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Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All

by on October 16, 2017

It has been said that he was a man who knew everything. In fact, he was considered the last man who did know everything. Was he born with a supernatural Rainman-like memory? Did the Gods imbue him with the divine gift of wisdom? Maybe, but probably not.

Bust of AristotleIn all likelihood, he did know everything of his own time because, frankly, most of what was known, was written by him anyway. You could not have found a more prolific, in depth and innovative thinker than Aristotle. He inscribed over 200 works (though only 31 remain), founded numerous fields of study and observation, as well as a prominent school to propel those new areas of interest.

Really, no one short column can do anything even in the remote vicinity of justice to the man’s life, contributions and influence. That doesn’t mean we won’t try, however.

For instance, if we wished to briefly review the major mental tasked achieved by Aristotle, we would be stuck with a drab list; a copy and paste of accomplishments.

It’s, unfortunately, a mistake we can’t avoid. Our suggestion would be to not actually read the whole thing (unless in a Rodgers and Hammerstein-like tune), but rather see it for the mountain that it is and skip to the next paragraph.

So, without further adieu:

In physical science, Aristotle studied: anatomy, astronomy, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics and zoology.
In philosophy, he wrote on: aesthetics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, economics, psychology, rhetoric and theology.
He also studied: education, foreign customs, literature and poetry.

This is the moment when everyone asks, with burning jealousy in their eyes, how did he have the time in one short life? Where did he get the inexhaustible energy or the German-like discipline? We don’t know, of course. A brief overview of the ebbs and flows of his life might shed some light… we can only hope.

From the very beginning Aristotle was not like the other Athenian philosophers, for he wasn’t even Athenian. This small detail, one in which he had no choice, resulted in innumerable favorable and unfortunate occurrences in his life. It meant he was often a ‘foreigner’ because he was born in Northern Greece (more precisely, in Stageira, Chalcidice, in 384 BC, about 34 miles east of modern-day Thessaloniki). Essentially… Macedonia, the land of Alexander the Great.

Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to Alexander’s grandfather, King Amyntas of Macedon. This would have been young Aristotle’s first influence in the realm of scientific thinking. It also contributed to his vast understanding of the anatomy. In addition, it was his initial connection to the Macedonian court.

Once Aristotle’s papa passed away, his new guardian shipped him off to Athens so he could get a real education. There in the big city, he studied under Plato himself in his renowned Academy. No one would doubt that this period was extremely influential for Aristotle. After 20 odd years, in 348/47 BC, he quit the Acropolis, though no one knows for sure why he left town. One theory is that the philosopher’s ego was hurt when Plato died. He did not pass the baton to Aristotle, but named another successor instead. The other order of events is that Aristotle feared anti-Macedonian sentiments and in fact, left before Plato gave up the ghost.

Either way, Aristotle then traveled with a fellow thinker, Xenocrates, to the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus in Asia Minor. There he jotted around, had inspired thoughts about octopus, married Hermias’ daughter and had a baby. His excursions around Lebos were instrumental in his observations on marine life, with a description of the cephalopods’ phallus that was about two thousand years ahead of its time. Indeed it was widely disbelieved until its rediscovery in the 19th century.

Aristotle Teaching AlexanderWhen his father-in-law died, Aristotle was called back to his homeland in order to teach the king’s son. The one and only Alexander the Great, albeit at a rowdy 13 years of age. Aristotle didn’t drop everything, however, and come running to his highness. He agreed to the position only if his hometown was restored after the king had razed it. Not only that, but the city had to be repopulated, which meant its former ex-citizens were freed from slavery or pardoned from exile.

Much myth making has been done over Alexander and Aristotle’s relationship during those three years of study. The latter encouraged expansion in the east, unabashedly advising despotism to subdue barbarians. Maybe, though, the former also influenced his older mentor? Was it a reminder of age, energy and the role in history, perhaps? We, of course, have no idea.

All we do know, is that Aristotle returned to Athens, but this time to set up his own academy, the Lyceum. There he wrote the vast majority of his works, taught the next generation, and remarried after his wife’s death. It was during this 12 year stretch that his most important treatises were created, including Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics.

