Watch: “Socrates” (25 min)
In the nineteenth century one of the most important philosophers in Europe was Soren Kierkegaard. And though we are not going to be looking at Kierkegaard today, I just want to mention in passing that he was known affectionately as the “Danish Gadfly.” That little expression “gadfly” refers to somebody that kind of stirs the pot by flittering around from group to group and engaging people in serious discussions and thought.
Well, the first philosopher in history that was known as a gadfly was Socrates. Socrates was called the “Gadfly of Athens, ” because of the controversy in which he was engaged by trying to provoke people to think more deeply than they were accustomed to doing. Socrates is famous for initiating the phrase, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” His passion was to get people to do just that – to examine their lives – to examine their thinking, not to just accept ideas uncritically because they were in vogue or because they were popular. But, he wanted to lead them to a kind of self-critical analysis, to challenge assumptions that were accepted just by the transfer from one generation to the next.
And he lived at a critical period in history, not only for the history of the Greek world, but also for the history of Western civilization. In fact, some people have argued that ancient Greek civilization was at such a critical moment when Socrates appeared on the scene, that he not only saved the civilization of his own nation, but that he, was the temporary savior of Western civilization in his time.
Now, to understand that kind of an evaluation, we have to take a step back and look at some of the background. Socrates was born approximately in the year 468 B.C. Now, I don’t mean by that that he was approximately born. He actually and truly was born. But we don’t know exactly what year it was, but it was probably 468 – 469 B.C. That was a very important time in Greek history because Socrates grew up in Athens and lived, in the first instance, during the period of the highest success and power of the Greek nation up until that point, particularly the greatest success of Athens. But it was also during his life that the wars came to pass between the city-state of Athens, and the city-state of Sparta.
You remember the adage that the Spartans had who trained their young men to be warriors, and when they would go off to war with their shields the maxim that was given to the young solider was, “You come back with your shield or on it.” That is, you fight to the death. Well, what happened during Socrates life was that Sparta defeated Athens, and what followed that war was a period of unraveling of Greek culture and a period of great skepticism and disillusionment that gripped the citizens of Athens.
Now, it wasn’t simply the political and military circumstances that brought this malaise to the culture of Athens. But, if you recall, in our last lecture we saw the impasse that arose between the two great thinks prior to Socrates, Parmenides and Heraclitus. In simple terms, what many of the common people were saying was, “Wait a minute. What about this whole endeavor of searching for ultimate truth and for ultimate reality? It seems like a fool’s errand to us. Maybe the skeptics are right that such truth is beyond the scope of our ability to discover it.” They would think like this: “If the titans of intellectual inquiry like Parmenides and Heraclitus can’t agree on ultimate issues, how can you expect us to sort all of these complex metaphysical questions out.” So what happened with the decay in the military power, economic power, and political power of Athens coupled with this sense of frustration of trying to gain ultimate truth, the culture kind of disintegrated and grew inward in its attention, and began to focus their thinking on this world, on concrete practical matters. “We can’t figure out these ultimate questions of truth, but we’re still faced with the daily questions of how do we make a living, how do we face the necessities that life imposes upon us from day to day.” So, we have really the birth of ancient pragmatism. And I might also say it was the birth of humanism. And there was also a disillusionment about religion. The gods had let the people down. And so, now we have a kind of pre-Socratic period of secularism.
Now, I use those particular descriptive terms for a reason, because when we step away from the Greek age and look at our own culture today, many of the critics describe our own culture, at the end of the twentieth century as humanistic, as secular and as pragmatic. And so, it’s important for us, if we can look at an ancient culture that mirrors so many of the life situations that we encounter in own civilization today, maybe we can learn something from it. But into this vacuum of the decline of Greek civilization stepped a group of teachers who became very important. They were called the “sophists.” Which is a word that comes from the Greek word “sophia” which is the word “wisdom.” In fact, the very word philosophy means “phileo sophia” – the love of wisdom.
