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Socrates

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Socrates
469-399 BC = 72 yrs

Socrates was a Greek philosopher in ancient Greece (469-399 BC), Socrates was widely lauded for his wisdom. He was one of the founders of the Western philosophy. One knows about him only by his students' and others' writings. His most famous student was Plato, but there was another one also - Xenophon. He is known for his ethics (like India's two ethical men - Vidur and Chaanakya). His teaching is a type of pedagogy in which a series of questions are asked not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand. It is Plato's Socrates that also made him important.

As Socrates did not write his philosophical texts, the knowledge of the man, his life, and his philosophy, all are entirely based on writings by his students and contemporaries. Foremost among them is Plato; however, works by Xenophon, Aristotle, and Aristophanes also provide important insights into his ideas. Details about Socrates can be derived from three contemporary sources: the dialogs of Plato and Xenophon (both devotees of Socrates), and the plays of Aristophanes. He has been depicted by some scholars as a champion of oral modes of communication.

According to Plato, Socrates' father was Sophroniscus and his mother Phaenarete, a midwife. Socrates was married to Xanthippe who was much younger than he. She bore him three sons. He had abandoned his sons when he refused to try to escape before his execution. It is unclear how Socrates earned a living, because ancient texts seem to indicate that Socrates did not work. He devotes himself only to what he regards as the most important art or occupation: discussing philosophy. Several sources give several statements. In "The Clouds", Aristophanes says that Socrates accepted payment for teaching and running a sophist school; while in Plato's "Apology and Symposium" and in Xenophon's accounts, Socrates explicitly denies accepting any kind of payment for teaching. While in the "Apology" Socrates cites his poverty as proof that he is not a teacher. Some say that Socrates took over the profession of stonemasonry from his father. There was a tradition in antiquity, that Socrates crafted the statues of the Three Graces, which stood near the Acropolis until the 2nd century AD.

Socrates says he served in the Athenian army during its three campaigns. Socrates lived during the time of the transition from the height of the Athenian hegemony to its decline with the defeat by Sparta and its allies. Claiming loyalty to his city, Socrates clashed with the current course of Athenian politics and society. He has praised Sparta, directly and indirectly in various dialogues. One of Socrates' purported offenses to the city was his position as a social and moral critic. Plato refers to Socrates as the "gadfly" of the state (as the gadfly stings the horse into action, so Socrates stung various Athenians to bring them to action), insofar as that he irritated some people with considerations of justice and the pursuit of goodness. His attempts to improve the Athenians' sense of justice may have been the source of his execution.

Socrates' life as the "gadfly" of Athens began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates; and the Oracle responded that no-one was wiser than him. Socrates believed that what the Oracle had said was a paradox, because he believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever. He proceeded to test the riddle by approaching men considered wise by the people of Athens - statesmen, poets, and artisans etc, and Socrates concluded that, while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at all. Socrates realized that the Oracle was correct. And this made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance. Socrates' paradoxical wisdom made the prominent those Athenians whom he publicly questioned look foolish, turning them against him and leading to accusations of wrongdoing. Socrates defended his role as a gadfly until the end: at his trial, when Socrates was asked to propose his own punishment, he suggested a wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of his life instead, to finance the time he spent as Athens' benefactor. He was, nevertheless, found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of impiety ("not believing in the gods of the state"), and subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock. Xenophon and Plato agree that Socrates had an opportunity to escape, as his followers were able to bribe the prison guards, but he chose to stay for several reasons. Socrates' death is described at the end of Plato's Phaedo.

His Contribution
Perhaps his most important contribution to Western thought is his dialectic method of inquiry, known as the Socratic method which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts such as the Good and Justice. It was first described by Plato in the "Socratic Dialogues". To solve a problem, it would be broken down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distill the answer a person would seek. The influence of this approach is most strongly felt today in the use of the scientific method, in which hypothesis is the first stage. The development and practice of this method is one of Socrates' most enduring contributions, and is a key factor in earning his mantle as the father of political philosophy, ethics or moral philosophy. The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. It was designed to force one to examine one's own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs. In fact, Socrates once said, "I know you won't believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others."

Many of the Socrates' beliefs have been characterized as "paradoxical" because they seem to conflict with common sense. The following are among the so-called Socratic Paradoxes:
--No one desires evil.
--No one errs or does wrong willingly or knowingly.
--Virtue - all virtue - is knowledge.
--Virtue is sufficient for happiness.
The phrase Socratic paradox can also refer to a self-referential paradox, originating in Socrates' phrase, "I know that I know nothing noble and good".

Plato found the Academy in 385 BC, which gained so much notoriety that "Academy" became the base word for educational institutions in later European languages such as English, French, and Italian. Plato's protege Aristotle went on to tutor Alexander the Great and also to found his own school in 335 BC - the Lyceum, whose name also now means an educational institution. While Socrates was shown to demote the importance of institutional knowledge like mathematics or science in relation to the human condition in his "Dialogues", Plato would emphasize it with metaphysical overtones mirroring that of Pythagoras. Aristotle himself was as much of a philosopher as he was a scientist with rudimentary work in the fields of biology and physics. The idea of asceticism also developed as the core of another philosophy in 281 BC, hand in hand with an ethical life or one with piety which was ignored by Plato and Aristotle. None of the schools however, would inherit his tendency to openly associate with and respect women or the regular citizen. Socrates' stature in Western philosophy returned in full force with the Renaissance and the Age of Reason in Europe when political theory began to resurface under those like Locke and Hobbes. Voltaire even went so far as to write a satirical play about the Trial of Socrates.

