Socrates (470-399 BCE) is considered the first major philosopher of the Western tradition. He was preceded by about a dozen other Greek thinkers, the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers, who also produced highly significant work from about 600 BCE on. But little of that work has come down to us. Socrates is the first Western philosopher about whom a great deal is known. He was a well-known and controversial figure in the culture of his day, and he has remained something like an icon of wisdom in the history of Western thought. It is primarily from him that Westerners have gotten the idea of what philosophy is, and what it is to live a philosophical life.
To say that a great deal is known about Socrates has to be taken with a grain of salt. The problem is that there are no writings from Socrates's own hand. It appears that this master of philosophical inquiry never wrote a single work. Almost everything we know about his life and his teachings comes from the writings of two of his students: from the professional philosopher Plato, and from the soldier of fortune and freelance writer Xenophon. Both were prolific authors, and both were ardent admirers of their teacher; they left an endearing portrait of Socrates. There is no independent source that would allow us to confirm the information about Socrates that Plato and Xenophon provide. In the case of Plato as well as Xenophon there are reasons to believe that these students sometimes used the persona of their teacher to voice their own views, rather than those of Socrates himself. Strictly speaking, then, none of the statements appearing in Plato's or Xenophon's books can be shown to be those of the historical Socrates. Nevertheless, scholars by and large agree that much of what Plato and Xenophon wrote about Socrates amounts to a reasonably accurate portrait of their teacher, and it is that portrait that we mean when we talk about "Socrates."
Socrates seems to have lived his entire life in Athens. During that time he experienced both the "Golden Age" of his native city, as well as her dramatic defeat at the end of the protracted and ruinous Peloponnesian War. The city's "Golden Age" was inaugurated by the astonishing defeat of the invading Persian army in 490 and 480 BCE. 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 very 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 contributions of her allies into a lavish building program that turned the city into a place of architectural and artistic splendor. Under the supervision of the famed sculptor Phidias, the Parthenon and other monumental structures and statues were erected on the Acropolis. And around the agora-the central market place and civic center of the city-numerous temples, court buildings, halls, shrines and statues shaped an environment that quickly took on the appearance of an imperial metropolis.
Not far from the agora, the Odeon and the Theatre of Dionysus provided spaces for lavish musical and theatrical productions. Twice a year such playwrights as Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes competed for prizes with elaborate performances for thousands of spectators. During official festivities countless visitors from all parts of the Mediterranean world came to see the wonders of Athenian culture.
During most of the 5th century Athens was a democracy. While the leadership of the city tended to be from the upper classes, even an eminent aristocrat like Pericles had to be democratically elected to public office by the Assembly, the main legislative body in which all male citizens could vote. In addition, most court cases were decided by large juries of ordinary people. That made effective public speaking and forensic debating skills extremely important for anyone who wanted to succeed in any area of public life. As a consequence numerous teachers of rhetoric and forensic debating-the so-called Sophists--were attracted to Athens from all parts of Greece; the growing wealth of the city could pay handsome fees for their tutorial services. The presence of the Sophists in the city was a main reason for the transformation of Athens into the main center of Greek intellectual life. Sophists did not only educate a good number of young upper-class men, they also absorbed and debated the works of Greek--and perhaps foreign-thinkers among themselves, thus creating an atmosphere of broad-minded intellectual exchange that laid the groundwork for a future 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. Through cross-fertilization and competition these minds developed their talents and productions to the high degrees of excellence by which they became known.
The buoyant mood of Athens's "Golden Age" was manifest in the famous praise of the city delivered by Pericles in 431 BCE. During the public funeral of the first casualties of the Peloponnesian War he declared:
"That part of our history which tells of the military achievements which gave us our various possessions, or of the ready valor with which either we or our fathers stemmed the tide of Greek or foreign aggression, is a theme too familiar to my hearers for me to delve on, and I shall pass it by. But what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang? These are questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my praise of our fallen soldiers. This is a subject on which a speaker may properly dwell, and to which citizens as well as foreigners may listen with advantage.
"Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many rather than the few; that's why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all. Advancement in public life falls to capacity and merit, not to class consideration. Nor again does poverty bar the way. If a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his birth.
"The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our private life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive harm. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this danger fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, both written and customary.
"Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and religious sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps us to keep up our spirits. The magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbor, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.
"If we turn to our military policy, there too we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit from our liberality. In education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painstaking discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet, we are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. ....
"Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance, and knowledge without effeminacy. Wealth we employ more for use than for show, and we place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact, but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters. For, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and instead of looking at discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of both daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons--even though usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, and hesitation that of reflection. The palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure, and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular. ....
"In short, I say that as a city we are the school of all of Greece. I doubt that the world can produce a type of man who is as versatile, as resourceful, and as self-reliant as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but a plain matter of fact, is proven by the power of the state acquired by such traits. For Athens alone of all her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation. ..." (Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War, Book II, Chapter 4). The historian Thucydides, incidentally, is himself a good example of the rich intellectual culture of Athens. A younger contemporary of Socrates, he became a naval commander in 424 BCE, lost the town of Amphipolis to the Spartans, and was exiled for twenty years as a consequence of that military failure. Thucydides spent the rest of his life writing his famous history of the Peloponnesian War.
The "Golden Age" came to an end because of the Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 BCE. Its basic cause was the imperial arrogance with which Athens treated not only her own allies, but also many other Greek city states that were not under Athenian control. Some of her allies wanted to leave 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, thus reducing many member states to virtual colonies. Athens also added further "allies" to her empire, whether these newcomers assented to such an incorporation or not. 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 the powerful militaristic city state of Sparta their leader. For a time Sparta thus emerged as the widely acknowledged champion of Greek liberty.
Most Greeks had no particular desire to engage in a major war. Even in Athens many were weary of such a course of action. Several negotiations took place. But Pericles, the ambitious and highly popular leader of the Athenian democracy for fifteen years, aimed at war. He was a skillful manipulator, and he was determined to make Athens the master of a more or less united Greece. A majority of Athenians was willing to follow him; the empire, after all, provided them with large amounts tribute money, colonies, and the satisfaction of controlling other people's lives. They decided they could subdue Sparta and her allies, and thus make themselves the supreme rulers of their part of the world.
The war proved to be a disaster not only for Athens, who lost it outright, but for all of Greece. It lasted much longer than anyone expected. It decimated the population, created vicious civil strives, wiped out whole cities, ruined industry and commerce, brutalized Greek life, and in the end subjected most of Greece to the influence of foreign powers. The enterprise that Pericles conceived as the ultimate achievement of Athenian glory turned out to be a protracted exercise in Greek self-destruction. Politically and militarily Greece never fully recovered from the events between 431 and 404 BCE.
Numerous atrocities were committed during the war. One particular incident, however, became especially notorious: the conquest and annihilation of the small island city of Melos. The incident became well known because Thucydides reported it in conjunction with the sort of thinking that Athenian diplomats manifested 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 Peloponnesian War cast on the city that had produced the "Golden Age."
Until 415 BCE Melos had been neutral. 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. 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" (Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War, Book III, Chapter 17).
When the Meliens still decided to resist, Athens starved them into unconditional surrender. The Athenian Assembly, advised by the ambitious politician Alcibiades, 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 Peloponnesian War, was the social and cultural context within which Socrates lived his life. As will be seen, he did not embrace it. It would be a serious misunderstanding to think that Socrates was anything like a "representative" of "his culture." His whole life expresses, in fact, a profound rejection of the dark as well as the seemingly bright sides of the Periclean age. To understand Socrates the philosopher is to understand how much he stood against the very essence of the culture of his day. Socrates was an outsider among his fellow-Greeks, a stranger, and his distance to the culture and society that surrounded him is a significant part of what defines him as a philosopher.
Although most of Socrates's disciples were young men from the upper classes, Socrates himself was of middle-class origin. His father was a stone-cutter or sculptor, and Socrates may have learned that trade from him. His mother was a well-known midwife. He may have inherited a very modest estate, which allowed him to pursue his true calling--philosophical inquiry. By dedicating his life to philosophy, however, he eventually neglected the economic side of his life to such a degree that he became relatively 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 now people differed with regard to the plentitude of material goods that are necessary for a happy life. Xanthippe may have had her own ideas the matter, and there may have been marital tensions because of that.
Later authors of Antiquity loved to describe Xanthippe as the proverbial nag who had no sympathy for her husband's high-minded mission. Socrates's personal friends and biographers, however, had nothing particularly bad to say about the philosopher's marriage. According to Xenophon, Socrates was once asked how he could stand the frequently 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" (Symposium, Section 2).
Were Socrates and Xanthippe happy as a couple, or did they just get along? An often repeated anecdote of dubious origin relates the following. When one of Socrates's young friends wanted to know whether he should get married or not, Socrates advised: "By all means, get married. For either you will end up happy, or you will become a philosopher."
