A Tribute to the Most Heroic Philosopher in Human History
This wouldn’t be much of a philosophy blog without some tribute to the great philosophers of our time. These philosophers that have not only shaped our society, but have truly done their best to bring some sort of peace of mind to all of us angry and confused creatures running around this planet.
As such, it only seems right to tip our humble hats to the father of Greek philosophy, Socrates. And perhaps, along the way, we may see where he would be proud of our progress. We may see where he would be horrified at our current state. And, most importantly, we may see where we still have something to learn from his lessons.
Socrates may have been born in Athens, but his legacy has not crumbled the way Ancient Athens has. He was a global philosopher speaking to the whole of humanity. In fact, when asked where he came from he replied,
‘I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.’
[As quoted in Plutarch's Of Banishment]”
Socrates: Shitty Husband, Ugly, and kind of an Asshole
Let’s start our tribute to this great man by pointing out how he wasn’t so great. A roast in his honor. A bit of light fun to see him as a human, no matter how immortal he seems today.
Firstly, it is kind of sad that the most common thing we know about Socrates is that ‘he was that guy that was put to death or something like that.’ Which is true. He was put to death for what he believed in. Which is very heroic. But as we will see, he also had some flaws that didn’t help his case.
A superficial issue, but a real problem nonetheless, he was said to be a very ugly man. His friends called him grotesque and compared him to a stingray. To play into this role further, he would purposely go days without bathing, washing his clothes, or wearing sandals. A true bane for every shoe-maker in Athens.
And well, being ugly doesn’t really help with winning people over. As my father-in-law has said, ‘En esta vida todo está perdonado menos ser feo.’ (‘In this life, all is forgiven, except being ugly.’) He was doomed as soon as he walked into that courtroom on his judgement day.
But he was a good husband to his wife, Xanthippe, right?
‘By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you will be happy. If you get a bad one, you will be a philosopher.’
He was also quoted saying that he married his wife because she was such a hell-raiser of a woman. Comparing his marriage to being a horseman when asked why he married ‘the most shrewish woman’:
‘I follow the example of the rider who wishes to become an expert horseman, none of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me. The horse for me to own must show some spirit: in the belief, no doubt, if he can manage such an animal, it will be easy enough to deal with every other horse besides. And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else.’
- Xenophon (Symposium)
But maybe Socrates was just ahead of his time considering we now believe treating a woman well is treating her chivalrously; whether she has a bouncy ponytail or not and whether she’s capable of opening doors herself or not.
She was perhaps a pain to live with, but I can’t imagine he was a walk in the park as any man or woman can say that has unfortunately fallen in love with a philosopher.
‘Get out of bed, Socrates.’ She said pulling the covers off of him in an annoying way. ‘It’s a beautiful day today.’
‘What do you think beauty is?’ Socrates said pulling the covers back up and rolling over.
Plato, however, does describe Xanthippe as a devoted wife in his writing, and forasmuch as Socrates fills all the clichés of being a terrible husband, she must have been.
Socrates - Husband of the Year Award for:
The love of a good argument. No surprise there. And no surprise either that his wife dumped a piss pot over his head.
Not having a job. It’s unsure how he took care of his wife and children since he didn’t accept payment for his services based on the principle of searching for truth and wisdom. He even admitted to having very little money. Which leads one to believe that his wife must have come from a wealthy family.
Being a barroom hero. Yep, he was always at the symposium drinking it up with his buddies. Who would have thought that alcohol was the reason for so much progression and change in the world?
Having another lover… that was a man. Maybe having a second wife was normal in those times, but having that lover be a man must have made his wife feel real special.
Choosing to spend his last moments with his friends rather than his wife. Maybe she was crying uncontrollably and it was really annoying, maybe he didn’t want to make her watch his death, or maybe he just wanted to go out with one last laugh and philosophical debate before putting down the hemlock. Either way, Xanthippe’s last words to her immortal husband were,
‘O Socrates, this is the last time that either you will converse with your friends, or they with you.’
