On Socrates: Life and Legacy

scrtsStrong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.
~Socrates

Prologue

In my ongoing series on the Classics of Western Civilization, we now come to Plato, however, since Plato was a student of Socrates as well as the primary source for what we know of the man, and Socrates left no written works that have come down to us, I will write this weeks’ essay on Socrates, particularly his exemplary life and his enduring legacy and his zealous pursuit of Veritas—truth.

Paul Johnson, an impressive British historian, in his 2011 book titled, Socrates: A Man for our Times, writes that Socrates is considered the father of philosophy and perhaps one of the supreme thinkers of human history.  However, since we know of no original writings attributed to Socrates, we are left only with his life and ideas compiled from the biographical works of his apprentice Plato and other contemporaries.  What these interpretations reveal about the man, his life and legacy is as essential 2,500 years later as when the master walked the streets of his beloved Athens. 

The Life of Socrates

Socrates communicated with all types of people; all classes of society and devoted his love of philosophy to represent his credo that our choices through life and even the manner which we die is very profound and worthy of enduring meaning.  His famous aphorism on this point is, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  By constantly examining one’s life and actions, a philosophy of ethics is born.  As Plutarch declared, “He was the first person to demonstrate that life is open to philosophy at all times, in every part, among all kinds of people, and in every experience and activity.”

Paul Johnson positions Socrates as a man of his times in fifth-century B.C. Athens, inquiring into the geopolitics of his era; his service as a soldier, his family, and his numerous relationships he cultivated during his lifetime—from the local merchant to the leading statesmen, tragedians, scholars and philosophers of his time.  Socrates loved Athens and only left the city when duty called him to war. Historians believe Socrates fought in the Battle of Potidaea (432 B.C.) a catalyst of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.).  Athens, the most powerful and modern city-state that gave the world Western civilization, formed Socrates’s democratic principles and his zeal of dialectical inquiry he skillfully used to expose hypocrisy, greed, hatred, corruption, political tyranny among many other ills of society. 

Among his students Socrates devoted his life to education, wisdom and knowledge and since he understood that instruction begets discipline, making one virtuous, to him philosophy was the inevitable path to contentment.  He devoted his life searching out the deep mysteries of life, justice, the pursuit of goodness and teaching where he became renowned, however, Socrates lived in the time of political upheaval and societal transition from the pinnacle of the Athenian hegemony to its downfall with the conquest by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. At this juncture when Athens tried to stabilize and recover from her humiliating defeat, the Athenian public perhaps were doubtful about democracy as an effective form of government. Socrates appears to have been a “gadfly” of democracy, and some scholars understand his trial as an expression of a political power struggle from a society no longer interested in Socrates ideas of justice, equality and the “Republic.” 

The Legacy of Socrates

Socrates was conflicted with the existing development of Athenian politics and society claiming loyalty to his city. Throughout numerous dialogues, directly and indirectly he praises Sparta, Athens main adversary. Nevertheless perhaps the most historically accurate of Socrates’ offences to the city was his position as the chief social and moral critic. Instead of preservation of the status quo and accepting the escalation of political tyranny, corruption, immorality and lack of virtue within his beloved Athens, Socrates questioned the collective notion of “might makes right” that he believed was destroying the moral foundations of Greece during that tumultuous period while demanding allegiance not to some demigod or emperor… but to Veritas—truth. above all things. 

Eventually Socrates was tried and condemned to death allegedly for “corrupting the morals of the youth.”  Yet he bravely confronted death and in accord with his transcendent principles, rejected the urging of his friends and students to leave his beloved Athens. The State made Socrates commit suicide by drinking hemlock.  In viewing Socrates through the lens of history, we profit from his philosophy, for as Cicero said, “Socrates was the first to call Philosophy down from the skies, and establish her in towns, and introduce her into people’s homes, and force her to investigate ordinary life, ethics, good and evil.”

Regarding the singular transcendent life and historical legacy of Socrates, Paul Johnson writes:

The permeation of Greek thought by Socrates’ notions of life and death, body and soul, which operated through the writings of Plato and Aristotle and others, and which became increasingly perceptible within two or three generations of his departure, was hugely assisted by the story of his trial and self-execution and his superb composure on the threshold of eternity.  Socrates became not only the archetypal philosopher and source of ethical wisdom, but the living paradigm of a good man and the perfect example of how the body-soul relationship ought to operate.

Hence when in the first century A.D. St. Paul came to preach the teachings of Jesus Christ to the Greek-speaking world of the Gentiles, he found an audience already prepared, in certain important respects, for his message.  It was the combination of Jesus’ inspired Hebrew message of charity, selflessness, acceptance of suffering, and willing sacrifice with the clear Socratic vision of the soul’s triumph and the eternal life awaiting it that gave the Christianity which sprang from St. Paul’s teaching of the Gospels its astonishing power and ubiquity and enabled it to flourish in persecution and martyrdom. The figure of Socrates also emerged unscathed and ennobled from his trial, conviction, and approaching death.  St. Paul wrote, “The Greeks ask for a reason, the Jews look for a sign.”  Socrates, thanks to Plato’s writings, supplied the reason, while Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection produced the sign.

