The Modern-Day Socrates
Modern philosophy, as we know it today, could be traced back to the glorious triunity of three ancient Greek philosophers namely Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, in the order of their respective succession. Most of modern philosophy finds its roots in the pool of thought formed by the three. In this journal, I aim to address Socrates in careful detail, and impressions of his legacy in today’s world.
Socrates, Athen’s street-corner philosopher, is known to be born in 470 BC and remains occluded from the primary literature. His mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife- through her, Socrates gives birth to the truth. As discussed in class, the figure of Socrates is rather unattractive- short, plump, not even close to being muscular or sinewy as portrayed in most busts today. He also fought in wars, which perhaps had an effect on his philosophy and caused him to question the expense of happiness. The only way we can know him is through Plato, his disciple’s classical writings, and hence Socrates will thereafter mean the Platonic Socrates. He is also discovered through the historian Xenophon’s writings, where he claims that all he knows is that he knows nothing. Socrates’ chief philosophical style, also known as the Socratic Method or the elenchus, is a style of teaching which involves a series of questions thrown at the learner, while simultaneously addressing the topic at hand. Socrates, at the central point of art, culture, and urbanization, began to explore his fellow Athenians through this method of engaging in discussions and conversations. Immediate contact with students brought about a sense of honesty and truthfulness, as well a sense of introspective brooding. It is pointed out multiple times that Socrates never, in fact, believed himself to be a teacher, rather simply a seeker of knowledge through the outside world. It is hard to complete an article on Socrates without bringing up his most emphatic, resounding quote that the course actually began with -
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
As discussed in class, American philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that Socrates’ disciple Plato was, in fact, the first feminist. Through Socrates’ teacher Diotima of Mantinea, a woman, who plays a pivotal role in Plato’s The Symposium, the credibility of a feminine figure as a teacher or a prophetess is established. Instigated by the discussion, I became curious about Diotima’s figure- was she a historically real person or just a literary figure drawn to magnify the poetic effect in Plato’s writings and force people to think about love, or “erôs”? My curiosity led me to realize that just as Socrates or Plato, Diotima also had a metaphorical role in Greek philosophy. She represented love and wisdom, and impregnated Socrates with impressions on love and instilled a love for knowledge in him.
The Socratic Problem, or the Socratic Question, is simply the fact that one can never know Socrates in depth because almost all of his teachings can only be found through secondary sources since he never wrote anything down himself. This can raise doubt and contradictions within the writings, which make him a much celebrated enigmatic figure. I believe it is the paradox that makes me all the more interested in investigating Socrates further.
I personally believe the Socratic style of teaching should be brought back to the modern world, where most educational institutions, particularly primary to middle schools, often suppress the ideas of critical thinking and indulging in the process of doubt and question. A modern-day Socrates would find students sitting in a cafeteria and plunge into a series of questions with them, just for the sake of intelligent dialogue and discourse. This may put most people off, but this is essentially how critical thinking could be reinforced. In modern times, where texting has become the primary mode of communication, the beauty of dialogue remains underappreciated. Studying Socrates could promote the concept of language and dialogue that sprouts out of nowhere. Asking the right questions, and not knowing their answers is perfectly acceptable in the Socratic way of teaching. The concept of love stays obscure until we ask, “What is love?”; the concept of fear stays obscure until we ask, “What is fear?”.
Moreover, Socrates stood up for his beliefs and was ready to die to defend them. After having been convicted of lack of reverence and corrupting the morals of the youth of Athens, he was tried and sentenced to death. This is a time where Athens was crumbling after having been at the apex of its radicalism, and at an internal war with ideals and the freedom of speech. The entire abstraction of democracy was at trial. His death, famously painted by Jacques-Louis David, shows Socrates presented with a cup of poisoned hemlock. Socrates lived a life dedicated to philosophy, and it reflects through his stoic old-man face in the painting. I believe the young generations could greatly benefit by drawing inspiration from his boundless sincerity to his methods.
Socrates’ premises were often counterintuitive, yet so fresh and engaging that men and women, particularly young, would gather around him to hear him speak. In the words of Cicero, he brought philosophy down from the skies. The inquiries he made were not all obtuse or conceptual; he even asked practical questions such as, “What makes us happy?”, “How should we live our lives best?” and so on.
Socrates pointed out the need for love in a world overtaken by war and a thirst for money and fortification. This shows that his philosophy was also inclined to real-world problems. In my opinion, this reflection draws even greater context in the modern world, where everyone is engrossed in their 9 to 5’s, almost robotic and unfeeling to the idea of happiness and things that should matter in life. Through Socrates’ two-thousand-year-old quest into the meaning of life, one can learn a good deal about how to live it.