Friday, June 6, 2008

Socrates' Riff

As the clamour of our times reaches ever higher pitch, it sometimes serves to cast a look at the past. The question always is: how far back? Can we find answers to the problems of our globalized world in the pre-industrial age? How about referring to the agrarian societies of the Golden Crescent to illuminate the current food crisis? Perhaps the great mystic traditions of the Indus valley can aid conflict resolution. This game can be played several ways, but it seems that it may as well be taken back to the precursor of modern society; Greece. The city state of Athens gave the world philosophy, art, science, literature, civic governance and many of the principles that guide us to this day.

It also produced Socrates, one of history's outstanding iconoclasts. In the truest sense of the word, Socrates attacked cherished beliefs and traditional institutions as often being based on error or superstition. While compiling the first dictionary of the ancient world he challenged the Senate's definition of a human, namely that of a featherless biped, by slinging a plucked chicken into their midst. In this age though, some 2500 years later, so many elements in our society remain the same. Democracy is still the dominant, yet flawed, political system of the day; characterized as it is by the peddling of influence. Human nature still largely revolves around self interest with the attendant issues of war, famine and retribution endlessly repeating the cycle. In many areas we've hardly evolved at all.

Yet conventional wisdom holds that Athens epitomized a level of civilization that inspired the great societies of the modern era. If that's the case we can certainly use more Socratian thinking in our daily affairs. For example, when Socrates was tried on charges of corrupting the Athenian youth and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock, his wife, Xantippe, visited him in prison to bewail the jury's condemnation. Socrates sought to comfort her. "They are by their nature also condemned," he remarked. "But the condemnation is unjust!" Xantippe cried. "Would you prefer it," Socrates asked, "to be just?" How apt, the parables abound amongst South Africa's latest crop of leaders; and were we still in favour of poisoning political rivals, we would surely have run out of hemlock by now. No, far better to assassinate the character in this new media age.

Famed for his detached logic and humility, it was always the source of speculation that Socrates had an inner ear for the truth. An inherent mysticism seemed to guide his observations and responses, but perhaps idealism was the outstanding feature of his life. Known for a steadfast refusal to go along with any concept he couldn't rationalize through empirical evidence, he became synonymous with high principle; which, naturally, inspired great devotion amongst his students. So much so, that, one day Socrates was blessed by his pupils with a number of gifts; among them a remarkable tribute from Aeschines: "Nothing that I am able to give to you do I find worthy of you," Aeschines declared, "and only in this way do I discover that I am a poor man. And so I give to you the only thing that I possess - myself."

Socrates insisted on this selfless approach to intellect, but also extended it into the material world. One of his friends, well aware of his frugality, was surprised to find him in the marketplace one day carefully examining some of the more luxurious wares on display. He asked the philosopher why he bothered coming to the market when he never bought anything. "I am always amazed to see," Socrates replied, "just how many things there are that I don't need." This riposte almost seems quaint compared to the rampant consumerism that occupies so many of our waking hours. The ancient philosopher's acerbic wit would have been sure to launch a caustic comment, were his eyes privy to such banality.

Some would argue that the world is, unfortunately, not populated by such high minded individuals and more prone to the baser instincts of man. Yet its not the individual that's celebrated in Socrates, but the philosophy he developed. And so it is, that, millennia later we are being urged to turn inwards by a veritable army of self help gurus, life coaches and spiritual leaders. This being the great occupation now that humanity has imposed it's will on the planet. A noble pursuit if ever there was one; for as Socrates' protege, Aristotle, remarked: "The unexamined life is not worth living." Still, the inescapable commercialism that has sprung up around the pursuit of higher awareness will not have pleased Socrates. Perhaps then, its best to let him have the last word; in the final pronouncement he made from his deathbed, as related by Plato: "The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways - I to die, and you to live. Which is the better, God only knows."

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