The Socratic Prayer

Yesterday, I prepared a dinner for some friends, and we recited the Socratic Prayer from the Phaedrus in lieu of grace, with someone reading the lines of Socrates and someone else that of Phaedrus.

I think I will be sticking with the Socratic Prayer, it is absolutely perfect for a dinner amongst friends.

Socrates: Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry. – Anything more? The prayer, I think, is enough for me.
Phaedrus: Ask the same for me, for friends should have all things in common.
Socrates: Let us go [eat].


Plato’s metaphors: The Chariot Allegory

Le Char d'Apollon, Odilon Redon

In the Phaedrus Socrates compares the soul to a chariot with a charioteer and a pair of winged horses. Whereas the chariot of a god has two good horses, that of a human being has one good horse and one bad, unruly horse that is the cause of much hardship for the charioteer. The soul, he says,

…has the care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing – when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground – there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature.

The chariot of a god is able to soar to the top of the vault of heaven, such that the god is able to step outside the rim of heaven and contemplate the colourless, formless, intangible essence of reality. The revolution of the spheres carries the god round and back again to the same place, and in the space of this circle he feasts his mind upon justice, temperance, and knowledge, not in the form of generation or relation, which men call existence, but in their absolute, universal form.

Despite their bad, unruly horse, the chariots of the imperfect souls that are most alike to the gods are able to ascend high enough for their charioteers to lift their heads above the rim of heaven and catch a fleeting glimpse of the universals. However, the rest are not strong enough to ascend so high, and are left to feed their mind on nothing more than opinion.

In time, all imperfect souls fall back to earth, but only those that have seen something of the universals can take on a human form; human beings are by their nature able to recollect universals, and so must once have seen them. The imperfect souls that have gazed longest upon the universals are incarnated as philosophers, artists, and true lovers. As they are still able to remember the universals, they are completely absorbed in ideas about them and forget all about earthly interests. Common people think that they are mad, but the truth is that they are divinely inspired and in love with goodness and beauty.

Adapted from

Socrates: A life worth living

And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul?
Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul.

The ‘real’ Socrates is shrouded in mystery as he did not leave a written corpus of his own and there is no purely historical account of his life and thought. The three principal sources on Socrates are his pupils Plato and Xenophon and the comedian Aristophanes. These sources do not claim historical accuracy, and their portrayals of Socrates are undoubtedly influenced by their authors’ biases and agenda. The richest source on Socrates is Plato, in whose writings it is always uncertain whether the character Socrates is the real Socrates or a ventriloquist’s dummy. It is generally agreed that, as Plato’s thought developed, the character Socrates became less and less of the real Socrates and more and more of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Socrates was born in Athens in 469BC, after the final defeat of the Persians at Plataea and Mycale, and before the start of the Peloponnesian Wars against Sparta and her allies. According to Plato, Socrates’ father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason, and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. Socrates grew up under Pericles, in the heyday of Athen’s imperial hegemony. He grew up to be ugly: short in stature, pot-bellied, snub-nosed and pop-eyed. In the Theaetetus, Socrates asks the geometer Theodorus to tell him which of the young men of Athens are ‘showing signs of turning out well’. Theodorus immediately singles out Theaetetus, the son of Euphronius of Sunium, whom he describes to Socrates as ‘rather like you, snub-nosed, with eyes that stick out; though these features are not so pronounced in him’.

Socrates married Xanthippe, a shrew of a woman, but some forty years younger than he. According to Xenophon, Socrates married her because, ‘If I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else’. According to Aelian, she once trampled underfoot a cake sent to Socrates by his eromenos Alcibiades, the famous or, rather, infamous Athenian statesman and general. ‘Xanthippe’ has entered the English language as a term for an ill-tempered woman, although Plato himself portrays her as nothing other than a devoted wife and the mother of Socrates’ three sons, Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates is crazy about beautiful boys, constantly following them around ‘in a perpetual daze’. Yet he also says that Socrates cares very little whether a person is beautiful or rich or even famous: ‘He considers all these possessions beneath contempt, and that’s exactly how he considers all of us as well’.

Socrates’ friend Chaerephon once asked the oracle at Delphi if any man is wiser than Socrates, and the pythia (priestess) replied that no one is wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of wise men and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know’. From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not’. In the Apology, he says that the gods attached him to Athens as upon a great and noble horse which ‘needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly’. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says of Socrates that,

…he makes it seem that my life isn’t worth living! … He always traps me, you see, and he makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time, while all that matters is just what I most neglect: my personal shortcomings, which cry out for the closest attention. So I refuse to listen to him; I stop my ears and tear myself away from him, for, like the Sirens, he could make me stay by his side till I die.

According to Plato, Socrates devoted himself entirely to discussing philosophy, for which he never accepted payment. It is unclear how he earned a living, but a combination of meagre needs and rich friends may have been enough to get him by. Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, and when he did it was always because he had learned it from somebody else or because he had been divinely inspired. For example, he claimed to have learned the art of love from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea, and the art of rhetoric from Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles. In the Theaetetus, Socrates famously compares himself to a midwife who attends not to the labour of the body but to the labour of the soul, helping others to ‘discover within themselves a multitude of beautiful things, which they bring forth into the light’. When Socrates asks Theaetetus to define knowledge, Theaetetus says that he has never come up with an adequate answer to this question and cannot stop worrying about it. Socrates tells him, ‘Yes; those are the pains of labour, dear Theaetetus. It is because you are not barren but pregnant.’ Socrates’ method, the celebrated ‘elenchus’ or Socratic method, consists in questioning one or more people about a certain concept, for example, courage or temperance, so as to expose a contradiction in their initial assumptions about the concept, and thereby provoke a reappraisal of the concept. As the process is iterative, it leads to an increasingly precise or refined definition of the concept or, more often than not, to the conclusion that the concept cannot be defined, and thus that we know nothing.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that there are two kinds of madness, one resulting from human illness, and the other resulting from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. This divine form of madness has four parts: inspiration, mysticism, poetry, and love. Socrates probably believed that madness, like virtue, is a gift from the gods and that the two are intimately connected. He frequently questioned the sophists’ doctrine that virtue can be taught, and observed that virtuous men rarely, if ever, produced sons that matched them in quality. For Socrates, virtue and knowledge are one and the same, as no one who really knows the best course of action can fail to choose it, and all wrongdoing results from ignorance.

