Friday, September 25, 2009

Debunking Socrates?

The essay due on Monday morning--concerning the role of the individual and government in ancient Greece: to what extent did Socrates' ideas/behavior challenge Pericles' account of the Athenian state and society?

A year ago I had no knowledge of the ancient world. Knowledge can inspire us and challenge us.

Socrates, in Plato's account of his trial, says that a truly just man could never participate in public discourse because he would naturally oppose State practices and eventually be killed for his opinions. Rather grim perspective of the corruption of governing bodies. Instead of participating in the community dialogue, he allowed the young rich men of Athens to follow him around and listen to him ridicule and humiliate the prominent poets, craftsmen and politicians of the day, proving that their basic human motivations weren't logical. The young men ate it up--here were respected men of the city who had worked for years to develop their crafts and cultivate expertise in their fields--and Socrates made them look like confused children.

What a friggin hero.

Naturally, enamored with this wisdom and strength (not virtue), they imitated his obnoxious orthopraxy all around the city, probably creating a whole new class of professionals. Professional irritants. Pulling up wheat and weeds indiscriminantly.

I cannot hide the fact that I think Socrates was a fatalist who, seeing the Golden age of Athens stretched too tightly around him, perhaps felt that the debunking of status quo- whether in regards to piety, justice or freedom--was not only natural but also beneficial. Although it would mean the end of the State as it was and life as he had enjoyed it.

He bites the hand that feeds him, and finally, the hand closes around his neck. What I find a little grotesque is that he did his duty on the surface and then under many guises of curiosity and searching undermined the State that had required the duty and valor of him.

He seemed wise out of context, apart from neglecting the care of his family and hiding his opposotion in circular and sarcastic debunking. A man who really cared about others would have risked himself more. He shows people to be foolish by proving that people often have a very hard time defining the things they feel most passionate about, almost as if to say that you only have the right to feel strongly toward things you perfectly understand and can perfectly define. In every era, it's the things that mystify us that capture our fascination and enrapture our affections. We are slaves to powers we don't particularly understand and that's nothing to be ashamed of.

This essay is going to be hard.


  1. Yep, I was right. I knew you were up to something academic this evening.

  2. The biggest problem, as you know, about forming an opinion about Socrates is that most of what we know about him comes from the mouths of other people. People who weren't claiming to be writing history or to be writing unbiased. It's obvious he liked to "stick it to the man," but we don't always know his motivations, which does indeed make writing/thinking about him hard.

    If I remember right, a couple of the times he stood up against those in power it was to save lives of people he thought innocent. If those accounts are true, he risked a lot for the sake of others. He was probably arrogant and condescending and fatalistic at times (Aren't we all.), but I don't know if that defined him. It could have, but I bet it was a lot more complicated than that. If only Ken Burns could have been there to put together a 12 hour documentary for us! Good luck on the paper and thanks for reminding me of things I studied a long time ago!

  3. Matt: of course I wouldn't dream of accusing the unknowable Socrates of injustice--it's only Socrates as a character that matters because it's the character, invented or real, that has been so influential for so long. And not without reason, he clearly was wise and clever.I've often printed out quotes ascribed to him on pieces of paper and posted them as inspriational motivators. Which is why I don't like this Socrates character just now. It just now occurs to me that the man believed action to be the fruit of certainty--and believed acting in matters that aren't clearly defined or in which you aren't fully certain to be sort of unjust. Pericles, is recounted as having said in his funeral speech that happiness is the fruit of freedom which comes from valor. He and others of his generation who built the Golden age of Greece seemed to believe that action comes from courage--courage in the fave of unknowns, which I think is a form of certainty that perhaps did not come naturally to a philosophical man like Socrates. I think other things about Socrates but I will have to test them against other writings about him that I haven't gotten to yet. These essays take you places you'd never imagine, I tell you what.

  4. "He and others of his generation who built the Golden age of Greece seemed to believe that action comes from courage--courage in the fave of unknowns, which I think is a form of certainty that perhaps did not come naturally to a philosophical man like Socrates." That's an excellent observation and intriguing question. You've almost convinced me to dig through some old books and notes. Stop making me want to go back to school! Hope you write more about Socrates (Every time I type his name I think of Bill and Ted pronouncing it SO CRATES and it reminds me I'm not as smart as I'd like to be. Then I laugh.) and your paper. I love learning through other people's hard work.

  5. I love the way you think and write. Love it.




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