Like all male citizens of Athens, Socrates had to serve in the army. He fought in several major battles. Although he never aspired to any elevated rank, he distinguished himself through courage and endurance under adverse conditions. In his Symposium Plato has Alcibiades describe Socrates's conduct during the battle of Delium in 424 BCE, where the Athenians were badly routed. While many of the men were seized by a panic, an emotional reaction that made them all the more vulnerable to the pursuing enemy, Socrates displayed a cool and quiet courage that helped him to get away safely:
"And then, gentlemen, you should have seen him when we were in retreat from Delium. I happened to be in the cavalry, while he was serving in the infantry line. Our people were falling back in great disorder and he was retreating with Laches [the commander] when I happened to catch sight of them. I shouted to them not to be downhearted and promised to stand by them. And this time I'd a better chance of watching Socrates than I had at Potidaea--being mounted I wasn't quite so frightened. And I noticed for one thing how much cooler he was than Laches, and for another how--to borrow a line of yours, Aristophanes--he was walking with the same 'lofty strut and sideways glance' that he goes about with here in Athens. His sideways glance was just as unconcerned whether he was looking at his own friends or at the enemy, and you could see from half a mile away that if you tackled him you'd get as good as you gave--with the result that he and Laches both got away. For you're generally pretty safe if that's the way you look when you are in action; it's the man whose one idea is to get away that the other fellows go for" (Symposium 221).
In 406 BCE Socrates held a minor office in the democratic administration of the city when it was his allotted turn. (Many administrative positions in Athens were filled by lot rather than by elections, as that procedure was considered more impartial than a competition among candidates running for office.) Otherwise he deliberately stayed out of the politics of the city, the area in which the most ambitious Athenians tried to distinguish themselves. Socrates's fame was based entirely on his work as a philosopher.
What was this work? What did he do? Socrates regularly went either to the agora, or to one of the gymnasiums outside the city walls, in order to meet his friends and discuss certain fundamental questions with anyone who was interested. His typical procedure was to raise such questions as "What is justice?", "What is beauty?", "What is knowledge?", "What is friendship?", "What is virtue?", etc., 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 was, that they were 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 during the discussions, others bore grudges for years to come. In the long run Socrates was to pay a heavy 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 the utmost seriousness to defining the true essentials of life, and thereby to find his own true identity, and friends like Plato, Xenophon, and Antisthenes were dedicated to him because they wanted to learn what it is to live a good life.
But by searching for true justice, true beauty, true friendship, etc., Socrates inevitable called into question what was widely believed to be justice, beauty, or friendship. Socrates could not be a philosopher, in other words, without casting serious doubt on traditional wisdom and what was then common sense. With every question he raised he had to shake very deeply held convictions. As a consequence many Athenians considered him a dangerous subversive who made it his business to undermine the foundations of their entire state. In their eyes Socrates was an eminent public enemy.
In 423 BCE the playwright Aristophanes produced his comedy "The Clouds," in which Socrates was lampooned as a most unscrupulous Sophist and mad scientist. The play was not based on biographical facts, but rather on the stereotypes of Sophists that were current among people who had become weary of the tricks and sharp practices frequently used in politics and the courts of law. In "The Clouds" Socrates is hired to teach a desperate farmer how to argue his way out of paying the debts of his profligate son. When the farmer fails in his endeavor, he sets fire to the "Thinkery" of Socrates and his associates, exclaiming loudly: "Ah! You insulted the gods! You studied the surface of the moon! Get them! Strike and beat them down! Forward! They have richly deserved their fate-above all by reason of their blasphemies ." This fury of the farmer gave expression to a rage that many ordinary Athenians felt toward all intellectuals. As liberal as Athens was as a cultural metropolis, there was a strong undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in the city that perceived all forms of higher learning as a threat to the apparent security of its traditional beliefs and way of life. Singling out critical individuals as a target for popular wrath was as established a mechanism in Athens as in many other communities. By making his caricature of Socrates the hate-target of his play, Aristophanes helped considerably in the preparation of the philosopher's later fate at the hands of his fellow-citizens.
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 discussions. (Most scholars think that the answers that we find in the books of Plato and Xenophon were provided by the students, not by Socrates himself.) His philosophical task was not to teach any specific doctrines, but to make people think. Invoking the profession of his mother, he compared himself to a midwife who helped to deliver the ideas of other people, not his own. As far as Socrates himself was concerned, he never tired of proclaiming his own ultimate ignorance.
One of Socrates's friends once asked the oracle in 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 most important piece of Socratic wisdom.
One may wonder about the point of Socrates's philosophical inquiries, if they never result in any final answers. It has, in fact, become common to dismiss philosophy altogether on the grounds that philosophers seem to squabble endlessly about ideas that forever evade final confirmation or refutation. Even if it were true, however, that no answers are ever possible to Socrates's philosophical questions, the activity of questioning assumptions and critically analyzing possible answers is not necessarily 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.
What was ultimately most valuable about Socrates's inquiries, however, was the practice and habit of being thoughtful, of not being blind to one's unfounded presuppositions and limitations. Thinking as an ongoing process, and thoughtfulness as a way of life, is what Socrates as a teacher represents. That is why one of his best known pronouncements is the assertion that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Life, according to him, is not something that is just to be lived-lived thoughtlessly in the way purely instinctual creatures are driven by forces beyond their understanding. A human life is to be lucid-forever questioned and thought about by those who wish to live their lives in an intelligent way. A truly human life, Socrates implied, cannot but be a philosophical life.
There are two typical ways in which people have reacted to this suggestion. One way is indignation. What, after all, is wrong with just living one's life? Who says that one has to question everything? Are there not people who are perfectly happy without thinking much about anything? Is Socrates anything more than an arrogant intellectual who takes it upon himself to impose arbitrary demands on other people? There is perhaps nothing wrong with living the examined life, if someone chooses to do so. Everybody is entitled to his own opinion. But what right does this Socrates have to legislate for everybody else?
The other way to reject Socrates is by agreeing with him. Even in his own days Socrates had become something like a moral authority, and many people felt compelled to pay at least lip service to his ideals. Who, after all, wants to go on record as opposing the ideal of intelligent inquiry and critical self-examination? Who wants to profile himself as a self-confident low-brow? The problem with canonizing Socrates in this way is the fact that his principles are turned into general platitudes that have no practical implications for anyone's actual life. As experience shows, Socratic principles sound good at the level of rhetorical pronouncements, but in real life they are safely and routinely ignored. (One only has to think of all the institutions of higher learning where pedagogues and administrators advertise Socrates as a venerable role model, while reacting quite sorely whenever their own opinions are seriously questioned.)
Socrates's emphasis of his own ignorance in particular may encourage the conclusion that nothing really follows from anything a philosopher ever says. It seems possible to have deep philosophical discussions, and yet live as if nothing had ever happened. After working on a question like "What is justice?" at length it seems quite natural for everyone to walk away and choose arbitrarily any way of life without running afoul of Socratic principles.
Nothing would be further from the truth, however. Not all ways of life are equally good, accordingn to Socrates. There is such a thing as seriously failing one's life. For all sorts of reasons people can betray themselves, miss their true calling, or waste their time on earth in other ways. In spite of his abstention from philosophical doctrines, Socrates was not wishy washy about values; unlike many of the Sophists of his day he was not a liberal relativist. That becomes clear when one looks at Socrates's attitude toward some major aspects of Athenian life, particularly toward money making, politics, and sex.
As a dominant commercial metropolis, Athens's main business was business, and her thriving port at the Piraeus offered thousands of investors the opportunity to start and operate highly profitable enterprises. To become wealthy and to live a life of luxury and conspicuous consumption was a major preoccupation of almost anyone who had any amount of investment capital. During the 5th century manufacturers, mine operators, bankers, import-export merchants, and all sorts of domestic traders had become as rich and influential in Athens's social hierarchy as the traditional landed aristocracy. Aristocrats themselves had begun to invest heavily in commercial enterprises. To most inhabitants the ever expanding commerce of the city seemed the bright future of Athens, and doing well in business was considered a very worthy goal for a person's life. To most Athenian fathers nothing seemed more natural than to exhort their sons to spend their days and energies in the pursuit of material gain.
To the manifest chagrin of at least some Athenian businessmen, Socrates rejected all this. In his eyes the business life was not much of a life. Repeatedly he described the investment of a man's passions and time into commercial enterprises as unworthy of a true gentleman and lover of wisdom. Socrates emphatically 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 was not a serious end in itself, but at best a mere means to achieve something of more value and substance. 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. Socrates was aware how easily someone's life was devoured by a myriad of mundane concerns once a person becomes locked into running a commercial enterprise. To be free of such concerns, and to really have time to think about the important questions of life, was for him a basic precondition for being a free person.