Then Alexander died and Athens and Greece changed forever. Aristotle’s profound thoughts and benefits for the scholars could not save him from the flare up of anti-Macedonian sentiments. It took the form of ‘impiety’ accusations. Rather than face a sham trial, Aristotle fled to Chalcis, where his mother had an estate, explaining, “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.” This was a shout-out to his former teacher’s teacher, Socrates. Eventually Aristotle died of natural causes in 322 BC.

His legacy, however, lived on. His works were actually lost to the west for many centuries, preserved in Arabia and only rediscovered in Europe during the middle Ages. In that time period, Aristotle’s’ writings carried an authority second only to the bible. Many of his works were not improved upon until the nineteenth century.

But most importantly Aristotle proposed a new way of thinking; a method for arriving at a conclusion. We are talking about his contributions to logic. This is how he knew everything. He didn’t know anything! What he comprehended was how to look at the world rationally and learn something.

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“Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All” was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War – The Sicilian Expedition

by on September 28, 2017

The Sicilian Expedition

To read the previous segment on the Peloponnesian War, Click HERE.

When we left off last week, the Peloponnesian war had been raging for 16 odd years, with the latter six under a suspicious title of ‘peace’. The dominance of the Athenians had been questioned and the first set of battles ended inconclusively. It’s no wonder then the war began again, this time with the aim of deciding, once and for all, who ruled the Grecian world.

Expedition to Sicily

The Sicilian Expedition

And so, the second part of the Peloponnesian War began after what was euphemistically termed the ‘Sicilian Expedition’. The Sicilians were in fact allies of the Athenians, though very distant. Under normal circumstances, they would probably go unnoticed. And perhaps they would have…except for the fact that these islanders were Ionian, just like the Athenians…and they were under attack by the people of Syracuse, who happened to be ethnic Dorians, just like Athens’ great enemy, Sparta. As a cunning way to get back at their real foe, therefore, the Athenians saw an opportunity to get involved.

Power can be a dangerous thing. Those who hold it, don’t like losing it, and so make decisions that affect the lives of countless others. Seated in their comfortable havens, they command young men to death in the name of gods, kings and country. Along with the fallen soldiers are those whose lands are destroyed, whose sons are subjected to famine, whose wives and daughters are slain. These are the innocents caught in between, the residents of random places, where the strongest states battle for power, seemingly without end…

It is not so different from the United States and Russia battling it out in far flung locations like Vietnam and Korea. These current countries clashed outside their own boundaries, in search for more power without the destruction on their own soil.

Ethnic alliance and wars of opportunity were not the only reasons for the Athenians to sail to Sicily. Another plan was afoot. They wanted to conquer Sicily…to use as a starting point for conquest in Italy and Carthage.

Bust of Alcibiades

Alcibiades

Alcibiades was the Athenian in charge of the expedition and a crucial character from here on out in the Peloponnesian War. Unfortunately, right before the renowned general and his army headed off, some religious statues were damaged, nay mutalitated. Alcibiades was accused. He tried to resolve the issue before leaving for Sicily, knowing that it could take an unfortunate turn if he was not there to defend himself.

But the powers that be forcibly bid him farewell and he took his crew on the perilous journey. Unfortunately, Alcibiades was commanded back for the trial promptly upon arriving on foreign coast. Fearing he would be condemned unjustly, he decided not to return to Athens. Instead Alcibiades defected and went to the Spartan side…taking with him the Athenian designs to take over Sicily.

The Athenians just lost their main player. The trouble, however, did not stop there. Upon landing on the island, the Athenian army made a classic mistake. They weren’t prepared for the winter and, unlike the Spartans, they were unaccustomed to feeling uncomfortable. So they took a break from the weather and tried to conserve their resources.

This gave the Syracusans just enough time to call their Dorian brothers, the Spartans, for help. Sparta was more than happy to lend a hand to spite their former foe… especially knowing from Alcibiades how important the island was in the grand Athenian war strategy. So Sparta sent General Gylippus to Sicily with reinforcements. They swiftly defeated the shivering Athenian forces.

