Socrates: The Good Life

Socrates is generally considered the first major philosopher of Western civilization. Before him there lived about a dozen other Greek thinkers, the so-called Pre-Socratics, who also produced significant work from about 600 BCE on. But little of that work has come down to us. Socrates is the first Western philosopher about who a good deal is known. He was a widely discussed figure among the Greeks of his day, and he has remained an icon of wisdom in the history of Western thought. It is primarily through him that the West has gotten the idea of what philosophy is, and what it may be like to live a philosophical life. Socrates, one might say, gave us a philosophical definition of the good life.

Socrates was born in 470, and he died in 399. His entire life he lived in Athens. During that time he experienced both the "Golden Age" of his native city, as well as Athens’ disastrous defeat at the end of the long and ruinous Peloponnesian War. The city's "Golden Age" was inaugurated by the Greeks’ spectacular victory over two invading Persian armies in 490 and 480. Athens emerged from that victory not only as one of the most important commercial centers of the Mediterranean world, but also as the leader of a military alliance that quickly transformed the city into a dominant naval power. By controlling the funds of the alliance, Athens managed to channel a significant portion of the annual contributions of her allies into a lavish building program that turned the city into a place of architectural and cultural splendor. Under the supervision of the famed sculptor Phidias, the Parthenon and other monumental structures were erected on the Acropolis. And around the agora--the market place and civic center of the city--numerous temples, court structures, halls, shrines and statues formed an environment that functioned as the visual and administrative center of a thriving imperial metropolis.

Not far from the agora, the Odeon and the Theatre of Dionysus provided spaces for elaborate musical and theatrical productions. Twice a year such playwrights as Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes competed for prizes with splendid performances for thousands of spectators. During official festivities countless visitors from all around the Mediterranean Sea came to admire the wonders of Athenian culture.

The Acropolis of Athens

During most of the 5th century Athens was a democracy. While the leadership of the city tended to be from the propertied classes, even an eminent aristocrat like Pericles had to be democratically elected to public office by the people’s Assembly, the main legislative body in which all male citizens could vote. In addition, most court cases were decided by large juries of ordinary citizens. That made effective public speaking and forensic debating skills highly important for anyone who wanted to succeed in any area of public life. As a consequence numerous teachers of public speaking and forensic debating—known as the sophists--were attracted to Athens from all parts of Greece; the growing wealth of the city could afford handsome fees for their tutorial services.

The presence of many sophists in the city was a primary reason for the transformation of Athens into the main center of Greek intellectual life. Sophists did not only educate the sons of the upper classes, they also absorbed and debated the works of Greek--and probably foreign--thinkers among themselves, thus creating an atmosphere of broad-minded intellectual exchange that laid the groundwork for a cosmopolitan civilization. While many smaller cities and outlying regions produced outstanding thinkers and artists, it was primarily in Athens that the various minds would meet and publish their work. Through cross-fertilization and competition within the context of a thriving and powerful metropolis, these minds developed their talents and productions to the high degrees of excellence by which classical Athens established itself as the first major center of Western civilization.

The boisterous mood of Athens' "Golden Age" was manifest in the often quoted praise of the city delivered by Pericles in 431. Pericles was a powerful speaker and skillful politician. During the public funeral of the first casualties of the Peloponnesian War the popular leader of the city flattered his fellow-citizens by assuring them that they were the best, and that Athens was vastly superior to any other commonwealth in sight. Thus he declared, among other things:

Our constitution does not copy the laws of other states: we are a model for others, not their imitators. The city's government favors the many rather than the few, that's why it is called a democracy. Our laws provide equal justice for all. Success in public life depends on ability and merit, not on social origin and class. Nor does poverty impede anyone’s advancement… We are the school of all Greeks. I doubt that the rest of the world can produce a type of man that is as versatile, resourceful, and self-reliant as the Athenian. And that this is not just ceremonious bragging, but a plain fact, is proven by the power of the state based on such traits. For Athens alone among all cities is found, when tested, to be greater than her reputation. (1)


It was because of the Peloponnesian War that the "Golden Age" came to an end. The war lasted from 431 to 404. Its basic cause was the imperial arrogance with which Athens treated not only her own allies, but also other Greek city states that were not under Athenian control. Some of her allies wanted to secede from the alliance, for example, because they did not wish to pay for the splendor of the domineering city with their annual contributions for defense. Athens prevented such secessions by military force and economic sanctions, thus reducing many member states to virtual colonies. Athens also added further "allies" to her empire, whether these newcomers assented to such incorporation into the empire or not. In time more and more independent cities became afraid that they, too, would eventually be conquered and annexed. As a precaution they formed their own federation, and they made Sparta with its feared army their military leader. For a time the explicitly anti-democratic city of Sparta became thus, paradoxically, the widely acknowledged champion of Greek liberty.