Socrates' Trial and Death
He was accused of two impious acts - "failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledged" and "introducing new deities." Most people voted for his conviction. One of the initial criticisms levied against the philosopher was presented at his trial that he was not the proponent of a philosophy but an individual with a method of undermining the fabric of Athenian society, a charge carried by the 500-man jury of Athenians that sentenced him to death. He was to be convicted by drinking hemlock based liquid. His trial is one of the most famous of all time. None of his original work is available now, only his student Plato has written numerous dialogs between them. In modern version, the classic scholar Robin Waterfield says that his death was voluntary in order to justify his opposition to the Athenian democracy, and that he felt that old age would be unpleasant anyway.

Two Stories About Him

(1) Socrates on Gossip
One day an acquaintance ran up to him excitedly and said, "Socrates, do you know what I just heard about Diogenes?"
"Wait a moment," Socrates replied, "Before you tell me I'd like you to pass a little test. It's called the Triple Filter Test."
"Triple filter test?" asked the acquaintance.
"That's right," Socrates continued, "Before you talk to me about Diogenes let's take a moment to filter what you're going to say.

The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?"
"No," the man said, "Actually I just heard about it."
"All right," said Socrates, "So you don't really know if it's true or not. Now let's try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about Diogenes something good?"
"No, on the contrary..."
"So," Socrates continued, "You want to tell me something about Diogenes that may be bad, even though you're not certain it's true?"
The man shrugged, a little embarrassed. Socrates continued, "You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter, the filter of usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about Diogenes going to be useful to me?"
"No, not really."
"Well," concluded Socrates, "If what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even Useful, then why do you want to tell it to me or to anyone at all?"
The man was bewildered and ashamed. This is an example of why Socrates was a great philosopher and held in such high esteem.
It also explains why Socrates never found out that Diogenes was having an affair with his wife.

(2) Socrates' Death
Socrates is dying, and on his face there is so much contentment that everyone feels it strange - because he is just on the verge of death, and death is a certainty with him. He is to be given poison. The poison is being made ready, being prepared just outside his room. The room is filled with his disciples and friends. They are all weeping and crying, and Socrates is lying on the bed. He says, "Now the time is coming near. Ask those persons who are preparing the poison if they are ready yet, because I am ready."

Someone asks, "Are you not afraid of death, Socrates? Why are you so anxious to die?" Socrates says, "Whatsoever is, is. Death is there; death is coming nearer. I must be ready to meet it, otherwise I will miss the moment of meeting death. So be silent. Do not disturb me; do not talk about past days."

Many people gathered there are talking of past days, of how beautiful it was to be with Socrates, and Socrates says, "Do not disturb me. I have known you. In the past, in the days which you are talking about, you were not so happy then as you are saying." His wife is weeping, and the same wife struggled with him for her whole life. It was a long conflict, a long problem which was never solved.

Socrates says, "It is strange. Why is my wife weeping? I would have thought she would be happy when I died, because my life was such a burden and such a suffering for her. Why is she weeping now? She never enjoyed any moment with me, and now she is weeping for those golden moments. they were never there; only now she is creating a past which never was. It seems she has suffered because of me when I was alive, and now she will suffer because of my absence."

Such is the stupidity of the human mind. You suffer the presence of a person, then you suffer the absence of the same person. You cannot live with someone, but then you cannot live without him also. When he is with you, you see all the faults, when he is gone, you remember his qualities. But you never face the reality.

Then the poison comes and Socrates says, "Be silent; do not disturb me. Let me be here and now. Do not talk about the past. It is no more." Someone asks Socrates, "Are you not afraid of dying? You seem so contented. Your face shows such silence. We have never seen anyone dying in such beauty. Your face is so beautiful! Why are you not afraid?"

Socrates says, "Only two are the possibilities, two are the alternatives. Either I am going to die completely. If this death is ultimate and there will be no Socrates, why bother? If I am not going to be at all, there is no question, there will be no suffering because Socrates will be no more. Or, the second alternative: only the body will die, and I, Socrates, will remain. So why bother? These are the only two alternatives possible, and I do not choose either of the two. If I choose, then it will become a problem.

If the one I choose doesn't happen and the other happens, then there will be disturbance and discontent and fear and insecurity, and I will begin to tremble. But these are two alternatives, and I am not the chooser. The Whole is the chooser. Whatsoever happens, happens. If Socrates will be no more. Socrates is unworried. Or, if Socrates will still be there, again there is no worry - then I will be. If I am there, then I will be there. Then I will continue, so no need of any worry. Or, I will drop completely; then no one will remain to worry. But no more questions. So no more questions! Let me face death."

He takes the poison, he lies down, and then he begins to face, to encounter, death. No one else has ever encountered death in that way. It is unique - Socratic. He says, "Now my legs have become dead, but I am as much alive as ever. My feeling of I-ness is the same. The legs have become dead, my legs are no more. I cannot feel my legs, but my wholeness remains the same."

Then he says, "My half-body has become dead. I cannot feel it. The poison is coming up and up. Sooner or later my heart will be drowned in it, and it is going to be a discovery whether, when my heart has been drowned, I feel the same or not. But there is no expectation - just an open inquiry." Then he says, "My heart is going, and now it seems it will be difficult for me to speak more. My tongue is trembling and my lips are now giving way. So these are going to be the last words. But still, I say, I am the same. Nothing has dropped from me. The poison has not touched me yet. The body is far away from me, going away and away. I feel I am without a body, but the poison has not yet touched me. But who knows? It may touch, it may not touch. One has to wait and see." And he dies.

 

 

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Created by Sushma Gupta On 5/27/04
Contact:  sushmajee@yahoo.com
Modified on 12/09/12