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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.

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Plato’s Gorgias

The Gorgias is probably among the last dialogs of Plato’s early period. In it we see him experimenting with the longer format, using multiple interlocutors, which he will later use to great effect in his magnum opus, The Republic. In it also, we get the sense that Plato is coming up against the limitations of the Socratic elenchus (question and answer technique) as a way of teaching philosophy; two of the three interlocutors remain unconvinced and refuse to change their position after Socrates questions them.
The second of these, Callicles, becomes openly hostile and refuses to continue, forcing Socrates to finish up in the sort of monologue argument which he hates. The fundamental weakness of the Socratic method, as any of us who have used it in the classroom know, is that it requires full participation from both sides (which is why I used to give my students a participation point every time they asked or answered a question in discussion section).

Gorgias was a prominent teacher of oratory (public speaking) from Sicily. The dialog opens with Socrates and his side-kick Chaerophon (whom we met in Clouds and heard mentioned in The Apology) waiting to meet Gorgias as he leaves a dinner party. They have heard that he is in town, and want to question him regarding Socrates’ current inquiry: what is the nature of oratory, and is it one of the true arts? When Gorgias comes out he is accompanied by Polus, a younger and less famous teacher of rhetoric, and Callicles, a budding Athenian politician who is hosting Gorgias while he is in town.

The School of Athens.  Rafael.  [public domain via Wikimedia]

The School of Athens. Rafael. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Gorgias good-naturedly agrees to answer Socrates’ questions, and Socrates soon proves to his own satisfaction that oratory, far from being the highest art, as Gorgias believes, is a spurious art–more of a knack, really. It relates to the true art of politics the same way that cooking relates to medicine and cosmology relates to physical training: it panders people’s enjoyment but isn’t actually good for them on any deep level.

At this point Polus wades into the discussion to defend his profession. His argument is that oratory is a good because those who become skilled in it can obtain great power and take advantage of those who are less skilled in court and the assembly. Socrates then launches a series of questions intended to school Polus on the difference between ends and means. Means cannot be good in themselves, but ends can. Next, Socrates introduces one of the most radical concepts in Platonic philosophy: it is better to suffer an injustice than to do one. Thus a man who uses oratory to become a tyrant and take unfair advantage of others is harming himself worst of all. Polus is clearly unconvinced by these assertions, but just as clearly out of his depth trading words with Socrates.

Callicles, who has been quiet so far, can restrain himself no longer. Socrates, he says, has been using logical tricks to take advantage of Gorgias and Polus, and they are too noble to call him on it. Socrates’ position is ridiculous because the natural law of the world is for stronger and “better” men to take from their inferiors. I was reminded of the line from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeny Todd,

In all of the whole human race Mrs Lovett
There are two kinds of men and only two,
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face.
Look at me Mrs. Lovett look at you.

Socrates, of course, is able to refute Callicles’ position in short order, and Callicles responds by shifting his position and even resorting to personal insults. Unable to hold his ground and unwilling to admit that he is wrong, he tries to end the conversation. Gorgias, however, who is now enjoying himself, urges him to continue. For the rest of the dialog he answers sullenly and agrees with Socrates only to get the discussion over with faster. Eventually he becomes so unresponsive that Socrates is forced basically to lecture. Meanwhile Socrates has broadened the topic to how a man should live virtuously to achieve the good live (i.e. eudaimonia). A great leader, according to Socrates, would live his life with order and self control. He would speak to the people in order to educate them and improve them in virtue, not merely to talk them into things and pander to them. Even famous men like Pericles and Cimon, while adequate as civil servants, were not great leaders because they used oratory and didn’t actually improve the people in their charge. At this point, the dialog has cycled back to Socrates’ initial conclusion that oratory is not more than a pseudo-art used to pander to the masses.

At the conclusion of the dialog, Socrates offers one of the myths which appear in several of Plato’s dialogues. This particular one deals with the judgement that awaits people in the afterlife. Those who behave unjustly will damage their souls in ways that will be obvious to the judges, who will consign them to punishment in Tarterus. This myth serves as additional support against Callicles’ position, possibly more appealing to a man like Callicles, who is apparently immune to reason.

The Gorgias treats with several concepts which are worthy of further consideration. For instance, the doctrine of avoiding revenge because doing injustice harms the doer became a cornerstone of Platonism, and later of Christianity. Almost as radical was the idea that punishment for injustice was good for the person punished, which has also enjoyed a long currency in Western Civilization, particularly in the Catholic Church. The main theme of the dialog, the distinction between legitimate education and oratory, is of particular interest in the modern world. While we have less opportunity to watch orators in person than classical Greeks, we are barraged all day with advertising and “news” using all the ‘ old techniques and appeals. As Socrates points out, while some of it may pander to us by giving temporary pleasure and telling us what we want to hear, none of it is good for our souls. None of it will bring us closer to eudaimonia in any way.