Many Greeks had no desire to engage in a major war. Even in Athens many were weary of such a prospect. Peace negotiations with Sparta took place. But Pericles, bent on making Athens the uncontested leader of the Greek world, repeatedly provoked hostilities and armed conflict. He was not only a competent administrator and general, but also a wily manipulator of public opinion; he knew how to nurture among ordinary citizens the kind of patriotism that assumed that everything Athenian was always better than anything else. A majority of Athenian voters was willing to follow Pericles wherever his ambition would lead them. The empire, after all, provided them with large amounts of tribute money, colonies, land for settlements in overseas regions, and with the emotional satisfaction of dominating the lives of other people. Given their powerful navy and their abundant resources, Athenians had plausible reasons for thinking that they could subdue Sparta and her allies in a short time, and thus crown their past achievements by making themselves the manifest hegemon of Hellas.

The war proved to be a disaster not only for Athens, but for most Greeks. It lasted much longer than anyone expected. It decimated the population, caused vicious civil strife, wiped out whole cities, ruined much industry and commerce, brutalized Greek life, and in the long run subjected most of Greece to the power of foreign empires and rulers. The enterprise that Pericles conceived as the ultimate consummation of Athenian and Greek glory turned out to be a protracted exercise in self-destruction. Politically Greece never fully recovered from the events between 431 and 404. The only Athenian achievement that survived the war intact was Greek intellectual culture. Together with Greek as the international language of educated people it established itself as a dominant life-shaping force in the Mediterranean world for centuries to come.

The brilliant achievements of Athenian and Greek culture did little to check the brutalities of armed conflict. Numerous atrocities were committed during the Peloponnesian War. One incident became especially notorious: the conquest and annihilation of the small island city of Melos. The incident became well known because the Athenian general and historian Thucydides reported it in his history of the war—in conjunction with the sort of arrogant thinking that Athenian diplomats displayed when they tried to talk the citizens of Melos into an uncontested surrender. Mention of the incident is helpful, as it shows how dark the shadow was that the war cast on the city that had produced the cultural splendor of the "Golden Age."

Until 415 Melos had been neutral, posing a threat neither to Athens nor Sparta. In that year, before also assaulting the much more powerful city of Syracuse in Sicily, Athens demanded that the small island become part of her empire and war effort. The Meliens pleaded to be left alone; they had no desire to fight on either side. The Athenians threatened to attack them unless the Meliens agreed to their demand. During a last parley the Athenian ambassadors offered the following piece of cynical reasoning:

We on our part will not use fancy phrases stating, for example, that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we are moving against you now because of injuries you have inflicted on us--highfalutin' talk that nobody would believe anyway. And we ask you on your part not to imagine that you will move us by saying that you, though once a colony of Sparta, have not joined Sparta in the war, or that you have never done us any harm. Instead we suggest that you should try to get what it is actually possible for you to get, taking into consideration what we both really think. For you know just as well as we do that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the power to coerce, and that the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they are forced to accept. (2)

When the Meliens still decided to resist, Athens starved them into unconditional surrender within a few months. The Athenian Assembly then voted to put all Melien men, down to the age of fourteen, to death, and to sell the women and children into slavery to offset the cost of the military operation. After the mass execution the territory of the island was annexed and handed over to 500 Athenian settlers. (It was in response to the Melos incident that Euripides wrote the anti-war play The Women of Troy, a highly emotional pageant of misery that shows captured women as they are carted off, together with other war booty, as chattel or sex slaves. Euripides, although an ardent patriot at the beginning of the war, eventually became so disgusted with Athens that toward the end of his life he exiled himself from his native city.)