Whilst Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, he did claim to have a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or instinct that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics. In the Phaedrus, he says,

Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings … the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art … So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense … madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.

Several of Plato’s dialogues refer to Socrates’ military service. Socrates served in the Athenian army during the campaigns of Potidaea (432BC), Delium (424BC), and Amphipolis (422BC), which were more or less the only times he ever left Athens. In the Laches, Laches calls on Socrates for advice because of his courageous behaviour during the retreat from Delium. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea, and that he took the hardships of the campaign ‘much better than anyone in the whole army’.

In the Apology, Socrates says that ‘a man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time’. Socrates cites the time in 406BC when he was chairing the assembly meeting and alone opposed the trial as a body of the generals who, after the Battle of Arginusae, failed to pick up the Athenian survivors because of a violent storm. At the time the orators had been ready to prosecute him and take him away, although later everyone realised that the prosecution would have been illegal. Socrates also cites the time in 404BC when the Thirty Tyrants asked him and four others to bring the innocent Leon of Salamis to be executed, and he alone refused, even though his refusal may have cost him his life.

In 399BC, at the age of 70, Socrates was indicted by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon for offending the Olympian gods and thereby breaking the law against impiety. He was accused of ‘studying things in the sky and below the earth’, ‘making the worse into the stronger argument’, and ‘teaching these same things to others’. The real basis for Socrates’ indictment may have been his anti-democratic leanings and his close association with aristocrats such as Critias and Charmides, who had been prominent in the oligarchic reign of terror. Yet his behaviour when faced with the demands of the Thirty Tyrants suggests that he placed his ethics far above his politics.

In the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defense, intimating to the jurors that they should be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honours as possible, whilst not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. In an aristocratic flourish, he insists that ‘wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively’. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he tells the jurors that he was sentenced to death not because he lacked words, but because he lacked shamelessness and the willingness to say what they would most gladly have heard from him. ‘It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death.’

After being sentenced to death, Socrates had an opportunity to escape from the Athenian prison. In the Crito, one of the main reasons he gives for not escaping is that, by choosing to live in Athens, he tacitly agreed to abide by her laws, and is reluctant to break this ‘social contract’. In the Phaedo, which was known to the ancients as On the Soul, Socrates prepares to die. He tells his friends that a philosopher disdains the body in favour of the soul, because the just or the beautiful or the reality of any one thing cannot be apprehended through the senses, but through thought alone. Socrates warns his friends not to become ‘misologues’, as there is no greater evil than to shun rational conversation. Instead, he urges them to take courage and be eager to ‘attain soundness’. After joking with his gaoler, Socrates drinks the poisonous hemlock. His famous last words are, ‘Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?’ (A cock was sacrificed by ill people hoping for a cure, and Socrates probably meant that death is a cure for the ills of life.)

After his sentencing, Socrates told the jurors: ‘You did this in the belief that you could avoid giving an account of your life, but I maintain that quite the opposite will happen to you. There will be more people to test you, whom I have now held back, but you did not notice it.’

His pupil Plato was standing in the audience.

Adapted from

My hero Diogenes the Cynic

Diogenes searching for a human being.

Diogenes of Sinope or Diogenes the Cynic was a contemporary of Socrates’ pupil Plato, whom Plato described as ‘a Socrates gone mad’. Like Socrates and, to a lesser extent, Plato, Diogenes favoured direct verbal interaction over the written account. When a man called Hegesias asked to be lent one of his writing tablets, he replied, ‘You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.’ After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such ‘dainties’ and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions. He proved to the later satisfaction of the Stoics that happiness has nothing whatever to do with a person’s material circumstances, and held that human beings had much to learn from studying the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. The terms ‘cynic’ and ‘cynical’ derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon or ‘dog’. 

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for a human being to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that a human being should live in accord with nature. Accordingly, he taught that, if an act is not shameful in private, then it should not be shameful in public either. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he replied, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly’. Upon being asked, on another occasion, where he came from, he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world’ (cosmopolites), a radical claim at the time and the first recorded use of the term ‘cosmopolitan’. Although Diogenes privileged reason, he despised the sort of abstract philosophy that was being practiced elsewhere and in particular at Plato’s Academy. When, to great acclaim, Plato defined a human being as an animal, biped, and featherless, Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it to the Academy with the words, ‘Behold! I have brought you Plato’s man.’ Plato consequently revised his definition, adding to it ‘with broad nails’. 

Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’ Much to his credit, Alexander still declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.’ In another account of the conversation, Alexander found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father (King Philip of Macedon), but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.’ Diogenes used to stroll about in broad daylight with a lamp. Whenever curious people asked him what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’ Much to his chagrin, all he ever found were rascals and scoundrels. When asked how he wished to be buried, he left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall so that wild animals could feast upon his body. After his death in the city of Corinth, the Corinthians erected to his memory a pillar upon which they rested a dog of Parian marble. Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society. He was, I think, a shining example of the art of failure. 

Adapted from

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