- Plato (Phaedo)
So Socrates wasn’t the greatest human in traditional terms. Maybe to be so great at one thing, you have to sacrifice everything else in your life in pursuit. Maybe it just means we are all human, even our heroes, and there are always two sides of the coin. Hitler was a loving husband, maybe a vegetarian (very health-conscious at least), best-selling author, art critic, and billionaire. Besides the whole genocide thing, a pretty outstanding guy.
Okay. Okay. It’s a bit easy to compare someone to Hitler to change the focus of being a bad guy, but I think you get my point about the spectrum of good and bad we have in us. Some spectrums are just a little more extreme than others. I mean even Jesus was probably the worst son ever (to Mary and Joseph anyway). Disappeared most of his adult life and came back home, not to take over his daddy’s carpentry business, but to be crucified for running around and speaking against the status quo. Not to mention the trouble that has been caused under his name ever since. Maybe he too took a lesson from Socrates.
Right. Let’s get back on track here and talk about the good this man, Socrates, brought to the world. Let’s talk about why Socrates is a man that has withstood time better than Ancient Athens herself.
And just to show he wasn’t that bad of a guy:
‘Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.’
Following the Herd
The one thing that Socrates could really be given credit for, the one thing that seemed to inspire him to work with people that we can assume he butted heads with so often, was his desire to give people confidence in themselves and their own beliefs. He wanted people to break away from the common sense way of thinking and to come to logical conclusions themselves. To create their own rational thoughts that they could believe in and not be too swayed by others.
Socrates truly believed that philosophy was the key to freedom, and in some measure, happiness. He believed that by thinking critically and reasonably about our lives, we would become more independent and less conformist. That we wouldn’t get so hung up about what other people thought.
It is maybe an abused expression at this point to call our fellow humans sheep. To say that the masses blindly follow others without thinking for themselves. As philosophers though, we have to ask why is that? Why is it that we have a natural tendency to passively follow our fellow man rather than breaking away from the group?
The best example we could consider is following important people. Today, we digitally follow our favorite people on Facebook and Twitter. We read articles from our heroes about how they get up at 4am and try to do the same ourselves. As children, girls will try to dress like the popular girl thinking they too will get the same attention, and boys will try to copy the penmanship of their favorite teacher in the hopes it will make them just as smart. Even Anne Hathaway recently made a point (and clever prank) about following celebrities just because they are celebrities. We do our best to be like them as if we could wag the dog with the tail.
The reason we do this is quite simply because we believe they must have something figured out about life and therefore, we should do the same. So we trot along behind them never really questioning why they do the things they do or even if they really do know what they are doing.
Socrates wanted us to challenge this. He wanted us to think logically about the nonsense these creams of the society come up with rather than be struck dumb by their aura or presence of suave certainty.
It’s true that Socrates had the advantage of being able to directly speak to the great generals, statesmen, aristocrats, and opinion formers of his time. We have the internet that connects us all, but despite the internet making a level ground for all of us to have a voice, it also makes our voice easily lost in the crowd.
Still, Socrates was that guy that would ask these people the bigger questions. Rather than chat casually over falafels, he would directly ask them and expect answers to:
Why did the artist choose a certain muse?
Why did the wealthy have money and others didn’t?
Why did generals fight battles the way they did?
And most importantly, why were they leading the life that they were leading?
You can start to see why he had a lot of enemies and with the wrong people.
He found that their answers were unusually weak. It may be hard to believe that our presidents and CEOs and famous artists don’t really know what they’re doing in life, but if given the chance and the courage to actually speak to them away from the wall of the digital screen and without their speech writers, you may too be unpleasantly surprised at how unexamined the lives of these leaders really are.
This is not to say that Socrates was some troll to harass the elites of society. He also asked the same of the average citizen on the street corner. Rather than being pig-headed or bloody-minded and making trouble for the wrong reasons, Socrates was a nonconformist motivated by finding the truth and challenging lazy assumptions.
Sure, he may have seemed arrogant running around with no shoes on as he questioned people’s way of life, but it wasn’t as if he was suggesting everyone should live like him. He was generally interested in what people thought and even more driven to make people think.
