Socrates loved the pursuit of wisdom more than any other. He valued truth, understanding, and examination of self and life above all else. He believed that the most valuable thing a person could do was question their thoughts, beliefs, and perceived truths. For Socrates, the examined life was the only life worth living.
Even if you know little-to-nothing about Socrates, you have probably heard the famous dictum which states that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates apparently made this pronouncement at his trial, essentially choosing death over exile.
He thought that living a life in exile would prevent him from taking part in the great philosophical quest for truth.
For Socrates, death wasn’t the end because he believed his soul would continue an existence apart from his body. Socrates believed that the incorporeal-soul was better inclined toward philosophical wisdom, truth, and understanding when it wasn’t weighed down by earthly and bodily desires.
So he chose death over exile.
The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
I can kind of see where he is coming from. After all, my earthly body has already interrupted my writing-flow a few times in the past two hours – bathroom break, drink of water, food… It isn’t easy being a living-breathing organism.
But I would still happily accept exile and be on my merry-way…
Perhaps I am lacking in nobility?
Jump to the 20th century, and we hear a similar pronouncement from the Nobel-prize winning Existentialist – Albert Camus: “Everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.”
Camus then goes on to describe consciousness as awareness and makes the claim that along with consciousness comes an inherent desire for truth and meaning. Consciousness allows us to illuminate and examine ourselves, the world, and our place within the world…
…And when we tire of all this self-examination, we can simply point our consciousness in another direction, promptly forgetting about all of our shortcomings.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Albert Camus (November 1913 – January 1960)
Socrates’ examined life is one of conscious awareness. Socrates is conscious of our fallibility when it comes to knowledge and wisdom, and he wishes to illuminate such problems through philosophical discussion with the hopes of finding truth. His examined life is possible only through his conscious awareness.
Socrates and Camus share a system of values. They both believe that the search for truth, meaning, and value is an essential activity of life.
They part ways, however, when it comes to choosing death over an unexamined life…
For Camus, the truth is not worth more than life itself. Life is what allows us the opportunity to question and seek philosophical wisdom. Camus, being an atheist, would refuse the notion of an incorporeal-soul. This life is all that we are given – and this world is all that we can know.
Camus cherished life over truth with such passion that he commended Galileo for abandoning his scientific theory of heliocentrism when the church threatened his life for holding such a controversial position.
Portrait of Galileo
While there aren’t usually contests about such things, I would claim that Camus knew less than Socrates. By this I am referring to that other famous dictum uttered by Socrates that states “I know that I know nothing.”
The accuracy of this pronouncement is questioned by scholars who know more of the matter than I do. These scholars argue that Socrates doesn’t claim to know nothing, but that he is simply aware of his ignorance on certain matters.
The paradoxical “I know that I know nothing” is actually better translated as “What I do not know I do not think I know either.”
In theApology Socrates is portrayed by Plato as confident in his knowledge to the point of death. One must ponder the notion that if Socrates was actually the person he is often portrayed as being – the wise sage that claims to not know – his fate might have been different.
His confidence is what sealed his fate. His claim to divine inspiration which consequently led him to interrogation-like discourse with his fellow citizens is far and above an earthly-grounded confidence in one’s knowledge.
Socrates believed that he knew quite a lot. He was so firm in his beliefs that he chose death over exile. For Camus, the truth isn’t so firm, and so dying for something which might not actually be true was fundamentally ridiculous.
Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates (1776), by François-André Vincent.
Keeping all of this in mind, one is tempted to ask – was the death of Socrates really as noble as it is often portrayed? Or does it reveal to us a disharmony and potential ingenuine nature of Socrates and his intellectual stubbornness?
His constant pestering as the gadfly of Athens coupled with his claim of divine inspiration makes him seem less of a noble seeker of wisdom and more like a charlatan.
But who am I to make such accusations?
I leave you here, to question and reflect on this recognizably unpopular position of Socrates and his death… and I thank Zeus that my impious corruption of you, the reader, is unlikely to end in execution by hemlock.
Plato, along with his instructor Socrates, are often recognized as the minds which began the western philosophical tradition as we know it today.
Plato’s theory of forms and the Allegory of the Cave are not only interesting within the history of philosophy, but hold relevance in regards to both contemporary philosophy and science. So relevant, in fact, that a new theory in physics postulates a concept quite similar to Plato’s.
For Plato, the world as perceived isn’t the ultimate reality. The objects of everyday life are but shadows of the forms. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato relates our false perception of the world of experience to the idea of shadows on a wall.