Now, the sophists considered themselves as the word suggests, sages. They were learned people, and at the beginning of the movement of the sophists, there was a certain respectability and dignity to their endeavors. But with the decline of the civilization, came also the corruption of the sophists’ movement. Now, I have to say, just as a little parenthesis, just as an aside, we don’t have a lot of first hand information about the sophists themselves. I mean we’re not totally in the dark about it. But so much of the information that we have about the sophists in antiquity comes to us through those dialogues of Plato that have survived to this day. And, Plato in his day had and extremely negative view of the sophists, so when we consider ancient sophism we’re looking at them through the eyes of one who was sharply critical of them. And so, we have to keep that in mind as we analyze them.
In any case, we have words in our language that have their origin in this movement. The word “sophomore,” the word “sophistry,” which is a negative term, and the word “sophisticated,” which may have a positive connotation. When we say that somebody has a sophisticated knowledge of something, we mean that they have more than a passing superficial grasp of things, but that they’ve gone into it rather deeply. But really, in the development of language, originally, even the term “sophisticated,” had a negative connotation, meaning somebody who was simply superficial, who gave an outward display of beauty or an outward display of knowledge or ability, but once you scratch the surface you don’t find much substance there. Well, these words that come down to our language have been heavily influenced by the negative view of this movement.
Now, the sophists, as I say, were professional teachers. What I mean by professional teachers is that they charged fees for their pedagogy. They were itinerate teachers. They went from village to village and from town to town to give their courses and their teaching. But what had happened in the political structure of Athens is that the movement was in the direction of more and more of a democratic process, where the leaders were not kings who passed their power on to their progeny or noblemen. But the leaders, more and more, were emerging as a result of popular elections. And also, there were significant changes in the judicial system of Athens where we have the development of the jury system. And the juries would vote on the verdict of the accused.
So, now we have a culture where the art of public speaking now is at a premium. Those who are most articulate and most persuasive, who can move the passions and the emotions of the people, have the best chance of becoming the elected officials and hence the governors of the populous. And also the attorneys who can move the passions of those empaneled at jury members have the ability to persuade the jury to come to the verdict that they desire. Now, all of those things are part and parcel of the society in which we find ourselves today. But now the sophists in their teaching, as I said, were concerned with practical matters. They were pragmatists.
The truth is defined, not by some metaphysical ultimate correspondence to reality, but the truth is discerned by what works – what works in practical terms, in the marketplace, where we live. They were the original Madison Avenue admen. Their test for their effectiveness in advertising was not whether the claims for the product actually were true, but rather how effective they were in getting people to purchase the product. So, truth was not their interest, persuasion was their intent. Their school that they developed, most significantly, was that of rhetoric.
Now, we still have rhetoric in our own culture today. We identify it with the art of public speaking. But for the sophists, again, the artfulness of rhetoric focused on the ability of the speaker to move the emotions of the hearer so that they would be persuaded in a certain direction. Now, we still care about persuasion. I tell my students in the seminary when they come into my courses, I say, “You are studying theology here, and I think you need to be forewarned that when you step into my classroom that I am not interested simply in transferring historical information from my notebook to yours. I’m out to get your mind. I want to persuade you of the truth of these principles. I’m engaged in apologetics. I am trying not only to explain these principles, but I am trying to defend them and to capture your minds in the sense of proving to you that these are sound principles and principles that you ought to embrace and live by.” Now, we are still trying to persuade. But in that case the goal ultimately is to persuade people to acquiesce to truth, not just to persuade them for vested interest, for personal interest, for economic or political aims.
But, what had happened with the sophists is that their whole focus on persuasion was for mean pragmatic ends. We think of the Demosthenes the famous orator who practiced his speeches by filling his mouth with pebbles so that he could train his lips and his tongue to be super articulate in syntax.
It’s also at this time that we find the advent of a very important pre-Socratic philosopher whose name was Protagoras. Protagoras is often considered to be the father of humanism, because he gave us the Latin phrase, “homo-mensura.” Homo-mensura: man the measure. And what he was saying is that man is the measure of all things. Now again, calling attention to focusing our attention not on some never-never land of philosophical speculation of metaphysics, but to concentrate our interests in the welfare of human beings in the here and now.
