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Socrates and the Enlightenment Path
By William Bodri
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2001 William Bodri
All rights reserved.
The Historical Socrates
When people think of the great seminal cultures of the world, they typically think of the Indian, Chinese, Near Eastern and Greco-Roman civilizations. When they trace the development of present-day Western civilization, they turn primarily to ancient Greece and Rome. Most often, however, they focus on ancient Greece, for even the ancient Romans acknowledged Greece as preeminent in art, literature, religion and philosophy. Indeed, Rome often imitated or adopted Greek culture as its own.
To be correct, we must say that it was religion that served as the primary cultural foundation in ancient Greece. From the roots of religion, philosophical inquiry arose and philosophy, in turn, served as the progenitor of what we now call science. If we trace its roots, we can even say that our own scientific culture gradually evolved from religious to philosophical impulses, and from a subsequent transition through logic and philosophy to science.
The motivating force behind religion, science, and philosophy has always been a search for answers to the deeper questions of the meaning of life. People of all cultures and times have speculated and theorized about the origins of life and the universe, the individual and the mind.
Historically, religion has usually been the first cultural force to propose initial solutions to these questions. Not everyone is satisfied with religious solutions, however, because these often require blind belief and faith. From the first stirring impulses of religion, people therefore turned to other means to answer their deepest inquiries. They broke away from the confines of religion and religious dogma and started to ask questions for themselves, forming conjectures and hypotheses that prompted the development of logic and philosophy.
This initial break from the limitations of religious dogma usually manifested itself as a study of our own internal world of thought. This inquiry into the world of thought eventually produced the realm of philosophy. If one philosophy could be valid, however, so could another. Hence philosophical inquiry, even though it represented an advancement over blind faith and belief, still did not offer any definite answers to the great questions concerning the origins of life and the universe. The factor of experiential understanding was still missing.
With every philosophy that arose regarding the structure of the universe and cosmic order, doubts also arose as to whether it was the subjective product of one individual mind, or whether it reflected the way things objectively were. In response to these doubts, the field of logic arose as a means to study, organize, and validate the world of thoughts. In other words, logic arose in response to the need for a methodology that could be used to study and validate the internal realm of thought.
Historical trends show that the philosophical approach, as well as the study of logic, was found to be unsatisfactory in time. Logic and philosophy, like religion, failed to provide any solid, verifiable answers to vital questions concerning the origins or meaning of life. The problem lies in the fact that studying thoughts entails studying ephemeral things particular to individuals—concepts that may have no universal validity. Furthermore, this type of study doesn't lead to any sort of direct, "experiential" tasting of reality. After all, it only deals with thoughts, not tangibles. In response to this objection, there eventually arose the idea of experimentally testing and investigating the world of external phenomena. This idea of experiential validation eventually developed into the present field of scientific inquiry.
The original purpose of science was to provide solid, reliable answers in inquiries into the meaning of life and other deep questions about the cosmos. Today, however, science has developed a rather specialized function. Nevertheless, science dearly has its roots buried deep in this original soil of religious and philosophic inquiry. Its original purpose was to help determine whether the ideas of philosophy were fantasy and whim, or truthful understandings of the real nature of the world. Once established, however, science began to develop a life of its own—one that carried it far beyond its initial range of inquiry.
Will science ever satisfy our longing to know the origins of life, the universe, and the mind? People think it may, just as they depended on logic, philosophy, mathematics, and linguistics to deliver those answers. The actual answer to the question, however, is a flat "no." Science can only investigate the world of form and, as science now stands, it can know nothing of either the spiritual realm or the real, formless realm of mind. Only through the "path of cultivation for self-realization" can we hope to find our true spiritual roots and being. Only the field of spiritual cultivation fills this gap between mind and matter and explains the source of both.
If we look back to the time when the early Greek philosophers started to form their own opinions about the nature of humanity and the world, we find that most intellectual inquiry had its roots in religion. Philosophical inquiry originally served as an alternative means for arriving at truth—the truth that religion sought to reveal. Since the questions of the early philosophers dealt with the origin and nature of humankind and the universe, they eventually began to ask of what the universe might be composed.
Some early Greek philosophers said that it was composed of the water element. Some suggested fire, some said air, and others suggested light. Some even said that everything contained a bit of everything else. Democritus said the material world was made of atoms, echoing an idea earlier championed by the Vedic sages of India.
