Socrates (c.470-399 BC), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Socrates (c.470-399 BC), A Perspective

Who was he? He was without doubt one of the greatest philosophers in the history of Western thought. He lived through a sudden violent political change in his birthplace of Athens, a city in which he would finally become a scapegoat. He had become a mirror reflecting the corrupt politicians. Consequently those individuals broke the mirror just as what Christ went through the same thing centuries later. It is believed that Jesus went to the cross for our sins so we’ll be forgiven. However, I believe, it was the results of our sins which sent him to the cross. It was ignorance which killed both Socrates and Jesus. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Christ on the cross)

Socrates was a victim of ignorance of the people in Athens. He was accused of corrupting the youth, turning his back to the gods and praising Persians and Spartans. He left the many to believe in the One God. He was searching for a wise ruler for Athens. He didn’t support the democracy practiced in his city. He advocated monarchy and admired Persians for it. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Persian forces were the Greeks’ former enemies. Spartans helped the Greek army to fight the Persian troops. However, the same Spartans thanks to Pracles’ lack of leadership, destroyed Athens. But nevertheless, Socrates still admired them for their bravery and courage along with the Persians. Blood was not thicker than water for Socrates. Justice and fairness was his moral philosophy. He concentrated on the mismanagement and corruptions existing in his society rather than worrying about what was going on beyond Athens’ borders. After all, charity begins at home. Domestic problems were more important than the foreign enemies for him. We look at the stars while we forget that we can’t see them due to the cataract in both of our eyes. The domestic enemies of the state were destroying his society. The same enemies finally sentenced him to death, because he protested against them. Socrates fought against what he was accused of, namely corruption in his backyard. He worked so hard to awaken the mass through his philosophical arguments and dialogues regarding what the ignorant folks were doing in his culture. They were imposing on the people a democracy which was in violation of everything it was really about. Perhaps that is why Socrates preferred monarchy over a false version of democracy. Athens was collapsing right before his eyes as Chinese society was being destroyed in front of Confucius. They were both searching for a true and wise leader to rule their lands.  

Whatever we know of Socrates is through Plato, because the former was going from one place to another as a philosopher who taught merely by way of public discussion and speaking. It didn’t matter to him if everybody understood his teachings as long as only a few took what he said seriously and tried to practice them. He hardly wrote anything of philosophy nature which would be considered his own works. In the history of thought he was not the only one who either never wrote or if he or she did, were only a few lines. Some great minds both in East and West were not prolific when it came to leaving some writings or works behind. Why? We have no idea. Some like Ibn Arabi, the Arab Spanish Muslim mystic (Sufi) and philosopher, who lived around 1126 AD, wrote possibly about 1000 books of which a little more than 800 books are still in existence. In our time Noam Chomsky (1928), the professor of linguistics and a political writer at MIT has written more than 600 books. Well, Socrates was among those who hardly ever wrote but his name hangs on the door of perhaps most of philosophy departments in the world to this day. I believe it is not about how much you write but what you write.

He was not like thinkers before him to be involved with abstract metaphysical matters which require deep thinking. He was rather interested in practical questions concerning how we ought to live and what a good should be. No wonder he is known as the inventor of ethics, which drove him into conflict with the city elders who had accused him of having contaminated the minds of the sons of the affluent folks of Athens with his revolutionary and not too orthodox ideas.

Socrates was definitely a person who lived independently of any organization or political party. (Webster’s) In other words, he was not branded to fit in the procrustean bed of Athenian society. He was truly a maverick who stated he only knows this much that he doesn’t know. In other words, he was aware of his ignorance, and this scared many people around him. We could hear Christ’s voice centuries later when Socrates was sentenced to death, ‘Father, forgive them for they know what they do’. Perhaps only God knows what ignorance can do to others. So by saying ‘The only thing I know is that I know nothing’ Socrates encouraged us not to be content with a little knowledge of worldly nature. He taught that we ought to move vertically towards true knowledge, which reminds us of Plato’s realm of the Forms, which indicate perfections. If you recall seeing Raffaello Santi’s school of Athens you can see what this great painter of the renaissance did. In the academy he painted Plato as walking with Aristotle raising his right hand upward pointing to the ceiling. This bodily gesture shows us the influence of Socrates on Plato, as if he was referring to the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Chris’s hands are pointing to the ones next to him and his head and feet represent the verticality of what we learn from this symbolism. Man doesn’t live by bread alone, as if he was telling us about those two, but by the word of God. (Not exact quote) Horizontal knowledge is best described as information but verticality tells us of true knowledge. Socrates was also crucified by drinking hemlock. Jesus was referring to the vertical knowledge on the cross. Is it possible Jesus knew of Socrates? I believe he must have known about him and he knew what ignorance could do. Christ was not like Kant to have been locked up in his town for the rest of his life.

Socrates used to invite people to sit with him and discuss different common ideas and notions like ‘beauty,’ or ‘the good’, or ‘piety’, or ‘justice’, or ‘love’ He would ask them, If they had time to spend, to define those. He just wanted to show by rational arguments that all of the proposed definitions and common conceptions would eventually lead to paradox or absurdity. Of course, he was not lying when he told them he just was interested in knowing about those ideas. After all, he always said the only thing he knew was that he just didn’t know. Thus, he had a hunger in knowing what these ideas were. If he had said he knew all about them, then would have had no desire to know more. Some of his contemporaries were thinking he was just pretending he didn’t know, which was not a frank technique and Socrates knew more than what he told them. However, once we get deeper into his thoughts we realize he was just trying to encourage his audience not to be content with what they think they know, because the knowledge they had was nothing but reflections of the ideal, real and short of perfection.

