The Presocratic Philosophers and Socrates
Socrates died for his beliefs and this set him apart from all other philosophers that preceded him. He changed the course of Greek philosophy1.
In a later blog, I will discuss the influence of the Presocratic philosophers. For now it is important to know that they looked for explanations of things that went beyond the explanations provided by Greek mythology. They never denied the existence of the gods. They did however described a world where the gods weren’t directly responsible for everything, even though they still governed the affairs of men.2 This is the idea of secondary causality.3
They tended to focus on natural philosophy or what today we call science, and emphasized a naturalistic explanation of things. In addition, they also made progress in mathematics and meteorology. But their lack of instrumentation (such as telescopes and microscopes) meant that they could only go so far. Science would not make any significant headway until over 2000 years later.4
Socrates was similar to the Presocratics in that he looked for explanations that went beyond those provided by mythology. Like them, he stressed using the intellect to figure these things out. His emphasis differed, however, in that he stressed the moral component of philosophy and the idea of the development of virtue and piety. For example, Plato’s dialogue, Meno, is an account of a dialogue where Socrates asks for a definition of virtue and wonders if virtue can be taught. Similarly, as I mentioned in a previous blog, Euthyphro deals with the question of piety.
Socrates Put on Trial
But what primarily set Socrates apart from all of the philosophers that came before him was that he was put on trial and executed for his beliefs. I don’t think that it was the intention of the authorities to ever put Socrates on trial and make a public spectacle of him by either exiling him or executing him. They announced the trial months in advance with a wink and a nod, as if telling Socrates that he could leave the city quietly. The last thing that they wanted was a martyr on their hands. I think that it probably shocked them and rattled the entire city, when he not only showed up to his trial, but came with a resolution to die if necessary.
He fearlessly faced his accusers with the utmost integrity. This is the last thing that they wanted because it made them look like fools in front of the whole city. By doing this one act, he exposed them for who they really were and destroyed the ideological grip that they had on the citizens of Athens. In making his defense, Socrates in effect put the establishment on trial. He thus cleared the way for his brightest student named Plato to carry forward his legacy. (More about Socrates’ legacy later.)
Socrates in Prison
Plato’s dialogue Crito is an interesting read. After Socrates’ trial, he was put in prison for a month.5 He had to await execution because, under Athenian law, no executions were allowed to take place while the state galley was gone. It would sail on its annual religious mission to the small island of Delos in the Aegean Sea. This island was sacred to Apollo. The dialogue of Crito opens with Socrates’s friend Crito visiting him in prison because the state galley had just arrived. Crito tells Socrates that his friends have devised a plan for his escape and tries to persuade him one last time to leave Athens. Plato hints in the dialogue that the city authorities would like nothing more than for him to leave, since Socrates’ execution would be egg on their faces. Not to mention the fact that, despite being an irritant to many, he had actually built quite a popular following among the youth who were also tired of the establishment.
Socrates refused to leave. He could have avoided his trial and his execution. He had numerous chances, but he decided to stay and stand on his principles despite the cost. As mentioned above, by doing this he changed the course of philosophy in the West and prepared the way for Plato and Aristotle.
Martyrs for Truth
People in history like Socrates, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who have sacrificed their lives for noble causes are people to behold and admire. But beyond that, they should serve as examples for us to follow. Granted, most of us will never have the influence that they did, but collectively we can make a significant difference for the good on society at large as we each act within our small orbits of influence.
Of course these men had flaws and character defects, but so do we. We can just hide them better since we are private citizens, although with the internet and smart technology, that is becoming increasingly difficult. A proper self-examination will give us the humility required to judge more public figures. How humbled we would be if all of our private sins were put on display for all to see, which is the curse of being a public figure. Of course, it is difficult to find fault with Socrates. Either this is because he has become a mythological figure of history, or because he truly was a man of virtue. It is probably a combination of both.
The point for us is that we do not have to be perfect nor in a position of influence to make a difference, rather we just need an understanding of the truth and a willingness to stand up for it. Most of us believe the lie that we are powerless to do anything about the evil and corruption in the world because of our low positions in life. This is simply not true. Those of us who are Christian, know stories of heroic martyrs who died for the faith. Truth be know though, there were and are countless thousands of martyrs who will remain nameless in this age anyway.
