Monday, 6 January 2014

The last days of Socrates                 

The publisher's summary is as follows: "The trial and condemnation of Socrates on charges of heresy and corrupting young minds is a defining moment in the history of Classical Athens. In tracing these events through four dialogues, Plato also developed his own philosophy, based on Socrates' manifesto for a life guided by self-responsibility. Euthyphro finds Socrates outside the court-house, debating the nature of piety, while The Apology is his robust rebuttal of the charges of impiety and a defence of the philosopher's life. In the Crito, while awaiting execution in prison, Socrates counters the arguments of friends urging him to escape. Finally, in the Phaedo, he is shown calmly confident in the face of death, skilfully arguing the case for the immortality of the soul."

The key to understanding Socrates, says Hadot, is to see philosophy as a way of life: ''a love (philos) of the good.'' That philos comes from within, but after it is awakened it must be renewed through self-questioning and self-examination as a kind of internal dialogue. But what characterises Socratic therapy above all is the “importance [given] to living contact between human beings”.

Hadot illuminates how much of what Socrates said was a form of spiritual exercise; a thing done in dialogue. Socrates taught that knowledge was not a body of propositional knowledge to be passed on from one to another. No, instead, knowledge was a way of Being communicated through dialogue. Famously, he brought his interlocutors to a state of frustration by showing that on their conception of what they thought they knew, they did not know. For example, when one interlocutor defines Justice Socrates reveals his inconsistencies. Challenged to quit his irritating others with his clever but confusing arguments and offer his own definition of justice, he replied: ''I never stop showing what I think is just ... I show it by my actions.''

Thus, doing philosophy no longer meant acquiring "knowledge" but meant questioning ourselves because we have a feeling that we are not as we ought to be. What was required was an inner transformation. In doing philosophy, propositions do get packaged in various themes but they aim not to inform. Instead they strive to persuade, train, and thereby transform. When we strive for wisdom - that is live philosophically - everything that is separately packaged must be lived and practiced inseparably. To acquire wisdom, the philosopher must strive to cultivate their character (internal) for right living (external).

Above all Socrates addressed himself to those who thought they possessed wisdom through their education: the aristocrats and the Sophists he met in the market place. The Sophists thought they could sell their "knowledge" to all comers. But, for Socrates knowledge was not their packaging of propositions (or formulas) that could be sold ready-made. When Socrates claims he knows only one thing - that he knows nothing - he is repudiating the traditional concept of knowledge. He is saying that not only cannot knowledge be acquired ready-made but that it must come from within and be nurtured from within (through dialogue with others and oneself). When Socrates harassed his interlocutors to a point where they were no longer sure of what they knew and what was the basis of their actions he was engaged in a kind of therapy. The interlocutors begin to question themselves or dropped into a state of confusion or irritation. The first step to 'recovery'.

Socrate said that he was like his mother who was a midwife providing a public service by attending to his fellow citizens. His 'maieutic' [may-YOO-tik] method of bringing forth ideas from an interlocutor comes from the Greek word for "of midwifery". He also, likened himself to a gladly as, at times, he had to sting people into thought.

Socrates' ministration were intended to be very different from the teaching of the Sophists who taught for pay. The Sophists had the ability to construct clever argument and were willingness to teach others to do the same. They were not Greek. They travelled, noted and spoke of the fact that people believe rather different in different places. They said truth was not to be found in transcendent sources such as the gods; they built a view of justice on the notion of social agreement or culture. It is easy to see that they could be judged to be a threat to a stable society.  Their ability to persuade by clever argument and technique, led many Greeks to see them as a dangerous element in their society, "a public nuisance and worse".

Unfortunately, although Socrates went to great lengths to distinguish himself from the Sophists, his fellow Athenians couldn't make the distinction in their hearts or minds. Thus, it is understandable that those who were motivated to do so, did not find it too hard to convince the Athenian assembly that Socrates was a danger to the state. He was tried and sentenced to death.

The four short dialogues on the last days of Socrates are a delightful read and are quite moving. Socrates life is one of the most profoundly influential lives in Western culture. This would not have been so had he ran away from Athens. It was the fact that he did not run that showed, then as now, that he was no ordinary sophist.

"O Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. [They] may kill me ... but hurt me they cannot." 

Socrates' death was messier than the book portrays, death by hemlock poisoning isn't a dignified matter. It was a heavy price to pay.

End note:
Some of this review is drawn from my review of Hadot's Philosophy As A Way Of Life.

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