NO EVIL CAN BEFALL A GOOD MAN EITHER HERE OR HEREAFTER
THE DEATH OF SOCRATES
Ms. Emily Wilson is the author of this book( Harvard, 247 pages, $ 19.95) and it was reviewed by Thomas Meaney and the article with the title ‘ The Afterlife of a Skeptic ‘ had appeared in The Wall Street Journal in its edition of Saturday/Sunday, November 24-25, 2007. The book deals with as to how the execution of a philosopher has been reinterpreted for every era. The history of the interpretation of Socrates’ death speaks about the history of philosophy in the West. Mr. Meaney begins his review with the observation that the name of Socrates recalls his death more than his bewilderingly eccentric life.
Socrates, ancient Athenian philosopher, is best remembered for his admonition to ” KNOW THY SELF “. He laid the philosophical foundations of Western Culture. He made an effort to shore up the ethical dimension of life. He directed philosophical thought toward analyses of the character and conduct of human life. As Cicero said, Socrates “brought down philosophy from heaven to earth” – i.e. from the nature speculation of the Ionian and Italian cosmologists to analyses of the character and conduct of human life, which he had assessed in terms of an original theory of the soul. Socrates turned philosophy away from a study of the way things are toward a consideration of virtue and the health of the human soul. He was a man of deep piety with the temperament of a mystic. He believed in the soul’s immortality and had claimed that the soul of man partakes of the Divine. Socrates held himself to be an envoy from God. He believed himself charged with a mission from God to make his fellowmen aware of their ignorance and of the supreme importance of knowledge of what is for the soul’s good.
Socrates redirected philosophy from cosmology to the formulation of a rule of life, to the “practical use of reason”. The specific message from God that Socrates brought to his fellowmen was that of the “care” or “tending” of one’s ” soul, to make one’s soul as good as possible”- “making it like God”, infact – and not to ruin one’s life, as most men do, by putting care for the body or for “possessions” before care for the “soul”; for the “soul” is that which is most truly a man’s self. According to Socrates the soul is the man. He believed that to do wrong is to damage one’s soul. From this it follows that it is always worse to do wrong than to be wronged and that one must never return wrong for wrong. He had also maintained that virtue is knowledge and that all the virtues really amount to knowledge. His self-control and powers of endurance were exemplary. His self-imposed life of hardships and austerity was the price of his spiritual independence.
Socrates believed that he can teach merely by asking the right questions. He spent his life in conversation with Athenian citizens, seeking true knowledge and exposing the errors of those who claimed to have wisdom. Socrates would challenge anyone with a pretense to knowledge. Socrates had ushered in an age of rational inquiry. According to Socrates, the radical vice of ancient democracy is that of putting society in the hands of men without true insight and with no adequate expert knowledge( and in this regard, Socrates is absolutely correct and even today that is the biggest danger of Democracy!!!). He had expected that statesmen should act like “physicians of the body politic” and that they should promote ” righteousness and temperance”.
Socrates was indicted for “impiety”, “corruption of the young” and “neglect of the gods whom the city worships and the practice of religious novelties”. He had elevated virtue over the gods themselves, whose approval was so central to Athenian civil life. Socrates had claimed that he could prick the city into a higher state of self-awareness by disturbing its settled world view. In Plato’s account of the trial, ” The Apology “, Socrates defends himself not as a victim of censorship but as a benefactor of Athens. In an open- air Athenian court room in 399 B.C., the world’s first democracy sentenced one of the world’s first public intellectuals to death for disrespecting the city’s gods and leading its youth astray. His disciples were prepared to help him escape, but Socrates baffled them when he cheerfully swigged his lethal cup of hemlock after praising the city that wanted him gone. Socrates died for choosing the right to speak his conscience.
In the 18 th and 19 th centuries, Socrates was a hero aswellas a scourge for the best minds of their ages. Nietzsche saw Socrates as a deleterious species of cultural sickness. For him, Socrates marked the beginning of the regrettable triumph of ” naive rationalism “.Socrates’ death was a hostile act that, by championing a deadeningly abstract and unattainable notion of virtue, precluded living authentically in the world. Socrates is described as a radical skeptic. Ms. Wilson in her book concludes her interpretation of Socrates’ death with a curiously banal argument. She charges that Socrates wasn’t a good family man.
In the closing words of his speech to the jury, Socrates says : ” when my sons grow up, punish them, and pain them in the very same way I pained you, if they seem to you to care about money or anything else before virtue. And if they are reputed to be something when they are nothing, reproach them just as I did you, tell them that they do not care for the things they should, and that they suppose they are something when they are worth nothing “. The man who had been condemned to death for corrupting the sons of the city ends his life by instructing his executioners about how to treat his own children.He goes to his death with his faith in his own reason. After 2,400 years, it is still a resounding epitaph.
I am totally surprised by the book and its review. In the West, there appears to be no awareness of the ideas and thoughts that are routinely expressed in the East. I would not describe Socrates as a “SKEPTIC” and I would never describe his way of life as “ECCENTRIC”. I would compare Socrates to Shiva on one hand and on the other, I would compare him to Gautama Buddha. If Jesus Christ, who had written nothing, spent His time talking to people, when put on trial did not defend Himself and made no attempt to protect His personal life and did not return to His earthly parents’ home, could be called ” The Savior of Mankind “, I would most certainly uphold Socrates’ claim that he is a “BENEFACTOR”.
COMMENT SENT BY PROF. R. SUBBARAO :
You have beautifully said that knowledge that is so common in East, is so rare in the West. I wonder how would the West view Indian spiritual traditions like Dakshinamurthy who had never said a word but taught only in silence!!!.Sri Ramana Maharshi was very similar to Dakshinamurthy. Indian Masters always said that the Truth gets distorted when spoken.
A large chunk of Indian spirituality is based upon Question-Answer type(Upanishads have come into existence by that route only).The Indian tradition has survived because it was passed generation after generation by word of mouth. Socrates’ approach was totally in line with the Indian Masters’ approach.
COMMENT POSTED BY MAJOR(RETD). RUDRA
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