The unexamined life is not a life worth living for a human being.
--Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, 38a
We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did. Socrates’ belief that, as individuals, we need to question the world around us stands at the heart of what it means to live in ‘modern times’. In the Socratic Dialogues, generated twenty-four centuries ago, we find the birth of ethos – ethics – and the identification of the psyche. ‘The First Martyr’ – the Greek martys means ‘witness’ – a witness to ‘truth, virtue, justice’ and ‘freedom of speech’, is commemorated as a bedrock of our civilisation. Socrates stands at the beginning of our world – when democracy and liberty are first conceived as fundamental values of society. We need to understand him because he did not just pursue the meaning of life, but the meaning of our own lives.
Socrates sees us coming. He worries that the pursuit of plenty will bring mindless materialism, that ‘democracy’ will become just a banner under which to fight. What is the point, he says, of warships and city walls and glittering statues if we are not happy? If we have lost sight of what is good?
His is a question that is more pertinent now than ever. He asks: ‘What is the right way to live?’
I am a stinging fly, sent to goad the city as though it were a huge, thoroughbred horse,
which because of its size is rather sluggish and needs to be stirred.
When Socrates comes into focus, in Greece in the fifth century bc, he is no didact: he wanders through the streets of Athens, debating the essence of what it means to be human. For the young men (and women) of the city he is irresistible: his relentless questioning appears to tap man’s potential for self-knowledge. His ‘ethics’ programme centres on the search for the ‘good life’. His, it was whispered – then and through the next 2,400 years – is a voice of incomparable sophia: of knowledge, skill, wisdom and truth.
The greater part of Socrates’ life was spent out in public, in Athens, philosophising unrestricted. But when the philosopher was seventy, Athens turned against him. In March 399 bc the ageing citizen was tried in a religious court and found guilty of both primary and secondary charges: ‘not duly acknowledging the city’s gods and inventing new ones’ and ‘corrupting the youth’. The death sentence was passed: four weeks or so later Socrates killed himself by drinking the hemlock poison left for him by his jailer in his Athenian cell.
Socrates’ arguments were perhaps just too incendiary, too dangerously charismatic. He believed that man had the potential to enjoy perfect happiness. A clue to the contemporary impact of his ideas is given by his pupil Plato. In the Allegory of the Cave, with cool detail, Plato has Socrates describe a race of men who have been born in chains, and who, staring for ever at a cave wall, see only the shadows of creatures above them and believe these shadows to be reality. He then reveals the dismay and joy these captives feel when they are brought, blinking, into the light of the real world. The chained men represent those of humanity who have yet to hear or understand what Socrates has to say.
However, when it comes to wholeheartedly embracing the new, mankind displays a poor record. In a superstitious city, Socrates’ spiritual and moral make-up was unconventional, troubling. He seems to have suffered from some form of epilepsy or ‘petit mal’ (hence his curious cataleptic seizures, when he stared into the distance for hours on end), which in a pious age was interpreted as a malign ‘inner voice’. His contemporary the playwright Aristophanes talks of the passionate men who go to hear him preach and turn their minds to fundamental issues rather than frivolities as having been ‘Socratified’. And in his comedy Clouds, Aristophanes jeers at Socrates’ high-minded eccentricities, has him clamber into a raised bath and scramble around in the clouds to ‘peer at the arse of the moon’. Democracies need pragmatists, yet Socrates refuses to contain himself, to temper the power of principle. So pheme – rumour, gossip – starts to fly through Athena’s city. As the robust philosopher is only too aware, a whispering campaign is the most pernicious and insidious of enemies.
These people who have thrown scandal at me are genuinely dangerous. They’ve used envy and slander and they’re difficult to deal with. I cannot possibly bring them into court to cross-question them or refute their charges. I have to defend myself as if I were boxing with shadows.
Socratic thought and the living Socrates
In all cities, it is easier to hurt a man than to help him.
Plato, Meno, 94e
In the Metropolitan Museum in New York hangs a painting of Socrates, just before death, by the great neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. Socrates – speaking slowly but determinedly, the hemlock about to run through his veins, a martyr to virtue and high principle – is surrounded by agitated disciples. Crouched around his bed are those men such as Plato who will carry his words into literature and thus on into the very DNA of world civilisation.
Now it is time for us to go away, for me to die and for you to live; but which of us is going to a better condition is not known to anyone except god.
This is not a book of philosophic theory. I am a historian, not a philosopher, and cannot possibly better the work of those who have gone before me, who have squeezed ever-evolving interpretations out of Socrates’ philosophical ideas; Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes the Cynic, Al-Kindi, Yehuda ha-Levi, Thomas Hobbes et al. – all these men have tussled with what Socrates’ philosophy means. That is a bulging canon and one I would not presume to augment. But I can turn my eyes to the stones under my feet. I can see how Socrates’ philosophy evolved in his time and his place.
For the purposes of this book, the joy of Socratic thought is that Socrates did not believe in or deal with abstracts. For him, morality stemmed from and emerged to deal with real problems in a real world. The characters he employs as porters for his ideas are often cobblers, bakers, priestesses, whores. Socrates continually emphasises that he is flesh and blood, and that it is as a flesh and-blood man that he lived and understood life. It is one of the reasons his philosophy is so accessible to all of us. So bringing the humble, the archaeological and the physical back into the Socratic experience is appropriate. The totemic ideas that Socrates delivered were, put simply, as much to do with the religious ritual he had just witnessed down at his local harbour, with the pleasure of walking barefoot through Athens, with the death of a loved one, or the horror of living through a wasting-war, as they were with any kind of purely intellectual concept. Socrates’ prime concern was with the world as lived. As this book weaves together the mongrel evidence for his life, where material remains are as valued as literary and documentary sources, a picture emerges of a world that is, for the first time, self-consciously trying to build a ‘civilisation’ that is based on a ‘democracy’.
