Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Socrates
Some twenty-three and a half centuries have gone by since Socrates, sentenced to a felon’s 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, Athens’ great age in politics, economics, and art had ended. But the great age of Greek philosophy was only just beginning. Plato, who was twenty-eight 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 that in his seventy years of life, Socrates witnessed both the greatness and the decline of his country.
Socrates was an Everyman, and the sincerity of his irony is the reverse of condescension.
In this Athenian community, both egalitarian and profoundly aristocratic, he 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 the rough, 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 seems rather to pierce straight through those outer rinds 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 is a man with a mission. He has devoted his whole life to seeking and provoking, untiringly and obstinately, whatever discussion with his interlocutor is suggested by chance of time and place. He has done so in obedience to a divine command so imperative that he can prefer death to silence. A man with a mission, not a teacher; there is something profoundly humble in the way he harasses a man who shuns his presence. He has nothing to teach them; he only wants to make them see themselves, nakedly revealed.
This man wrote nothing. He had no care for his succession, 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 at 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 impiety and betrayal of the mysteries, condemned Protagoras as an atheist and burned his books in the marketplace.
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 philosophers’ houses and let them roast in it.)
Socrates aims at shattering the massive certitudes of unawakened men; like them, he is a stimulator of doubt.
Diogenes Lacretes 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 believes that man without thought is not a man, but a thing, that ‘the unexamined life is no life for a human being.’
If there is one thing Socrates wants to teach his fellow citizens, it is 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 men’s souls, not to bear them; that is the work of God.’
This spiritual midwife contributes nothing, transmits nothing to the soul whom he awakens. He leaves it naked in its own sight.
He puts an end to his 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; that of unawareness, without conflicts or problems. He will 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, he begs you for something obstinately.
Wherever men gather for their ordinary business, in the market or the public square or a courtesan’s apartments, there comes Socrates, bringing his talk.
In the particular juncture of his own time and place, this brotherliness is historically premature, a fact which earns him the contempt of some distinguished Athenians: some notorious ill-wishers will use it to give him a reputation for vulgarity. Even Christians will be surprised to see it in a sort of vague anticipation of St. Paul’s words: ‘With God there is no respect of persons.’
A power in man which can take place in the imperfect world of things so as to create the kingdom of man; a freedom which can safely take over from the old, tottering certainties: this power 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.’
Socrates’ whole intellectualism consists 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, Socrates’ accuser is a ‘Doctor of Divinity.’ He is 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, a professional soothsayer competent to assume the essential function of interpreter (the ‘augur’ of the Latins), since the gods speak in a cipher language, the code to which is learned, not by an effort of the mind, but by information obtained from without.
Euthyphro looks for piety in the realm of deeds; it is for that reason, not because he is ‘a rebel against abstractions’ as has been said, that he begins by defining piety in terms of pious actions. Socrates, on the contrary, with a restrained anguish which gives the dialogue a touch of poignancy, looks for piety in the realm of the soul’s inner relations to the deity.
By refusing an easy flight and letting the city commit a crime he is being obedient, to the end, to the Delphic command. His post is here, not elsewhere.
When the accused man was called on, according to Athenian law, himself to name a sentence in place of the capital sentence demanded by the prosecutor, and proposes that he be supported at State expense in the Prytaneum, can this unexpected detail be an author’s investigation? The irony was fatal: at a stroke, he put eighty 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, that he wrote nothing, that he left nothing of himself that could be possessed, not even some definite certainties about himself, not even disciples to hand on his teachings.
(Intelligence is not something to be dispensed with, 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.
Socrates said before he died:
“When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them: I would have you trouble them as I have troubled you, if they seems 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.”
Doesn’t 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.