This, then, the splendor of the "Golden Age" as well as the brutality of the Peloponnesian War, was the social and cultural context within which Socrates lived his life. It is important to keep this context in mind because it explains to a large extent the nature of the philosopher's work. As will be seen, Socrates did not identify with the culture of his day. It would be a serious misunderstanding to think that Socrates was anything like “a representative of his culture.” His whole life and thinking expresses, in fact, a profound rejection of the dark as well as the seemingly bright sides of classical Greece. To understand Socrates the philosopher is to understand how much he stood against the very essence of the culture of his age. Socrates was a deliberate outsider among his fellow-Athenians and fellow-Greeks, an intellectual stranger, and his critical distance to the culture and society that surrounded him is a significant part of what defines him as a philosopher. This should become clear by taking a closer look at some of the outstanding traits of his life and thought.

Unlike many of his well-to-do and aristocratic friends and disciples, Socrates was of middle-class origin. His father was a stonecutter or sculptor, and his mother a midwife. He may have inherited a modest estate, which allowed him to pursue his true calling--philosophical inquiry. By dedicating his life to the intensive pursuit of wisdom, however, he eventually neglected the economic side of his life to such a degree that he became rather poor. That fact did not bother him personally, but it may have made life less than comfortable for his wife Xanthippe, who had to run their household and raise their three sons. Then as later, people differed with regard to the amount of material goods that are necessary for a good life. Xanthippe may have had her own ideas about the matter, and there may have been marital tensions because of that.

Many authors of Antiquity loved to describe Xanthippe as the proverbial nag who had no sympathy for her husband's high-minded calling. According to Socrates’ student Xenophon, the philosopher was once asked how he could stand the often foul temper of Xanthippe. The philosopher's reply was:

Men who want to become expert horsemen will not acquire the most docile horses, but the spirited ones. They believe that if they can handle these they will be able to handle any horse. I take a similar approach. I want to be able to deal with all human beings. I have Xanthippe to deal with. Getting along with her insures me that I will get along with the rest of humankind. (3)

Like all male citizens of Athens, Socrates had to serve in the army, and he fought in several battles of the Peloponnesian War. Although he never aspired to any elevated rank, he seems to have distinguished himself through courage and endurance under adverse conditions. In 406 he held a minor office in the democratic administration of the city when it was his allotted turn. Otherwise Socrates deliberately stayed out of the politics of the city, the area in which most ambitious Athenians tried to distinguish themselves. The contribution that he wished to make to the life of Athens was of a different kind. The fame (or notoriety) that he enjoyed among his fellow-citizens was based entirely on his philosophical work.

What, then, was this work? Considering that Socrates never wrote any books, what exactly did he do? He regularly went either to the agora, or to one of the gymnasiums outside the city walls, to meet his friends and to discuss certain fundamental questions with them. Often bystanders and chance visitors became involved in the discussions as well. Socrates' typical procedure was to raise such questions as "What is justice?", "What is beauty?", "What is knowledge?", "What is friendship?", "What is virtue?" and so forth, and to invite others to submit answers for scrutiny. People, usually confident of their presumed knowledge, would submit answers, and Socrates would pick the answers apart, showing in detail why the offered definitions were not sufficient. New and improved definitions would be offered, and Socrates would demolish them in turn. After perhaps several hours of this sort of dialogue, everybody, including Socrates, had to admit that they did not really know what justice or beauty or knowledge are--that they were plainly ignorant of something that they thought they had known.

To no one's surprise, such an admission of ignorance did not please everyone who had to make it, particularly when it had to be made in the midst of a gleefully grinning audience. While Socrates found many friends and admirers among those who could appreciate an intelligent discussion, he also made a good many enemies among those whose egos got bruised in the process. Some expressed their anger abusively during the discussions; others bore grudges for years to come. In the long run Socrates was to pay a dear price for challenging people's assumptions and pretenses in the way he did.