In accordance with his general disdain for the widespread commercialism of Athens, Socrates never charged any money for teaching. Most Sophists demanded considerable fees for consultations, tutorials, courses, or even for having their brains picked in informal conversations. Some of them became successful investors, and thus amassed sizeable fortunes. In such an environment most Sophists found it natural to compete eagerly for the students who could pay for their education. Antiphon, a particularly enterprising Athenian Sophist, came to Socrates one day with the intention of luring students away from him.
"Socrates," he said in front of the potential customers, " I assume that it is the purpose of philosophy to increase a person's happiness. But the fruits you have harvested from the love of wisdom seem to be quite different. The life you live, for example, would drive even a slave to abandon his master. Your meat and drink are of the poorest; the cloak you wear is not only shabby, but is never changed summer or winter. And you never wear a tunic. Besides, you refuse to take money, the very getting of which is a joy, while its possession makes a person independent and happier. Now, other teachers try to make their students copy their instructors. If you should have the same thing in mind with your companions, you must consider yourself a regular professor of unhappiness."
"Antiphon," Socrates replied, "you seem to think that my life is miserable, and that you yourself would choose death over an existence like mine. Let's take a closer look, then, at the apparent hardships that you have noticed in my life. Is it that those who take money are bound to carry out the work for which they are paid, while I am in no way obliged to talk with anyone against my will? Or do you think my food poor because it is less wholesome or nourishing than yours? Or because my viands are harder to get than yours, because they are scarcer and more expensive? Or because your diet is more pleasurable than mine? Don't you know that the pleasure of eating is the greater the less you need in terms of sauces or condiments? And the pleasure of drinking the greater the less you are in need of rare and fancy libations? As for cloaks, they are changed because of cold and heat. And shoes are worn as a protection against pain and inconvenience in walking. Now, did you ever know me to stay indoors more than others on account of the cold, or to fight with any man for the shade because of the heat, or to be prevented from walking anywhere by sore feet? Do you not know that by training a puny weakling comes to be better at any form of exercise, and gets more staying power, than the muscular prodigy who neglects to train? Seeing then that I am always training my body to answer any call on its powers, do you not think that I can stand every strain better than you can without training? For avoiding slavery to the belly or to sleep and incontinence, is there anything more effective than the possessions of other and greater pleasures, which are enjoyable not only in themselves, but also full of promise of future benefits? ... You seem, Antiphon, to imagine that happiness consists in luxury and extravagance. But my belief is that to have no wants is divine, and to have as few as possible comes next to divine " (Xenophon: Recollections Part I, Section 4).
The point that Socrates tried to make in his various conversations was not merely that the simple life is richer than a life of material luxury, but that there is something demeaning in commerce as such--in the commercialization of significant areas of human life. That was one of the reasons why he resisted the trend to turn knowledge and wisdom into a marketable commodity the way most Sophists did. On one occasion Antiphon addressed Socrates as follows:
"Socrates, I think that you are a just, but by no means a wise man. And I think that you know that yourself. You refuse to take money for your company. Yet, if you believed that your cloak or your house are worth anything, you would not part with them for nothing or for less than their worth. Clearly, then, if you thought that your company is worth anything, you would insist on getting the proper price for it, too. It may well be that you are a just man because you do not cheat anyone through avarice; but wise you cannot be, since your knowledge is not worth anything."
"Antiphon," Socrates replied, "it is generally accepted among us with regard to beauty and wisdom that there is an honorable and a shameful way of bestowing them. For to offer one's beauty for money to all comers is called prostitution; but we think it virtuous to become friendly with a lover who is known to be someone of honor. That's how it is with wisdom. Those who offer it to all comers for money are known as Sophists, prostitutes of wisdom, but we think that he who makes a friend of one whom he knows to be gifted by nature, and teaches him all the good he can, fulfills the duty of a citizen and a gentleman. That is my own view, Antiphon. Others have a fancy for a good horse or dog or bird; my fancy, stronger even than theirs, is for good friends. And I teach them all the good I can, and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some more benefits. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I open and explore with my friends. If we come to any good thing, we extract it, and we set much store on being useful to one another" (ibid.).
The idea of living a simple life with regard to material possessions was to become one of the more visible legacies of Socrates's teaching. Antisthenes was the companion who most vigorously took up this aspect of his teacher's philosophy. (In the next generation of Greek philosophers Antisthenes came to be considered the founder of Cynicism, a school of thought that rigorously turned away from the materialism of the mainstream of Greek culture. The sharp-minded and witty Diogenes, who supposedly lived in a barrel for a while to save on rent, was the most famous representative of that movement.) During the dinner party described by Xenophon, Antisthenes praised Socrates and voluntary poverty in the following words:
"But the most valuable part of my wealth I reckon to be this, that even though someone were to rob me of what I now possess, I see no occupation so humble that it would not give me adequate fare. For whenever I feel an inclination to indulge my appetite, I do not buy fancy articles at the market (for they come high), but I draw on the store-house of my soul. And it goes a long way farther toward producing enjoyment when I take food only after awaiting the craving for it than when I partake of one of these fancy dishes, like this fine Thasian wine that luck has put in my way and that I am drinking without the promptings of thirst. Yes, and it is natural that those whose eyes are set on frugality should be more honest than those whose eyes are fixed on money-making. For those who are most contented with what they have are least likely to covet what belongs to others. And it is worth noting that wealth of this kind makes people generous also. My friend Socrates here and I are examples. For Socrates, from whom I acquired this wealth of mine, did not come to my relief with limitation of number and weight, but made over to me all that I could carry. And as for me, I am now niggardly to no one, but both make an open display of my abundance to all my friends and share my spiritual wealth with any one of them that desires it.
"But--most exquisite possession of all!--you observe that I always have leisure, with the result that I can go and see whatever is worth seeing, and hear whatever is worth hearing and--what I prize highest--pass the whole day, untroubled by business, in Socrates's company. Like me, he does not bestow his admiration on those who count the most gold, but spends his time with those who are congenial to him" (Symposium, Part IV).
The idea of a simple life had its 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, that is. In spite of spending an exorbitant amount of time on developing the complex utopian society ruled by philosopher kings and philosopher queens that made the Republic so famous, fairly at the beginning of the whole work Socrates has this to say to his friend Glaucon (one of the brothers of Plato), who has compunctions about living in too minimal a civilization:
"Now I understand. The question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created. And possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we will be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. 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 see a State 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 painter 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"(372-3).
The luxurious state means war, and it is clear that Socrates is none too enthusiastic about that implication. Socrates's remarks about the "inflamed" city at the beginning of the Republic are a clear indication of his critical attitude toward the rise of Athens from a mere city state among others to a domineering empire.
Socrates was as disdainful about Athenian politics-as-usual as he was about the world of rampant commerce. If anything, politicians ranked below business men in his estimate, because politicians by and large embodied not only a passionate dedication to unworthy goals, but in most cases also incompetence, narrow-minded patriotism, and outright deception. It is in connection with politics-as-usual that Socrates's untiring polemics against rhetoric and sophistry are most cutting.
His sarcastic attitude toward the kind of manipulation and mass deception that often pervades the political sphere 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 above one delivered by Pericles) Socrates says:
"O Menexenus! death in battle is certainly in many respects 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. And if, as often happens, there are any foreigners who accompany me to the speech, I become suddenly conscious that I have a sort of triumph over them, and they seem to experience a corresponding feeling of admiration at me, and at the greatness of the city, which appears to them, when they are under the influence of the speaker, more wonderful than ever. This consciousness of dignity lasts me more than three days, and not until the fourth or the fifth day do I come to my senses and know where I am. In the meantime I have been living in the Islands of the Blessed. Such is the art of our rhetoricians, and in such manner does the sound of their words keep ringing in my ears" (235).
Besides external war and peace, the perennial opposition between democrats and oligarchs was the dominant theme of Greek politics. Whether the many and poor, or the few and rich, should be in control of the state was the question that preoccupied the most active minds of the 5th century. While throughout most of the century the democratic form of government was secure in Athens, in 411 and 404 BCE the oligarchs for a short time succeeded in establishing a dictatorial minority regime in the city. Because of the relentlessly pro-war attitude of most leading democrats, the oligarchs found enough sympathizers to launch their revolution. ( Aristophanes's anti-war comedies "Peace" and "Lysistrata" give a vivid picture of the war-weariness that must have been widespread among the inhabitants of Athens.) Their government proved to be so bloody and repressive, however, that in both cases democracy was reestablished within less than a year. Nevertheless, the tensions between democrats and oligarchs remained a persistent fact of Athenian political life.
