him and life. He refused! He was seventy years old now (399 B.C.); perhaps he thought it was time for him to die, and that he could never again die so usefully (think of the contrast with Leo Tolstoy’s death. As he was dying on a bench in a railway station he repeated over and over: “I do not understand what it is I have to do!” – Socrates knew!). ‘Be of good cheer,’ Socrates told his sorrowing friends, ‘and say that you are burying my body only.’ [Want more: See Plato’s ‘Apology’].

Socrates drank. He now lay dying and Plato provides us with his last words; Socrates addresses them to his friend Crito: ‘Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?’ ‘The debt will be paid,’ replied Crito; ‘Is there anything else?’ There was no answer to this question; Crito looked at Socrates, his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

And Plato noted: ‘Such was the end of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, the justest, and best of all the men whom I have ever known.’

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There had, of course, been philosophers before Socrates: strong men, subtle men, and seers. For the most part they had been physical philosophers; they had sought for the ‘physic’ (nature) of external things – the material and measureable world. Socrates affirmed them. He also offered that there was an infinitely worthier subject for philosophers than all of the trees, stones, water and dirt – even than all of the stars. Socrates said there is the mind of man. Then he asked: ‘What is man, and what can he become?’

So he went about inviting others to pry with him into the human soul, uncovering assumptions and questioning sureties. Men, it appeared to Socrates, talked too easily about ‘justice.’ ‘What is Justice?’ He asked. When you speak of Justice what do you mean by this abstract word; a word which you so easily use to settle the problems of life and death? What do you mean, he inquired, by honor, virtue, morality, and patriotism? Most importantly: What do you mean by ‘yourself’? Some who suffered (and it was, indeed, a form of suffering) from this ‘Socratic Method,’ this demand (and it was a demand, not simply an ‘invitation’) for accurate definitions, and clear thinking, and near perfect analysis, objected that he asked more than he answered, and that he left men’s minds more confused than before (anyone who has spent time with Socrates – via Plato’s writings – knows of what these folks speak).

YET, Socrates bequeathed to philosophy (and to seekers of wisdom) two definite answers to two of civilization’s vexing questions: ‘What is the meaning of Virtue?’ and ‘What is the best State?’ For the youths of Athens, no two topics could have been more vital than these. What would soon be played out in reality was that a disintegrating individualism (sound familiar?) had weakened the Athenian character, and left the city a prey at last to the sternly-nurtured Spartans. As for the State. . .for Socrates, what could have been more ridiculous than this mob-led, passion-ridden democracy, this government by a debating-society, this precipitate selection and dismissal and execution of generals, this unchoice choice of simple farmers and tradesmen, in alphabetical rotation as members of the supreme court of the land? Socrates asked, amidst all of this: ‘How could a new and natural morality be developed in Athens, and how could the State be saved from itself?

It was his reply to these questions that gave Socrates death and immortality. The older citizens would have honored Socrates had he called for a restoration of the ancient polytheistic faith; if he had led his youthful followers (and some not so youthful followers) to the temples and the sacred groves, and told them to sacrifice again to the gods of their fathers. But he felt that was a hopeless and suicidal path, a regression not a progression. Socrates had his own religious faith: he believed in one God, and hoped in his modest way that death would not destroy him. He also believed that a lasting moral code (note the word ‘lasting’) could not be rooted in an uncertain theology. If one could develop a deep rooted morality independent of religious doctrine, a morality as valid for the atheist as for the theist, then theologies could come and go and the deep tap roots that nurtured morality would not be depleted nor destroyed.

If ‘good’ meant ‘intelligent,’ and ‘virtue’ meant ‘wisdom’; if men could be taught to see clearly their real interests, to see afar the distant results of their deeds, to criticize and coordinate their desires out of a self-cancelling chaos into a purposive and creative harmony – this, perhaps, would provide for the educated and sophisticated man the morality which in the unlettered relies on reiterated precepts and external control [how often does modern man rely upon reiterated precepts and external control].


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SOCRATES (470-399 B.C.), PART II
It is now two thousand four hundred twenty three years ago. Pause and imagine. Imagine you are sitting in the temple shade; you look up and you see this rotund and powerfully build figure, wearing the same well-worn tunic, walking with slow determination through the courtyard; he is undisturbed by the run amok politics that is washing over Athens. He is a lioness stalking her prey. He spies some likely candidates, the young men and the learned men. Unlike the lioness, he warmly welcomes them and invites them to sit with him in another shady nook. He looks invitingly at each and then he says: ‘Now, define your terms!’

They flocked to him like young ducklings seeking their mother. They were a diverse lot. There were rich young men like Plato and Alcibiades; they savored Socrates satirical analysis of Athenian democracy. There were socialists like Antisthenes; they liked the teacher’s simplicity and poverty – Antisthenes made a religion of them. There were also a few anarchists; Aristippus was one. He desired a world in which there would be neither master nor slave – all would be ‘free’ as Socrates. All explored the topics of the day, of the year, of the nation. What they had in common was that this little band of brothers felt, as did their teacher, that life without discourse was unworthy of a man.

Why did these folks, his pupils, revere Socrates so? Perhaps because he was a man AND a philosopher – he did not live a divided life. He was a military hero; he had at great risk saved the life of Alcibiades during a battle. He also could drink like Aristotle – his guideline was the ‘golden mean’ of drinking; enough to savor but never to excess. [NOTE: Alcibiades developed a close relationship with Socrates, whom he admired and respected. According to the historian Plutarch, Alcibiades ‘feared and reverenced Socrates alone, and despised the rest…’ Alcibiades, himself, is an interesting figure in Greek history and it might be worthwhile to check him out]. Socrates was married and had children. His wife, Xanthippe, often saw him as a good-for-nothing and an idler; it was said that she loved to engage him in dialogue (which it seems that Plato did not capture – because she was a woman…could be); she loved him and grieved deeply when he died.