Syracuse coin

Syracusan coin, showing a chariot with maritime symbols, commemorating the naval victory (Bode-Museum, Berlin)

The Athenians did not tuck in their tail and turn. Nicias, our previous Athenian peacemaker, called for reinforcements. These additional armies arrived and vicious battles ensued. Eventually, however, the Athenians realised they had to retreat. They prepared to do so at once, but were stopped in their tracks. A bad omen, a lunar eclipse, took place, and so the Athenians delayed their withdrawal. This moment’s hesitance cost them greatly. The Spartans met their fleeing fleet before they could escape. A huge sea battle raged, and the Athenians were defeated once more. This time all survivors were killed or enslaved.

The war was back on.

 

 

To Read the finale of the Peloponnesian War, Click HERE for “Athens’ Last Stand”.

“The Peloponnesian War – The Sicilian Expedition” was written by Anya Leonard

Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates

by on September 4, 2017

“Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.” – the Last words of Socrates, according to Plato.

Reading Socrates’ final utterance, one could be forgiven of thinking he was a practical, material man. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Socrates, as depicted in Plato’s Phaedo, was a gentleman who shunned the physical world and all thing corporeal. An individual who dedicated his life, and eventually lost it, in pursuit of wisdom and abstract ideals such as Beauty and Justice. In a word: Spiritual… even in the modern sense of the term.

But before we proceed, we must first dispense with the essential caveats that collocate with all Platonic/Socratic texts. As always, the distinction between teacher and student is a hard line to draw, as is the influence the former had on the latter. With time though, the mentor’s exact words started to fade and were replaced by the young philosopher’s own theories. This can be seen in Plato’s Phaedo, which was conceived much later than the Apology or Crito, though it still follows the tragic story of Socrates’ trial, imprisonment and eventual death.

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

Therefore, when Socrates speaks, we should see him more and more as a puppet for Plato’s words… a sacred protagonist.

So what does Plato’s frontman do in the final hours of his life? Bewail his fate? Seek the comforts of his wife and children? Or question and prove to his companions the existence of the immortal soul? Of course we can’t know what Socrates actually did while waiting in the shadows of his imminent execution… we only know how Plato wanted to envision it.

Of course, it isn’t a large stretch to imagine a thoughtful man pondering the future of his soul considering his situation. Surely the inmates in Huntsville, Texas’ death row are contemplating the same thing with their quickly diminishing lives. Will their spirit exist once their body has deceased? And, if that life force within us escapes its prison of flesh and blood, where does it go?

To these questions Socrates posits a few of his own suggestions. To begin with, he endeavors to prove the immortality of the soul with four theories.

Socrates’ first thesis is the Argument of Opposites. Everything comes to be from its opposite, in the way that ‘Tallness’ comes to be only from ‘Shortness’. With this logic, life can only come from death and vice versa. This would imply that life and death do not have a definitive end, but exist in a perpetual cycle.

The second, more famous concept, is the Theory of Recollection, which is dealt with much more thoroughly in Plato’s Meno. This argument is that we do not learn, only remember knowledge we’ve had before we were born. It can be hard for modern readers to swallow this thought, but it is important to distinguish fact from form. Socrates is not advocating that we ‘remember’ things like: when did the Peloponnesian war begin? Especially if it did not happen until after we were conceived. Instead, it is the idea that within us is an innate, built in ability to distinguish the essential concepts of Beauty, Equality and the like.

death of socrates

The Death of Socrates

In regards to the immortality of the soul, this theory proves to Socrates and his friends that the soul existed before the body.

The third idea is the Argument of Affinity. It is the categorization of things that are invisible, indivisible and immortal versus those that are material, dissolvable and mortal. The body is of the latter, the spirit of the former. Therefore, the soul can not cease.

At this moment, the two other Pythagorean philosophers in the dialogue put Socrates on his back foot with strong rebuttals. Think about a musical instrument, says Simmias, the beauty of ‘Harmony’ only exists with the tangible structure of the lyre, same as the soul and the body. While Cebes agrees that the soul is long living and can exist after the physical form has died, he is not yet convinced that it is immortal.

