What did Socrates ever do for us?

‘What did the Greeks ever do for us?’ was the question discussed in a U3A philosophy group I joined last week, which turned out to be a very enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half – not really long enough to get to grips with the question, or even to get to the question at all, but certainly long enough to provoke some thinking, particularly about Socrates.

In preparation for this we were asked to read ‘Apology’ by Plato and translated by Benjamin Jowett . Apology is Plato’s account of Socrates’ self-defence against the charges of not recognizing the gods of the state and corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato of course was one of Socrates’ greatest admirers – a student of Socrates. And Aristotle was a ‘student’ of Plato. There was so much discussion around the Apology that there was little time to discuss Plato and Aristotle, apart from a brief discussion about Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, which can be seen in the Vatican museums. We were asked to consider what the fresco tells us about Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies.

There is so much information ‘out there’ about these three giants of philosophy, so many websites, so many articles, so many books, all of which are easy to find, that there is no need to repeat it all here and we only needed brief reference to it in our session.  Instead we focussed on these questions related to our reading of The Apology.

  1. What are the charges brought against Socrates?
  2. Why does Socrates think that the Athenians would be harming themselves rather than harming Socrates if they put him to death? What service has he provided the city of Athens by philosophizing there?
  3. Do you think Socrates is wise to disregard the possibility that he may die if he does not please the court?
  4. Why does Socrates think that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’?

For me the most interesting question was Q3, because when reading The Apology I found myself increasingly irritated by what I perceived to be Socrates’ arrogance. On the one hand he claims ‘the truth is that I have no knowledge’ and ‘I have no wisdom, small or great’, but that doesn’t stop him from claiming that the oracle at Delphi told him that there is no wiser man than he. Then he decided to test the oracle’s words by trying to find a man wiser than himself, but in discussion with various citizens considered to be the wisest in Athens, he decided they were not wiser than him and told them so, and then was surprised that they hated him. This he justified with the following words (according to Plato’s record):

Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.

In this vein Socrates went to politicians, poets and artisans and found himself to be superior to them all for the same reason. At this point I found myself questioning his wisdom. And at this point too I began to wonder at his complete lack of self-doubt and his unshakeable belief in his own virtue and worth. ‘I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times’. So convinced was he of his own worth that he told his accusers that if they killed him they would injure themselves more than they would injure him.

For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life.

Of course we have to remember that we only have Plato’s word that these statements actually came from Socrates. Socrates himself never wrote anything down. And we also have to try and think about the events in the context and culture of the time, for example the significance of the oracle’s statements.

Nevertheless, Socrates’ self-defence does raise the question of whether or not it is ‘wise’ to choose to die for your beliefs. For Socrates the difficulty was not in avoiding death but avoiding unrighteousness. He simply could not have lived with himself, had he not stuck to his principles. As such he could be said to have written his own death sentence.

Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you ashamed of this?

But maybe by signing his own death sentence Socrates scored the most important goal of his career and ensured that he would go down in history as the founder of moral philosophy, who established the method of trying to get at truth through persistent open questioning.

(With thanks to Lisa Lane for sending me this video, which made me laugh)

As Bryan Magee writes in his book (p.23): The Story of Philosophy. A Concise Introduction to the World’s Greatest Thinkers and Their Ideas,

It is doubtful whether any philosopher has had more influence than Socrates. He was the first to teach the priority of personal integrity in terms of a person’s duty to himself, and not to the gods, or the law, or any other authorities. This has had incalculable influence down the ages. Not only was he willing to die at the hands of the law rather than give up saying what he believed to be right, he actually chose to do so, when he could have escaped had he wished. It is a priority that has been reasserted by some of the greatest minds since – minds not necessarily under his influence. Jesus said: “What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self?” And Shakespeare said: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

It’s interesting to consider whether Socrates needed to die to be remembered for his philosophy and method. The consensus at the U3A group seemed to be that he did.