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How to Live Like a Modern Socrates

For several weeks now I have been blogging about Socrates, or at least how Socrates is portrayed by Plato and Xenophon. Since he is the archetypal Western philosopher and model for all who came later, it makes sense that we should all try to live a bit more like him. I thought I would take a post list some of the practical aspects of Socratic living. I’ll start with the easy stuff and work up to advanced topics.

Avoid Working at a Job

Socrates was raised to be a stone cutter but, by the time history hears about him he hadn’t worked in years. If you can, don’t have a job at all. It will wear you out and suck up all the time when you could be philosophizing. As Mr. B says, “How many brilliant minds are lost to work?” If you find you absolutely have to work, you have two choices. Either find a low stress, low hours job (e.g. bicycle mechanic, grocery store night clerk) or a job with flexible hours and a large philosophical component (e.g. freelance writer). Remember, though: It’s always easier to save money than to make it.

Don’t Spend Money on Material Possessions

We never read about Socrates owning anything except the clothes he was wearing, and those were nothing to brag about. In The Symposium Alcibiades, describing how he tried to seduce Socrates, talks about climbing under his “much patched cloak”. So buy your clothes at thrift stores and choose comfort and durability over style. Also, think long and hard before buying things like cars or mobile phones which are basically status symbols, don’t contribute anything to your philosophy, and suck money every month whether you use them or not.

Never Miss a Free Meal

The dialogs are full of instances when Socrates showed up at someone’s house right around dinner time and got a free dinner. This is a good way to economize and can lead to many interesting philosophical conversations. Also, be sure to take home leftover if you can, since you never know when your next free meal is coming.

Make Rich Friends

Besides providing better free food, rich friends can come in handy in a number of ways, such as posting bail when you are on trial by the assembly. It’s always nice to be on good terms with a Crito or two if you can manage it.

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Find Your Xanthippe

Socrates’ wife has a bad reputation, mainly because Xenophon didn’t like her. From the description in the Phaedo, however, it is clear there was real affection between her and Socrates. An understanding spouse, especially one with a regular income, can make all the difference in your survival as a philosopher.

Always Try to Learn from Other Philosophers

Whenever another philosopher was in town Socrates made a point of seeking them out and asking them questions. Now that we have the internet we don’t need to wait for them to visit since we can communicate at will with anyone, anywhere in the world. Remember the point from the last part of The Phaedrus: Reading someone’s written work is good, but it is no substitute for hearing them speak in person.

Teach Anyone Who Asks

Many of the greatest men of the age claimed Socrates as a teacher. A true philosopher has a moral duty to help others learn. To be like Socrates, however, remember two key precepts: (1) Don’t charge money for teaching if you can avoid it. (2) Always treat your students as equals and colleagues, never as inferiors. Philosophy is about joint inquiry, not received information and authority.

Stand by Your Conclusions

Socrates died for his principals. Most of us will never need to drink hemlock (literally or figuratively), but philosophy is about the search for truth. Once we conclude, through a process of exhaustive philosophical inquiry, that a principal is true, we need to be brave enough to commit to it, whatever the personal consequences.


Gender Theory in Plato (The Symposium)

I agonized over which aspect of Plato’s Symposium to write about in this post, since this dialog contains so much material, and so many “hooks” for a blogging. The overall theme is “Love” (Eros), the conceit being that several of the leading intellectuals of Athens are at a dinner party and have decided to entertain themselves by each giving a short speech about love. This allows Plato to write in several different voices and introduce different–and sometimes conflicting–views before Socrates, the last to speak, lays down the “official” Platonic platform: while it is fine and natural for common people to love other people and seek creative fulfillment through reproduction, the truly elevated philosopher loves Wisdom above all earthly attachments and is only fulfilled when philosophizing and creating knowledge.

Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children—this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant—for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor.

Just as Socrates finishes a drunken (or at least drunk acting) Alcibiades crashes the party and tells how his many attempts to seduce Socrates have failed. This serves to underscore Socrates’ point; Alcibiades is the iconic sex symbol of his time–at the peak of his physical beauty and as yet untouched by the political problems which will plague his later life. To the Greek mind it is extraordinary that anyone, male or female, would be impervious to his charms.

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

As is happens, though, I have already devoted whole posts to Alcibiades, while Socrates and his pursuit of Wisdom are the theme of the past few weeks. The section I would rather focus on now is Aristophanes‘ speech. While undoubtedly written by Plato, it is completely Aristophanic, capturing both the playwright’s intellectual brand of humor and his penchant for wild flights of mythopoetic fantasy. Humanity, says Aristophanes, was not always as it is now,

The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

However, these four-legged, rolling humans were too powerful, and soon challenged the gods themselves. Zeus, after considering how to punish them, decides to split them in half,

‘[A]nd then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’

Unfortunately, mankind longs so much for their sundered halves that,

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,—being the sections of entire men or women,—and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature.