Apology of Plato

Two posts ago I wrote about the difficulty we encounter, when reading Plato’s dialogs, distinguishing his teachings from those of Socrates. Because the Apology is an early dialog and the subject matter is Socrates himself, it may give the most accurate portrait of him of all the dialogs. The apology is a “transcript” of Socrates’ defense while on trial for his life. In the decade following his execution (in 399 BCE) a number of authors wrote their own accounts of the trial, and Plato probably wanted to create a definitive version to defend the memory of his teacher. Of course no record of the trial is completely accurate, if only because the Greeks had not yet invented the concept of a court reporter and thus had to rely on their memories of what was said.

Socrates Dictates his Will, Josef Abel, 1800 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Socrates Dictates his Will, Josef Abel, 1800 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

One of the most important things to remember when reading the Apology, is that Socrates really didn’t care whether he won or lost the trial. He was 70 years old and had already reached a place in his philosophy in which he no longer feared death,

For let me tell you, gentlemen, that to be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows when one does not know. No one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to a man; but people dread it as though they are certain that it is the greatest evil; and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable. (29a-b)

Transcending fear, particularly the fear of death, is one of the great benefits of studying philosophy. Unmotivated by fear, Socrates was free to follow his own convictions–and possibly the urgings of his daemon–and seize on the trial as one more chance to educate the Athenians and set an example for his students by demonstrating his dialectic.

Thus Socrates, whose disclaimer that he doesn’t know how to speak in court sounds weak from a man who has already put the greatest sophists of the day in their place, spends most of the trial bringing up edgy theological ideas, such as when he calls on the god Apollo as a witness or when, in passing, he asserts that the Gods cannot lie. Both of these points required a number of unorthodox assumptions and would have made most of the jurors uncomfortable. Socrates then goes on to demonstrate his teaching method by cross examining Meletus which, to most of the jurors, would have been more a demonstration of how annoying he could be. Towards the end of his defense he declines to beg for the court’s mercy (a standard section in Athenian court practice) and explains away his lack of political service by saying that he just would have been gotten himself killed by the other Athenians had he involved himself,

The true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone. (32a)

No one, least of all Socrates, is surprised when the court returns a “guilty” verdict. The prosecution recommends the death penalty. Athenian law allows the defendant to propose his own penalty, and everyone expects him to suggest exile, which the jury will probably accept. Instead, he proposes a trivially small fine, saying its the most he can afford. He then raises the number, after Crito and others offer to pay. Obviously, though, if Socrates’ friends are paying it won’t really be a punishment.

Socrates is sentenced to die and soon becomes the most famous martyr to philosophy in Western history (or perhaps the second most famous, depending how one classifies Jesus).

Socrates and Plato [public domain via Internet Archive]

Socrates and Plato [public domain via Internet Archive]

At this point, let’s pause to contrast the careers of Socrates and Plato. Socrates “The Gadfly” was an outsider who was always as odds with, and ultimately executed by, the system. Plato was a respected citizen who died in his sleep at a party. Socrates’ teachings were primarily dialectical–dealing with ways to change and improve society. Plato’s were primarily metaphysical and idealistic and implied that one might as well accept society because the physical world wasn’t the real world anyway as well as advocating a world view that was ultimately static. Socrates discarded his (probably lower-middle) social class and became something else. Plato remained close to his aristocratic roots. Socrates conversed in the streets and at dinner parties. Plato taught at an a academy.

If we think of “philosopher” as a role in society then, in many ways, these two men are the original archetypes of the two kinds of philosopher that have historically been found in Western Civilization. For want of better terminology, I call them Outsiders and Academics, and I am currently writing a book about the Outsiders. While I would of course love it if you were to buy my book, when it comes out, everything you really need to know about the two can be found by studying Socrates and Plato. Outsiders like Socrates are the initiators: they force society to examine new ideas. Since societies don’t really like new ideas, the Outsiders usually suffer for it, financially and/or physically. The Academics, on the other hand, safe within legitimized social organizations such as universities, are the developers and guardians of the new ideas which were first introduced by outsiders. Occasionally, an academic is able to conceive and promulgate a truly original idea, but this is rare because the process they go through to earn their positions selects against innovators and because they have too much to loose to buck the system. Our civilization seems to need both types of philosopher to function.

Euthyphro of Plato

Plato’s Euthyphro is one of his shorter and earlier dialogs. It is concerned with piety (holiness) which, as I mentioned last time, was considered to be one of the five components of virtue. The interlocutor, or person with whom Socrates converses, is Euthyphro. Euthyphro was a well known, very respectable priest. It is typical of Plato’s dialogs dealing with virtues that the interlocutor is an expert on the virtue in question.