As we can see he was paving the way for Plato’s Forms, which came later on. He was teaching people that what they see in the sea are not the sun and the moon but they’re reflections of the absolute Realities.

We call the Supreme Court judges, justices in our country, which to put it mildly, is absurd. Any child would know a politicized and biased court with majority republicans is not an ideal place for justice, because there should be a balance if there’s any hope for fairness. In recent decision regarding abortion this could be easily seen. Given this decision by the majority, blue states are opening their doors as they have always done to those who’re perhaps victims of rape and other problems. May be this was a reason why Socrates was against majority rule in democracy. The contradiction in what is done there would make us see red with anger.

Socrates, I believe, was making an effort to manifest the insufficiencies in what we know. No wonder why he said he didn’t know. I know this much that I don’t know, was what he kept saying.

Socrates’ project was geared towards providing healthful and beneficial instructions in the risk involving uncritical acceptance of orthodoxy.

In his conversation with one of the youngsters of Athens by the name of Euthyphro on the steps of the court, he explained that just because the gods dictate it doesn’t mean we should accept their decisions. Is something good because God wills it or God wills it because it is good?

There were times when he spoke bitterly against those who claimed to posses certain knowledge of some specific subject. Through his dialectic method he would expose them. Indeed it is mainly by the influence of Socrates that philosophy evolved into the modern discipline of ongoing critical reflection. The biggest danger to both society and people is when we avoid critical thought.

Since he was admired by Athens’ aristocratic youngsters, he created a number of enemies during his lifetime. Athens went through several changes of leadership. Socrates was 70 years old when he was accused of corrupting the youth, turning his back to the gods and praising the Persians and Spartans. He was a monarchist and didn’t believe in the democracy experimented in Athens. Apparently 40 thousand men were deciding the destiny of the people in Athens. These charges were brought up basically to convince Socrates to reject his provocative public speaking and to persuade the Athenian people that the new leadership had a firm rein on law and order. If Socrates had gone for a plea bargain and admitted that he was guilty, he might have been a free man and lived out the rest of his life as just an Athenian ordinary individual. All what he had to do was recant and he would have been a free man to live his life as a private citizen. However, he strongly defended himself while addressing his accusers and he told them that it was the mandate of the God of Olympia for him to teach philosophy. When he was asked what penalty he deserved the most for what he had done, he said in response he should be fined only 30 minae. Being made fun of by Socrates, majority voted for him to be sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. He finally became the victim of what he was fighting against, that is majority rule.

It is said that Jesus went to the cross for our sins. I believe the correct way of saying this is that he was crucified as a result of being accused of what he had not done. There’s a difference between him being on the cross for our sins than being crucified because of our sins. I see a great similarity between the death of Socrates and Christ.

Another story is that he was asked to leave Athens and he refused, because he was concerned about what the future generation would say about him. Besides he told them he was born and grew up in Athens and if he couldn’t convince the court of his innocence, then he would rather take the hemlock and die.

Socrates’ trial, death and final talks are beautifully expressed by Plato in his dialogues ‘Apology’, Crito and Phaedo.

Euthyphro was waiting to see his father indicted. Socrates asked him why? He told the old teacher that his father arrested a man who had committed a murder. He brought him to a place with his hands tied behind his back and also tied his feet so he couldn’t escape. He left him with no water and good in order to bring the authorities. By the time they reached him, he was dead. I believe my father is guilty of a crime. Socrates asked Euthyphro whether his father’s action was right. The response was yes. Was his intention good? He answered yes. Then what your father did must have been according to the natural law though it ended up in disaster. Euthyphro didn’t know how to challenge Socrates. But Socrates even the gods castrate their fathers. So the gods are your role models? Yes Socrates. Do they argue among themselves like us? They must do that. Is it possible some would say what your father did was right and some would say no he was not right? I believe so. Euthyphro, can your father’s action be right and not right at the same time and in the same relationship? No Socrates, because there’s going to be a contradiction. Don’t you think it is better to believe in one God? Now you know why I believe in one God. Euthyphro, am I corrupting you? I don’t think so. Well, this is one the accusations against me. Do we have to accept whatever the gods tell us to do? What if these gods are the creation of ours? What if we created them? Thus, things are good in themselves and don’t need to be dictated by gods to be so. Buddha rejected the deities because they were based on people’s opinions and perceptions.

We’re still struggling with the idea of majority rule in our country whereas both Socrates and Plato were against it.

I believe nothing is new under the sun. Even today after two thousand and five hundred years we’re still confronting the kind of difficulties Socrates experienced in his time. There’re consciousness objectors in various societies around the world who’re either poisoned or jailed or even murdered for their disagreements with their governments. There’re those who’re crucified for their ideas or fired from their jobs when they expressed their objections to what they’re asked to do. There’re whistleblowers in companies who get chastised once they’re recognized. I believe it was Plato who said once there’s righteousness woven in the fabric of the universe. If you decided to be a mirror showing the faults of the people you live or work with, then you would be easily broken and you’ll be the ones to become guilty of their wrong doings.

Socrates is very much alive today as he was during his time. We have not changed a bit throughout centuries unlike what the believers in Darwinian evolution might think. We have not evolved an iota and our nature is still the same. 20th century was the bloodiest in the history in which more than 100 million people were killed around the world. We may have advanced in science and technology but not in humanity, which means we still need Socrates to teach us what it means to be true human beings.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)