Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

Socratesı search for the Good in life.

[New Straits Times, 22 July 1992]


Today's column fulfils a request by two readers.

Every people knows the word "wisdom." The Greeks coined the word "philosophy." How does philosophy differ from wisdom?
The word "philosophy" combines two roots: philo- "loving," and soph- "wisdom." A philosophos, philosopher, is one who loves wisdom. The name says nothing about whether he is in fact wise. The irony was a dear theme to Socrates, with whom western philosophy gets on to its main track.

Socrates was born in Athens in 469 B.C. His father was a well-to-do sculptor or mason. Socrates, when he came to be an adult, was wealthy enough to afford the weapons and armor of a citizen-soldier. (In those days, you had to pay for them yourself.) Later on he was reduced to poverty. He married when rather old to a woman named Xanthippe. Later ages spread the rumor that she had a nasty temper. Although to live with a difficult wife is probably the best training a philosopher can look for, in fairness, Xanthippe appears nothing but loving and considerate to her difficult husband.

We have a very clear idea of Socrates' appearance. He was thick of body, had an ugly face with a snub nose, and was in later life bald. His Athenian friends, who prized bodily beauty, smiled at him. But Socrates was also strong and hardy, and had great physical courage. He fought bravely in several battles for his city.

Socrates says that when he first got hooked on philosophy he was passionately interested in the scientific part of it. The earliest Greek thinkers, after Socrates now called the "preSocratics," delighted to investige the physical universe. How they made the mental jump from myth to proto-science we don't know, but it's clear that they were dissatisfied with the primitive world that lack history or rational causation.
By the 5th century B.C., Greek intellectuals had made surprising progress towards the view of the world that we accept. They knew the earth was not flat but a round ball floating in space. The wise man Thales had learned to predict eclipses, and Democritus invented an atomic theory to explain the nature of matter. A hundred schools flourished and a thousand ideas clashed, a healthy state for science and a good teacher of what is plausible and what not.

But Socrates was bored by science, in which, (naturally, at that stage of it) he says he only became more confused. He couldn't see the point. Then one of his admiring friends, Chaerephon, visited the oracle of Apollo in Delphi, the most famous in Greece. Chaerephon asked the god whether there was any Greek wiser than Socrates, and the oracle replied that there was none.

This answer set Socrates on a new course:

And for a long time I was at a total loss about what the god said. Then with great reluctance I turned to some kind of an investigation of it. I went up to some of those people who appear to be wise, so that there---if anywhere---I could disprove the oracle and demonstrate to it that: "This man here is wiser than me; but you said I was the wisest man!"

Socrates found a career in testing out Apollo's judgement. From this time on he spent his life conversing with anybody in Athens who seemed to know something, leading them, by his own special brand of cross-examination, to confront the logical extensions of their assumptions. The professional wise-men he found to have no certain knowledge of anything; the politicians likewise. He went to the poets and came away with the conviction that creative work was out of rational control, inspired by a sort of madness. And though he admired the technical skills of the artisans, he deplored the fact that on the strength of one speciality, they claimed to understand everything else in the world as well.

In the end, Socrates concluded that all he knew was that he knew nothing, and that what the god had meant was: "This man, o human beings, is the wisest of you, who like Socrates knows that he is worth nothing in respect to wisdom."

Socrates was conscious that however pure his purpose was his habit of questioning people made him unpopular. Nobody likes to be shown up a fool. And then, many of his admirers were members of the anti-democratic party, who in Socrates' last years staged a coup accompanied by ultrarightist terror. Many Athenians did not trust Socrates, in part because he was seen as the type of the dishonest sophist (he was so satirised by several comic playwrights), and there may have been a panicky move to get rid of him.

In 399 B.C., Socrates was indicted and tried on a charge of atheism and "corrupting the youth." Despite his heroic service to the city in war and in public life, and his powerful speech in his own defence he was convicted and sentenced to death. After a month's delay in prison, where he kept his firmness, his cheerfulness and his intellectual curiousity, he drank the poisonous hemlock in the company of his friends.
Socrates himself was interested in talking, not writing, and he left no books behind him. Nor did he make any effort to teach. He had groupies, but strictly speaking no students. What we know of Socrates' life, character, and ideas comes from the writings of Plato and Xenophon, who as young men knew and admired him.

Trying to figure out through their books what Socrates himself was really like and what he really thought is tricky. Plato, of course, became a philosopher in his own right. Many believe he is Europe's greatest. Plato created a literary character based on Socrates who appears in Plato's own philosophical dialogues. Xenophon was a less sophisticated professional soldier, and his Memoirs of Socrates provide a check.
Through both witnesses, we can get a pretty consistent picture of the man. They agree on his habit of questioning everybody, on his almost intuitive mastery of logic and argument, his unfailing sense of where the weak point lay.

Socrates, despite his protestations, and though very guarded about his own opinions, was not a thoroughgoing skeptic. He claimed to out to prove his own ignorance, but his conservations always work towards one question: What is the Good in life we should aim for? What is living well? So, for example, in the discussion recorded (or made up) by Plato in his Republic, someone asks, What is Justice? "To obey the laws" is quickly discarded; everybody knows what it is to suffer under unjust laws.

Someone suggests that Justice is "to give each person what is due to him." Socrates draws out the problems with the logic of such a definition. Is it just, he says, to give a person a knife he had loaned you, when you know he will use it to kill someone? The talkers are forced to agree that justice cannot be a mere abstraction. They do not know what justice can be, but Socrates leaves them no less passionate about finding it.

Socrates was likewise a questioner when it came to religion, and seems to have put only the mildest of faith in the traditional beliefs and rituals. Yet he believed in God and in the divine command to act and live justly, and on his last day he discussed his conviction that man's soul is immortal, and his faith that no evil could happen to a good man.

My father once quoted me the old saying that all of (western) philosophy is a but a footnote to Plato. Perhaps it would be better to give the credit to Plato's mentor. Socrates started a conversation that continues today for every thoughtful person. As one of his much later ancient admirers wrote: Socrates brought philosophy down from heaven to walk among men. The search for the good is life's most important work, and Socrates gave us some encouragement and guidance in conducting it.