Imagine that you were chained up in a cave in such a way that you could only look at the wall in front of you. You couldn’t look behind you or turn your head in any direction. Behind you, in the distance, is a roaring fire. In front of the fire are a variety of objects. The shadows of those objects are displayed on the wall in front of you.
Not only would you be bored out of your mind, you would also be living in illusion…
If you knew no other life than that of the cave, the shadows would seem to constitute real objects of reality for you. They wouldn’t be simple phantoms or shadows of something which is more real, they would seem to be the most real, and they would make up your reality. For Plato, this is similar to our everyday experience.
Bust of Plato
In the same way that the shadows on the wall don’t constitute the ultimate reality of the objects from which those shadows are derived, the objects of everyday experience aren’t a true or perfect reflection of ultimate reality either.
The forms, being the ultimate reality, are universal, timeless, and perfect. The objects of experience are imperfect imitations of the forms. For example, a mathematical triangle is perfect in abstraction, but no perfect triangles can be found in nature. The triangles of our experienced world are but imperfect reflections of the ideal form of a triangle.
Just as the triangles of experience are but imperfect reflections of the true form of a triangle, it is the same with every object of perception, including things like beauty. Beauty has an ideal form of which the beautiful things that we perceive are but imperfect reflections. Therefore, the world as we perceive and experience it to be, is but an imperfect reflection of the ultimate reality of forms.
Although this is an ancient theory, contemporary physics has renewed the idea in a radical way. The idea is called information realism and was recently covered in an article by Scientific American.
Is the fundamental-underlying reality information?
Information realism claims that the objects of everyday experience are not a part of ultimate reality, but that they are perceptual illusions… Instead, what is considered to be the true or ultimate reality is the underlying mathematics or information itself.
The matter which allows us to perceive objects in everyday experience is merely derived from the underlying information. The information which underlies the objects of experience is the ultimate reality. Everything else is but a perceptual illusion.
Information Realism, just like Plato’s theory of forms, uses the epistemological method of rationalism, as opposed to empiricism, to come to such conclusions. Rationalists claims that true knowledge of the world is derived through the use of reason – independent of experience. Empiricists claim that true knowledge of the world is gained through experience and the use of our senses.
Taking all of this into consideration, is the theory of information realism a scientific one, or a philosophical one? I would argue that it is philosophical in nature. In fact, many theories in contemporary physics seem to be more philosophical than scientific. Then again, philosophy and science were at one time a joint discipline – and even the great Isaac Newton was considered to be natural philosopher.
Some of the challenges that have been raised against the theory of forms, could also be raised against information realism. One such challenge regards the idea of an ultimate reality that is beyond any possible experience as unknowable in itself.
Is the world as experienced an illusion?
In other words, if ultimate reality exists in a world beyond ours, or if true reality is somehow beyond our scope of experience, how can we say anything meaningful about it?
How do we know what this ultimate reality is if we cannot study it in experience? How do we even know that there is an ideal world or ultimate reality which exists beyond ours? How do we know that such a reality is more than an abstract or mathematical artifact? How can we test these theories if the world posited by them is seemingly inaccessible?
It is difficult to make sense out of such theories, which posit a reality beyond our experience. It is difficult to say anything meaningful about an ultimate reality which is supposedly more real than our world. But it is ideas like these that inspire movies such as The Matrix, give philosophers more to think about, and may eventually reunite science and philosophy.
The Phaedo takes places in 399 BC at the scene of the final days of Socrates’ life. The dialogue is primarily an argument for the immortality of the soul that Socrates is trying to convince his grief-ridden colleagues, and maybe indeed himself, of in order to prove that his execution is merely the separation of his soul from his body… and not his actual ‘death’.
But how does Plato/Socrates prove that there is an immortal soul? It’s not an easy task, no doubt, and so he employs the idea of recollection (or anamnesis). However, like with most of Plato’s concepts when fully investigated, it reveals far more than what is immediately obvious.
The theory of anamnesis was, in fact, first introduced in one of Plato’s earlier works, the Meno. In this dialogue, Socrates informs Meno that nothing can be either taught or learnt as we already possess all the knowledge in the world. Socrates explains that, through the lifetime of our soul, we have already learnt all there is to learn and that we can answer every question, provided we are asked in the correct manner.