I imagine, however, that his pupils loved him best for the modesty of his wisdom; he, in fact, did not claim to have wisdom, but only to lovingly seek it. He was wisdom’s amateur, not her professional. On the other hand, it was said that the Oracle of Delphi, with good sense I might add, had pronounced Socrates the wisest of the Greeks. This was partly based upon the wisdom he demonstrated when he said, ‘One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.’ For the ‘true’ philosopher it all begins when one learns to doubt – especially to doubt one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas, and one’s assumptions. There is no philosophy until the mind turns round and examines itself (it begins ‘in here’). ‘Know thyself’ – Said the Oracle and Socrates.


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At first ‘philosophy’ was physical; it scanned the material world and asked what was the ultimate constituent of ‘things.’ Democritus (about 400 B.C.) was their spokesman. Changes occurred, and during the fourth century B.C. philosophy evolved because of the Sophists – traveling teachers of Wisdom. The Sophists looked within, upon their own thought and nature. The Greek word sophists formed from the noun Sophia [wisdom or learning] captured the idea that a Sophist is ‘one who exercises wisdom or learning.’ The word also meant ‘sage’ or ‘expert.’ When it was ‘applied’ to philosophy it became applied to a new type of intellectual – professional educators who toured the Greek world offering instruction with an emphasis on skill in public speaking and how one might conduct a successful life [remember that for centuries a philosopher was one who lived a certain way].

The Sophists asked questions about anything; they stood fearless in the presence of religious or political taboos. They commanded every creed and institution to come and stand before the judgment-seat of reason. At their height there were two schools. One argued that nature is good, and civilization is bad. By nature all men are equal and that inequality is a result of class-made institutions. Law is an invention of the strong to chain and rule the weak. The other school claimed that nature is beyond good and evil. By nature, all men are unequal. Morality is an invention of the weak to limit and deter the strong. Power is the supreme virtue and the supreme desire of man. Aristocracy is the wisest and most natural form of government. This school attacked the ‘democracy’ of Athens. [NOTE: In many ways these two schools are alive and well and continue to be in ‘conflict’]

HOWEVER, in reality there was not much democracy to attack. For the 400,000 inhabitants of Athens, 150,000 were slaves, 150,000 were women, children or ‘freemen’ who had no voice nor vote. Of the remaining 100,000 freemen/citizens only a small number presented themselves at the general assembly where the policies of the state were discussed and determined. YET, the general assembly was the supreme power and the highest official body, the Dikasteria (think, supreme court) consisted of over a thousand members (to make bribery expensive). The members were selected by alphabetical rote from the roll of all the citizens. No institution could have been more democratic – nor more absurd, chanted the critics. Into this muddle, Socrates walked, taught and died.

SOCRATES (470-399 B.C.), PART I

Socrates 470-399 B.C.

As can be seen, Socrates was far from being ‘handsome.’ A bald head, a great round face, deep set staring eyes, a broad and pug-like nose; it was the head of an attendant more than the head of the most famous of philosophers. BUT. . .let us look again. If we look closely we can see something of that human kindness and unassuming simplicity which made this common man a teacher beloved by the finest youths in Athens. Although we know so little of him, still we seem to know him more intimately than the aristocratic Plato or the reserved and aloof Aristotle.


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As I look more closely at the map I see near countless indentations of coast and land elevations.  Wherever my eye roams I see gulfs and bays and always the sea.  Water, Hills, valleys and mountains divide Greece into discrete fragments.  Travel and communication were challenging at best; no Sunday outings to visit a friend in another city-state.  Because of the geography, separate self- sufficient city-states emerged.  Each had its own form of government, its own educational system (for free men), its own dialect, its own religion (there were similarities among them), and their own culture.  Among the city-states there was in the region known as Laconia, the warrior state, Sparta and in the region known as Attica, the democracy, Athens.

I look one more time.  I seek out Athens.  I observe her position.  Athens is the farthest east of the larger city-states.  She was well placed and became the threshold which the Greeks crossed in order to reach the cities of Asia Minor.  Athens had a superb port and thousands of vessels found haven there, especially when the sea was angry.  Athens also had a powerful maritime fleet.

From 490-470 B.C. [Socrates was born in 470 B.C.] Sparta and Athens set aside their traditional animosities and envies and joined forces to defeat the Persians who sought to subjugate Greece and make her one of its colonies [see ‘The Histories’, by Herodotus].  Sparta provided the army and Athens provided the navy.  After the wars ended – some say as late as 449 B.C. – Sparta demobilized her army and experienced rough times; Athens turned her war fleet into a commerce fleet and emerged as one of the greatest trading cities of the ancient world.  Athens became the place where cultures met, intermingled, and learned from each other; great thinking was one by-product.

The historian, Will Durant, captures what followed with words that are informative and, for me, a pleasure to read: In Greece there arose thousands of faiths and where there are thousands of faiths we are apt to become skeptical of them all.  Probably the traders were the first skeptics; they had seen too much to believe too much; and the general disposition of merchants to classify all men as either fools or knaves inclined them to question every creed.  Gradually, too, they were developing science; mathematics grew with the increasing complexity of exchange, astronomy with the increasing audacity of navigation.  The growth of wealth brought the leisure and security which are the prerequisite of research and speculation; men now asked the stars not only for guidance on the seas but as well for an answer to the riddles of the universe; the first Greek philosophers were astronomers.  …Men grew bold enough to attempt natural explanations of processes and events before attributed to supernatural agencies and powers; magic and ritual slowly gave way to science and control; and philosophy began. [To be continued…]

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