Socrates concedes that these are excellent points, and so brings out his final and most formidable notion. The cornerstone of his winning argument is the Theory of the Forms. It is one of Plato’s most important contributions and it proposes that greater abstract concepts exist as immaterial and unchanging ideas, such as courage or Justice or Beauty or Goodness, and that all worldly items take in these forms.

The soul, therefore, partakes of the form of “Life” and is in fact an essential property of the soul. Consequently it can never die.

Socrates concludes his arguments with a myth that describes the concept of an afterlife. Throughout his whole conversation, however, he has sprinkled references to where he feels his spirit will go next.

Relaying: “That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible world to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she lives in bliss and is released from the error and folly of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods.”

This is the reason why Socrates does not fear death. Like more contemporary believers, he is convinced that his future spiritual life will be better than his current physical existence. In fact, as a lover of wisdom and truth, his body only distracts him from finding reality.

“And thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her-neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure-when she has as little as possible to do with the body, and has no bodily sense or feeling, but is aspiring after being?”

Socrates spirituality was unlike the traditions of the Hellenic era, where the multitude of gods and the destination of Hades ruled over life and Death. Socrates never evokes the plethora of olympian dwellers. He does refer to the underworld though… he paints a hell-like finale for those who spent their life impurely and committed to the physical.

And so, knowing his life has been dedicated to finding the truth, and that his soul will live forever in a heaven like residence, Socrates bathes, bids his farewells, takes his hemlock and dies.

“Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates” was written by Anya Leonard

Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder

by on August 24, 2017

by Anya Leonard

Somewhere between the words of Socrates and the thoughts of Plato lies the profound question of what is ‘Just’. Is it defined by laws and men or is it something separate, something ideal? When one is wrongfully imprisoned, for example, is it okay to escape, to break the “law” as it is written? This was the quandary in which Socrates found himself when facing an unfair death sentence.

Crito by PlatoOf course, we can’t be sure which ideas actually belong to Socrates or to Plato. We only know that Crito, the second defense of Socrates, was written after the events took place. Even if Socrates did utter the words contained therein, it was a secondhand account at best. Chronologically though, it follows Socrates’ trial as seen in the Apology and slots in before his final death in Phaedo.

Crito is actually the shortest of these three dialogues, but that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest to understand.

In it, Plato attempts to find justice in an unjust action. He wants to reconcile the injustice of his beloved friend’s execution with the respect that he has for the city and its laws. Certainly that is no simple feat, and one that some might say Plato did not entirely accomplish.

To understand this dialogue, one first must distinguish between the lower case and upper case words – laws vs. Laws, respectively. The latter represents something much grander than the collective ideas of men or the wisdom of a lawmaker. The Law is an ideal, a form, an entity – personified and perfect. And it’s Plato’s way out… a method for Socrates to remain good by following what is Just in the concept of the Laws, rather than obeying the evil of his unjust accusers who unethically utilize mere laws to kill him.

We begin the dialogue with Socrates in his cell, his imminent death casting a long shadow on the proceedings. His friend, Crito, has found him asleep and, impressed by his quiet slumber, does not want to wake him up to face his unfortunate reality. When finally Socrates comes to, Crito implores him to escape, employing, at times, astute logic to make his case.

He begins, perhaps, with a selfish point. Should Socrates allow himself to be killed, others will think his friends were not loose enough with their purses to rescue him. Crito makes clear that Socrates need not worry about his friends’ welfare or wallets. The provocative philosopher has sufficient benefactors to ensure his escape.

Crito’s second argument addresses the injustice of those who accused and sentenced him. By fulfilling their decision, Socrates is acting unjustly. By refusing to escape, he treats himself as his enemies treat him. This, says Crito, is morally wrong.

Lastly, Crito pleads for Socrates to think of his children, who will become orphans if he dies.

Statue of SocratesHe beseeches: “You appear to me to betray your own sons, who, when it is in your power to rear and educate them, you will abandon, and, so far as you are concerned, they will meet with such a fate as chance brings them, and as is probably, they will meet with such things as orphans are wont to experience in a state of orphanage”.

As a philosopher, it is Socrates’ aim it to reveal ignorance and inspire knowledge. Would he deny his own progeny his lessons?