He would ask strangers questions like:
What they believe goodness is?
How do they practice self-control?
What is needed in order to be happy?
What is justice?
These questions can be an engaging and quite honestly, a proking pastime. People will generally respond with aggression. But Socrates had no such inhibitions. He preferred to be seen as over-intense and strange rather than allow his fellow citizens to trudge along unthinking.
He wanted us to explore what we believed, even if we were just doing our daily task such as driving the kids to school or shopping at the grocery.
As you can see, it is becoming very clear why he was so easily tried and convicted by a jury of his peers. He pissed off a lot of people, but he did so in the spirit of a great egalitarian concept: That all of us, no matter status or profession, has a duty to reflect on our lives, and whatsmore is the fact that we are all capable of doing so.
The Socratic Method
It seems like a lot of work to genuinely put thought into what we do and why we do it. And to be able to dictate this to another human in a way that is coherent is hardly expected. But Socrates honestly wanted us to overcome this apathy and laziness and shyness to discover ourselves and what we believe. And once we have, to stand by it with confidence.
Philosophy to Socrates was an open proposition and challenge for all of us to be intelligently nonconforming.
And he didn’t just expect us to go around questioning all the dominant ideologies, beliefs, and traditions. He gave us a way to create and build up our own ideas to stand out from the crowd.
There is a test you may have heard of, a method to share with another human to help bring out the understanding of a given idea. If the opinion can survive this test, then it is something worth standing up for.
This test is known as the Socratic Method.
You’ve no doubt heard of the Socratic Method, but do you actually know it and apply it? If not, why not?
Socrates, loving his metaphors, compared ideas to pots. Yes… Pots.
Socrates believed that the reason there are so many ridiculous ideas out there is because so many people think they can have a great idea without really putting any concentrated thought into it. (Let’s take a moment to imagine how his head would spin today with the world wide web…) This was insanity for him. So, just like you can’t make a good pot that holds water without following exacting steps, neither can an idea hold merit if it isn’t put through a form of distinct steps that require hard thinking.
The Socratic Method:
1. The first thing you should do is to look around at all the statements people claim as ‘just plain common sense.’
Democracy is the best form of government.
Money makes people happy.
Beautiful people have it easier.
2. Try to find an exception to this.
(Socrates had very strong opinions about this that we will give a whole other section)
Could you be rich and miserable?
Could being beautiful hinder your ability to develop skills?
3. If you are able to find an exception to the statement, it means your statement is incorrect or not entirely accurate.
4. So create a nuance to take the exception into account.
It’s possible to be wealthy and unhappy if you have no one to share your wealth with, or if you live your life not knowing who your true friends are.
Being beautiful may give you an advantage throughout life, but you may never know if people really appreciate you as a person or if they are just taken in by your sexual appeal.
5. You keep going through this process as long as possible, finding exceptions and creating the most accurate statement you can to be true.
The truth as far as we are ever able to sincerely reach lies in the final statement that seems impossible to disprove. Putting your opinions through this ‘watertight test’ will make your argument trustworthy. It will be as solid and sturdy as the piss pot that held the piss that Socrates’s wife dumped on his head.
This in turn makes you trustworthy and strong as a character and far less passive and willing to follow the other sheep. It also prevents you from supporting your beliefs with a sad and sullen response, ‘Well, I know what I believe, even if I can’t explain why.’ Now you are able to show, with reason, why you believe in the things you do.
And should others disagree with your point of view or ideas, well, you won’t be as likely to be bothered by what they think. It won’t hurt your self-esteem as much for being at a disagreement with someone you may generally admire.
But We Aren’t All Philosophers
Most of us believe that philosophy is a pastime for those that are born rich and have nothing better to do than to sit around and talk and think. Or perhaps it is for the more formally educated, that we need special training with a university degree in order to declare ourselves capable of serious thought or at the very least, to be taken seriously.
‘Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.’