While for a number of participants these discussions were not much more than an intellectual sport, or at best an opportunity to hone their forensic debating skills, for Socrates himself and his closer friends such philosophical inquiries were of existential importance. Socrates was committed with utmost seriousness to defining the true essentials of life, and thereby to discover his own true self. Friends like Plato (who became a professional philosopher himself) and Xenophon (who chose to become a soldier of fortune and popular writer) were dedicated to him and his inquiries because they wanted to learn what it is to live a truly good life. They were young men who found themselves at the beginning of their careers, who were not content with simply following the guidelines of the older generation or the Athenian mainstream, and who looked for an inner and philosophical foundation for their conduct. For them philosophy was the way to consciously define their existence, and Socrates was the teacher who provided them with a philosophical model of honest inquiry and impeccable conduct.

By searching for true justice, true beauty, or true friendship, Socrates inevitably called into question what was widely believed to be justice, beauty, friendship, and so forth. Socrates could not be a philosopher without casting serious doubt on traditional wisdom and on what was then common sense. With every question he raised he had to shake deeply held convictions. He had to cast doubt on the authority of fathers, the viability of tradition, the soundness of popular beliefs, the veracity of religious myths, the wisdom of established authorities, and the validity of long-standing conventions. As a consequence many Athenians considered him a dangerous subversive who made it his business to undermine the very foundations of their state. Noticing the keen interest and devotion with which many of Athens' young men followed their challenging teacher, some of the elders started to talk about Socrates' philosophical discussions as a "corruption of the minds of the young."

All this took place within the context of a broad cultural transition that had become inevitable at a time when Athens transformed itself from a second-rate city into a dominant naval power and center of international trade. Athens exported large amounts of wine, olives, and pottery to all parts of the known world, and she was dependent for the survival of her growing population on the wheat and other products from such distant places as Sicily, Egypt, and the Black Sea. Her warships patrolled the international sea lanes to keep them safe for commerce. As a result Athenian sailors and merchants became increasingly familiar with and used to cultures and customs different from their own, while resident aliens from all over the Mediterranean region introduced exotic cults and foreign outlooks to the burgeoning city of their choice. It is, furthermore, likely that the growing slave population also made significant contributions to the internationalization of Athenian society. The basic fact is that within a few decades Athens had changed from a community of narrowly defined local traditions to a metropolis of multicultural cosmopolitanism.

In conjunction with these social and cultural developments, the sophists (most of whom did not hail from Athens) had made it a regular feature of their teachings to point out the great variety of human cultures and the apparent relativity of all moral values, systems, and feelings. Some of the sophists had, in fact, drawn rather nihilistic conclusions from their relativistic views. Some of them taught that there was no such thing as right and wrong, or that right was whatever the most powerful individuals or groups would declare to be right. (The Athenian presentation during the Melos negotiations quoted above is an example of how the might-is-right doctrine was actually used by Athenian officials.)

Such teachings and the actual erosion of traditional Athenian values through the growing internationalization of Athenian life unnerved many of the more conservative citizens. In spite of the general open-mindedness and tolerance that characterized Athenian society, a number of Athenians grew quite hostile toward the sophists and their non-traditional teachings. Some sophists and philosophers were, in fact, expelled from the city, and their books publicly burned.

Although Socrates was by no means a sophist (he did not teach for money, and many of his discussions are energetic efforts to combat the relativism and nihilism of notorious sophists), the general public tended to throw him in with the lot. In 423 the playwright Aristophanes produced his comedy "The Clouds" in which Socrates was lampooned as an unscrupulous sophist as well as a crazy, godless scientist. The play reinforced all the stereotypes that ordinary people had of sophists, philosophers, and intellectuals in general. When at the end of the play outraged citizens set fire to the "Thinkery" of Socrates and his associates, it was presumably with great satisfaction that the audience heard the arsonists’ passionate condemnation of the philosopher: "Ah you … you badmouthed the gods! You studied the surface of the moon! Let’s get' em, guys! Let’s beat' m down! They had it coming, those bastards, what with their blasphemies and impious insults …” (4)

While "The Clouds" is, of course, a farce, produced primarily to make people laugh, the arsonists’ murderous fury nevertheless gave expression to a deep-seated hostility that many Athenians felt toward the man who taught their sons to ask critical questions about their values and way of life. There is little doubt that by making his caricature of Socrates the hate-target of his play, Aristophanes helped a great deal in preparing the philosopher's later fate.