Socrates, in turn, counters these arguments with his own. He attacks Crito’s concern for public approval, responding that the only opinions that matter, are of those with knowledge. In a swift rebuttal, he states: “what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth.”

The matter at hand is not what people will think of Socrates. The real question is: is it Just to escape? Even if his punishment is unjust, he should still not act unrighteously. Here Socrates combats the idea of an ‘eye for an eye’, making the point that it is never right to do an injustice, even if you suffered an injury first. Therefore, he won’t leave his prison if the departure is proved to be unrighteous.

Crito concedes this point… but it still doesn’t address whether escape is Just. To answer this riddle, Socrates conjures the Laws, which confront and question the philosopher.

The Laws take the stance that escape is unjust, for disobeying the rules would, in effect, destroy the Laws and what they stand for. The State is held together by the Laws, and if the latter were to fall into disarray, the former would collapse as well. Therefore, Socrates’ illegal departure would be an affront the city-state that reared him. He argues allegiance to the State is more important than one’s well being or ties to their family…

Finally Socrates concludes that by living in Athens, he has agreed to her Laws. Not only that, he reared his children in the famous city-state and stayed there his whole, long, 70 years of his life. If he didn’t agree with the Laws, he could have left at any time, but chose not to.

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

The fact that the Laws are personified in Crito is important for our understanding of the “social compact” as viewed by Socrates. This is not Rousseau’s famous social contract, though it does at first appear that way. In the 18th century concept, the state or sovereign is a direct consequence of the people’s general will. Therefore, the social contract is an agreement between citizens to live together under the same laws. For Plato, however, this agreement is not made between citizens. It’s made between the individual citizen and the Laws – an entity in and of itself.

For Plato and for Socrates, the Laws are more like the ‘forms’ – an abstract idea that represents the fundamental essence of a thing. A chair, as we know it, is not just the thing we sit on, that you may be sitting on right now. It is also an idea of something that we sit on. Therefore, we can all look at a chair and say, “Yes, that is chair,” having in our minds a form of what a chair is.

In this way the Laws are something greater, purer than laws. The Laws are always Just, according to Socrates, but a law can be unjustly used.

This is how Plato tries to reconcile unjust actions with the innate Justice of the Laws. By acquiescing to the injustice, Socrates upheld the Laws and Justice and therefore, the State built upon them. Failure to do so would have destroyed all the ideals, truths and forms he held dear. This is why Socrates had to die.

 

Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder – Classical Wisdom Weekly was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part Two

by on August 11, 2017

To Read Part One, Click here: http://classicalwisdom.com/the-peloponnesian-war-summary-part-one/

The entirety of the Peloponnesian war is broken into two parts, punctuated by a brief, and probably very welcomed, armistice. The total engagement, with all its battles and betrayals, began in 431 BC and finally concluded with complete devestation in 404 BC. The first collection of campaigns, referred to as the “Archidamian War” after the Spartan king, lasted a full ten years.

The Plan of Attack for the land-loving Spartans and their allies was to surround the Athenians, thereby depriving them of their productive fields. This, however, was only partially effective because the Spartans could sustain siege for just a few weeks at a time. The hoplites, or infantrymen, were still farmers after all. They had to return to their own harvest and to quell the occasional slave uprising.

Athenian Strategy

Athenian Strategy

Nonetheless, Pericles, the Atheniangeneral, advised his men to not enter into combat with Sparta’s masterful soldiers on the ground. They would only fail. Instead, the Athenians, far superior in naval warfare, protected the access to their port with a formidable wall and relied on the dominance of their fleet to launch attacks against their enemy. So far, so good.

Bust of Pericles

The Athenian General, Pericles

That’s when the plague hit. Perhaps more than any other factor, it was the sweeping disease that weakened Athens and brought the fair city to her knees. It wiped out over 30,000 citizens, sailors and soldiers, including their revered general and his sons. It is estimated that between one-third to two-thirds of the entire Athenian population perished.

After all the bodies had been disposed of, Athens renewed her military ambitions with emboldened hostility. The general who replaced Pericles, Cleon, embarked on an aggressive strategy for taking down the Spartans. The Athenians continued relentlessly with their naval raids, and stretched their military activities into Boeotia and Aetolia. In addition they began fortifying posts, one of which was near Pylos on a tiny island called Sphacteria. There the course of the first war turned in Athens’s favour.