Another important philosopher at this time was a man whose name was Gorgias. Now, that was his whole name. It wasn’t Gorgias George. And it wasn’t gorgeous in the sense of “pretty.” His name was Gorgias, and he was important because he was one of the early skeptics. He said that the good – that which is good – or that which is right is that which men perceive to be that which works for their own vested interest. Let me say it again, the right, or the good is defined in terms of what advances you own agenda, your own vested interest. Now, think of this in terms of modern self-interest groups, lobby groups and all the rest where we just say, “Well, everybody has a right to advance their own concerns.” We have reduced the very concept of the good or the right to human preferences. An age of relativism says that there are no absolute goods, or that there is no absolute right or wrong. It is however you perceive it, or whatever you prefer it to be. That has roots way deep in Western history with the skeptical philosophy of people like Gorgias.
Now, it is into that venue, that environment that Socrates stepped. He was passionately concerned that what was going on around him would be fatal to science, to the pursuit of truth in any arena, to the dignity of the court system, and to the political structures themselves. And at the very heart of his concern was what he perceived to be the wholesale loss of virtue. Think of Bennett’s book on virtue was recently a best seller in our own culture, where we are facing the same kind of disintegration in our culture today – a fundamental loss of virtue.
And Socrates was not satisfied to accept this as the fate of Athens. And so he went about the city engaging students, engaging people in deep conversations, trying to awaken them to the deeper questions of truth and the great issues that faced the nation of his day. He wasn’t content simply to examine his own life, but he wanted to get other people to begin challenging the assumptions of their culture, and to begin examining their own premises and their own thinking. And so he is famous for several things, not the least of which is that he is the one of course who invented what we call “the Socratic method.”
The Socratic method of discovering truth is the method of dialog. He would engage people in dialog and ask them probing questions. And as the person would respond Socrates would help them move along in their own self-examination by asking more questions and deeper questions. He didn’t just stand in the middle of the town square and preach and deliver lectures. He was more like lieutenant Colombo. He would say, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” He would then engage people in dialog. You see the value of that method of teaching when you see the vast corpus of writings that his most famous pupil wrote, Plato.
When we think of Plato and his writings, what do we call them? The Dialogs of Plato. There is an issue that is introduced at the beginning of the dialog, and then he moderates a discussion that goes on between representatives of different schools of thought. Then finally Socrates comes in the dialog and unravels the mystery of whatever issue it is that they are discussing. So, Socrates thought that by forcing people to think, he could move them from that superficial plane of sophism and get them into a more deep consideration of truth. He was, what we might say is the original paradigm of education. His goal was to educate.
And that word “educate,” means literally, “to lead out of.” El duce – the leader, remember. “ed” or the “e” at the beginning means “from or out of.” E-duce, educate – to lead out of. To lead out of what? To lead out of ignorance.
Now, Socrates said that the very first thing that has to happen for any true knowledge to be gained, for anyone to ever become knowledgeable, to gain an understanding of virtue, and to truly be educated, was the admission of ignorance. And that’s one of the hardest things for any of us to admit – that we are ignorant about anything. But Socrates said that once the person admits that he or she is ignorant, now the possibilities are open to lead them to a deeper understanding of truth.
Now again, his principle concern was to come to an understanding of virtue. Virtue being the “good” or the “right.” And he believed this not only in an abstract way, but also in a very concrete way. He believed that how we act, how we behave is in the first analysis a matter of proper knowledge. He didn’t embrace a Biblical concept of original sin as we would, but what he was saying is that part of problem that we have with our behavior is that we don’t know what right behavior is. Before we can possibly act in a good way, we have to first understand what a good form of behavior is. So he focuses his attention on helping people understand virtue. What is honesty? What is industry? What is justice? He would push them beyond the idea of vested interests or self-interest to come to the deeper understanding of these concepts by which human life, human virtue, and the virtue of a society stand or fall.
Now, one could look at Socrates and say his life was a failure – he was executed. He was charged with being an atheist because he rejected the pagan deities of the city; but more seriously with corrupting the youth of Athens because he was challenging their ideas. He was forced to drink the hemlock. Plato was his most famous student. Plato presumably attended the execution of Socrates, and met with Socrates in his cell and discussed his impending death with him, and was overwhelmed by the remarkable calmness and confidence that Socrates had with respect to life after death. Well, as I said, Socrates to our knowledge didn’t write anything. What we know of his thinking, and what we know of his ideas comes through the speeches put in his mouth by his most famous student, Plato whom we will examine in our next session.