There is no minimum number of books to read or classes to be taken in order to think for oneself. This is what is so inspiring about Socrates. He believed and felt that we are all capable of being thinking humans, that philosophy or the ‘love of wisdom’ is a gift for all of us to share. Even further, as thinking creatures, we have an obligation to ourselves and the world to think.
‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’
Taking the time to examine our lives isn’t for the few but for anyone capable of doing so, which to whatever capacity we each have, we are all able to do. The examined life is far from being a forbidden fruit that only great minds can reach. It isn’t hidden behind university walls or written in unintelligible languages, it can be done with your lover, your friends, or the clerk at the market. Socrates’s mission in life was to prove that a wide range of people could come to their own well-thought out opinions.
‘There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.’
We will most likely not have to die for our beliefs as he did, but the fact he was willing to, should inspire all of us to test our own capacity for thinking. To learn to think for ourselves and not follow opinions so passively. To create and stand by, with tenacity, in our own ideas.
Though we may shrug all of this off in our day to day lives, we should, at times, think of Socrates and recognize that we all have the ability to go from being a sheep to a thinking person. That we can all be a philosopher.
Bonus: Socrates and Democracy
Straight from the same womb, the cradle of western civilization, philosophy and democracy seem to be at odds with one another. Oh dear. These siblings. Are they doomed to always fight?
Despite coming from the same place, Socrates had very real concerns about Democracy. He just couldn’t accept that because the majority supported an idea, that made it right. What’s worse is the idea that people in positions of power would be guided by these popular - but not necessarily logical - opinions to make major decisions.
Socrates spoke to a wide range of people as we saw. And though he believed we were all capable of being thinking people, he realized that the majority tended to listen to other’s opinions, whether they were well thought out or not.
‘The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.’
- Winston S. Churchill
In today’s modern democratic society, where we still have focus groups and opinion polls and anybody with enough followers online can send a message to millions at once, he would truly be frightened at how easily the sheep could be herded. He knew the average person didn’t examine their own lives and chose instead to listen to others. So he felt that just like every pot was not equally capable of holding water, not every opinion was equally worth listening to.
Athens was a true democracy in the sense that once a month all Athenians would gather at the foot of the Acropolis and discuss the issues facing Athens. It sounds like a dream in theory; everyone participating, everyone having a voice and say in the direction of the government and welfare of the city.
But it wasn’t, despite our fascination and adoration with it today. At least not for Socrates. If he took a picture in front of the Parthenon like so many world leaders today, it would be with a grimace.
Socrates would be raging violently against the state of the world today. He wouldn’t just object to how the opinions were so easily spread, be it social media or traditional media, but to the simple fact that the majority could so easily decide the future based on a contagious, emotional reaction to an issue rather than each thinking on their own to reach a logical solution. The majority didn’t matter to Socrates, what mattered was reason.
Socrates knew that even being right and the majority being wrong doesn’t make holding your minority opinion any easier though. Especially when you have to take in to account what is at sake in your life: career, family, etc.
In the sixth book of Plato’s Republic, Plato records a dialogue between Socrates and Adeimantus. Adeimantus, like many people today, truly believed in the democratic system. He thought it was the best form of government and never truly questioned it. Socrates, being the guy we’ve come to love, tried to show him the flaws of Democracy through a metaphor. The man loved his metaphors.
The Allegory of the Ship isn’t that long, but too long to repost here. In short, he compares society to a ship. And if you were heading out on this ship, would you just want anybody and everybody to vote who is to be the captain of the ship, or people educated in seafaring?
Of course, you would want the latter, as said Adeimantus. So Socrates asks, ‘Why don’t we apply the same logic to how we select who is fit to rule a country?’ (paraphrasing here)
Socrates point is that voting should be considered a skill and not something based on random intuition. To allow just anybody to vote is like putting a model in charge of a ship sailing through a storm because she’s pretty in a bikini rather than her actual ability to navigate the seas.
Okay, so maybe Socrates didn’t really believe we were all that shallow and simple-minded to vote for someone based on their physique, however easy on the eyes they may be.