The West is mired in the morass of spiritual darkness, death, and destruction. Increasingly today, people are attacked, not even for voicing a different opinion, but simply for questioning the status quo. When people are threatened by questions, then it signifies that they do not have the truth on their side. For if they did, why be threatened? One indication that people are not on the side of truth is the fact that they become very defensive when questioned. This is a sure tell.
But yet here we are. Aside from disagreeing with the party line which is bad enough, we cannot even question the policies of the powers that be lest we be impugned and cancelled from society. This can easily move from being cancelled to being killed – for simply questioning. Socrates’ example becomes even more relevant to us today than it was just a few years ago. Because of this, we can draw courage (a bad word these day since fear is the new virtue) from his example and choose to pursue the truth despite the consequences.
Fortitude Tempered with Prudence
But the virtue of fortitude has to be tempered with the virtue of prudence. We have to know when and where to act and when to be silent. This is the essence of wisdom. There is a proper time and circumstance for everything. A soldier rushing ahead alone into battle apart from his platoon is not brave, but reckless. But the soldier who fails to go into battle with his platoon is a coward.
Note the following verses from the Old Testament book of Amos:
“There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.-Amos 5: 12b-13
According to the book of Ecclesiastes, there is a proper season for everything, a time for every activity under heaven. How do we know when to keep silent and when to speak up, when to act and when to do nothing? The answer is found in gaining wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. A good prayer along these lines would be, “Lord, give me the wisdom to temper fortitude with prudence.” But of course, if we lack fortitude, we can ask for that as well.
And this really brings us back to Socrates. For Socrates had a divine guide, which today we would call a guardian angel. Whatever the form of Socrates guidance from God, the point is that he was in tune with the will of God as he sought to listen to that ever small voice of God in his conscience. And there was the beginning of his wisdom.
The following quotes of Socrates are taken from the dialogue Crito:
“Let it be then, Crito, and let us act in this way, since this is the way God is leading us.”7
“But why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many?“8
“For anyone who destroys the laws could easily be thought to corrupt the young and the ignorant.”9
“Nor must one when wronged, inflict wrong in return as the majority believe, since one must never do wrong.”10
Finally, consider the following question:
How do you think that philosophical history would be different if Socrates just went quietly away to exile rather than dying for the truth? Please leave a comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!
From Amazon: “Emily Wilson’s The Death of Socrates is an exceptionally lucid introduction to this famous trial and death…Not only does Ms. Wilson carefully reconstruct the circumstances of the philosopher’s demise but she also asks, rather refreshingly, the implicitly obvious but mostly overlooked question of “why the death of Socrates has mattered so much, over such an enormously long period of time and to so many different people.” The history of the interpretation of Socrates’ death, it turns out, is in large part the history of philosophy itself…The man who has been condemned to death for corrupting the sons of the city ends by instructing his executioners about how to raise his own…” ―Thomas Meaney, Wall Street Journal
- Wilson, Emily, “The Death of Socrates,” Wall Street Journal online, November 24, 2007, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB119559033449699536
- Curd, Patricia, “Presocratic Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/presocratics.
- Aquinas 101, The Thomistic Institute, “Lesson 20: Primary and Secondary Causality,” https://aquinas101.thomisticinstitute.org/principle-and-secondary-causality
- Jones, E. Michael, Logos, The Trinity, Luther, and Hegel, Culture Wars website, Audio Interview, https://culturewars.com/podcasts/logos-the-trinity-luther-and-hegel
- Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, p. 45, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
- McMullen, Roy Donald. “Jacques-Louis David”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jacques-Louis-David-French-painter.
- Plato, Five Dialogues, Crito, second ed., 54e, p. 57
- Plato, Five Dialogues, Crito, second ed., 44c, p. 47
- Plato, Five Dialogues, Crito, second ed., 53c, p. 56
- Plato, Five Dialogues, Crito, second ed., 49b, p. 52
Bibliography and Sources:
Coppleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, An Image Book, Doubleday, New York, 1985
Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York, 2019
Hughes, Bettany, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life Paperback – Illustrated, Vintage Publishers, 2012, New York City
Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, Revised Ed., Harold Tarrant (Editor, Translator, Introduction) and Hugh Tredennick (Translator), Penguin Classics, New York, 2003
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: The World of the Polis, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018
Wilson, Emily, The Death of Socrates, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Waterfield, Robin H, Editor and Translator; Tedennick, Hugh, Translator, Penguin Classics, Ney York, Revised ed., 1990