He goes on to prove this by getting an uneducated slave to figure out a math problem by asking him a series of extremely leading questions. ie. “Is your personal opinion that the square on the diagonal of the original square is double its area?” Socrates seems convinced that he has done nothing to ‘educate’ the slave, but merely asked him the appropriate questions that allowed him to recollect.
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787
This argument for recollection is taken a step further in the Phaedo, as Plato claims there are two aspects of recollection. The first involves no lapse of time and is less a recollection of something, but more a reminder of it: “you know what happens to lovers, whenever they see a lyre or cloak or anything else their loves are accustomed to use: they recognize the lyre, and they get in their mind, don’t they, the form of the boy whose lyre it is?”
The second aspect of recollection is one that does involve the lapse of time and is more familiar to the theory of recollection in the Meno. Additionally, it relates to Socrates’ goal of establishing the immortality of the soul. The argument that he lays out is that we are neither capable of learning anything new, nor were we born with the knowledge of things, but that we knew these things before our birth.
Bust of Plato
But before we proceed with the Theory of Recollection, we must first examine Plato’s Theory of Forms. As many will no doubt recall, Plato believed that the Forms were ethereal entities of extremely general terms, ie. sameness, difference, justice, purity, vice, beauty, etc. The reason these things were entities, rather than concepts, was due to the fact that Plato perceived them as something very real indeed, even though it seems they were invisible… at least to our eyes.
Returning to our foremost theory, Plato uses the Form of ‘equality’ to try and transmit his views on recollection. He states that in viewing two sticks of equal length, we recognize that they posses ‘equality’. However, he also makes clear that two sticks of unequal length can also cause us to recognize ‘equality’ by its absence. He also conveys that even what appears to be perfectly equal, can, in fact, fall short of ‘equality’, for the simple reason that only the Form of ‘equality’ can be truly, purely equal.
So how do these ideas bring us to the primary aim of the dialogue, the immortality of the soul?
Essentially, in order for the theory of recollection to work, our souls would have had to exist before our earthly incarnation, as well as go on existing after it. Additionally, if the soul is immortal then it must also be eternal, because if something can never come to an end, then it must never have had a beginning in the first place.
The fact that we can identify ‘equality’ (or any Form) is due to the fact that we have experienced the true Form ‘equality’ during a time when our souls were apart from our bodies and at one with (or at least closer to) the Forms.
Bust of Socrates
So, when we see double yellow lines, we can recognize the equality that they posses by recollecting the Form ‘equality’ and concluding they are the same length, width and distance apart. The conclusion then is that because we can recognize/remember the Form of ‘equality’, our soul existed before our bodies, and consequently it will exist afterwards. Hence, the soul is immortal.
Interestingly, despite the willingness of Plato to change his opinions throughout his works, the Theory of Recollection seems to be the one he particularly cares to develop, rather than disregard. What is more of a passing thought in the Meno becomes an intrinsic part of his dialogues in the Phaedo. The elaboration of the concept almost appears to be a consequence of Plato himself re-reading the Meno in search of inspiration.
That said and despite Plato’s inclinations to put words into Socrates’ mouth, the concept of recollection might actually be one we can assign to the older thinker. Cebes, in fact, comments to Socrates in the Phaedo, ‘there’s also that theory you’re always putting forward, that our learning is actually nothing but recollection.”
Although the idea of recollection is vital for the Phaedo, the Phaedo itself is not purely a dialogue about recollection, but about the soul’s immortality. As it was obviously written after the death of Socrates, it could be Plato’s attempt to not only convince the philosophic community that Socrates, and his great mind, lives on, but also his endeavor to make one of the great theories of his friend and mentor persevere throughout time. And maybe that’s how Socrates really achieved his immortality…
“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
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.
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
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.
Of 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.
He 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
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
I originally thought of this article idea some time ago. I remember standing in the basement of Strands bookstore and pulling a book off the shelf at random in the history/ philosophy section. It was an introduction to Socratic thought and the life of Socrates.
Sounds good to me.
I remember that in the Foreword the author had,
Was Socrates a Prophet?
somewhat capriciously I thought, referred to Socrates as “the Christ of Greece.” The author didn’t bother to add any real clarification to this statement and I was rather taken aback by the absence of any substantiating evidence. It was as if I was just supposed to accept that statement in the same way I might accept the statement “Dublin is the capital of Ireland.” In other words, I got the impression that the author believed such a statement to be demonstrable, unimpeachable; and here I was, some senseless boob who just hadn’t gotten the memo.