The question of who should rule was of the utmost importance to Socrates, as his deliberations in the Republic show. But he did not expect an honest, non-partisan discussion of this matter in the sphere of politics itself. In that sphere people were either not willing or not able to detach themselves from their immediate feelings and interests in order to find out the truth about anything. Power hunger and greed distorted the views of all parties. In order to be a philosopher, i.e., a person committed to an impartial and undistorted view of things. Socrates felt he had to keep his distance from the partisan struggles that dominated the discussions in the Assembly. For as a philosopher a person cannot be a committed member of any party or community of ideas. As a philosopher a person has to be willing to question any assumption whatsoever, even the ones strongly held by himself or herself.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Socrates got into trouble with both democrats and oligarchs. During his short tenure in office he had to chair a meeting that was to set the agenda for the general Assembly. The issue at the time was the trial of eight generals who were accused of not having saved the lives of their shipwrecked sailors after the battle of Arginusae in 406 BCE. The generals had won the battle, but then had apparently been prevented by a fierce storm from retrieving their disabled ships and from saving more than a few of the sailors that had been washed overboard. Many Athenians were outraged at the generals' alleged callousness, and--whipped into a temporary frenzy by a number of speakers--demanded that they all be put to death.
Socrates was pressured to order a summary trial, which would have resulted in a summary execution. He resisted, however, pointing out that according to Athenian law every individual was entitled to his own individual trial, with a possibility to defend himself. For this Socrates faced seething resentment, and one of the democratic orators introduced a motion that would subject Socrates and his entire committee to the same summary trial as the generals if they insisted on their demand for individual trials. The motion carried. Afraid for their lives, the committee--except for Socrates--voted for the summary trial of the generals. The generals were then speedily tried and summarily condemned to death. Their execution took place on the same day. Among the convicts was, incidentally, one general who had himself been among the shipwrecked. The whole affair was such a disgrace that in time the Assembly officially recanted its hasty decision, and then accused certain orators of having mislead them by their inflammatory speeches.
In the above incident Socrates valued the law higher than the expressed will of the people, and that infuriated many democrats. As it turned out, Socrates did not fare any better with the oligarchs when they seized power in 404 BC. When their executive, the so-called Thirty, ordered prominent Athenians to arrest intended victims (in order to implicate as many citizens as possible in their crimes) Socrates on one occasion was ordered with others to arrest Leon of Salamis, a wealthy and highly respected citizen. Socrates, once more, was the only one in the appointed posse who had the courage or stubbornness to refuse the order, which naturally did not endear him to the authorities. (Unfortunately, his refusal did not save the life of Leon, as the rest of the posse was willing to obey their orders.)
As the rule of the dictators continued and got worse, Socrates once criticized the government by the following remark: "It seems strange enough to me that a herdsman who lets his cattle decrease and deteriorate should not admit that he is a poor cowherd. But it is still stranger that a statesman when he causes the citizens to decrease and go to the bad should feel no shame nor think of himself a poor statesman." This remark was reported to Critias and Charicles, leading members of the Thirty. The two sent for the subversive philosopher and showed him a law that they had just passed. The law specifically forbade what Socrates was known for doing by means of his discussions, namely "to teach the art of words." They put him on notice that from now on he was not to hold conversations with his young friends anymore. (Obviously, Critias remembered from his own days with Socrates how subversive philosophical discussions could be.)
"May I question you," Socrates asked them, "in case I do not understand any point in your orders?"
"You may," they said.
"Well," he said, "I am ready to obey the laws. But lest I unwittingly transgress through ignorance, I want clear directions from you. Do you think that the art of words from which you bid me abstain is associated with sound or unsound reasoning? For if with sound, then clearly I must abstain from sound reasoning. But if with sound, clearly I must try to reason soundly."
"Since you are ignorant, Socrates," said Charicles in an angry voice, "we put our order into language easier to understand. You may not hold any conversations whatsoever with the young."
"Well then, that there be no question raised about my obedience, please fit the age limit below which a man is to be accounted young."
"So long as he is not permitted to sit in the Council, because as yet he lacks wisdom," replied Charicles. "You shall not converse with anyone who is under thirty."
"Suppose I want to buy something, am I not even then to ask the price if the seller is under thirty?"
"Oh yes, you may in such cases. But the fact is, Socrates, you are in the habit of asking questions to which you know the answer," said Charicles. "That is what you are not to do."
"Am I to give no answer, then, if a young man asks me something I know? For instance: 'Where does Charicles live?' or 'Where is Critias?'"
"Oh yes," answered Charicles, "you may, in such cases."
"But you see, Socrates," explained Critias, you will have to avoid your favorite topics--the cobblers, builders, and metal workers. For that is already worn to rags, if you ask me."
"Then must I keep off the subjects of which these supply illustrations--Justice, Piety, and so forth?"
"Precisely," said Charicles, "and cowherds, too. Else you yourself may find the cattle decrease" (Xenophon: Memorabilia, Part I, Section 2).
There was a third important aspect of Greek life that Socrates subverted in
his teachings: the classical Greek culture of the body. Due to their frequent
wars and the need for well-trained citizen armies, almost all Greek males cultivated
a habit of physical fitness, 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.
Their statues frequently adorned temple areas or the agora of their home towns.
To the astonishment of Persians and other foreigners, athletic exercises in
gymnasiums or sport arenas were always 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 depiction of the gods (while using
high-class prostitutes 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 undercut all this by his emphasis on the life of the mind. The general and enthusiastic cultivation of beautiful appearances struck him as superficial and misguided, and the widespread dedication to sexual pursuits as a sort of primitivism that a mature person would outgrow as quickly as possible. To him a person's true self was not in the flesh, but in the intellect. Even the feelings of love were not to be directed toward other persons in their physical individuality, but toward communication in the realm of more or less abstract ideas. The raw energy of eros, in other words, was to be sublimated into the products and powers of the mind.
While Socrates was not oblivious to physical beauty and sexual desire, and probably not as rigidly ascetic about the body as Plato, he was much more relaxed about these things than the average Athenian. He went to the popular barber and perfume shops around the agora only to poke fun at the anxieties that his younger friends had about their appearances, and when he found someone infatuated and in turmoil, he tried to ease such a person's mind by putting such feelings into a philosophical perspective. Socrates was well aware of how far his own physical appearance deviated from the ideal of classical Greek beauty. (Archaeologists, incidentally, who have unearthed skeletons of 5th century Athenians, assure us that few ancient Greeks actually looked like the celebrated statues of their classical art.) Socrates's stocky build, protruding eyes, pot belly, and snub nose contrasted sharply with the model of beauty that was cultivated and perfected in the famous sculptures of the "Golden Age." Socrates was amused by that discrepancy, not saddened. His friend Plato pointed out that it was exactly Socrates's 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 grew out of the successful sublimation of physical desires, out of the transformation of the more primitive passions into the power of thought. ( It was through the teachings of Socrates, and then of Plato, that the general devaluation of the body became a prominent feature of Western civilization, a feature that dominated much of medieval Christianity, for example.)
In Xenophon's Symposium (Section V), Socrates and his friends show their ironical distance to the common obsession with physique by making fun of the master's seemingly unsightly exterior. They do so by pitching him against the very handsome Critobulus in a sort of philosophical beauty contest:
"Do you think that beauty can be found only in human beings, or in other things as well?" Socrates asks Critobulus.
"Clearly, beauty can be found in horses or oxen, or in any number of inanimate things."
"But how can beauty be in all these things when they are so different from each other?"
"Well, they are beautiful if they are well made for the purposes for which we acquire them, or if they naturally serve our needs."
"And for what do we need eyes?".
"Obviously, to see."
"But from this it follows without further ado that my eyes are more beautiful than yours."
"Because, while your eyes see only straight ahead, mine, by bulging out as they do, can also see to the sides."
"All right," said Critobulus, "but whose nose is more beautiful, mine or yours?"
"Mine," replied Socrates, "provided that Providence gave us noses in order to smell with. For your nostrils point down toward the ground, whereas mine are wide open and turned outward so that I can catch scents from all about."
"But how do you make a snub nose handsomer than a straight one?"
"Because a snub nose does not put a barricade between the eyes, but allows them an unobstructed vision of whatever they desire to see. A high nose, by contrast, walls one eye off from the other."
"As for the mouth," said Critobulus, "I concede the point right away. For if its purpose is biting off food, you could bite off a far bigger mouthful than I could. And don't you think that your kiss is also more tender because you have thick lips?"
