By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Many years ago while I was researching to write a book, I studied many theologians and philosophers. Among them I liked Socrates best. He mixed pleasure with his studies as I did. It is more than 2,400 years since his death, but his philosophies are remarkably relevant today.
Socrates is such an important figure in the root history of modernity. His famous aphorism, “The unexamined life is not worth living” is a central tenet of modern times. He dared those around him to question their lives, to take nothing for granted, to accept no authority but that of their mind.
At his trial Socrates was asked to retract his teachings in order to save his life. “Go and f… yourself” was his reply. He taunted the jury, saying that he should get free dinners for life for his service to the city of Athens. He believed in the type of life he led, the life of thinking for himself, and was willing to die for this value. Indeed he died for it.
Socrates was sentenced to death, mainly because he was thought to be against ‘democracy’. He did say that he thought most intelligent people should make decisions for everybody. However, he could not be charged for these opinions.
He was formally charged for two reasons: (1) for corrupting youth and (2) piety – not acknowledging the gods of the city and introducing new gods.
The jury in his trial was chosen by lottery from male citizen volunteers. After the jury decided he was guilty, his punishment was also voted on. It was decided by the majority that he would be forced to drink hemlock (a poisonous liquid) to kill himself.
After the sentence was heard he took a mouthful of hemlock and addressed the court. His last words were, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die and you to live. Which is better, only God knows?”
When the last hour came; his chains were taken off, and he was allowed to converse freely with his friends. He sent away his weeping wife in order that her grief might not interfere with the discussion.
The records of Socrates’ philosophical works are like the Bible in that he left no writings behind him. The only records are through the Dialogues of Plato, and the records and works of Xenophon, an Ancient Greek historian. Plato was his disciple.
Socrates lived from 469 -399 BCE. There was democracy in Greece at that time. As a young man he served in the Peloponnesian War. Later he worked as a stone mason to support his wife and three children. When he inherited some money from his father, he had spare time to try to understand one’s values and motivations.
He said he was wise because he admitted he was ignorant, and that it was imperative to pursue knowledge all of one’s life. He also believed that a person had to do what he thought was right, no matter what. To be happy and fulfilled, a person had to keep his soul healthy. This was done by always learning, self-examination, and gaining wisdom.
Socrates was a man of the streets, drinking, partying and sweating out in the gym in Athens. He had many young men who listened to him and participated in dialogue with him. It was through this dialogue that he guided them to see things in a different way and delve into the true nature of things.
Through the dialogue, he would help students think for themselves and figure out the basic meaning of concepts like friendship, truth, and democracy. This method later became the “Socratic method”, and is sometimes called “guided reasoning.”
He was indifferent to worldly success. He berated his peers for a selfish pursuit of material gain. He questioned the value of going to fight under an ideological banner of “democracy”. He questioned many things, such as religion, governments, and ethics. Socrates’ main mission was to find the best way to live on earth. Some of his main philosophies are:
“It is not living that matters, but living rightly.”
“All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine.”
“False words are not always evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
“One who is injured ought not to return the injury, for on no account can it be right to an injustice; and is not right to return an injury, or to do evil to any man, however much we have suffered from him.”
Socrates was not really against democracy. He meant that the word “democracy” is not a magician’s aba kadabra (Arabic meaning ‘let the things be destroyed’) that with the mumble of this word all ills of the humanity will automatically disappear.
The famous “Socratic method” of debate (Method Elenchus or Socratic debate) is a dialectical method, which I used in my book, the Origin of the Meiteis of Manipur. It is a form of debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas.
Socrates is described by some as the world’s first ideological martyr. Plato was a student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. Socrates was almost certainly an atheist. He argued reason should prevail over religion/spirituality. He would toss religious dogma if it did not meet the reason test. Like a scientist, he would be prepared to change his views based on modern thinking and new technology.
The Poet Mellitus prosecuted Socrates at his trial as questioning ‘what is above and below’. In another sense, Socrates was questioning the Gods. Mellitus calls Socrates an atheist in which he does not believe in any God such as Zeus, Chronis and Uranus. who were believed by many people in Athens at that time. Socrates not only questioned their existence but also their accomplishments.
Socrates is famous for many thought-provoking short-sayings. The one I like best: To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise; for it is to think that we know what we do not know.
For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them; but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?
Death, says Socrates, is the separation of soul and body – the separation of mind and body. This is similar to the Hindu philosophy of Dualism (Dvaita). In theology, there is the concept that human has two basic natures: the physical and the spiritual
Socrates describes the fate of souls after death: the good go to heaven, the bad to hell, the intermediate to purgatory
Socrates was considered the wisest man of his time, but he is a bit off the track by modern standards. I think it was because he lived long before science. He was not scientific in thinking.
He said “No one who has not studies philosophy and who is not entirely pure at the time of his departure is allowed to enter the company of the gods, but the lover of knowledge only.” That is only the true philosopher goes to heaven when he dies.
His courage in the face of death would have been more remarkable if he had not believed that he was going to enjoy eternal bliss in the company of gods. So, he remained calm, humorous and devoid of fear to the last moment, caring more for what he believed to be true than for anything else whatever.
The write is based in the UK
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