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 Plato uses him as a character in many of the Dialogues - which have perhaps had more influence on philosophy than anything else written - 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 theoretically pious; but he describes how his conduct is guided by frequent personal revelations, in the form of a warning voice which communicates divine guidance - the voice saying mostly what he must not do - Socrates 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.

From the Apology, 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 therefore not because of duty to the gods.

And 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 is intensely patriotic: he 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 his religious philosophical activity - despite the unpopularity and the dangers this brings - simply because Apollo has laid the duty upon him; and if he ever considers doing anything else, he is warned (by personal revelation) to cease.

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 acting much like 'a philosopher' - and not at all acting as a philosopher in the modern sense; but Socrates as a divinely-inspired and guided prophet - and one who became a martyr by the strict 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 (what later men mean by) 'philosophy'.

On the contrary, as well as being rigorous and indomitable; Socrates' aims and methods were apparently simple, straightforward, easily understandable, loving and humble - that is, 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.