Although Socrates seems to have had many opportunities to get involved physically with admiring followers, he is described as remarkably chaste by Xenophon as well as by Plato. ( Intimate love relationships between men were socially accepted and quite common in 5th century Athens. One of the most famous public sculptures adorning the agora represented Aristogiton and Harmodius, who were not only celebrated fighters against the last tyrants in Athens, but also well known lovers.) Physical beauty (and the desires inspired by it) impressed him as little as material wealth or social position: "Know you that beauty and wealth and honor, which are so revered by the many, are nothing with him. He disregards them, and he is not taken in by any person endowed with them," Alcibiades declares at the dinner party described by Plato (Symposium, 216). Alcibiades would undoubtedly have been a prime target, if Socrates had wished to become sexually involved with his students. Alcibiades was not only notoriously handsome, but apparently also quite fond of the philosopher. But, at least according to Plato, it was not Socrates who tried to seduce Alcibiades, but Alcibiades who tried to become physical with his teacher. In Alcibiades's words:
"I fancied that he was seriously enamored of my beauty, and I thought that I therefore have a grand opportunity of hearing him tell all he knew, for I had a wonderful opinion of the attractions of my youth. In the prosecution of this design, when I next went to him, I sent away the attendant who usually accompanied me. (I will confess the whole truth, and beg you to listen; and if I speak falsely, you, Socrates should expose the falsehood!) Well, he and I were close together, and I thought that when there was nobody with us, I should hear him speak the language of lovers, and I was delighted. But no dice. He conversed as usual, and spent the day with me, and then went away. Later I challenged him to the wrestling school. He wrestle and closed with me several times when there was no one present. I fancied that I might succeed in this manner. Not a bit; I made no headway at all" (Plato: Symposium, 219)
Alcibiades does not give up so easily; he is used to seducing both men and women at will. But even closer encounters with Socrates do not result in turning his relationship with the philosopher into a physical one. Thus he ends his story at the dinner party with a statement of resigned admiration for his erstwhile teacher:
"What do you suppose must have been my feelings, after this rejection, at the thought of my own dishonor? And yet I could not help wondering at his natural temperance and self-restraint and manliness. I never imagined that I could have met with a man such as he is in wisdom and endurance. And therefore I could not be angry with him or renounce his company, any more than I could hope to win him" (ibid.).
Socrates's philosophical attitude toward physical beauty and sexual love are summarized by Plato in the same Symposium. There Socrates credits Diotima, a priestess from the city of Mantinea, with everything he knows about these things. It was Diotima who taught him that the passions of love have to be transformed from an obsession with one individual into the desire of beauty in general, and from a physical craving into the desire to have insights and understand ideas. Socrates accepted from the priestess the concept of a life that finds genuine pleasure and fulfillment not in physical possession, but in learning and understanding. (Since it was Plato who wrote all this down in his Symposium, this philosophical conception of eros became known as "Platonic love.")
One may wonder about this Socratic revaluation of things. Is it really better to conduct intellectual discussions than to have sex? Is having a satisfying physical relationship less valuable than the ability to write great books about love? And who lives a better life-the person who pursues and enjoys wealth, fame, and sexual adventure with reckless abandon, or the person who doubts, analyzes, and struggles with ideas, and who lives more in books and conversations than in the world of physical things and actions? Is the Socratic life perhaps an avoidance of real life? Socrates maintained that the unexamined life is not worth living. But is the unlived life perhaps not worth examining?
Socrates's elevation of the inner over the external life constituted a profound revolution in classical Greek culture. Until his time it was decidedly un-Greek to turn away from the external world, and to establish the center of one's life in an inner self. The heroes of Homer's poems, who still were the role models for most Greeks during the "Golden Age," very much measured the good life in terms of physical pleasures, accumulated wealth, and social standing, and it was unthinkable for most Greeks to disregard all this in the way Socrates and his followers did. So profound was this Socratic revolution, in fact, that the classical scholar and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche characterized it as the outright destruction of classical Greece, and the beginning of what he considered the prolonged cultural decadence of the West.
In Nietzsche's eyes the elevation of rational and abstract thinking over everything else, and of the inner life over people's external existence, amounted to a philosophical crime. He held it responsible for the systematic degradation of nature and the human body that was to pervade so much of Western culture, and for the fatal weakening of such deep sources of inspiration as ecstasy, passion, and dreams. He accused Socrates of preparing the way for a Christian culture that implanted a devastating sense of sinfulness and guilt in people who then degraded everything that is truly glorious and strong in human beings, including an unbroken sexuality, greed, and an unabashed will to power. For Nietzsche a Socratic life is far from good because he saw it as a life-denying life. A fully lived life in his eyes would be one in which strong and undaunted people would give free reign to all the instincts and passions that Socrates cautioned against.
To get a better feel for what Socrates considered a philosophical life, it
will be instructive to take a look at the life of Alcibiades, the erstwhile
friend and student who abandoned the principles of his teachings most blatantly.
Alcibiades (c. 450-404 BCE) was tall, handsome, intelligent, charming, daring, wealthy, and enormously successful in most things he undertook. He made an unforgettable impression on most people with whom he came into contact, and he had the good fortune (as he saw it) of living his life at the very nerve centers of Greek politics and history. He was wildly ambitious, and his effect on people and events was extraordinary because as a person he was in no way divided against himself. Whatever he did he did without reservation, and with all the energy he had at his disposal. While studying philosophy in his youth he may have had short experiences of hesitation and self-doubt. While he was under the influence of Socrates, that is, he may have considered becoming a different kind of person than he seemed destined to be. During most of his life, however, he radiated unbroken self-confidence, and an indomitable will to fulfill his every desire.
The friendship between Alcibiades and Socrates was seen by many as an anomaly, because the young aristocrat seemed to have little in common with the poor and socially inferior philosopher. Why should Alcibiades pay any attention to this unsightly intellectual, if wealthy and well connected admirers like Anytus were showering him with presents and attention? And why should Socrates be interested in a personal relationship with someone who was known for his wild drinking, carousing, and outlandish pranks? But Socrates was intrigued by the extraordinary promise of Alkibiades's mind, and he hoped that he might be able to shape the young man in such a way that the beauty of his mind would match his physical appearance. And Alcibiades seems to have felt that Socrates was the one person who could help him to become something better than a superficial socialite--to develop a deeper knowledge of himself, and thus to become a more worthy and substantial person.
This was not to come about. While Alcibiades was willing for a while to subject himself to the critical cross-examinations to which Socrates regularly treated his friends, in the end he must have had enough of it. Like Critias, he was eager to learn from Socrates, but in the long run he studied only that which he deemed useful for a successful political career. He increased his knowledge and he honed his debating skills, but he was not willing to make wisdom his goal; the life of the mind had no intrinsic value for him. Unlike Socrates he did not use reason to see wealth and fame as shams, as the symptoms of a false life, but rather used his rational skills to increase his wealth and fame. As Alcibiades approached the age of thirty, he and Socrates more or less parted company, and the young aristocrat embarked on the dazzling career that brought him close to fulfilling the imperial dreams of his uncle Pericles.
This parting of ways highlights an important distinction with regard to the life of the mind. Alcibiades was not a low-brow; his later successes would have been impossible without his knowledge and brilliant intelligence. What distinguished him from Socrates was not his ability to think, but the use he made of this ability. For Alcibiades reason was a mere means, for Socrates it was an end. For Alcibiades reason was an instrument to achieve ends most efficiently, no matter whether these ends were dictated by reason or instincts and desires. For Socrates being rational was the end-rational with regard to one's means as well as one's goals. With Alcibiades we find what today is known as instrumental reason-reason in the service of instinct, passions, or external power. With Socrates we find a life emancipated from instinct, passions, and external power-a life of the mind.
Alcibiades married Hipparete, the sister of the rich and influential Callias. Hipparete loved him dearly, and he may have loved her, too. But in accordance with his character, he lived a life of scandalous drinking and unabashed consorting with all sorts of courtesans. When Hipparete could not take it any longer, she went to the appropriate authorities and filed for divorce. In the nick of time Alcibiades appeared before the judges and--an accepted custom in 5th century Athens--took his wife home by force. Hipparete remained his faithful wife until she died.
Alcibiades's birth, wealth, daring in battle, and oratorical skills positioned him well for an entry into politics. Like Pericles, he wished to become a loved and revered leader of the demos, the "many and poor" in Athens's democracy. To build up his popularity he lavishly spent his personal money on public entertainments, particularly on spectator sports. During Olympic games he sponsored as many as seven chariot teams, and he became famous for being the first person to win first, second, and fourth place in a single race. The crowds loved it, and they rewarded him with enthusiastic support in the Assembly, and by electing him repeatedly to high public office.
That Alcibiades was ruthless in the pursuit of his political goals is shown by his involvement in the Melos incident. It was on the basis of his strong recommendation that the men of that island were massacred, and the women and children sold into slavery. Alcibiades himself bought one of the enslaved women and fathered a child with her. The fact that he brought up the boy like a son was declared at the time as a sign of his good heart.