This story then, besides being an artful Aristophanic pastiche, is also another one of the beautiful myths which Plato inserts into so many of his dialogs where they server besides the elenchus as a different and complementary, yet never inferior, vehicle for the exposition of his philosophy. It is important to remember that Plato never expects the reader to take these myths literally. Rather, they constitute a developing symbolic shorthand with which to manipulate constructs in conjunction with his theory of ideas.

This particular myth is important because it offers an explicit recognition of a concept of gender which is distinct both from reproductive sex and sexual orientation, a concept which Western thought has only recently rediscovered. Plato, at least in a limited sense, is the father of gender theory. Add the context of his argument for equality of women in The Republic, and he appears very modern indeed.

So if Plato was so far ahead of his time in the area we now call Gender Studies or Philosophy of Gender, why did so many centuries pass before the next big break-through? medieval Christianity, with its emphasis on asexuality as a gender ideal, clearly played a role. The gender dialog had gone silent long before Christianity became the dominant religion, however. It was in the bourgeoisie and aristocratic society of late pagan Rome, where nearly any sexuality was acceptable as long as it happened discretely and did not result in a scandal, that it became unacceptable to talk about gender. Upper caste Romans could (and did) do and be almost anything they wanted sexually, especially if the passive partner was a slave or other non-citizen. But it was in incredibly bad taste to talk about it. The whole society functioned on don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis. By the time Christianity took over, with its overall distrust of sexuality in general, combined with biases inherited from ancient Judaism, which acknowledged only two genders corresponding to the two most common reproductive sexes, Plato’s ideas on the subject had already been tabled for a very long time.

Thucydides Books VI-VIII: Conclusion

I trust you will forgive me for lumping the last three books of Thucydides‘ History together in one post, but I have my reasons.  Book VI is the true climax of the narrative, in which the Athenians mount a massive expedition to Sicily and suffer a loss of men, treasure, ships, and morale from which they can never recover.  Everything after is mere denouement, even though the war lasts for another decade.  In Book VII the war shifts to the Aegean and Athens manages to scrape together enough forces to win a few victories, especially after the fickle Alcibiades switches back to their side, but the final outcome is never in doubt.  By the unfinished Book VIII the Persians have come in on the Spartan side,  Alcibiades is gone again, and it is obviously just a matter of time before the final defeat.  Thucydides leaves off in mid sentence, leaving it to Xenophon to write about the end of the war.

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Maybe Thucydides’ health declined, or perhaps he was recalled to Athens and no longer needed a writing project to spend the empty hours of his exile.  As a fellow writer, I suspect that, having laid out his main thesis and arguments, he became bored with the final chapters and put them off, never finishing.  But what was this thesis that he was trying to prove?

I just finished reading Donald Kagan’s book Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, which sheds some interesting light on the question.  Kagan, one of the world’s foremost Thucydides scholars, argues that the “father of scientific history” was a revisionist who crafted the History to support his own platform.  The narrative that Thucydides presents is that the war was inevitable but the Athenians had a strong chance of winning under the leadership of Pericles.  After Pericles died in the plague, the democratic mob, urged on by demagogues like Cleon, went out of control and adopted a reckless policy, including the invasion of Sicily, which destroyed the empire.  Thucydides presents this perspective so effectively that it became the dominant interpretation of the Peloponnesian war for 2400 years.

Kagan, Thucydides the Reinvention of History Cover Image

In Kagan’s book, however, he explains how, while Thucydides clearly believed this interpretation, there is significant evidence within his own work to question whether things were that simple.  The war may or may not have been inevitable eventually, but Pericles was the one who pushed Athens to go to war when they did.  His defensive policy was already being shown to be ineffective by  the time of his death.  It was only after Cleon and others urged Athens into a more aggressive strategy that they began making advances.  Cleon himself, despite being hated by Thucydides, Aristophanes, and others, actually seems to have been fairly competent.

Perhaps most importantly the invasion of Sicily, far from being a mad power grab by the mob, was a fairly reasonable plan which might have succeeded had it not been for the gross incompetence of Nicias.  It was Nicias who, without actually meaning to, talked the assembly into a massive escalation of commitment in Sicily.  It was Nicias who committed one tactical and logistic blunder after another in the Sicilian campaign.  It was Nicias who waited too long to withdraw after it was obvious the campaign was lost, turning a strategic withdrawal into a disaster in which he lost his entire force and his own life.

Thucydides liked and respected Pericles and Nicias but loathed Cleon and distrusted democracy.  Thus, he structured the narrative to support his own bias, which probably went against the commonly held views of the day.  Kagan points out that, despite having a strong viewpoint, Thucydides was true to his own stated methodology and did not deliberately withhold information.  He wrote at a time when the war was still fresh in the minds of his readers and he could assume that they knew the major events, so he could emphasize the speeches and happenings that reinforced his own thesis.

Whether this interpretation is true or not–and perhaps particularly if it is true, Thucydides remains one of the greatest and most influential historians of all time.  Still, the issue reminds us, as readers of the Great Books, that every writer has their own agenda and their own biases, as does every reader, and we need to take them into account if we want to truly come to grips with these texts.