Yet Socrates is not concerned just with our surroundings, but what is within us. ‘He who orders us to know ourselves is bidding us to become acquainted with our soul.’ Socrates is soulful. The philosopher believes open conversation an essential balm for the psyche. His method gets inner thoughts out into the public sphere, not as a monologue, but as a dialogue. For him this was cathartic – Plato uses the Greek word katharsis– releasing ‘bad things’ from the spirit. Socrates is the first man for whom we have an extant record who explores how we should all live in the world, as the world was working out how to live with itself.
Truth is in fact a purification [katharsis] . . . and self-restraint and justice and courage and wisdom itself are a kind of purification.
Socrates’ philosophy is relevant to all of us, not least because it has been so tenacious. From Elizabeth I to Martin Luther King, from the Third Reich to twenty-first-century America, Socrates’ example has been used to try to understand what society is, and what it should be. Socratic words filled the halls of Italian Renaissance humanists. The Jewish philosopher Yehuda ha-Levi in the eleventh century ad cites Socrates in a dialogue with King Khazar concerning the nature of Judaism. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes scatter their treatises of political theory with Socratic quotations. Socrates was also a central influence in early Islam. Al-Kindi, the ‘first’ self-professed Arab philosopher, certainly the first Muslim philosopher, wrote extensive (long-lost) treatises on Socrates in the ninth century ad.18 Socratic wisdoms were quoted in coloured stone, mortared into the very fabric of public buildings in Samarkand. The philosopher was nominated one of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his nickname ‘The Source’. Socrates’ inner voice was thought by medieval Muslims a sign that he was an angel in poor man’s clothing. Throughout the Arab world from the eleventh century ad up until the present day he was said to refresh and nourish, ‘like . . . the purest water in the midday heat’.
And yet why should we still care for him? Why commemorate this longago life? One good reason is because Socrates does that shocking thing – that thing we still crave – he implies there might be a way to be fulfilled on this earth. Socrates was magnetic because he counselled care of the soul. He believed that men can achieve true happiness only when they are at peace with themselves.20 He suggested it is ‘us’, not ‘them’, who can make things better.
Socrates, as I have said, is tantalisingly elusive. But what we do have in our favour is the physical setting of his ‘not thereness’. If the play of fifthcentury BC Athenian life was lovingly crafted by Plato, and Socrates was his inspiration, then the stage-set, Athens, is still available to all of us. All agree, when it comes to Socrates, that he was down-to-earth. His was a great mind supported by feet of clay. And it is those muddy footsteps that I will follow. So this is not a philosophical, but a topographical map of the man.
There are many reasons why Socrates’ story demands to be told. It is, at its most basic, an electric courtroom drama. The men of Athens vote to exterminate Socrates. They think he is a threat. He thinks he can save the soul of the city. Is this mob-rule, a political conspiracy, or the perfect example of the rule of the majority? Is Socrates’ story a tragedy or a useful staging post in the development of civilisation? Who is in the right? The story of Socrates also incarnates the tension between the freedom of the individual and the regulation of the community. His refusal to compromise ends in his death. It is for this reason that he is hailed as humanity’s first-recorded ideological martyr.
Socrates’ life was spent in search of treasure, of an intimate understanding of humanity. And the combusting energy of that search drove him around the city of Athens. This book pursues the path he burned. His quest was to identify what place ‘the good’ might have in human society. We might not find that ultimate prize; Socrates himself was never sure that he had done so, and the only thing he seems to have been certain of was the futility of trying to find ‘real’ scientific explanations for everything in life. He thought it fruitless to stare at the skies and travel to the ends of the earth in order to catalogue the world, without learning to love it. Yet by inhabiting the Athens that raised him, we might just get a glimpse of the treasure-seeker: hot and cross sometimes, bad-tempered, self-absorbed, brilliant, dangerous, droll. Socrates never lost sight of his own temporality. The day he is condemned to death he declares: ‘I am, as Homer puts it, “not born of an oak or a rock”, but of human parents.’ And so this books aims, physically, to inhabit Socrates’ Athens – not just as recorded and as promoted, but as lived and experienced.
The city of Athens is Socrates. Nothing means more to Socrates than Athens, and, more importantly, than the Athenians within it. He tells one of his colleagues, Phaedrus, that his home, his world, is the city – a city full of people. For Socrates, people are his magnetic North: he loved them. Xenophon reports that his conversations ‘were always about human concerns. He dealt with questions such as how people please and displease the gods, what is the essence/purpose of beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice, prudence and moderation, courage and cowardice.’
All his philosophy is drawn to understanding the being of men and women around him. This understanding, this consciousness of one’s own consciousness, is what Socrates calls the psyche – the life-breath or soul. And it is in the city of Athens, between the years 469 and 399 bc, that Socrates’ soul flits.
My ambition is very simple: to re-enter the streets of Athens in real time. Not to revisit a Golden Age city, but to look at a real city-state that was forging a great political experiment and riveting a culture; a city that suffered war and plague as well as enjoying great triumphs. To inhabit a place that is at once absolutely recognisable and utterly strange. To breathe the air Socrates breathed. To meet democrats who pre-date democracy and philosophers who operate before the science of philosophy is born. This history is pathos. Socrates’ life and trial and death by hemlock are stories that Athens did not want fully told, but which we need to hear.