Against significant opposition in the Assembly, Alcibiades convinced the Athenians in 415 BCE to send a huge armada against Syracuse-one more attempt to make Athens the master of all of Greece. On the eve of the departure of the A fleet unknown vandals went on a rampage, mutilating a great number of sacred images of the god Hermes. Certain democrats, suspicious of his opportunistic loyalty to democracy, used this incident to accuse Alcibiades of involvement in it. They eventually succeeded in having him arrested in order to put him on trial for impiety. Alcibiades knew the political nature of the prosecution, and he knew that his life was at stake. He managed to escape, and he defected to Sparta. The Athenians condemned him to death in absentia. Upon hearing this Alcibiades announced: "I will show them that I am very much alive."
Alcibiades adjusted well to the notoriously rough way of life in Sparta. As he was well known for his luxurious and dissipating life style, people were amazed to see him quite at ease with Spartan cuisine, strenuous physical exercises, and rustic accommodations. At the same time he gave invaluable military advice to Athens's mortal enemies, advice that was probably decisive in the defeat of his native city. To gratify his personal desire for revenge, for a while he totally switched his allegiance to his new hosts.
In the long run, however, Alcibiades's tenure in Sparta ran into difficulties, too. While his personal charisma and his brilliant strategic advice brought him many friends and admirers, it also created a good deal of envy. Some of the most powerful leaders in the city took an active dislike to him on that account. In addition Alcibiades started to have an affair with the wife of King Agis, one of the rulers of Sparta. While Agis was on a military campaign that kept him away from his home for many months, his wife bore Alcibiades a son, and she did not make much of a secret about the matter. (Surprisingly, women in Sparta had generally more power and self-confidence than women in Athens.)
Although he continued to work for the Spartans, Alcibiades found it prudent to leave the city. He went to Asia Minor to arrange for financial aid for Sparta by the Great King, the ruler of the Persian empire. For a time the Spartan government appreciated the personal charm and diplomatic effort that Alcibiades exerted on their behalf, but eventually Agis and others succeeded in issuing a secret death warrant that was to be executed as speedily as possible by an agent disguised as an envoy. Alcibiades was forewarned however, and he managed to stay out of reach of any potential assassins.
Meanwhile, Tissaphernes, the Persian governor of part of Asia Minor, took a great liking to Alcibiades. He admired him for his ingeniousness as well as for his personal charm. Alcibiades advised him how to play Sparta off against Athens, and thus to enhance the Persian position in the entire region. Once more Alcibiades had changed his allegiance and life style, and he was reported to outdo even his Persian host in oriental splendor and largesse. It was forever one of his gifts to be able to be more Spartan than the Spartans, and to be more Persian than the Persians, if the situation called for such flexibility. The customs, laws, and deep convictions of any country had no inherent value for him; in his eyes they were nothing but arbitrary conventions. The matter that always counted foremost for him was his own survival and welfare. The cause of Alcibiades was always Alcibiades.
Eventually a majority of Athenians came to regret their treatment of Alcibiades, and he was not only invited back home, but also made supreme commander of the city's naval forces. He achieved some brilliant successes against the Spartan navy, but then again ran afoul of political enemies. Once more he exiled himself from his native city. He put together a small mercenary army at his own expense and departed for the coast of Thrace, where he owned a fortified estate. For a while he made a living as a war lord, battling Thracian tribes, and ransoming prisoners for good money. From a distance he observed the continuing struggle between the Athenian and the Spartan fleets.
When Athens finally lost her last battle in 405 BCE, and Sparta became the master of Greece, Alcibiades did not feel safe anymore in his stronghold, and he departed for Persian territory. He hoped to start a new career at the imperial court of Artaxerxes.
The Spartans, however, still feared Alcibiades's influence, and they were very concerned about what he might do. As they were allies of the Persians, they were able to arrange for another attempt on Alcibiades's life. The assassins approached Alcibiades's place and set it ablaze. Alcibiades and his companions stormed out, swords in hand. They were shot down to a man by archers and javelin throwers. Alcibiades's life thus came to an end at the time when Athens and its democracy went down in defeat.
Not all chroniclers agreed that it was Sparta that was responsible for Alcibiades's assassination. An alternative version of his death maintains that it was the relatives of a highborn woman, whom Alcibiades had recently seduced, who burned down his estate and shot him to death. Either version of the end of Alcibiades was seen by the historians of his day as fitting the life he had lived.
The life of Socrates appears uneventful and bland when compared to that of his dazzling student. While Alcibiades experienced the heights and depths of power, wealth, and sexual adventure, his teacher lived a life of moral restraint and self-imposed limitations. While Alcibiades got around in the world, participating in the most important events of his day, Socrates basically lived within the confines of his head. While Alcibiades lived the ecstatic life that most ordinary people can only enviously dream about, Socrates dissected arguments and got on people's nerves by preaching "virtue." Is it surprising that some would see in Socrates a sorry looser, and not an ideal?
Alcibiades was a philosophical problem for Socrates. On more than one occasion Socrates had to confront the philosophical position that was illustrated by the exuberant life of his renegade student. It was a position that had emerged in 5th century Athens as a result of the city's vigorous international expansion, and of the progressive erosion of its traditional morality that resulted from that expansion. In spite of the growing cosmopolitanism of Athenian life, conservatives tried to preserve the city's ancestral order and morality as best as they could. They passionately believed in the absolute value of their Athenian tradition, and they were ready to condemn anyone whom they perceived to be a danger to the ancestral order.
The conservative resistance to change was in vain, however. The progressive expansion of Athenian commerce into all corners of the known world progressively undermined the beliefs and expectations that had governed Athenian conduct in the past. Athens could not feed herself by what she could grow at home; her staple grains in particular had to be imported from such far-flung regions as the Black Sea, Sicily, and North Africa. Her merchants had to maintain close relationships with very distant Greek cities as well as other foreign cultures. In addition, a great number of resident aliens had established their businesses in Athens's port of Piraeus, and these successful merchants and manufacturers had often brought with them their own religions, customs, and ideas of what is right and wrong.
As a consequence, most sophisticated Athenians had become rather open-minded and tolerant of foreign cultures, and they would not insist that the Athenian way of life was the only valid one. Furthermore, the Sophists, who came from many different parts of the Greek world, were not slow in developing philosophical theories of moral relativism. They emphasized the fact that justice in Egypt, for example, was not the same as justice in Sparta, or that justice in Sparta was in many ways different from that of Athens. Laws and principles of justice, they argued, are not objective and universal principles, but merely social conventions that change in time and from culture to culture. Man-made rules cannot possibly claim anything like absolute validity. The only laws that can truly be described as objective are the laws of nature: "Fire in Persia burns in the same way as fire in Greece." The rules and laws sanctioned by individual states like Athens have at best a fleeting, relative validity-relative to individual states and societies.
A small number of Sophists drew an even more radical conclusion: If man-made rules and laws have only a relative validity, why should they have any validity at all? If Spartans see nothing sacred in Athenian morality, why should people living in Athens have any particular regard for them? Why not admit that the only necessary laws are the laws that nature imposes on everyone alike? And the laws of nature, according to these radical Sophists, clearly show only one thing, namely that might is right, that natural justice is nothing more than whatever the strongest do and get away with. This is what Callicles, among others, argues against Socrates in Plato's book Gorgias:
"For, Socrates, though you claim to pursue the truth, you actually drag us into these tiresome popular platitudes, always looking for what is supposedly right and noble--right not by nature, but by mere convention. Now, for the most part nature and convention are opposed to each other. .... For by nature everything that is disadvantageous to an individual is disgraceful--suffering a wrong, for example. According to convention, by contrast, it is more disgraceful to do wrong. The reason for this, as far as I can see, is that the makers of [conventional] laws are the majority, who are weak. They make laws and distribute praises and censures with a view to themselves and to their interests. They intimidate the stronger sort of person, and all those who would be able to get the better of them, in order that the stronger may not prevail. Thus they say that cheating is shameful and unjust. And by injustice they mean the desire of people to own more than their fellow-citizens. Knowing their own inferiority, I suspect, they are in favor of equality. An individual's endeavor to have more than the many is conventionally said to be shameful and unfair, and is called injustice, whereas nature herself suggests that it is entirely just for the superior to have more than the inferior, for the stronger to own more than the weaker. And both among animals and in entire states and races of mankind it is plain that this is the case--that right is recognized to be the rule and advantage of the stronger over the weaker. On what principle of justice, after all, did Xerxes invade Greece, or his father the territory of the Scythians?--to mention but two examples. These are the men who act according to nature, by heaven, and according to the law of nature! Not, perhaps, according to that artificial law which we invent and impose upon our fellows, of whom we take the best and strongest from their youth upwards, and tame them like young lions--charming them with the sound of the voice, and saying to them that they must be content with equality, and that equality is the honorable and just. But if there were a man who had sufficient strength, he would shake this off and break through, and escape from all this. He would trample underfoot all our formulas and spells and charms, and all our laws which are against nature. The slave would rise in rebellion and be lord over us, and the light of natural justice would shine forth" (483-4).
