Tree of Life Lessons

Level 1   Lesson 7 

World Religions

Some 23Ĺ centuries have gone by since Socrates, sentenced to a felonís death by his fellow citizens, drank hemlock in his prison at Athens.

Socrates was born in Athens in 470 or 469 -- ten years after the victories which barred Greece to the Persian advances.

We must resign ourselves to ignorance about the childhood and youth of the son of Sophroniscus, the artisan sculptor, and Phenarete, the midwife. As a modern author remarks:

"You would think the master was born an old man with no childhood."

In 399, Athensí great age in politics, economics, and art had ended; but the great age of Greek philosophy was only just beginning. Plato, who was 28 at the death of Socrates, had known only decadence. Aristotle, chosen as tutor for Alexander after despicable competition between the Greek intellectuals, decided for Macedonia and the vassalization of Hellas.

It is significant to note that in his 70th year of life, Socrates witnessed both the greatness and the decline of his country. He was an Everyman. The sincerity of his irony is the reverse of condescension.

In this Athenian community, Socrates, both egalitarian and profoundly aristocratic, seems to have seen all men just as they were with the same brotherly regard -- the rich and the beggar, the talented and the simple, the refined and tough, the Athenian and the foreigner. But this brotherliness is innocent of all interested preference for the plebeian, and we know that his political views, at least, did not incline him to demagogy. His brotherly eye seemed rather to pierce straight through the outer rings of human nature which are the realm of idiosyncrasies -- the external and the accidental -- to that deeper region where the person has his roots.

Yet, this Everyman was a man with a mission. He devoted his whole life to seeking and provoking untiringly and obstinately whatever discussion with his interlocutor was suggested by chance of time and place. He had done so in obedience to a divine command so imperative that he could prefer death to silence.

A man with a mission, not a teacher -- there is something profoundly humble in the way he harassed the man who shunned his presence. He had nothing to teach them. He only wanted to make them see themselves -- nakedly revealed.

Socrates wrote nothing. He had no care for his successor as if, in virtue of some profound necessity, this questioner had nothing to leave to future ages but uncertainty and questionings about himself.

Cicero relates that when someone asked Socrates what country he belonged to, he replied: "The whole earth," meaning that he was a citizen of the world. Yet, he was an Athenian to the fingertips.

Socrates was not the first in Athens (or elsewhere) to quarrel with a proud and rigid state ideology. The same ideology had persecuted Anaxagoras before him, indicted Diagoras of Melos for impietv and betrayal of the mysteries, and condemned Protagoras as an atheist and burned his books in the market place.

The City lives spiritually on its heritage. It has a patrimony of the soul to maintain of which the State religion forms a part. (To save the city, we must set fire to the philosophersí houses and let them roast in them.)

Socrates aimed at shattering the massive certitudes of unawkened men. He was a stimulator of doubt.

Diogenes once said:

Socrates met the young Xenophon, whom he did not know, and was struck with the beauty of his face which radiated goodness.

Barring his way with his staff (the famous staff which marked the pilgrim), he asked him where the necessities of life could be bought.

"In the market," answered the youth not understanding the double sense of the question.

"And to become a good man, where must you go?" Xenophon stood puzzled.

"Follow me, then," said Socrates, "and you shall know."

The innocence of Socrates lies in wishing the interlocutor to have the same freedom he has given himself.

He believed that man without thought was not a man, but a thing -- that "the unexamined life was no life for a human being."

If there was one thing fellow citizens, it was to be hungry for a certain hunger. "I practice the same profession," said Socrates, "as my mother. My task is to be the midwife to menís souls, not to bear them -- that is the work of God."

This Spiritual Midwife contributed nothing, transmitted nothing, to the soul whom he awakened. He left it naked in its own sight.

He put an end to this peace of mind. He who, like every sage, holds up happiness to men as the supreme good, begins by depriving them of the happiness which is nearest -- the most accessible -- which is that of unawareness without conflicts or problems. He would not let the Athenians sleep.

It is always the pupil who seeks out the Sage and the favor of his teaching. But this man comes to you rather like a petitioner; and begs you for something obstinately.

Wherever men gathered for their ordinary business -- in the market, in the public square, or in the courtesanís apartments -- there came Socrates bringing his talk.

In the particular juncture of his own time and place, this brotherliness was historically premature -- a fact which earned him the contempt of some distinguished Athenians. Some notorious ill-wishers would use it to give him a reputation for vulgarity. Even Christians will be surprised to see it in a sort of vague anticipation in St. Paulís words: "With God there is no respector of persons."

A power in man, which can take the place of the imperfect world of things so as to found the kingdom of man -- a freedom which can safely take over the old, tottering certainties -- is precisely self-awareness.

"For know that this is the command of God; and I believe that no greater good has ever happened to the state than my service to the God."

Socratesí whole intellectualism consisted in this: that the condition of becoming self-aware is speech -- the ordered and fruitful speech of the man who seeks to know himself (Logos: discourse and reason).

"When I trust in my daemon, I report to my friends the Will of the gods; it always comes to pass and never once has daemon deceived me."

Euthyphro, Socratesí accuser, was a "Doctor of Divinity". He was, therefore, a "theologian" with complete mastery of those mythological stories which here take the place of dogmas -- an expert to be consulted in cases of doubt on all questions of ritual, and a professional soothsayer competent to assume the essential function of interpreter (the "augur" of the Latins) since the gods spoke in a cipher language, the code to which is learned, not by an effort of the mind, but by information obtained from without.

Euthyphro looked for piety in the realm of deeds. It was for that reason, not because he was "a rebel against abstractions" as has been said, that he began defining piety in terms of pious actions. Socrates, on the contrary, with a restrained anguish which gave the dialogue a touch of poignancy, looked for piety in the realm of the soulís inner relations to the deity.

By refusing an easy flight and letting the city commit a crime, he was being obedient to the end to the Delphic command. His post was there, not elsewhere.

When the accused Socrates was called upon (according to Athenian law) to name for himself a sentence in place of the capital sentence demanded by the prosecutor, he proposed that he be supported at State expense in the Prytaneum. The irony was fatal. At a stroke, he established 80 more judges on the side which condemned him.

"Knowing my unknowing; all my knowing lies in that, and it is just because I believe that virtue lies in this knowing that I proclaim to others the spiritual pilgrimage I have followed for my own benefit."

This precious poverty which strips one of all illusory possessions is that very self-knowing, hungry, and never satisfied. (The Socratic sage seeks his true being in this renunciation of all kinds of having.) Socrates was poor in that he wrote nothing -- left nothing of himself that could be possessed, not even some definite certainties about himself and not even disciples to hand down his teachings.

Intelligence is not something to be dispensed with, but it is the only instrument through which the soul can come to see clearly.

It is by detaching himself from things, not by losing himself in the object, that the subject attains his emancipation.

Before he died, Socrates said: "When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, 0 my friends, to punish them. I would have you trouble them as I have troubled you if they seem to care about riches, or anything more than about virtue, Or, if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing, then reprove them as I have reproved you; for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, I shall have received justice at your hands, and so will my sons."

He said, "I search." Doesnít this man keep on repeating that he knows nothing?

The last words of Socrates were: "Crito! I owe a cock to Thesculopius. Will you remember to pay the debt?" Thus, the wise Socrates made his final initiation sacrifice while on this plane.

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