Johnson did not conflate the association between Socratic philosophy and Christianity outside this common theme of history.  Johnson does not contend that Socrates was a Christian precursor, and yet, like Jesus, he had a duty which he would defend, even to the death.  Jesus shocked the Jewish religious leaders of his day when he boldly proclaimed: “I am the way, the truth and the life…” This was a grandiose entitlement, which only the awareness of divinity could conceivably vindicate.  This was Jesus, not Socrates, for he could never possibly have thought of himself as divinity; he was singularly a humble man of flesh and blood. Socrates said, “… I know one thing and that is I know nothing.”  His singular devotion was to bring philosophy down from the heavens and give it to ordinary people to use as a tool to bring clarity, meaning, structure, the good and substantive solutions to daily problems affecting humanity.  The triumph of these achievements, developed throughout the ages, provided lucidity and power to the Greek world and helped that society eventually reject paganism and to lead to its ultimate embrace of Christianity as the greater truth beginning in first century A.D. under several missionary journeys of St. Paul and Jesus’s disciples, and becoming the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine in 312 A.D. 

Secondly, an important way in which Socrates forever strengthened the mind was in maintaining that morality was absolute, not relative as the pagan world believed (including the Greeks and Romans).  All civilizations and cultures, from the most barbaric to the most advanced, possess an intrinsic, destructive tendency to fall into moral relativism, thus leading to anarchy and tyranny.  Socrates in his time believed that Greece, as early as the fifth century B.C., to be on that road to perdition largely due to a rejection of moral principles, discipline and tradition and a celebration of moral relativism including the instituting of self-serving, sophistic public policies antagonistic to democracy, justice and order while promoting despotic, monarchy rule. 

Socrates’ great genius and his contributions to civilization and culture was equivalent to the Titan Prometheus ignoring the command of Zeus and bringing fire (e.g., civilization, knowledge, truth) down from the heavens to give to mankind.  Therefore, unlike Sophocles and Euripides sanctioning the injustice and treachery of the gods that undermine the notion of natural law, natural rights, justice and moral behavior, Socrates brought morals from the unreachable sphere of Mt. Olympus where the council of the gods incessantly engaged in servile and petty deals, deceptions, and duplicitous acts, into the intense daylight of the common where moral transactions between men and women struggling to know wisdom and knowledge by venerating Truth. 

Pacifism and the Dialectic

It wasn’t that Socrates was a pacifist for remember in his youth he fought valiantly in a key battle leading to the Peloponnesian War. Johnson wrote, “Socrates rejected retaliation, however great the offense in the first place, as contrary to justice because it involved inflicting a wrong.  The principle—never retaliate, never inflict wrong in any circumstances—applied equally to city-states, however powerful, and private individuals, however humble.  Socrates drew no distinction between public and private morality, a point never before made or even considered in the history of Greek ethics—it ethics could be said to have had a history before this time.  It might be said that Socrates, in subjecting all actors on the human stage to the same rules, democratized ethics in the same way, though by a different process of reasoning, that the ancient Hebrews made all humans equal in subjection to an omnipotent and universal Yahweh and so produced what Philo of Alexandria, a seer who owed almost as much to Socrates as to Moses, called a democratic theocracy.”

The role of dialectic in Socrates’ thought (as interpreted through Plato) is contested but there are two main interpretations; a type of reasoning and a method of intuition.  Science Philosopher, Karl Popper, on the other hand, claims that dialectic is the art of intuition for “visualizing the divine originals, the Forms or Ideas, of unveiling the Great Mystery behind the common man’s everyday world of appearances” whereby each new idea exposes a flaw in the accepted model, and the epistemological substance of the debate continually approaches the truth.

Enemies of Socrates: Sophism, Jacobinism, Progressivism

The Sophists were a category of teachers in ancient Greece who coveted money, hated dissenting views and whose teaching methods were often portrayed as money-grubbing, “specious” and “deceptive.” Perhaps thinking of his philosophical enemies the Sophists who plagued him all of his life, prompted Socrates to declare, “A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.”  To me this is an uncanny affirmation of the great heresy of modern times—Jacobinism, the French Revolution—a period of radical social and political upheaval in France from 1789 to 1799 that profoundly affected French and modern history, marking the decline of powerful monarchies, Christianity, the clergy, churches through mob bloodlust and irrational genocide, while foreshowing the rise of liberalism, democracy (which America’s Framers called, “mobocracy”) and nationalism (“socialism”). This radical liberal worldview I call evolution atheism is most closely aligned with today’s Progressives or Socialists and is infused throughout every aspect of  society under the new Priest-class of the modern age—college professors, scientists, judges, lawyers, politicians, Hollywood, and leftist intellectuals who all usually express a venal hatred and intolerance towards or a perversion of God, morality, Western Civilization and America’s Judeo-Christian traditions.

What Jonah Goldberg calls “liberal fascism” is what Socrates would call political corruption or tyranny, and he declared that all lies are “based on relative emotional values.” To me this means weakness, appeasement—using cowardly, demagogic or political means to achieve pragmatic, fascist or tyrannical ends, thus making the modern-day Democrat Socialist Party and their willing RINO collaborators employing these Machiavellian tactics, enemies of all truth and thus, enemies of Socrates.

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