Socrates no doubt comes off as an elitist of sorts with that kind of speaking, but it wasn’t in the normal way we think of elitism as only certain socio-economic classes should have the privilege to vote. He would want us to distinguish between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. He insisted that only those that thought intelligently and profoundly should be let near a voting booth. Which, as he demonstrated through his life, all of us are capable of doing but don’t make the effort to do so. He even gave us his Socratic Method to help us examine our lives and question the status quo.
Today we take for granted that we all should have a vote and that we are all equal in our opinions about how to lead our societies. We have been given all of this as a right without bringing with it the wisdom needed to truly make these types of decisions. It’s like putting a weapon in the hands of someone emotionally blinded and not trained on how to use the weapon.
What Socrates feared is what we now shout in the streets today when our guy or gal doesn’t win,
‘Demagoguery!’ - dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading’
It is no coincidence that the word is so similar to
‘Democracy!’ - dēmos ‘the people’ + kratos ‘power or rule’
It can be hard to tell the difference between leading and ruling, no? And wait, which one in today’s world is considered to be the positive one and which one is the negative one? Also, why does dēmos look so similar to ‘demons?’
Socrates wasn’t crazy in questioning the democracy back then as we openly have issues with it now. The Trump of Ancient Athens was a rich and louche character named, Alcibiades, who also had a way to win over crowds with his speeches. Alcibiades became marked through history as the man that wore down basic freedoms and pushed Athens into catastrophic wars. This is not to just point at Trump for doing this, many presidents have done the same. Very few US presidents, in fact, have actually helped with giving back freedoms to its citizens. Even fewer have managed to avoid war.
So Socrates knew how simple it was to take advantage of people who wanted easy answers.
Socrates compared our election debates between a doctor and candy store owner.
The candy store owner could easily point to the doctor and paint him as an evil man.
‘This cold doctor thinks he knows what's best for you. This man wants only to point out your sicknesses and then poke you and discomfort you and tell you what you should eat and what you should not do for fun.’
He could then follow up by displaying all the sweets he has to offer that make us feel good and special inside.
What could the doctor say to that? The truth?
If a politician came out and said,
‘Yes, my rival may offer you free healthcare and free education and a secure retirement, all very sweet and comforting, but I will help you to take better care of yourselves. I will teach you what you are doing wrong so you can make things better yourself. You will learn to be self-sufficient and self-reliant rather than depending on someone else. It will be a painful process making this change, but in the long run, it will be for your own good.’
He would be laughed off the stage and beaten in the alley behind the building. Socrates saw how easily people could be bought through empty and unrealistic solutions that seemed to satisfy an immediate desire. He was aware of the problem that came inherit with democracy, that we, the people, will have far more candy store owners than doctors taking care of our welfare.
‘To find yourself, think for yourself.’
So what are we to do? Continue preaching and warring every few years over whose ‘Dema-God’ is better? Well, that is a subject for another article, so feel free to send me your thoughts and follow me for mine.
But enough self-advertising, let’s get back to Socrates and Democracy and see who finally won this sibling feud.
Knowingly walking into a courtroom of his peers that found him suspicious or were even hostile towards him for being that guy that made them question their lives, he knew not many were on his side. He knew he was facing certain death and didn’t lose his nerve.
Socrates was victim to the will of the people in the worst way possible. His ship of fools voted for his death in March, 399 BC on bogus charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and failing to respect the gods the city worshipped.
500 Athenians voted, and though not every one thought him guilty, Democracy is about majority and he was put to death by hemlock. After the executioner gave Socrates the cup and told him to drink it, his legs became heavy. Then his whole body started to become paralyzed from the conine and after just a few minutes his whole body was stiff. His friend Fido leaned forward to close his eyes for the last time.
This tragedy in human history is as devastating for thinking people as Jesus being crucified for Christians.
Though he was killed by his own people for trying to help them, he has been remembered forever as the man that bravely stood up against the will of the majority. Even the prison warder who led Socrates to his death apologized to him and said,
‘that of all the people that who had ever come through the jail,
Socrates was the noblest,
was the most generous,
and the wisest.’