Aug 14, 2018

Why I like Fifth Century Thinkers like Socrates and Confucius

Confucius and Socrates Represent a Renaissance of Thought
I was trained to begin with Socrates. But what about Confucius standing next to Socrates? Confucius was Socrates’s contemporary. "They probably never met," you say. A Queens taxi cab driver told me their meeting was possible – how could there have been such a confluence of ideas in both East and West without either Socrates or Confucius never having met? The fifth century before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was a renaissance of thought. It was a time of emerging thought, of dynamic ideas that would forever change the course of human history.

To begin with the story of Socrates is to ask the question of how philosophical thought emerged among us mere mortals. I go to Socrates for two reasons – one is shallow and the other personal. The shallow reason is his placement in the conventional timeline of history first. The second reason is personal I like Socrates. Or, at least I like the characterization of Socrates that has been passed down through the historical record. And I have spent time with him through Plato's Socratic dialogues (through which we know of Socrates at all) more than any other fifth-century thinker.

There is a debate milling about among academics about the historical Socrates. Did Plato invent him? He never wrote anything down on paper so was he really just a fictional mouthpiece? To know the historical Socrates removed from Plato is probably impossible. But is it the historical truth that is paramount here? I was never much interested in that debate but it is interesting to think of some of the incidental details that have been attributed to him. Socrates was the son of a stonecutter. He spent most of his life milling about the wide open spaces of Athens, discussing high concepts with the youth of the upper crust. Socrates was presumably not a handsome fellow; he had bug-eyes, was short and pudgy  at least that is how he is portrayed in the plays written about him during his lifetime. Socrates comes off as the opposite of the ideal Greek figure of beauty and was satirized as a dunce with a white cap or as an insufferable navel-gazer  which has become the stereotypical image of the philosopher  a useless nag.

In 399 B.C.E., when Plato was about twenty-eight years old, Socrates was put on trial by his own Athenian comrades. The charge: corrupting the youth and creating his own gods. According to history, Socrates was put to death by what today would be called lethal injection. He was forced to drink the poison hemlock.

For me, Socrates represents the start of something worth investigating. My gut says Socrates was not compelled to write down what he thought because he was always wandering, going from the busy agora in the city center of Ancient Athens, to the open spaces outside the city walls. Socrates was in his element discussing abstract concepts with young people who themselves were on their own journey their own quest for truth. Not that Socrates abhorred writing but rather maybe he figured it was more fun to toss around ideas, trace ephemeral ideas in the sand with his finger, travel to the port and to the marketplace arousing curiosity. Socrates liked the attention. And he was charismatic.

Perhaps we think of the intellectual hunched over a book. Socrates was out and about claiming he knew nothing (which we know was a ruse). At his trial, Socrates famously is quoted as saying "the unexamined life is not worth living." He also talked a lot about perplexing others because he was utterly perplexed himself. I like that humility even if it comes from someone who was most likely a genius of his generation. It is perhaps my favorite quote from the annals of philosophical, pithy sayings.

Image Source: Writing Endeavor