Callicles, in other words, advocated a sort of animal kingdom in which the fittest would survive and flourish, while the weak would have to obey them, or perish. According to this glorified law of the jungle the rich and powerful have every right to become richer and even more powerful, and only an artificial and arbitrary convention, promoted by weaklings who would never make it in an arena of free competition, will deny the strongest what is rightfully theirs.
It is clear that this is the position on the basis of which the Athenian ambassadors argued their case in the Melos incident, and on the basis of which Athens in general conducted most of her foreign relations during the "Golden Age" and the Peloponnesian War. It is also the philosophy that informed Alcibiades's conduct in his personal life. Alcibiades never saw any reason why he should not become much wealthier and more powerful than anyone else, or why he should not have the right to seduce any man or woman, as long as he could get away with it. Alcibiades was the lion cub whom the democracy of Athens had failed to domesticate; his wildness defied the more or less egalitarian restraints without which, according to older views, no society can survive or flourish for too long. Alcibiades was thus a prime example of the moral decay that conservatives deplored, and that they blamed on subversive intellectuals like the Sophists--and Socrates.
Contrary to the denunciations of the conservatives, however, Socrates did not only disagree with their blind belief in the ancestral order, but also with the liberalism and moral nihilism of the Sophists. To live a good life, according to his teaching, one has to go beyond both: the uncritical adherence to tradition as well as the dogmatic relativism that asserts that all rules and laws are just arbitrary conventions. Neither position, he argued, will hold up to careful scrutiny. But what would be the basis for a position that rejects both blind traditionalism and dogmatic relativism? His answer was: Reason. What Socrates proposed-most famously in Plato's Republic-was the acceptance of reason not only as the ultimate arbiter of all pressing questions, but also as the ruling principle of everybody's personal and public life. Reason was to be the new ground that would replace ancestral rules and laws as well as the right that is based on nothing but the brute force of nature.
In looking beyond the positions of conservatives as well as the Sophists, Socrates remained faithful to his basic pursuit as a philosopher: to question everything, to leave no assumption and position unexamined. Up to a point the Sophists had done the same thing, of course: they had criticized the assumptions of the Athenian (as any other) tradition; their systematic skepticism had by and large demolished any naïve faith in what used to be accepted without challenge. Socrates was more radical and thorough than the Sophists, however, in that he took on the examination of their negative conclusions as well. For the skepticism and relativism of the Sophists was simply the wholesale negation of the unexamined tradition; it was, in a sense, the other side of the same coin. Socrates, by continuing the critical examination of all contentions, transcended the philosophical discourse of his time and initiated for an entirely new foundation of justice and morality.
It is not entirely clear whether Socrates ever solved the problem of relativism or moral nihilism to his own satisfaction. In Plato's dialogues he is not portrayed as winning the relevant arguments outright. To this day thoughtful readers have wondered whether the Sophists were not right when they suggested that nothing in human history can ever be decided on the basis of anything except brute force, and that the invocation of "justice" was never more than an ideological smokescreen behind which the dark and primal forces of unredeemed nature play themselves out. Nevertheless, Socrates vigorously pursued, and probably lived, a life that was not driven by the relentless desire to own, to control, or to consume, and to seek gratification in besting others in endless competitive struggles, but rather by the wish to live a life of leisure, to contemplate things in tranquility, and thus to understand himself and the world in a way that transcends the animal kingdom in human disguise.
Wisdom for Socrates involved a considerable distance to things, a lack of involvement in greedy pursuits and passionate partisan struggles of his day as well as a disengagement from one's own desires and drives. This wisdom of keeping his distance was the basis for the leisure that characterized his life, and that made him such an outsider in his native city. As he put it in Plato's book Theaetetus: "The truth is that it is only the outer shape of the philosopher that lives in the city. His mind, disdaining the littleness and nothingness of ordinary human affairs, is 'flying all abroad,' as Pindar says, measuring earth and heaven and the things that are above and below heaven and earth, investigating the unabridged nature of each and all in their entirety, but not condescending to the things close at hand"(174c). Distance is the heart of wisdom, and it is this distance that affords the comprehensive view if things that Socrates aimed at.
Socrates's remoteness from both the ancestral ways of Athens as well as the liberal counter culture gives us a measure of his pronounced individualism. His entire life and work has come to stand for a sharp contrast between individual and society, and for the individual's radical independence from any kind of undue 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 deep 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 most later Western philosophers, but in lively dialogues with friends and opponents. His basic form of communication still belonged to the very social oral tradition, not to that of the silently written word. As for most ancient Greeks, being a social being for him was not an incidental feature of human nature, but a most essential one. In spite of his dissent from the norms of the majority, Socrates understood himself to be a zoon politicon, a "social animal." How, then, did he reconcile these two basic conceptions of himself--Socrates the radical individualist, and Socrates the conscientious member of his community?
The answer lies in his conception of himself as a social "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" (Plato, Apology, 30). 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 discourse, 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 detect 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 flattering speech writers, but society's sharp critics are its most valuable friends.
Stimulating outsiders like Socrates, of course, have rarely been welcomed by the societies who benefited from their stimulation. While they are active, challenging gadflies more often than not are brushed off , maligned, despised, or even persecuted. It is usually after they are gone that they are canonized as heroes and 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 BCE Socrates's teacher Anaxagoras had to defend himself in court against the charge of impiety. His major offense was his theory that the sun is a "red-hot stone," and the moon "just earth," i.e., that sun and moon are not the person-like deities that the majority of Athenians thought them to be. The court, swayed by religious conservatives, condemned Anaxagoras to death. It was only because Anaxagoras's 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 agnosticism the Athenians put him on trial, and they 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 expressed unpopular thoughts too freely.
In 399 BCE Socrates was summoned to defend himself in court against the charges of "corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in deities of his own invention, instead of the gods recognized by the state"(Plato, Apology, 24). 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 probably also suspected of having been too sympathetic to the oligarchs who had launched their coup d'etat a few years earlier. Nevertheless, the charges concerning impiety were a serious matter in 5th 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. No appeal was possible.
Plato was present during the trial. His Apology, written a few years later, presumably is based on the speech that Socrates gave in his own defense. "Apology" is the Greek word for "defense." While Socrates defended himself in his speech against the charges, he was by no means apologetic about his role in Athenian society:
"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."
Socrates's speech caused several commotions and 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 probably 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 for his service as the city's gadfly--in the way in which victorious Olympian athletes were sometimes maintained at the taxpayers' expense. 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. The law, he thought, is the highest representation of a community, and without community a human being is not a complete person, not a real individual. He calmly drank the poison, and thus died at the hands of a democracy that proved not strong enough to endure the critical inquiries of one of her most significant minds.
If Socrates gave the West its basic idea of what philosophy is, and what living like a philosopher might be like, how can Socrates's life and work be described in something like a definition? The following four-point summary is a possibility:
1. At the heart of philosophy is the challenge of fundamental assumptions-the questioning of all those basic beliefs and valuations that are usually taken for granted in any given society. Critical examination of this kind is the philosopher's primary task: "The unexamined life is not worth living."
2. This implies that the decisive part of a philosopher's life is lived in or through the philosopher's mind. The inner life is far more important than the external life. It is, thus, fitting that the philosopher be a material minimalist: Getting and spending is not a big deal; social position is hardly worth fussing about. Even love relationships may become less important than work on ideas.
3. This distance to worldly affairs is paralleled by the philosopher's distance to his or her personal feelings, desires, and instincts. The private impulses of body and soul are as much subjected to critical examination as the demands and expectations of the external environment. "Know thyself:" The philosopher is as much an object of wonder to himself or herself as anything in the outside world.
4. A life lived with such a distance to world and self manifests a certain serenity, or even playfulness. Socrates was known for his irony: He was very serious about the things he discussed, but he also poked fun at them in various ways. He was the opposite of a fanatic. He did not invest his ego in any position, and he did not feel compelled to win arguments. No matter how worked-up some of his opponents became in discussions, Socrates always remained relaxed. He was at leisure-not in the sense of being indolent, but in the sense of not being pressured by anyone or anything. Without being indifferent to people and their concerns, or even his own interests, Socrates seems to have been profoundly at peace with himself and the world.
