Sunday, 29 June 2014

What kind of man was Socrates? A prophet, not a 'philosopher'


I have recently been studying Plato's Apology (Apology = 'Justification'), which is the speech Socrates gave in court as a defence of his life and actions, against Athenian accusers. He was found guilty of various charges and condemned to death - drinking poison.


Plato was a pupil of Socrates, and uses him as a character in many of the Dialogues - which have perhaps had more influence on philosophy than anything else - except perhaps Aristotle's work.

Over the years I have read a great deal about Socrates, including a source book which collected all the non-Plato references. And at the end of the day I found myself more confused than enlightened.

But if it is assumed that the Socrates of later dialogues is more-or-less a mouthpiece of Platonic philosophy, and if our focus is therefore placed almost wholly on the Apology, then a clear picture of Socrates emerges which is very different from how I have usually regarded him. 


1. Socrates is primarily a religious man.  

The Apology is replete with pious references to The God (of Delphi - i.e. Apollo) and the gods as a whole - everything Socrates does and his reasons for doing things is ultimately referenced back to God/ the gods.

Not only is Socrates abstractly pious, but he describes how his conduct is guided my frequent personal revelations in the form of a warning voice which communicates divine guidance on what he must not do - he is left to his own devices in deciding what he should do. 


2. Socrates seems to have no other philosophical views except this piety to the gods.

Socrates only positive agenda - which was laid upon him by Apollo via the Oracle of Delphi is to expose the pretension, hypocrisy, selfishness and arrogance of the Athenian ruling elite.

He uses the standard 'legal' method of cross examination to demonstrate that the elite have views that are incoherent; and that they think more of themselves than of the gods - that they take personal credit for what are actually divine gifts.

For example, Socrates discovers that the politicians and orators are incoherent and working on their own behalf (not that of the gods), that the poets and creative artists dishonestly claim ownership of an inspiration which is actually divine, and that the skilled craftsmen assume that specific technical skill confers upon them general wisdom.


In general, Socrates deplores professionalism - the corruption of people doing things for money, which means for themselves and not from duty to the gods  - but especially he deplores professional philosophers (i.e. professors).

In general, Socrates ideals are humility before the gods, and piety towards the gods - as known by revelations and 'laws'.


Socrates loves Athens - he has almost-never left the tiny city during seventy years. He personalizes the city in terms of its 'laws' by which he means not just its rules, but the traditions, customs and ideals - and the Athenian gods behind these practices.

Socrates engages in this activity - despite the unpopularity and the dangers this brings - simply because Apollo has laid the duty upon him - when he considers doing anything else, we is warned to stop. For the same reason, Socrates will not cease from his philosophical activities - whatever the court may say.


What comes through from the apology is Socrates not so much as a philosopher - and not at all a philosopher in the modern sense; but Socrates as a divinely inspired and guided prophet - and one who became a martyr in the strictest definition of being killed for his religion when he could have escaped death by repudiating his religion.

The Apology tells us that Socrates was therefore a model of religious piety, devoted to his city state and its customs, traditions and laws; and therefore Socrates was NOT - as so often portrayed and understood - any kind of proto-skeptical, atheistical, counter-cultural intellectual rebel - interested only in abstract ideas, and loyal only to 'philosophy'.

On the contrary, as well as being rigorous and indomitable; Socrates' aims and methods were apparently simple, straightforward, easily understandable, loving and humble - to recall a corrupt society back to divine service.


Socrates was therefore in the major essentials very much like an Old Testament prophet - and the differences were mostly of nomenclature (Apollo instead of the Hebrew God), details, circumstances and style.



TE said...

There's an interesting book called "The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture" by an Orthodox Jew. The author makes a similar and complementary case, but in the reverse-- that the Hebrew prophets should be considered philosophers, and that in fact a prophet is necessarily a philosopher. The book is flawed in many respects as to specifics, but I found the general thesis quite sound and useful. Overall, he makes a good case that the common Western Christian dichotomy of "reason versus revelation," and "Athens vs Jerusalem," (with Athens=reason and Jerusalem=revelation) is severely flawed.

I think this is right. It seems to me that both Athens and Jerusalem never saw reason and revelation as separate domains, or religion and philosophy as contradictory. Reason itself is properly seen as a God given ability; and thus a subset of revelation.

I've also never personally been able to approach philosophy without a sort of religious reverence or religion without a philosophical mindset.

Rubio said...

....In general, Socrates deplores professionalism - the corruption of people doing things for money, which means for themselves and not from duty to the gods...

And that was before mass production and marketing.

John F said...

Socrates was pious par excellence to the glorious end. The Phaedo, another early dialogue, shows Socrates' last words to be:

"Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget."

Of course, he was being a little ironical with respect to his understandably traumatized disciples, literally giving due thanks to the gods for curing him of mortal life.

Another early dialogue, the Euthyphro, supposedly introduces a "dilemma" regarding the so-called authority of "the gods" to prescribe the Good. Lost in this modern philosophical sophistication is Socrates' point: have a truer relationship to the true God and the true Good!

From the Apology: "but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise". Dr. Charlton, is this truly the first time you've revisited Socrates with this understanding of his character in mind? If so, hardly any other historical men will have more to teach you-- or any of us-- about the true nature of philosophy and the good life. The endeavoring love of sophia, which is something like "actionable truth", characterizes the true philosopher; and for the Greeks, sophia was akin to Athena, sprung fully armored from the head of Zeus himself.

You've probably read the story of Barfield interrupting Lewis when the latter referred to philosophy as a "subject". It was not a subject, said Barfield, it was "a way". It was the same with Socrates to a heroic degree, and "the way" with which one relates himself to his life and the Good of his life certainly belongs in the religious sphere.

"And here, O men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to say something extravagant. For the word which I will speak is not mine."

John F said...

I should add that the voice whom Socrates spoke of, the voice of "the God", was concretely tied to the voice of the Pythia at Delphi. "Know thyself" is the most well-known Delphic inscription, but it has been twisted to modern individualistic tendencies. In the true sense, to know one's self is to know who one is-- a human being, contingent and mortal-- and who one is not: a god, let alone "the God." There is a strong sense of religious anthropology to the phrase which has escaped most of modern philosophy (Kierkegaard is a prominent exception).

Bruce Charlton said...

@JF "Dr. Charlton, is this truly the first time you've revisited Socrates with this understanding of his character in mind?"

My current reading was to look at the Apology in isolation - because it seems to me that all the other works have what feel like alien aspects of 'Platonic' metaphysics inserted as a positive 'message' (e.g. the parable of the cave - which implicitly places philosophical enquiry above revelation).

If the Apology is seen as the real Socrates - he could never have become the hero of modern atheistic rationalists - whether radical or reactionary - as he did.

Wade McKenzie said...

"After long consideration, I thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, 'Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.'"

Apology, 21 (Jowett trans.)

Vader said...

"Know thyself"

John, are you suggesting that the proper sense is somewhat akin to "Know your place"?

Anonymous said...

Here is an interesting article proposing the same 'Socrates: Philosopher or Prophet?'