It seems to have been typical for the historical Socrates to not have come up with any final answers to the questions that he raised in his various discussions. (There are, to be sure, answers to some of his questions in the Socratic dialogues that Plato and Xenophon wrote down. But most scholars think that these answers were provided by the students, rather than by Socrates himself.) For Socrates the questioning was always more important than the answers. His primary task was not to teach any specific doctrines, but to make people think. Invoking the profession of his mother, Socrates compared himself to a midwife who helps to deliver the ideas of other people, not his own. As far as his own knowledge was concerned, Socrates never tired of proclaiming his own ignorance.

One of Socrates' friends once asked the oracle at Delphi: Who is the wisest man in Greece? The alleged answer was: Socrates. When Socrates was told about this he was puzzled. Thinking the matter over, he still insisted that he was as ignorant as everybody else. The only way in which he thought he may be wiser than other people was by knowing that he was ignorant, while most people thought they were not. "I know that I do not know" is a center piece of Socrates’ wisdom.

One may wonder about the point of Socrates' philosophical inquiries if they do not result in any final answers. It has, in fact, become common to dismiss philosophy altogether on the ground that philosophers seem to squabble endlessly about ideas that forever evade confirmation or refutation. Even if it were true, however, that no answers are ever possible to Socrates' philosophical questions, the activity of questioning assumptions and critically analyzing possible answers is by no means a waste of time. Seeing that certain answers to questions are invalid, for example, can be an important insight, even if valid answers should not be available. And besides, becoming adept in critical inquiry cannot but help a person to refine his or her general understanding of things.

What was ultimately most important about Socrates' inquiries was, indeed, the unceasing practice and habit of being critical and thoughtful--of not being blind to one's own unfounded convictions and presuppositions. Thoughtfulness and critical self-awareness as a way of life is what Socrates stands for. That is why he adopted “Know thyself” as the main maxim for his life, and why his best known pronouncement is "the unexamined life is not worth living." Life, according to him, is not something that is just to be lived--lived by following blindly and headlong primal instincts, popular convictions, or time-honored customs. The good life is a life that questions and thinks about things; it is a life of contemplation, self-examination, and open-minded wondering. The good life is thus an inner life—the life of an inquiring and ever expanding mind.

In light of such a conception of human existence it is no wonder that Socrates did not think much of the life that most of his contemporaries lived. "The glory that was Athens" looked rather dubious to him, and the headlong eagerness and unquestioning self-confidence with which most of his countrymen pursued material wealth and military glory struck him as seriously misguided. The splendor that Athens and the rest of Greece represented to him was to a large extent a false life. That becomes clear when one looks at what he thought about such widespread preoccupations as money, social standing, and sex.

As a major commercial metropolis, Athens's main business was business, and her thriving port at the Piraeus offered numerous investors the opportunity to engage in profitable enterprises. To become wealthy and to live a luxurious social life was a respectable goal for any young man of some means. During the 5th century weapons manufacturers, mine operators, bankers, import-export merchants, and all sorts of domestic traders had become as rich and influential in Athens' social hierarchy as the traditional landed aristocracy, and to most inhabitants the ever expanding commerce of the city seemed a bright future.
To the chagrin of prominent businessmen, Socrates openly rejected all this. In his eyes the business life was not much of a life. Repeatedly he described the total investment of a man's passions and time in commerce as unworthy of a true gentleman and lover of wisdom. Socrates advocated a simple life, a life of only minimal production and consumption--a life of voluntary poverty, as it would be called today. According to him material production and consumption could not possibly be a serious end in itself, but at best a mere means to achieve something of greater importance and value. Thus he advised the son of the influential politician Anytus not to take over the family's business, a tannery, but to devote his life to philosophical studies instead—a piece of advice that was to cost him.

