What makes Socrates timeless

What makes Socrates timeless
The Classical Greek world in general and the city of Athens in particular produced many wise men including Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, Solon, Anaxagoras, Protagoras and a host of others. However, the most respected philosopher among them was Socrates, a sage for all times.

Socrates left no written record of his own; neither a biographical note nor a treatise of his thinking. We know of his life and work through two of his extremely able followers, who themselves continue to be relevant even with the passage of two and a half millennia. They were Plato, the celebrated philosopher who along with his student, Aristotle, is considered as the founders of modern Western philosophy. The other was scholar and general Xenophon, one of the heroes and commanders of the much celebrated Ten Thousand; the band of Spartan and Greek mercenaries who participated in the Persian civil war of 401 BC on the losing side but then heroically fought their way back to their own country. Xenophon wrote many books including the much acclaimed Anabasis; widely translated and made in to a film in Hollywood.

Both Plato and Xenophon have written extensive and detailed accounts of Socrates covering his career, dialogues, trial, defense and death. Plato’s dialogue titled Crito is one of the most moving writings ever and forms basis of modern concept of the Social Contract; the very foundation of democracy. Crito should be taught to every schoolchild as a way of creating social responsibility and affiliation to society.

The dialogue with Crito, a rich friend of Socrates occurs a couple of days before the latter is due to be administered the hemlock -the cup of poison. Crito had bribed the prison guards and had come to spirit away his friend. However, Socrates engages him in a a dialogue to see whether it was better to obey the law and die, or to escape justice and live. After a short discourse, he comes to the conclusion that laws in a democratic, free nation are an indivisible whole. They cannot be regarded as good when they go in one’s favour and bad when they go against. In his death, he taught that it is virtuous to submit to the laws and not ‘overthrow’ them even if the laws are, at times, unjustly implemented.
Plato quotes Socrates telling his judges, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows”

Like all social reformers, Socrates had many foes. After all, he was tried in an open court where five hundred citizen jurors sat on judgment and found him guilty by a majority of 280 to 220, and condemned him to death by a vote of 360 to 140. The Athenians had turned against him because he would question their leaders, prove them wrong or ignorant and embarrass them. The city elders were mocked by the youth, who, for the most part, followed Socrates. People in power felt threatened and wanted to get rid of Socrates.

Socrates was charged with “ridiculing the gods” and “corrupting the youth” through his teachings. These charges are clear evidence that Socrates had influenced the youth to stand up against the established order and practices to create a just society.

Mughal-era depiction of Mansur
al-Hallaj being executed

In the opening paragraph of Memoribilia, Xenophon describes the life and method of Socrates as almost prophetic. Socrates lived a very public life. Early in the morning, he would walk along one of the main streets of Athens or be at one of the several wrestling-grounds, at noon he would appear in the marketplace and in the evenings, he would be wherever the largest crowds were found. He would talk to anyone who chose to stop and listen. Yet no one ever heard him say, or saw him do anything impious or irreverent. He never claimed to have any particular knowledge but stated that, through his dialogues with people of all shades, he sought to learn. He preached and practiced virtue, as he knew it to be. Plato quotes him in Gorgias saying, “You will never come to any harm in the practice of virtue.” He also advised, “Act as you believe.”

His teachings were simple but telling. Here is a rephrasing of a passage from Xenophon’s Memorabilia, “Let a man sow a field or plant a farm never so well, yet he cannot foretell who will gather the fruits: another may build him a house of fairest proportion, yet he knows not who will inhabit it. Neither can a general foresee whether it will profit him to conduct a campaign, nor a politician be certain whether his leadership will turn to evil or good. Nor can the man who weds a fair wife, looking forward to joy, know whether through her he shall not reap sorrow.”

He had several students and never turned back anyone who wanted to speak to him during day or night. Plato depicts him being visited by a follower in the later part of night and engaged in discussion till sunrise. It was a practice in Athens in those days that parents paid the learned men to teach ethics and politics to their children. Yet, Socrates never accepted any payment for his efforts because he thought that true and objective knowledge can only be imparted when there is no money involved in the teacher-student relationship. We understand that he had very few wants and lived a frugal life.

Subsequently, his teachings were interpreted in widely divergent manner. Admittedly, this is true for any religion or philosophy as, over time, the message is contorted by different schools of thought. Among his students and followers were, on one extreme, Antisthenes of Athens (l. c. 445-365 BCE), founder of the Cynic school, who taught that the good life was only realized by self-control and self-abnegation, and, on the other extreme, Aristippus of Cyrene (l. c. 435-356 BCE), founder of the Cyrenaic school), who claimed that a life of pleasure was the only path worth pursuing.

At the end of Apology -his defense of the charges against him- Plato quotes Socrates telling his judges, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.”

This is clearly a prophetic statement by a man who, though certain of his just stand, is uncertain of his impact on society. He laments that he has been misunderstood by the people in power. He knows that he is on the right side of history but on the wrong side of his society. He also knows that he will become immortal in death because earlier in his defense, he had reminded his judges that, “[...] Know of a certainty, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.”

The life, trial and death of Socrates is a familiar narrative in the world history. We are reminded of a long line of Sufis in Islam and saints in Christianity who were similarly persecuted for their non-conformal ideas. Imam Hussain and his seventy two companions chose the path of sacrifice rather than of compromise. Mansur al-Hallj in 922, Hamadani  in 1131, Suharwardy in 1191, Bedruddin in 1420 and Sarmad in 1661 embraced death rather than abandon their message. Similarly, Saints Peter, Clement, Bartholomew, Catherine, Lawrence and scores more in early Christianity were brutally tortured and killed by the Roman monarchs. Guru Arjun was tortured to death as he refused to give up his teachings.

In the case of Socrates, the democratic Athenians went through the charade of a public trial on trumped up charges –  though his opponents in the jury, in order to protect their interests, were already resolved to get rid of him.

Socrate’s life demonstrates that ultimately truth prevails, though it requires tremendous conviction to be steadfast and to bear adversity with courage. He was calm in the final moments of his life.

When an agitated friend comes to see him in prison, he finds Socrates fast asleep like an innocent child. This peace of the soul can only be attained through a lifelong struggle to uphold justice and truth. Socrates lived and died for justice and virtue.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com