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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates,

What are you doing writing a column? I thought you were dead! Didn’t you drink the hemlock back in ancient Greece? And since when would you be caught dead dispensing advice? Aren’t you supposed to be wise because you know how ignorant you are?

Virginia O’Hanlon

Dear Virginia,

It is not quite what I had expected myself. It has taken me some time to figure out just where I am. You see, I fully expected to revive in some form or other, and I was hoping against hope that I had purified my soul sufficiently with a life of philosophy to be worthy of release from my body once and for all.

And when I did regain consciousness, I felt that I had indeed arrived in a blessed realm. I scarcely know how to describe the impressions made upon me by the marvels at every turn – things that, I now realize, you must take for granted. But imagine what it is like to see an automobile, an aeroplane, a skyscraper, a television, a computer, even a light bulb or a wristwatch or a pair of sneakers, for the first time, and all at once! There was hardly a sight or sound familiar to me except the occasional passing cloud or the chirping of a bird.

I also ascertained that amazingly advanced views were held by the general public. Most notably, those silly stories about the gods, which my credulous compatriots credited hook line and sinker, were now regarded as what they always have been: myths.

Eventually I understood what had happened: I have reappeared in the far future, that is, from where I last was. In fact, it was at the stroke of what you folks were celebrating as the new millennium, though that had a more poignant meaning for me than for the multitude of revellers around me.

Perhaps, then, I reflected, things have turned out for the best, since I will now be able to continue my discussions with almost anyone among the enlightened populace of this distant future, and not just those select few from the distant past, with whom I had previously fancied I might be privileged to converse in the afterworld.

Alas, my rosy conjecture was soon dashed. Take the millennium itself. When I learned of its contemporary significance, I discovered all sorts of curious things. First, there is the matter of a man called Jesus, whose birth it commemorates. I have studied some of his teachings, and I must say they are impressive, even recognizable in places. However, the manner in which much of what he said, and even what he did not say, has come to be accepted largely on the basis of some divine and miraculous authority – leaves me feeling that, except for the names of the characters and the stories in which they figured, nothing really has changed from my own time.

The millennial preoccupation exhibits another curious aspect of authority. As befuddled as I had at first been about when I now am, it seems the rest of the world knows not the era either. For some hold that this is the first year of the Twenty-First Century, while others insist that it is the last year of the Twentieth Century; and similarly, some that this is the beginning of the Third Millennium, others, the end of the Second.

As I further examined your newspapers and legal systems and Internet, I realized that everywhere, not only in religion, mere pronouncements adorned in the habit of authority are taken as signs of truth; and so today, not just certain persons, but everybody is considered, or at least considers himself to be, an expert! Thus, again, I felt that little, if anything, of substance had changed from my own day. Today as then, people who are without a doubt knowledgeable in their own area of specialization, thereupon consider themselves competent to judge upon all things.

And so I concluded that my task remained the same as before. Perhaps to your delight, I do not know, but definitely to my disappointment, I find myself assigned again to corporeal form. Of course in ancient Athens I knew myself to be a veritable sewer, which is why I spent so much time trying to understand virtue; so I surmise that I have been put back here to continue my researches for my own good.

Happy me, I will not lack for people to teach me!

But my accustomed agora is not the same today: I would be evicted from your malls as a vagrant or a trespasser. Of course there are marvellous media available in this age, which far surpass my ancient venue in accommodating an audience; but my intent was never to entertain, or even enlighten, the bystanders, who could come and go as they pleased, but to further my own wisdom. I fear that if I were, say, to have a talk show on your television, the imperative to satisfy the desires of the onlookers could quickly supplant the needs of the dialogue. In any event, I doubt that I shall ever attain the fluency of this new tongue required to sustain a conversation. I tell you, it is Greek to me! After all, I am an old man – 70 years old, give or take 2400.

So I have come instead to rely on a friendly classicist, who has agreed to translate written submissions and my replies. And that is why I have adopted this format. But, rest assured, this will not be an advice column … except insofar as it is I who solicit advice from my readers. Nor will my replies necessarily resemble the literary creations of my dear Plato, whose extant works I have recently bemusedly perused. Nor for that matter, I certainly hope, will they mimic the ravings attributed to me by that rascal Aristophanes!

So, yes, Virginia, there is a Socrates. I applaud your skepticism, but I hope you will also retain your sense of wonder, since these are the complementary fonts of philosophy.

Yours as ever,


Readers who would like to engage Socrates in dialogue are welcome to write to Dear Socrates, c/o Philosophy Now, or even to email him at: socrates@philosophynow.demon.co.uk This column will appear sporadically, whenever Socrates receives a particularly intriguing letter and wishes to respond. He will select which letters to answer and reserves the right to excerpt or otherwise edit them. Please indicate if you wish your name to be withheld.

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