Socrates Retried: An Ode to Philosophy
”I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.
” Those who have read the Apology by Plato would recognize this phrase as belonging to the Greek philosopher Socrates, spoken to the citizens of Athens one last time before willingly submitting to his death; equal part defense, equal part personal funeral oration. His only crime ‘deserving’ of this punishment was ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’ by sharing his deepest thoughts, religious views, morals, and philosophies. In today’s fast, need-based society, few would be capable of recognizing such a transgression; whereas, long ago, philosophy was the commonplace banter between educated individuals, it is a dead language among the modern populace. Popular culture too often decides the ideals of the masses as it accepts its new role as the fountainhead of Knowledge. It alone influences the impressionable minds of what to wear, what to say, even how to think freely, which ironically, strips the freedom from the thoughts themselves. After seeing the horrors such a mindless cult following can produce—such as empty propaganda, biting stereotypes, and, if not kept in check, violent actions—can we, as a prosperous civilization, continue to believe that individuals such as Socrates are ‘heretics’ and not, in fact, a hero among the tragedies of their time? Our advancements in government, politics, even mathematics, owe their success to the foundations of ancient philosophy—and yet they receive little credit.
In the end, all contributions to mankind require thought, and that is exactly what philosophy is: thinking. The philosopher Marcus Aurelius summarizes philosophy as something which enables man to “accept all that happens and all that is allotted … and finally to wait for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded” At a glance, there is no apparent ‘evil’ in such a view, and yet, Socrates was put to death for the very same mindset. What, then, were the motives for the reaction of the Athenians to the accusations of Socrates’ “corruption”? They are the same as the reasoning behind those very same judgments cast today: fear. When a mind denying itself of the introspection Socrates promoted is barraged with such unfamiliar views and beliefs, it fears them, and seeks the swiftest way to suppress them. Even now, some who would read this, after learning it was written by a modern-day youth, would fear the resurfacing of such outdated ideals, and quickly dismiss the words as childhood fancy and ‘magical’ thinking. This stubborn attachment to such rationalization is a defense mechanism of the human mind so we are not overwhelmed by what we do not understand; however, can the process of slowly eradicating a philosophical outlook on life and replacing it with trivial and materialistic pleasures be excused as defensive rationalization? There is a fine line between maintaining thought and achieving progress, and the technological monarchy of the modern world threatens to erase it entirely; the philosophers are becoming a dying breed.
Much of the beauty in this ‘obsolete’ lifestyle is its lack of material aspects. Today, many lifestyles revolve around a core of materialism: Salary determines status, decor makes the house, and attire determines if you are “in or out”. Though Marcus Aurelius was a ruler during the reign of the Antonine emperors, philosophy was not reserved for great minds alone. Epictetus, a slave of Rome, is just as revered as the Emperor Aurelius, even containing his own volume in the literary collection produced by the Classics Club. This is because philosophy transcends the realm of wealth and poverty; it cares not for the affairs of flesh and folly. So many individuals lament their states within their niche in life, but very few realize how much of their problems can be attributed to their own lifestyles.
Rather than reflect upon their issues, such as Aristotle did in his essay on Pleasure and Happiness—one of the roots of modern-day conflicts—the troubled turn to almost childish means of ‘resolving’ the problem. They essentially seal themselves within their sphere of troubles because they are not willing to think outside of their normal realm of thought, or, in some cases, even think for themselves—such as in the realm of politics, where an individual has a chance to “give an opinion” on a topic with no more background on it than what their favorite politician tells them to believe. It would have been easy for Epictetus to resign himself to the life of a Roman slave, simply following his day to day regiments of basic duties, but he allowed himself to think, and not in a simplistic manner, but one that would be remembered for centuries to come. In The Enchiridion—’handbook’ to Epictetus’s philosophies—he states in entry 17: “If a person had delivered up your body to some passer-by, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in delivering up your own mind to any reviler, to be disconcerted and troubled?” If one considers Epictetus’ condition, this statement is ironic: as a slave, his body was delivered up to some passer-by, but he never let his mind be treated likewise.
Through the will of his mind, he freed himself from his circumstances. Today, too many people so easily forfeit both body and mind as slaves to whatever power they choose to follow, be it fashion, popularity, or any other of the multitude of ‘slave owners’ rampant in the world. Philosophers’ treated the mind, body, and soul with the utmost respect, even when another being came into conflict with their own beliefs. That ability is hard to come by now, and it grows scarcer and scarcer by the day. Instead of wallowing in the sadness brought on by our daily shackles, instead of striking others with our heavy chains, should we not focus more on finding the keys to the locks, especially when the answer lies so easily in our own reach? Of course, some would look at this literary piece and say, “Where are the statistics? Where are the media quotes? Where is the current day relevance?” That is the problem, though, isn’t it? There is no careful documentation of this topic, no interviews, no spotlight. The essence of philosophy is the use of thought-processes and personal beliefs.
There is no need to cite numbers and super-stars—they are the reasons that this era of thinking is dying. No one wants to reach back to the streets of Rome or the pillars and shrines of Greece to reflect upon the marvelous and beautiful ideas and truths that those people upheld. We are all too busy immersing ourselves in the readily available trivialities of today, objects that break and wear down, temporary retreats from reality. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his essay titled Happiness and Creativity, writes: “Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato wrote that the most important task for a society was to teach the young to find pleasure in the right objects. Plato.
. . had rather definite ideas about what those ‘right things’ should be. We are much too sophisticated today to have strong feelings on the matter.” If we view the civilization that Plato dwelt in, and even Plato himself as sophisticated by our standards, then what right have we to believe we are sophisticated after discarding those systems that made those people sophisticated in the first place? This is only another paradox in the torrent of paradoxes that we humans have created: Joining the masses that believe in non-conformity,—which is conformity—waging wars to find peace, and making progress by stripping away that which allowed us to progress.
Maybe this is the simple cycle of life that we are cast into to live, but, as Epictetus saw, limitations of the person by no means need apply to the mind. The philosophers of yore constantly sought to fight away the chains of ‘unexamined lives’, as Socrates put it, and if we but took a moment to examine that concept alone, we might see the value in doing such a thing. Sadly, the era of such introspection is taking its last gasps, and philosophers such as I flail in its death-throes. If that is so, however, and this essay is to stand trial before the Neo-Athenians of today, those who are just as judgmental as the jury of Socrates, those who continue to isolate the free thinker before the crowd and sentence the diversity of thought to death, then Socrates’ words shall again ring above the cries of sentence: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”