In 469 B.C., when early Greek philosophical questioning was not well defined, Socrates was born in a small village outside of Athens. Socrates' father was a sculptor and his mother was a midwife. At this time, philosophy was still a young subject, just developing. Comparing it to modern trends, we could say it was the "rage of his day." Hence, Socrates kept an open ear to these matters. In observing all the arguments and speculations that were tossed about, he soon determined that most of the philosophical speculations were worthless.
Many different opinions vied for ascendency in the philosophical debate. Some were blatantly incorrect; others could not be proved. Moreover, the ideas presented were of no practical benefit to anyone! In fact, hindsight tells us that philosophies or religions with no connection to the great questions of birth and death, universal origins, morality, or human behavior will not last. This, however, was precisely the state of Greek thought in Socrates' time. Most of the philosophical strivings of Socrates' day fell into this category, because they were of no practical benefit to humanity as a whole or to the community at large. Nor were they even relevant to the spiritual development of a single individual. They were simply idle speculation. Even if their various conjectures could be proved, they held no ultimate relevance to the character and behavior of human beings.
It is said that Socrates eventually met the philosopher Parmenides, who maintained that the world is merely illusion and appearance. In other words, the world of phenomena, over which the philosophical debate raged, was not the "real" world and did not reflect the absolute nature of a person's being. Echoing the enlightenment teachings of the East, Parmenides maintained that the only true reality consists of boundless, formless, unchanging, and indivisible eternal being. As for the mundane realm of phenomenal existence we see about us, Parmenides taught that it was simply an empty display of the Absolute, a transient appearance subject to constant fluctuating change and decay. Furthermore, all the individual pieces of this display were inseparably interconnected in one larger whole. None of this was substantial, however, or valid on its own. It was all just ephemeral appearance.
This idea is a familiar one to Eastern philosophy. It is akin to the Eastern idea of an Absolute nature clothed in an everchanging web of illusive maya. The maya aspect of illusion isn't the true reality, because it has an ungraspable nature that is always changing. There's nothing fixed within it, so, like an ephemeral dream, nothing in it is real. No phenomenon we can ever identify is real because, despite surface appearances, there's nothing you can grasp and nothing you can hold onto, for nothing ever stays. What is there for the moment changes in the very next moment, so what it was before becomes "empty," or nonexistent.
If you accept this concept as your philosophical foundation, a fundamental question arises: If the world is illusion anyway, why bother to study it? If you seek the ultimate truth and the Absolute nature we call reality, the only important matter should be trying to experience the fundamental true reality that exists behind the ever-changing screen of delusion, behind the world of maya-like illusion. If you're a philosopher seeking truth, this truth, itself, should be the object of your quest.
Socrates, struck by the useless arguments of other philosophers of his day, seems to have adopted this view. Rather than adding further useless speculation to the fray, Socrates turned his attention to questioning the things that really mattered in life. Echoing the Chinese Tien-tai teachings of cessation and contemplation known as meditative introspection, he adopted the maxim that we must know ourselves and strive to perfect ourselves. Socrates is remembered for continually emphasizing that we must concern ourselves with virtue, and constantly watch or examine ourselves for errors. His famous saying was, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
For the benefit of others, Socrates tried to redirect people's focus to the important issues in life: the true spiritual self, and assuring that one's personal behavior falls in line with the virtues of this true self, thereby exhibiting it. Rather than delving into investigations of, or speculations about, the natural sciences, therefore, Socrates set about trying to understand the meaning of human life in this light and exploring the way in which people ought to live.
Perhaps prefiguring the path Western humanity would soon take, Socrates no longer concerned himself with useless speculations on the nature of the external world. Rather, he asked whether the self could find ultimate reality, the substrate of absolute truth. Moreover, he explored how we should conduct ourselves so that our behavior would embody virtues in line with this reality. What is the path to the true self; what is the path to our true nature; and how can we reveal this in our actions? What is our natural and proper relationship to our fellow human beings in light of this ultimate truth? These were also questions the Chinese sage Confucius tried to answer, and his teachings on these matters have come to be known as Confucianism.
Virtues like goodness, truth, and beauty only have meaning in terms of this ultimate nature and in terms of our relationship to our fellow human beings. Socrates, therefore, explored these subjects in his dialogues. Constrained by both the arguments that appealed to the popular culture of his day and the terms available at the time, he taught that what we call the "soul" is akin to the conscious mind, and that we ought to make ourselves as good as possible in imitation of the perfect divine.