Finally, things were looking up for Athens. They started taking advantage of Sparta’s greatest weakness: Helots. Helots were essentially slaves that made the Spartan system possible. By doing the farm work, they freed up the citizens’ time to become expert soldiers. However, they were also prone to revolts – and the Athenian presence at nearby posts helped spur them on. Without their working class, Sparta would have a hard time of surviving.

The Athenians rejoiced after the Battle of Pylos in 425, when they defeated the Spartans and captured between 300 and 400 soldiers. However, this joy did not last long. The Spartans fought back with their own belligerent general, Brasidas. He raised an army and took the Athenian silver mines, a crucial source of funding.

Bust of Thucydides

The historian, Thucydides

Interestingly enough, it was Thucydides, the famous historian, who was supposed to have saved the Athenian silver mines. Maybe it’s not so strange then that he said the following: “War is a matter not so much of arms as of money.”

However, Thucydides failed to arrive at the mines in time to defend them and consequently was exiled for his failure. Fortunately for us, this meant he was able to communicate with both sides, gaining a unique perspective which he later recorded in his major work, History of the Peloponnesian War.

The Athenians also knew that silver was pretty key. And so, they tried to retake their productive metallic mines… but, maybe not so tragically, the bellicose generals from both sides, Brasidas and Cleon, were killed in the fight. With no hawkish fame seekers to push the men into action, it was hard to keep warring. In fact, this resulted in the Peace of Nicias, which spanned 6 years.

‘Peace’, however, might be a little bit of an overstatement. There were still plenty skirmishes. Alliances were created and broken and large forces navigated the seas and lands… war was just a shot away.

Click HERE to read about the post peace Grecian breakdown in The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part Three: The Sicilian Expedition.

“The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part Two” was written by Anya Leonard

The Death of Socrates…and the State that Killed Him

by on July 25, 2017

by Anya Leonard

According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest of them all. It is usually considered unwise, however, to publicly attack the political class and humiliate their intellect, capability and righteousness. This is particularly true when the government is in a weakened and, therefore, volatile position. Why then would Socrates, nobel pillar of wisdom, stand up to a system that would eventually, inevitably, murder him?

The old philosopher was not the first to provoke the hostilities of the state at the wrong time…nor would he be the last.

One only has to think of the modern day dissenters, the infamous ‘whistleblowers’, to know the powers that be do not like to be exposed. If an individual has the gumption to reveal undesired truths, uncomfortable realities, the state will react…swiftly and with its own brand of “justice.” In the case of our contemporaries, that may mean being indefinitely detained without trial or cooped up in the ecuadorian embassy. For Socrates, it resulted in a sham indictment and a death sentence for a 70 year old man.

Like our modern examples, Socrates committed an error of inconvenient honesty in a declining empire. For this, he would pay the ultimate price.

Socrates portrait

Bust of Socrates

The trial of Socrates took place in the year 399 B.C. – a mere 5 years after the fall of Attica by Spartan spear and pluck. The Golden Age of Athens came to a brutal and disappointing end. Socrates himself had been unpopular for a substantial amount of time already, and yet no one saw him as a legitimate threat until after the Peloponnesian war had done its damage.

In 423 B.C., for instance, Aristophanes authored his famous satirical play, The Clouds. It was produced a full 24 years before the trial of Socrates. Here the playwright unfairly characterized Socrates as a despised Sophist, one charging a fee for his services. He also drew the philosopher as, ironically, a pre-socratic thinker, questioning the earth below him and the sky above. But no one threw Socrates in jail then. The poet, politicians and craftsmen had been humiliated but, critically, the state’s safety was not yet at stake. It is the failing empires, self-conscious at their weakening power, that happily suspend justice to muffle dissenting voices.

Which makes us ask once more, why would Socrates, or anyone, speak against such a crumbling authority?

Bradley Manning, who was accused of releasing damning and dishonorable pictures and videos of his own government, may have furnished a response to a similar question in an online chat:1

“If you had free reign over classified networks…” he is said to have written, “and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, DC … what would you do?

