Wise Man Socrates

By Namit Arora | Jul 2007 | Comments

Socrates Socrates, like Jesus and the Buddha, never committed his ideas to writing.* Our main sources on him are Plato, his student, and Xenophon, the historian. The picture that emerges from their accounts make him perhaps the greatest man of Classical Greece. This is by no means an original insight, but one that I was able to convince myself of many years ago.

Socrates is justly famous for declaring that the unexamined life is not worth living, and for his dialectic method of inquiry, the Socratic Method. With Socrates, the central problem of (Western) philosophy shifted from cosmology to the formulation of a rule of life through understanding, to a practical use of reason. He upheld self-knowledge and the supremacy of the intellect, insisting that one must work hard to discover the right and wrong. As The Apology relates, Socrates advocated the tending of one's soul, to make it as good as possible - and not to ruin one's life by putting care of the body and possessions before care for the soul.**

Socrates was no retiring ascetic but an urbane intellectual of aristocratic lineage, a man of the world, famed for his practical wisdom, modesty, self-control, generosity, alertness, and integrity. "There was no complacent self-righteousness of the Pharisee nor the angry bitterness of the satirist in his attitude toward the follies or even the crimes of his fellowmen. It was his deep and lifelong conviction that the improvement not only of himself but also of his countrymen was a task laid upon him by his God, not to be executed with a scowling face and an upbraiding voice. He frequented the society of promising young men, and talked freely to politicians, poets, and artisans about their various callings, their notions of right and wrong, the matters of familiar interest to them."**

In his youth, he had served in the Athenian army, apparently with distinction. Yet he missed no opportunity to be a gadfly to the establishment, working "to undermine the collective notion of 'might makes right' so common to Greece during this period."*** A story goes that Socrates, when pronounced the wisest of men by the oracle at Delphi, earnestly set out to investigate the truth of this claim. He interrogated poets, craftsmen, politicians and other 'wise men'. After investigating, his conclusion certainly didn't help him win friends among them:

And by Dog gentlemen! my honest impression was this: it seemed to me ... that the people with the greatest reputations were almost entirely deficient, while others who were supposed to be their inferiors were much better qualified in practical intelligence ... it was not wisdom that enabled [the poets] to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean ... I also observed that the fact they were poets made them think that they had a perfect understanding of all other subjects, of which they were totally ignorant ... [even craftsmen] seemed to share the same failing ... this error more than outweighed their positive wisdom ... [after meeting a politician] I reflected as I walked away: Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems to me that I am wiser than he is to the extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.****

800pxdavid__the_death_of_socratesSocrates however was no democrat - the radical vice of democracy, he believed, is that of putting society in the hands of men without true insight and with no adequate expert knowledge. His other criticism was that though in some departments democracy takes the advice of a qualified expert, on questions of morality and justice it assigns equal value to all opinions.

Plato, who believed this too, developed in The Republic the ideal of the philosopher-king (who possessed intelligence, good memory, keenness of mind, love of knowledge, moderation in matters of food, drink and sex, love of truthfulness, magnanimity, frugality, love of justice, and courage -- does Dubya have even one ?). Plato even tried to groom one in Sicily, an experiment that ended in disaster and disillusionment. In Laws, written well after The Republic, Plato turned pessimistic, renouncing his philosopher-king as an unrealistic ideal: philosophy was no longer to rule human affairs; the task of the legislator is to ordain "what is good and expedient for the whole polis amid the corruption of human souls, opposing the mightiest lusts, and having no man his helper but himself standing alone and following reason only."

* Bloggers and budding writers take note. :-)
** Source: Encyclopedia Britannica
*** Wikipedia entry on Socrates
**** As recorded by Plato in Phaedo (The Death of Socrates)

Designed in collaboration with Vitalect, Inc.