In accordance with his disdain for Athens’ general commercialism, Socrates made it a point to not charge for his teaching. Most sophists demanded considerable fees for consultations, tutorials, courses, or even for having their brains picked in informal conversations. In time some of them became successful investors as well, and thus able to amass fortunes. In such an environment most sophists found it natural to compete eagerly for students who could pay for an education, and they did not look kindly on a man who shared his knowledge for free. Antiphon, a particularly enterprising sophist, came to Socrates one day with the intention of luring students away from him. In front of these potential customers he said:

Socrates, I assume that the purpose of philosophy is to increase a person's happiness. What you get out of the love of wisdom, however, is quite different. The life you live would drive even a slave to abandon his master. Your food and drink is poor fare. Your cloak is not only shabby, but is never changed summer or winter. And you don’t even wear a tunic. You refuse to take money, the very getting of which is a pleasure, and the possession of which makes a man independent and happy. Now, isn’t it true that teachers try to be a model for their students? If that is the case, however, you are an outright instructor of unhappiness. (5)

Socrates, of course, did not think that happiness is a result of affluence and material consumption. A rich and active mind is happier by far than a consumer of opulent foods and fine clothing. “My belief is that to have no wants is divine, and to have as few as possible is next to divine,” he tells Antiphon during the above confrontation

The idea of voluntary simplicity, which became one of the enduring legacies of Socrates' teachings, had an important political dimension as well. In Book II of Plato's Republic Socrates leaves no doubt that in his mind a healthy state is a minimal state--a state of economic minimalism. Thus he tells his friend Glaucon, who sees no reason why people should not indulge in materialism and luxuries:

In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the state is the one which I have described earlier [a society in which only the basic needs of all members are satisfied]. But if you wish to take a look at a society at fever heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties and perfumes, and incense, and call girls, and cakes, all these not of one sort, but of all varieties. We must go beyond the necessities of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes. The arts of the decorator and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of material must be procured. .... And with that we must enlarge our borders, for the original healthy state is no longer sufficient. (6)

A wealthy state, in Socrates’ estimate, is not a healthy state. The state that exists to secure a luxurious life for its citizens is bound to end up fighting for limited resources, and to engage in expansionist politics and war. Inequality and injustices are sure to follow. The final result (so Socrates implies) would be a state like Athens and her troublesome empire: feared and hated by ever more people, always required to maintain a large military force to preserve order and security, incessantly preoccupied with accumulating ever more wealth, and by no means insured against eventual defeat and disaster. An Athens dedicated to opulence and imperial expansion was, in Socrates’ eyes, a betrayal of the city’s better nature, and a sad waste of her human and cultural potential.

About Athenian politics Socrates was as disdainful as he was about the world of rampant commerce. It is in connection with politics that Socrates' untiring polemics against rhetoric and sophistry become most cutting. His contempt for the kind of manipulation and mass deception that pervade much of political discourse is well expressed at the beginning of Plato's dialogue Menexenus. Concerning the customary patriotic speeches at the graves of the war dead (like the one delivered by Pericles in 431) Socrates sarcastically remarks:

O Menexenus, death in battle is certainly in many ways a noble thing. The dead man gets a fine and costly funeral, although he may have been poor, and an elaborate speech is made over him by a wise man who has long ago prepared what he has to say, although he who is praised may not have been good for much. The speakers praise him for what he has done and for what he has not done—that is the beauty of them—and they steal away our souls with their embellished words. In every conceivable form they praise the city, and they praise those who died in war, and all our ancestors who went before us, and they praise ourselves also who are still alive, until I feel quite elevated by their laudations, and I stand listening to their words, Menexenus, and become enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater and nobler and finer man than I was before. (7)

Decorous patriotic speeches tend to falsify reality by giving those who listen to them an inflated sense of self-worth, according to Socrates. By conceiving himself as part of a powerful and glorious collective, every individual listener feels to be more than he really is. Weak and poorly developed individuals in particular can hide their deficiencies behind the façade of some majestic social body. If they are insignificant as individuals, as parts of the great city of Athens they can feel proud and good about themselves. Thus they run with the herd, giving up what would really make them strong—individual self-reliance and inner independence. They are swayed by the emotions incited by manipulative speakers, and they become the willing tools in the hands of ambitious politicians. They embark on the sort of vainglorious campaigns that produced the disasters of the Peloponnesian War.

There was a third major aspect of Greek life that Socrates subverted in his teachings: the classical cult of physical beauty and the various values connected with it. Due to their frequent wars and the need for well-trained citizen armies, most Greek males cultivated a habit of physical fitness and power, particularly during their younger years. Organized sports, such as the Olympic Games, were a direct result of this preoccupation. Public interest in outstanding athletes was great; victors in Olympic competitions were not only handsomely paid, but often also maintained at public expense. The statues of athletes frequently adorned temple areas or agoras. To the wonderment of Persians and other foreigners, athletic exercises and competitions were conducted in the nude, and nudity in the visual arts was the rule rather than the exception. Artists usually used well-shaped athletes as models for their depictions of the gods (while using good-looking call girls for their images of goddesses). Physical beauty, together with erotic passion (elegantly expressed in a rich poetry), was very much at the heart of classical Greek culture.

