Thursday, January 22, 2015

SOCRATES (469-399 BCE)

“To wisely endure is courageous,
To do something else is outrageous!”
But then Socrates said
“Lake, you’re touched in the head!
The best thing is disadvantageous!

Note: Socrates was an ugly-looking, snub-nosed, shoeless gadfly who walked around 5th century Athens asking prominent people bothersome questions, many of them of the form “What is X?”.  Young men flocked to him, no doubt entertained by his skewering of public figures whom he showed to be ignorant of the things they claimed to know.  One of these young men was Plato, who later wrote dialogues, many of them with a character called “Socrates”.  In some of these dialogues, “Socrates” stands in for the real Socrates, saying the sorts of things, and advancing the sorts of arguments, that Socrates himself likely used in his conversations, none of which he actually wrote down.  In Plato’s Laches, Socrates asks two generals, first Laches (here, “Lake”) and then Nicias, what courage is.  Laches’ main answer is that courage is wise endurance, i.e., endurance accompanied by knowledge.  Socrates then gets Laches to agree that courage is an admirable thing, but then notes that, in many cases, the admirable thing is to endure foolishly, rather than wisely.  For example, rescuers who dive into wells without knowing what they are doing are widely admired, even though they are risking their lives in the absence of relevant knowledge.    

Further note: I confess that this poem focuses on the recondite.  So I'll post a bonus limerick about Socrates later today....

Here goes:

Of smart know-it-alls there's a huge glut,
But they're dolts when you're down in a rut.
The one person to see
If your life's up a tree,
Is an ignorant pain in the ----.

Note: I hate to break it to you, but Socrates actually died of natural causes.  (Hemlock is natural.)  Story goes, he went to see the Delphic oracle, who told him that he was the wisest in all of Greece.  This brought Socrates up short, because if there was one thing he knew, it was that he was ignorant.  (Interpreters disagree about what this means.  Obviously, if Socrates knows that he doesn't know, then he knows something.  But everything one knows is true, so if Socrates knows that he doesn't know, then he doesn't know, because it's true that he doesn't know.  Ergo, so it seems, he doesn't know anything.  Contradiction.  The puzzle is solved when one realizes that Socrates doesn't mean to be telling us that he knows ab-so-lu-te-ly nothing.  He means to be telling us that he knows nothing that really matters. Sure, he knows how to tie his shoes (or maybe not, see previous note), he knows the way to Larissa, but those things don't matter.  What matters is virtue, excellence of the soul: justice, piety, courage and temperance.  And virtue is something the nature of which Socrates knows that he doesn't know.)  "If I am so ignorant," thought Socrates (though not in those words), "why does the Oracle say that I'm the wisest?"  Puzzled, Socrates walked around and found all the people who took themselves to be knowledgeable: politicians (who take themselves to know how to run the state -- they must know what justice is), generals (who take themselves to know how to fight wars -- they must know what courage is), religious prosecutors (who take themselves to distinguish between the pious and the impious -- they must know what piety is), and so on.  He asked them questions, and, soon enough, discovered that these know-it-alls didn't really know what they thought they knew.  And then the solution to the Delphic riddle hit him like a brick: "I am the wisest", he realized, "because I know that I do not know, whereas others who think they know are really ignorant."  But the politicians and generals and religious prosecutors eventually got fed up with Socrates.  He was accused of atheism and of corrupting the youth of Athens.  After he was found guilty, he snubbed his nose at the jury, arguing that his sentence should be free meals at the Prytaneum (the central Athenian cafeteria).  What a comedian!  The jurors laughed, and then prescribed hemlock instead.

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