socrates (history of philosophy 2)

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

having left the pre-socratics, we come to the obvious next step — socrates. you probably already know three things about socrates. he was an ancient greek philosopher. he had an awesome beard. he was sentenced to death for his philosophy by drinking hemlock. while those are a good start, i think we can do a little better than that and look at his philosophy — perhaps more importantly we can look at his method and his students because that’s really what he left behind, in addition to a curiously-obsessive quantity of bearded statues and a healthy fear of hemlock.

before we go on, i think it’s probably important to point out something very significant here that people often miss when they talk about what socrates said, did and wrote. he didn’t write anything. and everything we have from socrates was actually written by his students. i’m a teacher and this worries me a little. i’m not sure i would want to be known just from what my students write about me. it could be accurate. but it’s likely not. so everything i’m about to tell you about socrates should be understood with the caveat of “this is what his students said” and the assumption that when they didn’t quite think he was on the right track, whether he was or wasn’t, they shifted his views to match their own. he was long-dead and couldn’t fail them on their next papers so there was no risk. truth? that’s just what we accept. objectivity, as i hope you are starting to understand already, is a myth. while some believe socrates actually wrote stuff and it was lost in the intervening millennia, this is unlikely. he was so devoutly revered by his students, i can’t imagine that would have happened unless all their work was destroyed, too. which it certainly wasn’t, as you quickly realize when you start to study plato and aristotle — prolific is only the beginning, i assure you.

there’s a story about socrates that puts some of his life into perspective. his friend chaerephon supposedly visited the delphic oracle and asked a question — he was greeted with a shocking answer, that nobody in athens was wiser than socrates. that was the beginning of the end for socrates — nobody (at least nobody in western societies) likes the smartest kid in the class. he was as good as hemlocked. but this is perhaps one of the clearest ever examples in history of a self-fulfilling prophecy. after hearing the news about himself, socrates pretty much spent the rest of his life trying to figure out if it was true. he developed a method of questioning and talking to people we now identify by his name and “socratic” is seen as a synonym of “critical” or “analytical”. the socratic method is about finding problems in an argument. this is a little different from the sophic method of seeking to understand all perspectives then refuting their arguments. socrates was more direct. he picked the specific perspective of his debate partner and attacked their arguments. he was incredibly successful and earned the respect and hatred of one and all, as you can imagine. the more right you are, the more people hate you. nobody’s a better example of this than the original mr hemlock.

the novel idea in socrates’ method was quite simple — ask questions as if you don’t understand. truly seek knowledge of the other person’s position rather than simply arguing from your own perspective. ask enough questions and you’ll reveal the internal inconsistencies, hypocrisies and weak areas in their arguments. having asked enough questions, you don’t just get to point out the errors. you can make the person start to see them without even having to mention them. this was the wisdom and power of his style of discussion. he usually began by asking for a definition (new at the time but now a generalized starting point for most philosophical discussions) then he asked for more and more detailed explanations of the specifics until it became obvious the specifics didn’t actually match the original definition and the whole argument fell apart. this became the source of many problems because most of the topics he was discussing were popular opinions — start to discredit the popular view on anything and you quickly make enemies. make it your daily purpose in life to destroy popular opinions and you’ll quickly have the whole city wanting to tear you apart. and that’s exactly what happened.

the power of the method, however, is that socrates wasn’t teaching. he didn’t tell people anything. he didn’t give sermons or lectures. he just asked questions and people destroyed their own arguments and credibilities. this comes from a place of artificial ignorance, asking questions as if you don’t know the answers to elicit a response. this has often been criticized but it’s an interesting paradox — how much knowledge did socrates really think he had? did he see himself as ignorant seeking answers or was this only a debate and educational tactic? impossible to tell but plato certainly seemed to think it was a teaching tool masking inherent wisdom behind its veil of questions.

there’s a lot of talk about socrates as ironic (which is anachronistic) and religiously nonconformist. these are misleading because to think of him as being ironic in the modern sense applies a concept that simply didn’t exist in that way at the time to a method that realistically created the modern definition of irony. he was using a method that displayed flaws in presented arguments and often illustrated how uneducated and silly people were. is that irony? we can certainly say it is. would he have said it? no. just no.

was socrates unusually anti-religious? many people say he was a protosecularist. but we have to remember this was a society where “religion” or “faith” had nothing to do with belief in the modern sense. it was about ritual and expectations. socrates was a social and cultural critic — an outlier. was this linked to an unusually-strong desire to walk away from accepted religion? perhaps. but was there any significant faith or religious belief in athens at the time? it’s often talked about that way but i propose this is simply a modern take on what was realistically people following the rules and paying lip-service to a belief system nobody actually thought much about or had any deep devotion to. when you go to a meeting, you shake hands and exchange smalltalk. that’s the ritual. if you don’t do it, you don’t have a very productive meeting. athenian life had religious rituals that functioned much like that. act as expected and keep your head down and you’ll do ok.

by the way, before we move on from socrates, it’s useful to remember he didn’t just have a method but actual beliefs and thoughts, too. he was particularly significant for expressing the idea of “it is wise to know the limits of your knowledge”, often erroneously simplified to “i know i don’t know anything” or something similar. he was getting at how vital it is to know the difference between what you know and what you don’t know but should. and he was a strong believer in the idea of knowledge being good — something i wish he could teach modern western society where mediocrity, averageness and being uneducated seem to be a source of pride for so many. he had an interesting theory of love as self-centered — we love those who are useful to us. practically speaking, he could have been talking about the contemporary age, don’t you think? i love you cause you sleep with me. i love you cause you give me nice presents. i love you cause you make me feel happy… he lived well over two thousand years ago but i don’t imagine you’ll have much difficulty finding some serious common ground with his views on the world and society if you look.

socrates had a particularly important student whose name we all know if we’re not completely divorced from the world — plato, who we’ll look at shortly.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.