The Human Journey
The Axial Age

The Axial Age


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Bust of Socrates
Bust of Socrates

Socrates (470 - 399 BCE)
Socrates came from the same intellectual milieu as the Ionian tradition and mastered the Sophistic method, but in his later life, he focused exclusively on the search for self-knowledge and wisdom. He was an enigmatic figure known only through other people’s accounts of him. We know of him mostly through Plato’s dialogues, though his pupil Xenophon also mentions him, as does Aristophanes who derides him in two of his comic plays. He was a citizen of Athens and respected its laws, honored its gods and served the state; and he fought as a hoplite soldier in the Peloponnesian War.

In The Apology Socrates tells of the time when he was told that the Delphic oracle agreed that no one was wiser than Socrates, and this, he claimed, puzzled him greatly.  He went to speak with various people with reputations of being wise, then with others who were poets, and others who were craftsmen, all claimed more understanding than they in fact possessed. So he came to the conclusion that “The truth of the matter is that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is His way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value. … [the oracle] has merely taken my name as an example, as if he would say to us ‘The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.’”

He was a teacher, though he adamantly insisted that he wasn’t one, and he certainly wasn’t one in the conventional sense. He taught quite differently from his contemporaries, the Sophists: he gave no formal lectures and he refused to charge his students, whereas Sophist teachers did both. His students included not only prominent Athenians such as Critias, Plato, and Xenophon, but people of all classes, including women and slaves.

“His mission was only to search in the company of men, himself a man among men. To question unrelentingly, to expose every hiding place. To demand no faith in anything or in himself, but to demand thought, questioning, testing and so refer man to his own self. But since man’s self resides solely in the knowledge of the true and the good, only the man who takes such thinking seriously, who is determined to be guided by the truth, is truly himself.”

The Great Philosophers, Vol 1 by Karl Jaspers

Let it be clear to you that my relationship to philosophy is a spiritual one.” Socrates says at his trial. His teaching method, known as elenchus (cross-examination), is often thought to be designed to draw out the pupil’s innate knowledge through a series of meticulous, rational, questions and answers.  This describes the process but its purpose was more than a search for innate knowledge as we generally understand it. It is more likely that the objectives of this rigorous, lengthy and relentless dialogue were to demonstrate the limits of a student’s – or anyone’s – ability to arrive at real knowledge in this manner, and to expose the student’s assumptions, opinions and false beliefs in order that that he or she might eventually realize that there was no right answer. Through this confusion the individual would see that he or she really knew nothing at all, at which point the search for truth could begin. Finally, by questioning their most fundamental assumptions, and through unrelenting questions and answers, individuals would be able to access an intuitive ability – a change in consciousness – and perceive ultimate good.

In Theaetetus Socrates describes himself as a midwife, guiding each student to discover within himself a level of intuitive understanding and self-knowledge that was synonymous with virtue.

Like Pythagoras, the Buddha, and many other teachers, Socrates wrote nothing down, resisted formulating a coherent philosophical path and had no dogma. He was aware that some students, at least initially, were merely entertained by practicing his method, but he knows otherwise: “They enjoy hearing men cross-examined who think they are wise but they are not. But I maintain that I have been commanded by the God to do this through oracles, through dreams, and in every way in which some divine influence or other has ever commanded man to do anything.”
(The Apology)

In 399 BCE Socrates was accused of two violations of Athenian law: blasphemy by teaching about new gods not recognized by the Athenians, and corrupting the youth of Athens. He was accused of teaching young men idleness and encouraging cultish behavior. But perhaps above all – when the great Athenian Empire was losing to the Spartans towards the end of the Peloponnesian War – he was in a sense a scapegoat for their shame, disliked because he numbered among his friends and students men who were perceived as enemies of the Athenian State, such as Alcibiades and Critias. (Alcibiades had, on several occasions, changed sides, and Critias became part of the pro-Spartan oligarchy installed after Athens lost the war in 404 BCE.) In addition, his dialectic method – whereby through rigorous questioning he lead people to see the fallacy and limits of their thinking – made many conclude that he was merely intent on making them feel inferior.

Even in defending himself at his trial, Socrates revealed that first and foremost he was a teacher. “I shall never cease from the practice of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend … are you not ashamed … to care so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?” Instead of offering a defense that would assure his release, he refused to compromise and used the opportunity to expose the shallow emotionally-driven thinking of the members of the judiciary:  “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 city by God … [But] you may feel out of temper like a person suddenly awakened from sleep and might suddenly strike me dead … and then sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care for you sends someone to take my place.”

When the possibility of escaping from jail was presented to him, Socrates used this as an opportunity to teach Crito to observe the effect and consider the consequences of one’s actions, thoughts and feelings. In this instance such an action would in a sense destroy the Athenian state, whose laws had permitted his birth, upbringing and education and of which he willingly chose to be a citizen, obedient, therefore, to its laws. Socrates, in a lengthy dialogue, takes the part of the state and determines that if he did not stand by this agreement now, he would be dishonored, and his friends suffer by association.

Socrates had no fear of death: “You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action – that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly… . No one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to man, but people dread it as though they were certain that it is the greatest evil, and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable.”

So he drank the hemlock and was put to death as the State required. “Such, Echecrates, was the end of our friend, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man.” says Crito at the end
of Phaedo.

Painting of The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787).

He was a student of Socrates and would later record a number of Socratic dialogues as well as personal accounts of Socrates, whom he admired greatly. His prose included not only histories, but biography, political pamphlets, and instruction manuals on an array of subjects, including household management, hunting and military tactics. He is often called the original “horse whisperer”, having advocated sympathetic horsemanship in his treatise “On Horsemanship”.

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