In teaching such a way of life, Socrates set basic standards for the West--standards which were rarely met by the culture that routinely pays lip service to his ideals. (Albert Schweitzer was asked once: "What do you think of the civilization of the West?" "That would be a great idea," he replied.) It is, for example, hard to imagine any culture which is more concerned with and dedicated to material production and consumption than our Western civilization. It is, furthermore, obvious that most people have a hard time being seriously self-critical, particularly with respect to their materialism. People seem to be driven relentlessly and without thought to keep running the economic machinery that determines most aspects of everyday life. Could it be that Socrates was somehow mistaken? Socrates, after all, was not interested in designing a lifestyle for a few exceptional individuals, for an elite of wise men, as it were. What he envisaged was a certain kind of society, a way of life, that he thought to be good for all human beings. But given the actual conduct of most human beings, particularly within the orbit of Western civilization, it does not seem reasonable to expect that people will ever give up the pursuit of material gratification in favor of some sort of inner life, or that they will really be ready to question their prevailing priorities as part of a philosophical self-examination. The question is inevitable: Are the ideals of a philosophical life a mere pretense, a kind of ideological smoke screen behind which Western society tries to hide its rampant materialism? Has the figure of Socrates ever been more than that of a dower preacher of virtues with which most people would prefer not to be bothered? Socrates was obviously not very successful in 5th century Athens. Is there any reason why he should do better at any other time, even though he has achieved the status of a canonized author? (A remark by Mark Twain comes to mind: "A classic: A book that everyone praises, but nobody reads".)
It is worthwhile to take a closer look at the details of what makes up the fabric of everyday life: When asked most people say that the mind is more valuable than the body, and that the inner life should be preferred to external pursuits. That is part of the "value system" of our culture. The fact, however, is that in most high schools the quarterback is more popular than the serious chess player, and that it is not the competent, bespectacled editor of the school's newspaper who will be elected homecoming queen, but the student who most resembles a magazine cover girl. The adoration and money of most modern societies will not go to the scientist who tries to save natural habitats from destruction, but to the star athlete who performs unusual physical feats. Political clout is not with those American Indians who want to save the silence of ancient burial grounds, but with the chamber of commerce who wants to develop such grounds into commercially productive assets. Successful is not the writer of substantial and intellectually demanding texts, but the author of low-brow sitcoms and soaps. Mass audiences do not tune in to symphonies or serious jazz, but to easy-listening and pop-chart music. Most college students will not go and see a classical play, but prefer some average Hollywood production. Commercial sponsors will not support the in-depth news programs that serious journalists would like to produce, but the "dumbed-down" news that most stations need to offer if they want to sell advertisements and make money. The majority of people will use their free time not to read or to have an intelligent conversations, but to watch television, no matter how insipid the programs may be. (A Simpson cartoon character once answered to the question of how much television he watches every day: "Six hours. Seven, if something good is on.") And even when there is no television, as on subway rides or on a bus, in our society most people will not read or talk, but rather stare into space with dull and vacant expressions.
It is not difficult in contemporary society to discern that very little is done in terms of cultivating an inner life, that most activities are geared toward the pursuit of external goals and distractions. And that is the case not only with respect to individual behavior, but also with respect to the basic orientation of the culture as a whole. The entire core of modern life--work and the economy--is nothing but a gigantic machine of material production and consumption which leaves little time and energy for anything else. Inside the economy nothing counts except productivity and material gain, and outside the economy, during people's "time off," nothing much can be accomplished except recuperating from and getting ready for more work. There is not enough leisure for anything like a life of the mind--for critical self-reflection, for the informed discussion of political goals, for the cultivation of less than shallow friendships, for the introduction of youngsters to more than baseball and fishing, etc. Protestations to the contrary sound hollow. One would have to be a "drop-out" from the "rat-race" of modern economic life to be able to cultivate one's soul in the way Socrates envisaged--a social and cultural dissident who actively refuses to become a cog in the ubiquitous production machine, and who is willing to forego most of the consumer goods which are used--on an installment plan--to tie people to the system.
There is, of course, a certain amount of thinking and learning that does take place, in spite of the general aversion to purely intellectual pursuits. The more advanced the means of production have become in modern economies, the more brain power had to be harnessed to manage them, and to develop them further. Vast numbers of people make the necessary efforts to activate their minds for that purpose, and to master the subject matters required for their advancement. In many areas of modern economies the professions and the workforces have become more sophisticated than they have ever been. Schooling in general has always been on the rise in modern society.
This intellectualization of modern production cannot be seen as the harbinger of a culture of an inner life, however, for the intelligence which is activated and developed in this way is almost entirely put in the service of material production and pecuniary gain. Someone who studies hard in order to make a lot of money later on may be intelligent and knowledgeable in certain ways, but he (or she) is not educated in the sense of living a life of the mind. And a culture that trains a great number of its members to be competent engineers or managers of a sophisticated production system may be prudent and enlightened in certain ways, but it would not be the kind of culture that Socrates had in mind. Intelligence in the service of material gain is instrumental reason--a mere means to enlarge the domain of the external life. For Socrates the mind was not a means, but an end. It was to be developed for its own sake. It was to be the medium in which human life can unfold. The mind as the slave of the body is worse than even a body without mind--it is a perversion.
At this point the significance of Socrates's insistence on critical self-examination comes into sharp focus. Intelligence in the service of material production will lead to ever more efficient production, while intelligence in the pursuit of wisdom will ask whether ever more efficient production makes sense. Western civilization has given itself almost entirely over to the pursuit of ever increasing production--production for production's sake. Very few people ever question the wisdom or presumed necessity of this ever continuing growth. It is simply taken for granted that there have to be ever more cars, ever more roads, ever more shopping malls, ever more suburbs, ever more appliances, etc.--and ever more people as well. Most modern societies pursue this course in spite of the fact that ever increasing production also means ever more precarious extractions of raw materials, ever more production of toxic waste, ever more crowded lands, and in most ways an ever more declining quality of life. Huge forests are cut down, oceans depleted by over-fishing, soils exhausted, rivers ruined, landscapes disfigured, cities choked by cars, and people's minds cluttered by the products of an advertisement industry that is desperate to sell all the goods that an over-productive economy keeps churning out. Western civilization has become something like a run-away train that is headed for serious trouble. Unless both individuals and societies re-think their basic values and priorities, i.e., practice something like critical self-examination, the world may move into a self-made nightmare from which there is no bearable awakening.
The explosion of the world's population is a problem. From the beginning of human history until 1900 the human race slowly grew to a population of about 1.6 billion. Within the 20th century it grew to roughly 6.0 billion. The prospect of enormous numbers of nubile people ready to procreate has prompted demographers to talk about a "population bomb" that is ready to go off. Optimists have pointed out that future technological innovations may be able to accommodate ever greater numbers of people, and that earlier pessimistic predictions of catastrophes (like the predictions of the 19th century economist Malthus) were proven wrong by the actual course of history. But no matter how many relevant technological inventions may be coming forth (and they may not), it is clear that at one point the limits of the carrying capacity of planet Earth will be reached. An island country like Haiti, e.g., can accommodate only so many people without creating intolerable conditions and problems. In the long run the same is true for the Earth at large. Human beings will have to examine their numbers and take charge of their fate.
Even more problematic than the present population growth is the rapacious use of the world's natural resources by industrially developed nations. The United States alone, with roughly 6% of the world's population, uses up more than 20% of the world's resources--partly due to the fact that almost all individuals in this country have become accustomed to levels of material consumption that seems disproportionate to what most human beings or the world can afford. Yet, most countries desire to become as affluent as the United States, and most individuals within the global economy dream of nothing more than to live as much as possible like the people they see in American television shows or Hollywood movies. McDonalds and Coca-Cola have become the worldwide symbols of the good life. Lavish consumption is what commercials everywhere praise. The vision of "Democracy" that is globally touted is that of making oodles of money, and of spending it in most mindless ways. That the earth's resources are disastrously depleted in the process, and the biosphere possibly ruined, is something that most governments and people will not think about in any serious way.
In Socrates's time the idea of cultivating an inner life may have been just a matter of realizing a neglected human potential. In our times Socratic ideals may become more of an urgent necessity. In spite of a general blindness about these matters, it has become too evident that it is physically impossible for all human beings to live like Americans. The world's resources and the environment are strained already by the motorization of the 250 million or so inhabitants of the United States. It is not even imaginable to similarly motorize 1.2 billion Chinese, or an additional billion Indians. Something has to give. The forms of gratification that have become the predominant ones in Western civilization are simply not applicable when one thinks about the pursuit of happiness of the entire human race as a whole. A critical examination of priorities is inevitable, and the idea of living through one's mind rather than through physical consumption is obviously something that has to be considered. The figure of Socrates, in other words, may yet become a relevant model; there may not be any alternative to the truly good life.
From: Jorn K. Bramann: Traveling Light (1998)
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