There is only one ultimate good (true reality or Absolute nature), claimed Socrates, and it can only be found through philosophy—his term for the "practice of spiritual cultivation." Socrates recommended that we strive to purify our minds and behavior in order to imitate the divine, thereby becoming better individuals, and arrive at a realization of our essence. When we act with such purity, he argued, we eliminate the obstructions that separate us from our fundamental, spiritual nature.
Evidence shows that Socrates indeed subjected himself to a course of spiritual development whose goal was to find this ultimate, fundamental nature of ours. We know that he was familiar with meditation because he often described a special form of this practice and recommended it highly to others. After Socrates reached a certain point of attainment in his own spiritual practice, he started going about Athens questioning others, revealing his insights in a sort of camouflaged teaching, all the while claiming he knew nothing himself.
Philosophy was the rage in Athens at the time, so Socrates strode through the city claiming he had no philosophy at all. Rather, he claimed he was simply an individual in search of the truth who wished to inquire of others in order to learn. In actual fact, he had a Zen master's attainment and knew exactly what he was doing, but chose this particular teaching method in order to best treat the errors and imbalances of his day, and lay a foundation for what was to come. He employed a method of dialogue known as "dialectic," in which he asked careful questions designed to expose inconsistencies and contradictions in his companion's views, thus implicitly stressing that people really ought to think for themselves in order to truly learn and know.
Socrates went about Athens questioning its opinionated citizens about their philosophy and their views on various matters. His questions were at times so pointed and his targets reduced to such ridicule for their contradictory views that Socrates soon became known as the "gadfly of Athens." He had the Zen master's gift of eloquence and skillful repertoire, and was able to turn any situation to his own advantage. He always did this without spite, however. His actual purpose was to bring about an awakening in his listeners, to compassionately bring about a revolution in their thinking. Imagine the effect, however, of one of the oddest looking men in Athens—bald-headed with hairy shoulders, snub-nosed, with bulging eyes and protruding lips, and legs that were bowed, with a rounded waist above, the true vision of a Buddhist Arhat—going around questioning politicians, poets, philosophers, "wise men," "men in the know," and showing that they all knew nothing!
This eventually earned Socrates quite a few enemies among the city's rich and powerful, especially those who had lost face in these dialogues, during which their defects had been publicly revealed. In other cases, people became irritated with Socrates when their sons ended up imitating him, questioning their parents using his dialectic style. Socrates did have friends among the influential, however, including the handsome Alcibiades, who once held a drinking party that is wonderfully recounted in the Symposium.
To put matters into perspective, we must remember that Socrates grew up during the better part of the age of Pericles, an age when Athens was at its greatest height. However, the Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 B.C., during Socrates' midyears, and continued for more than a quarter of a century. Socrates served as a soldier in these wars, during which he proved himself a brave and able individual. The larger picture suggests, however, that the war had important implications for Socrates' work, for he taught in a time when society was subject to uncertainty and fear. We can reflect back on the Vietnam era to gain some idea of the radical changes a society undergoes during a time of war. No doubt, Socrates spoke in tune with the times, accenting this or that message when appropriate. If you don't view his behavior in this light, you miss a great deal in understanding his message and methodology.
When Socrates was 65, the Peloponnesian War finally ended with the defeat of Athens by Sparta. This began a short period in Athenian history called the Reign of the Thirty Tyrants, citizens of Athens who formed a government favorable to Sparta, and who engaged in lawless terror. Some of the leaders were past students of Socrates who wished to eliminate him. Without leaving Athens or carrying out any of their illegal orders, however, Socrates was able to escape their evil intentions.
Eventually, these tyrants were overthrown and replaced by a democratic government. Nonetheless, after this affair, some of Athens' citizenry must have attributed a degree of blame to Socrates because he was unliked and because some of his students had been involved. It is a common fate of spiritual teachers that because they mix with the good and evil in order to convert both, they are always blamed by society when any of the evil ones continue their evil ways! We forget that people are independent moral agents, and that teachers can hardly be responsible for what their pupils ultimately do. We also forget that we cannot measure how much worse a particular individual might have become had they not been exposed to (and perhaps restrained by) a great teacher at all. Indeed, the teacher may have diluted a good measure of their potential evil!
While Socrates had no connection whatsoever with the political activities of the Thirty Tyrants, some people considered him the inspiration behind their misconduct. Hence, in seeking a scapegoat for its ills, the city turned on the unpopular "gadfly of Athens." Socrates no doubt received much unjust criticism for his teaching style, even though none of his students were the worse for his companionship.
Excerpted from Socrates and the Enlightenment Path by William Bodri. Copyright © 2001 William Bodri. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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