Socrates undermined all this by his insistent emphasis of the mind and inner life. The general and enthusiastic cultivation of beautiful appearances struck him as superficial, and the often obsessive dedication to sexual pursuits seemed to him a sort of primitivism that a well-educated person would outgrow as quickly as possible. For Socrates a person's true self was not in the flesh and its passions, but in the intellect and its intangible pursuits. Even the feelings of love were not to be directed toward other persons in their physical individuality, but rather toward the love of ideas. The raw power of sexual energy, in other words, was to be transformed and sublimated into the activities of the mind.

Socrates was well aware of how far his own physical appearance deviated from the ideal of classical Greek beauty. Socrates' stocky build, protruding eyes, pot belly, and snub nose contrasted sharply with the model of beauty that was cultivated and perfected in the celebrated sculptures of the "Golden Age." Socrates was amused by that discrepancy, not saddened. His friend Plato pointed out that it was exactly Socrates’ physical unattractiveness that highlighted his real beauty, the beauty of his mind. Socrates was still attractive, according to his students, but it was a new kind of attractiveness, an attractiveness that manifested itself in brilliant argumentation and penetrating thoughts.

Socrates’ teaching concerning the relative unimportance of the body constitutes a revaluation that was to influence Greek culture profoundly. It was, indeed, to shape Western culture in general. It inspired Plato to divide all of reality into two radically separated realms, the world of the senses and the world of ideas, and to declare the latter to be the only important one. Plato’s radical dualism, in turn, was to bring about the metaphysics of Christian theology, the metaphysics that generally devalued the world here and now, and that declared eternal life to be a matter of a non-physical transcendence. It was under the guidance of Christian theologians that, hundreds of years after Socrates, the sculptures of classical Greece were smashed or mutilated as sinful frivolities or dangerous expressions of a false attachment to the body and the physical world.

Socrates on Trial

Socrates' distance from the practical political life of Athens, as well as his inner remoteness from the way of life of his fellow-citizens, gives us a measure of his principled individualism. His entire life and work has come to stand for a sharp contrast between individual and society, and for the individual's independence from any kind of social pressure. For all his individualism, however, Socrates was not an anti-social thinker; solitary egotism was neither his style nor his message. During his entire life he was not only fond of socializing and cultivating warm friendships, but he also showed himself to be a most conscientious and law-abiding citizen. Significantly, his philosophizing was not carried out in brooding isolation, like that of later Western philosophers, but in lively dialogues with friends and opponents. His basic form of communication still belonged to the oral tradition, not to that of the silently written word. As for most ancient Greeks, being social for him was not an incidental choice, but an essential part of human nature. In spite of his dissent from the ways and norms of the majority, Socrates understood himself to be a political being. How, then, did he reconcile these two basic conceptions of himself--Socrates the independent individualist, and Socrates the conscientious member of his community?

The answer lies in his conception of himself as a "gadfly." In his own words:

It is literally true, even if it sounds funny, that God has specially appointed me to this city as though the city were a large thoroughbred horse that because of its size is inclined to be lazy and in need of stimulation by some stinging fly. It seems to me that God has attached me to this city to perform the office of such a fly. (7)

It was precisely because of his individualism and independence of mind, in other words, that Socrates could be useful to his community. By his very withdrawal from the immediate social consensus, including any ongoing political disputes, Socrates was able to provide his crucial social service. By keeping his distance from ordinary life and taking a step back from everything other people were involved in, he was able to expose those underlying assumptions that usually remained hidden to most of his contemporaries. Questioning underlying assumptions was, according to Socrates, what would save a society from blindness and self-destructive complacency. The stings of a critical mind are what keeps a culture alive and in motion. No society that is too pleased with itself will remain strong and healthy for long. Not self-congratulatory speechwriters and flattering politicians, but society's probing skeptics and possibly disturbing critics are its most valuable friends.

