“…in this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like.”
Man, this guy was just starting to see how information was being sent more quickly and at higher quality and said something so incredibly forward-thinking. That’s amazing.
Can you imagine showing this dude the fact that we can send cat-videos instantly? This would blow his mind.
“We tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene… Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.”
[Legendary Television writer Dennis Potter’s last interview (not so much an interview… it’s almost a monologue.) It was filmed shortly after he learned that he had pancreatic cancer (which he named “Rupert,” after Murdoch) and was not expect to live more than a few more months. His inflamed hands can barely hold his ever-present cigarette (which he refers to as a “little tube of delight”), and he alternately sips champagne and swigs liquid morphine from an antique hip flask (to ease the pain.) Potter talks of the clarity and beauty of life that impending death gives. He faces squarely into the prospect of his life’s end. No sentimentality. No pathos. Just honesty and integrity and insight. His comments on the basis for his serenity are deeply moving. It’s truly remarkable.]
For the longest time, I always thought of myself as intelligent, but I’ve come to realize that I am, in fact, a stumbling moron. I tried my best to resist the urge to look at myself objectively, to stare at the abyss of my ignorance and feel the cold, tingling sensation of incomprehension creep over my body, but I finally succumbed.
I realized that I wasn’t such a smart kid, after all. Sure, it’s quite easy to think yourself intelligent in an undergraduate philosophy or english course, where the drivelling idiots make irrelevant arguments, are constantly being swept aside in tangents and engaging in debates wholly unrelated to the matter at hand. When you surround yourself with the majority of humanity, anyone with above average intelligence will feel inherently superior and even start to get the scary feeling of smug self-satisfaction (something I try to beat to death with a stick whenever I feel it creeping up on me). Obviously, the majority of the population is of average or below average intelligence (I mean, that’s what AVERAGE means, doofus). So it doesn’t take much to feel like you are God’s gift to intellect in a normal classroom setting, much to the detriment of my learning experience.
However, when I start talking to people who have doctorates in linguistics or physics or biology or philosophy, I suddenly realize what an incompetent loon I am, and I feel ashamed at the smug satisfaction I had begun to feel. When I read a book of philosophy, written by men who could outwit me in all possible ways, by people who could utterly reduce me to foolish backtracking and ad hoc replies, it makes me squirm in uncomfort. I am actually retarded!
Now I know what Socrates meant when he said he was only sure of his ignorance, and now I know that the power of philosophy is not the fact that it makes you more certain, more sure of yourself, and more intelligent…but that it makes you feel like a huge idiot, like someone holding on childishly to all these preconceived, unexamined notions, like some sort of baby monkey clinging to a wire-frame surrogate mother.
Sometimes you just have to stare at the hunk of wires you are clinging to and discard it. So what if it helps you feel better about yourself? So what if thinking yourself intelligent makes you happy? It’s not the truth. I’m an idiot, you’re an idiot, we’re all potential idiots. There is something you are actually ignorant of, to a very large extent. It’s amazing to think about. And it’s really not much of a consolation to look at a drooling child, or someone watching a soap opera with impatient interest, and to say to yourself, “Well, at least I’m smarter than THEM!” It is like consoling yourself by pointing to a clump of dirt and assuring yourself that you are more intelligent than it.
So everyone, say it all together:
I’M AN IDIOT.
There are many avenues of testimony that are close in date to Socrates’ lifetime.
- Four comic plays ranging from the 420s to the 400s BCE: a character satirically representing him appeared in Aristophanes’ Clouds (423-419 BCE) and Ameipsias’ Konnos (fragmentary, 423 BCE); one of his circle, Chaerephon, is a character in Aristophanes’ Birds (414 BCE); Socrates gets mentioned as a well-known public figure in that play and also in Aristophanes’ Frogs (405 BCE).
- Plato’s Socratic dialogues.
- Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues, and the Hellenica (ca. 380s to 360s).
- Evidence that at least six other members of Socrates’ circle wrote about him, though the works themselves are lost: Lysias’ Apology (almost certainly earlier than Plato’s and Xenophon’s Apologies, which appear to be replies to Lysias in some ways); numerous works by Antisthenes; seven dialogues by Aeschines; six by Euclides; two by Phaedo; and vague reports of writings by Aristippus. Of these, Lysias is better known as a legal speechwriter (several dozen of his speeches survive); Antisthenes was regarded as the most important of Socrates’ pupils for the first few years after Socrates’ death, and was firmly opposed to Plato’s philosophy in some important respects; Euclides’ philosophy was, according to the report we have, closely similar to Socrates’ own; Aristippus went professional and took payment for his teachings, and taught (as Epicurus also did, later on) that pleasure was the highest goal in life.
- Copious evidence of other members of Socrates’ circle who had political and other historical significance during Socrates’ lifetime. Alcibiades was one of the most significant generals in the Peloponnesian War; Critias was an ally of Alcibiades, and went on to become one of the Thirty Tyrants whose short-lived regime brutalised and terrorised the people of Athens in 404 BCE; Charmides was involved in a high-profile court case near the end of the Peloponnesian War, and a minister for the Thirty Tyrants, and he and Critias were involved in an attempted coup d’état in 411 BCE. Critias is also the author of a play, Sisyphus, of which a substantial fragment survives that is radically atheist in tone.
And from about 350 BCE onwards:
- Aeschines Against Timarchus 173 (shortly after 346 BCE; not the same Aeschines as above)
- A letter from Speusippus (Plato’s successor as head of the Academy) to Philip of Macedonia
- A statue by the fourth century sculptor Lysippus, which survives in Roman copies
- References in the writings of Aristotle, Arcesilaus, and several Stoics
- A strong biographical tradition attested in later sources (like Cicero, Diogenes Laertius, and others) which is definitely not derived from Plato.
Aeschines’ testimony, in particular, is useful for interpreting the events surrounding Socrates’ death, which are otherwise reported only by allies of Socrates. Aeschines confirms that Socrates’ execution was closely linked to his association with Critias and Critias’ crimes. This is obviously a very different picture from that painted by Plato’s Apology: Plato’s version of Socrates attempts to derail the prosecution by trying to imply that the real target of the charges is an illusory figure, like the caricature by Aristophanes.
The problems with Socrates’ biography are similar to those surrounding Jesus to the extent that his followers mythologized him a great deal. This can be seen particularly in their extreme defensiveness with respect to his trial, and their insistence that he stood up to the Thirty Tyrants when they instructed him to arrest and execute one of their political opponents. Whether that story is true or not, it’s obviously not the whole story: the fact remains that Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides were all closely linked to Socrates, they all tried to subvert the state in some important ways, and his own hands simply cannot have been totally clean.
His situation is very different from that surrounding Jesus in the sense that Socrates was linked to numerous figures who loom large in historical accounts of the period, and indeed served as a hoplite in two well-attested battles of the Peloponnesian War. But mythologization by followers, and ties (or lack of ties) to political figures, have never been good reasons to dismiss available evidence as though it were wholly made-up.