But you can’t just compare Socrates to Christ and then expect everybody to move on from there! At the very least give me a few paragraphs to go off of so I can write a decent article.
The author did not, unfortunately, bring up the topic again, so far as I could tell. And I never bought that book so I don’t have the luxury of a second look.
I know that this might turn out to be a rather controversial column. Still, this is a newsletter dedicated to all you classical lovers, and budding classical lovers, so I figure that question is as good as any to discuss in a weekend newsletter. Was Socrates, after all, a prophet?
The word “prophet” comes from the ancient Greek word “profétés” (προφήτης), which is a derivative of pró (before) and phēmí (I tell). In the context of ancient Greece, a prophet would have been someone who, among other things, interpreted the words of the oracles, the holy priestesses who were said to commune with the gods and speak on their behalf.
If this were our sole understanding of a prophet, then there certainly is evidence that Socrates was indeed one. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates recounts how the Oracle of Delphi declared him the wisest man in all of Greece. Hoping to make sense of such a claim, Socrates embarks on a quest to find others who are wiser than he.
The Oracle of Delphi, by
What follows is Socrates retelling how he had met with various artists, poets and politicians who, while appearing to be wise, knew very little. Moreover, these people did not even know how much they did not know, instead associating their false beliefs with absolute knowledge.
From this, Socrates draws the conclusion that true knowledge is recognition of ignorance. Socrates, like the artists and poets, does not know anything truly and definitively. However, unlike the artists and poets, Socrates recognizes this and is better for it. We see now that Socrates is truly wise because he does not believe he is wise.
While slightly paradoxical, this idea has been championed through the centuries among philosophers. By coming to such a conclusion, Socrates interpreted the words of the oracle and is, at least according to the ancient Greek meaning, a prophet.
However, this is not what we truly mean when we ask if Socrates is a prophet. Instead, our understanding of a “prophet” is probably closer in line with the ancient Hebrew word “navi” (נָבִיא) which traditionally translates to mean a teacher or mentor who is divinely inspired and labors amongst his people to bring them a better understanding of morality, virtue, or to instill in them some divine truth that was otherwise unknown.
And even here, there is some evidence to suggest that Socrates might fit this description.
“Virtue is knowledge”, is Socrates’ great maxim. He who comes to understand the knowledge that underlies his actions will be better for it. By understanding truly the ideas of “Justice”, “Wisdom”, “Virtue”, and so on, we will be better suited to live according to these axioms and improve ourselves and our souls.
Socrates may very well have been a teacher of righteousness to the Athenians, and we can see that he went about his mission with a burning zeal that could not be quenched even by the prospect of death.
Moreover, Socrates may also have been divinely inspired. Within Plato’s Apology, Socrates claims that a heavenly voice speaks to him from time to time and guides him away from wickedness and towards righteousness and philosophical study. This voice, which is commonly known as a “daemon”, is the reason Socrates began his philosophical career in the first place. The voice prompted him away from politics and public life and towards a life of contemplation and dialectic.
“This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am planning to do, but never commands me to do anything.”-Socrates (Plato’s Apology)
At this point, it is probably important that we recognize that the story of Socrates is a type of fiction. That isn’t to say, however, that it is untrue. The tale of a simple craftsman with a keen mind and an aversion to nonsense who goes about challenging the prevailing paradigm of knowledge and truth, and who is ultimately
executed for his troublesome nature is all too familiar for us. It’s the same story that has been told time and time again in undergraduate philosophy classes and found in the pages of every meaningful piece of philosophical literature since about the fourth century BC.
However, because we become acquainted with Socrates through the works of his students, specifically Plato, there is no way of knowing how much of Socrates the man lines up with Socrates the icon. Within each of Plato’s philosophical dialogues, the superior argument invariably ends up in the mouth of Socrates, while the other philosophical combatants, who are thought to represent the prevailing ideas of 5th century Athens, appear shortsighted and flawed to a modern reader.
As a result of this, we tend to scoff at the Athenians who persecuted Socrates. How foolish those ancients must have been to execute such a fine and noble teacher like Socrates! His death takes on a feel of martyrdom and therefore the idea that he might have been a prophet gains credence.
However, what we often do not realize is that Socrates was, in many ways, attempting to undo the mortar of the classical Greek world and topple a cultural paradigm that had, up until this point, created one of the greatest societies the world had ever seen. It is possible then that he was not a prophet at all, but a bona fide threat to the Greek way of life.
What do I mean by this? Tune in next week to continue this discussion and find out for yourself.