Stimulating outsiders like Socrates have, of course, rarely been welcomed by the societies who benefited from their stimulation. While they are active and alive, challenging gadflies are more often than not brushed off, maligned, despised, or hunted down and destroyed. It is usually after they are gone that they are canonized as heroes and recognized as classics. The situation in Athens was no exception. While Athenians of the 5th century often (and not without some justification) liked to boast about the liberty that prevailed within her walls, quite a few disseminators of new ideas nevertheless had to worry about being put on trial for their thoughts. Around 450 Socrates’ teacher Anaxagoras had to defend himself in court against the charge of offending religious beliefs. His major offense was his theory that the sun is a "red-hot stone," and the moon "just matter.” Anaxagoras did not believe that sun and moon are the person-like deities that most Athenians thought them to be. The court, swayed by religious conservatives, condemned Anaxagoras to death. It was only because Anaxagoras' close connection to the liberal group around Pericles that the philosopher could escape the city and his execution.

Ten years earlier the sophist Protagoras of Abdera, famous for his dictum "man is the measure of all things," had said at a get-together in the house of Euripides that he was unable to determine whether there are gods or not. For this admission to agnosticism the Athenians put him on trial, and subsequently banned him from their city. According to some reports, all his books were publicly burned. For all its liberality, Athens could be a dangerous place for people who published unpopular ideas.

In 399 Socrates was summoned to defend himself in court against the charges of "corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in gods of his own invention, instead of the gods recognized by the state." (8) It is possible that the charges were trumped up for political and personal reasons. Anytus, whose son had been advised by Socrates to give up business in favor of philosophy, was the main accuser. Socrates, because of his close personal relationships with upper class Athenians, was also suspected of having been too sympathetic to the oligarchs who had launched a coup d'état just a few years earlier. Nevertheless, the charges concerning impiety were a serious matter in 5th and 4th century Athens, and Socrates was on trial for his life. The case was to be decided by the usual jury of 501 citizens. The rules allowed the accusers to state their case, and the defendant to defend himself in one speech. A verdict had to be reached within one day. There was no appeal.

Plato was present during the trial. His Apology, written a few years later, is presumably based on the speech that Socrates gave in his own defense. "Apology" is the Greek word for "defense." While Socrates defended himself against the charges, he was by no means apologetic about his basic role as the gad fly of Athens:

Men of Athens, I love and respect you, but I will obey God rather than you. And while I have life and strength in me, I will never abstain from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet and telling him in my way: 'You, my friend--a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens--are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, something that you never consider or heed at all?' And if the person with whom I am discussing says: 'Sure, but I do care,’ then I do not let him go right away, but rather interrogate and examine and cross-examine him. And if I think he has no virtue in him, but only says he has, I reproach him by saying that he undervalues what is best, and overvalues what is worth less.... For I don't do anything except go around persuading you all, old and young, not to take thought for your social standing or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the great improvements of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good, public and private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine that corrupts the youth, I am indeed a mischievous person. But if anyone says that this is not my teaching, then he is lying. Thus, men of Athens, do or do not as Anytus demands, and either acquit me or not. But whichever you choose, understand that I will never alter my ways--even if I have to die more than once…(9)

Socrates' speech caused angry uproars among the jurors. After he rested his defense, the jury convicted him of the charges by a vote of 280 to 221. The defiant tone of his statements contributed much to his condemnation. In the following deliberation about his punishment Socrates made things worse for himself. Athenian law provided that a convicted defendant could propose an alternative punishment to that proposed by the prosecution. It was then up to the jury to decide which punishment to impose. Socrates, instead of suggesting something like exile, something the jury might have accepted, proposed that he be maintained at public expense in recognition of his service as the city's inconvenient critic. As a result the incensed jurors condemned him to death--this time by a vote of 361 to 140.

Socrates spent a month in jail before he was made to drink the fatal cup of hemlock. Influential friends offered to rescue him by way of a jailbreak. Socrates refused the offer. He argued that a righteous person has to respect the law, even if convicted unjustly. He calmly drank the poison, and thus died at the hands of a democracy that proved too weak to endure the critical inquiries of one of her most remarkable minds.


(From: Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies)

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