“God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth…because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

Julian Assange, the controversial figure behind online transparency activist group, Wikileaks, identified a similar goal:

“You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can’t lead to a good conclusion”. 2

It appears the pursuit of truth, the desire to follow what one believes is good, is nothing new.

We can’t know for sure, of course, but it seems that Socrates was spurred on by similar feelings, at least according to Plato’s description of the final trial. In Plato’s earliest dialogue, The Apology, written shortly after Socrates’ execution, the student rises to his mentor’s defense. He ensured that Socrates’ attackers look petty and capricious, while the philosopher king appears noble, defiant and unwavering.

The piece begins with Socrates pledging to speak clearly, truthfully and without the high flown speech, for which his opposition is famous. Importantly, he does not apologize, though the name of the text would suggest as much. The title actually derives from the Greek word “apologia,” which translates as a defense, or a speech made in defense. The dialogue concerns Socrates attempt to defend himself and his conduct, not to say sorry.

The philosopher sets himself apart immediately and without compromise. He then proceeds to explain the root of the situation: The Delphic oracle had essentially crowned him the smartest man. In disbelief, Socrates set out to prove this wrong by finding men more intelligent than himself. What he found, however, were pompous busybodies who enjoyed speaking at length on things they did not know. Socrates found that through a series of questions, he could easily reveal their ignorance, something no one’s pride takes easily. Eventually he concluded that yes, he could be the wisest man, simply due to the fact that he knows that he knows nothing.

Socrates then address the charges against him – that he had corrupted the youth and acted impiously. With albeit imperfect logic, he proceeds with the elenchus, or cross-examination, against Meletus, the man primarily responsible for bringing Socrates before the jury. If the youth have been corrupted, then why are his pupils here on his side, along with their relatives? Importantly, he references Plato as one of his pupils.

Socrates then makes the analogy that he is a gadfly and the state is a fat and lazy horse. A bloated thoroughbred that has enjoyed too many comforts and would sleep forever, if the gadfly did not do its duty the keep the horse awake.

At no time does Socrates plead for mercy, ask for forgiveness or beg the judges for leniency. Eventually the ballot is cast and, by a close margin, Socrates is found guilty. After a little deliberation the sentence is set: death.

Still, even now, Socrates stays true to his position, defiant in his apologia and sure of his virtue. When asked why he should follow any pursuit that may result in death, Socrates responded:

“You do not speak well, Sir, if you think a man in whom there is even a little merit ought to consider danger of life or death, and not rather regard this only, when he does things, whether the things he does are right or wrong and the acts of a good or a bad man.” 3

But if one were to imagine that Socrates was unwise by confronting a goliath much larger than him, they would prove to be the foolish one. The truth is that Socrates never wanted to face the political body. That is why he didn’t join the public life. Instead, he always spoke to individuals. Facing the government would only mean death.

“…for you may be quite sure, men of Athens, that if I had undertaken to go into politics, I should have been put to death long ago and should have done no good to you or to myself. And do not be angry with me for speaking the truth; the fact is that no man will save his life who nobly opposes you or any other populace and prevents many unjust and illegal things from happening in the state.”4

And so, Socrates chose to address the individual rather than purposefully face the state…until, of course, the state found him. Maybe this is why Socrates reached the ripe old age of 70. As for Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, it’s too early to tell.

Socrates did, ultimately, accept the punishment of death. There is no reason to fear what we do not know, he argued. A point that might have comforted him as he marched into the great unknown beyond this life. Perhaps, reflecting on the years he had already lived, Socrates welcomed a memorable end.

Maybe it is the death of socrates that makes his life, his search for truth, so well known…the sort of pursuit that can inspire individuals thousands of years on.

 

1. http://firedoglake.com/merged-manning-lamo-chat-logs/
2. “Julian Assange, monk of the online age who thrives on intellectual battle”. The Guardian. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/aug/01/julian-assange-wikileaks-afghanistan) 2010-08-01. Retrieved on 2010-08-01.
3. 28b, The Apology by Plato http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/
4. 31d – 31e, , The Apology by Plato http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

The Death of Socrates … and the State that Killed Him was written by Anya Leonard