Page from a 1578 bilingual edition of The Euthyphro [public domain via Internet Archive]

Page from a 1578 bilingual edition of The Euthyphro [public domain via Internet Archive]

Socrates and Euthyphro meet as they are waiting for their turn in court. Socrates is there to defend himself in the trial that will end in his execution. Euthyphro has come to indict his own father for manslaughter. The father had let a captured murderer die through inattention. Euthyphro has been set up with a classical ethical dilemma: he has a duty as a religious leader and citizen of Athens to prosecute and punish killers, and there is not a shred of doubt concerning his father’s guilt. On the other hand, the man is is own father. The man who was killed was a stranger who had himself knifed one of the family slaves. Furthermore, the father did not deliberately kill the man; he had simply not remembered to check on him after tying him up and leaving him in a ditch, allowing the man to die of exposure.

According to Euthyphro, however, there is no conflict. Piety demands that he follow divine law and prosecute his father. Nothing else comes into the decision. This leads Socrates to begin questioning him on what piety is. Piety, points out Socrates, is an important part of his own upcoming trial, since Antyus has accused him of denying the city’s gods and creating his own. He could really use some instruction from Euthyphro on the matter.

I occasionally teach business ethics classes, and Euthyphro’s story reminds me quite a bit of the mini cases which are in most ethics textbooks. They are deliberately murky, the idea being to force undergraduates to consider both sides of the dilemma and write a reasoned response for why one decision or the other is better. One of the things which we drill into the students is that when they are posed with an ethical dilemma, they need to consult the official code of ethics for the company or professional society. If the situation is covered by the code, then the decision has been made for them. This is essentially what Euthyphro has done. His “professional code of ethics”, of course, is Athenian religious law. This is a good lesson to teach twenty-year-old business majors. They have limited practical experience, are still developing their critical thinking abilities, and will probably never receive further training in moral philosophy after this ten week class is over; they don’t really have many tools to deal with complex or ambiguous ethical situations. However, since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, most companies, and all large companies, have fairly extensive written ethical guidelines. As long as my students obey them they probably won’t go too far wrong and, ceteris paribus, the world will be a better place.

To Socrates, however, just obeying the law without examination is a cop-out. Euthyphro says that piety requires men to obey the law of the gods, but what is piety, exactly? Can he provide a definition?

Euthyphro first offers himself and his actions as an example of piety, but Socrates is looking for a universal definition. He then defines piety as “doing those things which are pleasing to the gods” and impiety as “doing those things which are displeasing to the gods”. Socrates points out that different gods might be pleased by different things and quarrel among themselves about morality. This causes Euthyphro to refine his definition, saying that “Piety is that which is approved of by all the gods.” Immanuel Kant fans will recognize that his argument is now skating close to the idea of a categorical imperative: something that is always right or wrong regardless of situational factors. The difference, however, is that approval is still coming from the gods, and Socrates seizes on this point for further examination, asking,

“Is the holy approved by the gods because it’s holy, or holy because it’s approved?”

In the first case, the holy action would be a categorical imperative. In the second, a divine command. Socrates then proves that it can not be both:

But if the ‘divinely approved’ and the holy were really the same thing, Euthyphro my friend, then: (i) if the holy were getting approved because of its being ‘divinely approved’; whereas (ii) if the ‘divinely approved’ were ‘divinely approved’ on account of its getting approved by the gods, then the holy would be holy too on account of its getting approved. But as things are you can see that the two are oppositely placed, as being altogether different from each other; for if the one is ‘such as to get approved’ because it gets approved, while the other gets approved because it is ‘such as to get approved’. And perhaps, Euthyphro, when asked what the holy is, you don’t want to point out the essence for me, but to tell me some attribute which attaches to it, saying that holiness has the attribute of being approved by the gods; what it is, you’ve not yet said. (text and emphasis from the Tredennick/Tarrant translation)

Socrates next suggests that piety might be a kind of justice and asks Euthyphro to define what type of justice it is. Euthyphro replies that piety is the part of justice which has to do with looking after the gods, but Socrates worries about what exactly this means. What is the work of the gods, and how do humans help it along, if at all?

Euthyphro, now getting a bit tired of the conversation, says that piety is knowing how to sacrifice and pray to the gods, but Socrates is still concerned that the Gods don’t get anything from relationship except gratification. If so, they are back to Euthyphro’s original definition about piety being that which is pleasing to the gods. Socrates suggests that they start over from the beginning but Euthyphro, suddenly “remembering” a prior appointment, makes his escape.