Socrates (470-400 BCE) is a very famous yet controversial and obscure figure. Like many great thinkers of the ancient world, he did not write his own thoughts down but taught others. It was Plato (430-350 BCE) and another philosopher and historian named Xenophon (not Xenophanes, the philosopher) who wrote about Socrates and his teachings after his death. The third major source of ancient Athenian literature that speaks about Socrates is Aristophanes who wrote plays mocking Socrates and portraying him as an idealistic fool. Recall that Aristophanes also mocked Euripides, friend of Anaxagoras, for over-employing the deus-ex-machina by lowering him into one of his own plays, and that Plato, in his dialogue The Symposium, has Aristophanes argue for Empedocles’ theory of proto-human paired beings to explain love and sexuality.
It is generally accepted by scholars today that Plato’s early dialogues are one of the best sources for understanding Socrates and his ideas, but in Plato’s later dialogues Socrates is a mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas, including those he borrowed from Pythagoras and Parmenides. We will consider Socrates and his thought first, then turn to Plato’s dialogues for the next few weeks. Plato and his student Aristotle were revered by Muslims and Christians alike and their texts survived because they were important to the Abrahamic religions.
It was believed and still is by many that Plato and Xenophon were Socrates’ students, but new scholarship has shown that this may well not have been the case. Plato was a playwright who wrote several unpopular plays before writing the dialogues between Socrates and his students that became celebrated as some of the first and central works of ancient Greek philosophy. While Plato never appears in his plays himself, he does put his own family members in roles. He has characters mention him as a young devoted follower of Socrates. Remember that Diogenes ridiculed Plato, saw his own teacher Antisthenes as the true devoted student of Socrates and saw Plato as a foolish and ignorant hijacker of Socrates’ lineage.
Originally, Socrates questioned everyone to show that we know very little and it is the job of the philosopher to show this to people. He would argue with others, including famous thinkers and sages, who believed that they possessed certain truth and point out the contradictions in their reasoning. This is much like Heraclitus telling us to beware of experts and being seduced into thinking that one school of thought or perspective is simply correct but instead continue to investigate the self and world as both have no limit to their depth or the things we can learn. While Socrates did not put forward views of his own but rather attacked others to show that human beliefs are imperfect and incomplete, he believed like Xenophanes and Heraclitus that there is a true good we should strive for through investigation even if we never come to have a complete understanding of it. This is also like Zeno, who saw all human judgements as involving contradiction.
In Plato’s later dialogues Socrates argues for a view much more like that of Pythagoras and Parmenides, that there is one unchanging reality above the temporary perceivable world and it is the job of the philosopher to seek and understand this eternal reality. Plato uses Socrates to teach his own increasingly Pythagorean and Parmenidean view that there are unchanging and eternal form of things in the heavens and only the educated and the persistent come to see and understand these forms. This later Platonic Socrates agrees with Parmenides that there is knowledge above and separate from opinion, and that the truth is eternal and unchanging. However, unlike Parmenides and Zeno but like Pythagoras, Plato’s later Socrates believes that we can know the eternal truth as having a proportional form, such that time and difference are not mere illusions. The ‘form of the good’ is eternal, so it does not change with time, but it does have a distinct shape much as Pythagoras discovered via mathematics.
We know very little about Socrates’ early life other than the details supplied in Plato’s works. He mentions several influences, including two women. He says that the witch/shaman Diotima taught him about love and how it is central to life and the cosmos. Socrates also gives credit to Aspasia, the mistress of the general Pericles, who he says taught him rhetoric. Socrates was, like almost everyone else in Plato’s dialogues, an aristocrat who knew politicians and the wealthy. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle lived at a time when the glory days of Athens were in decline.
Socrates’ career as a philosopher began when his friend Chaerephon went to the Oracle of Delphi to ask if anyone was wiser than his friend Socrates. Socrates, with characteristic modesty, protests that this was a very crass question to ask of the great oracle. The oracle replied to Chaerephon that no one was wiser than Socrates. Upon hearing this, Socrates says, with either genuine or false modesty, he was very troubled by this because he did not believe that he was very wise at all and this would mean that humanity is quite ignorant. He decided that he needed to determine if what the oracle said was in fact true, and so he began to wander and debate others, seeking someone wiser than himself.
Notice that while Socrates, like Anaxagoras, was charged with impiety, he did believe in the oracle and in the gods. His last wish in the Apology before drinking hemlock was that a rooster should be sacrificed to Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing and mystical insight who is associated with Thoth the Egyptian god of knowledge. Socrates seems to have viewed his death as a cure of a condition. It is from Asclepius that we get the image of snakes wound around a staff as a symbol for medicine and healing.
Socrates felt that he knew nothing, but as he questioned the experts of Athens he came upon a horrible discovery and paradox. The experts believed themselves to be wise and possess great knowledge, but when questioned it turned out they knew very little. Socrates knew that he himself knew nothing. Therefore, Socrates discovered that he was wiser than the experts because he knew that he knew nothing, while the experts knew nothing but thought that they knew a great deal. Humble and modest Socrates was aware that mortal humans know nothing, but the philosophers, politicians, artists and warriors were unaware of this great equality they shared with Socrates. The ignorance of Socrates was thus the greatest wisdom in all of Athens. It is certainly true that the more one knows, the more one knows there is an endless amount to know and that we are all quite equal in knowing very little even when we know a great deal. There is another paradox here: the more one surpasses others in wisdom, becoming different, one identifies with them more, seeing the common similarity. Love and wisdom are complimentary.
Notice the similarity between Socrates and Heraclitus, who argued that the experts believe themselves to know a great deal but do not understand that their knowledge and perspectives are mortal and we are all mere apes to the gods. Socrates argued, like Heraclitus, that the greatest wisdom is found in questioning oneself and others. Remember that great city-states and empires had risen and fallen along with increasingly specialized experts. Philosophy questions experts and the basis of our knowledge, which humans find useful particularly in times of crisis when hard questions must be asked. Socrates does not argue that we are hopelessly ignorant, but like Heraclitus that we should continue to examine ourselves, seek the truth and strive for the good.
Socrates argued that one should accept one’s own ignorance and the guidance of the world through intuition. He believed that he had a spirit, a ‘daemon’ in the Greek, a word which became “demon” as Christianity replaced the polytheism and spirits with monotheism and angels. This spirit was much like what we would call a conscience, a word which means “co-seeing” or seeing along with, an intuition that one should or should not do a particular thing, something Christians identified with angels sitting on shoulders just as ancient Greeks did with spirits.
Socrates says that his daemon told him to stay out of politics. Good advice, seeing as how his death was quite political. Not only did politics get Socrates killed in spite of this, but Plato has Socrates get increasingly political in his later dialogues, particularly in the Republic where Socrates debates the best form of the city. This is another piece of evidence that Plato may not have known Socrates and is using him as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. Socrates also praised the divinity of poetry, mysticism, love and drinking with friends as he does at the Symposium, a dialogue about a drinking party that turns into a philosophical discussion about the nature of love.