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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

Several readers have wondered whether you are really Socrates, but you find the doubt bothersome since it gets in the way of the discussions you would like to have about matters of importance to the soul. So I have a different question: Do you know that you are really Socrates? After all, it is exceedingly odd that you have come back to life, even you have admitted. So what makes you sure that ‘you’ have? Maybe you are a madman, unbeknownst even to yourself. And even if you really are Socrates, this is not an issue which you should consider a diversion from your main task, is it? For you have traced your mission to an utterance of the Delphic oracle, whose motto is “Know thyself!”

Sid Arthur
Deer Park, Banaras

Dear Sid,

I see your point. Besides some circumstantial evidence, I have mainly my own memories to go by when I assert that I am Socrates, even to myself. And perhaps even that is begging the question, to say that they are memories. For if they are false – just phantasms of a deluded mind – then they are not memories, but dreams, or memories of dreams.

But does this really put me at a disadvantage? What about you, Sid? What makes you think that you are Sid? In the first instance, I dare say, it is your memories (?) of having always been Sid. On the other hand, just because you do not remember a prior time, how would that prove that you are not in a similar situation to myself? In fact, I do remember from my own day hearing from traders to the East about a namesake of yours – later they called him ‘Buddha’ – who had propounded a doctrine which is quite relevant to the present discussion. Apparently he died just a few years before I was born, but perhaps you are he and have come back a few years before me. (Of course, that would scotch the idea that I myself was him reborn back then, which was otherwise an intriguing possibility, given the timing.)

Well, it all boggles the mind. But, you know, Buddha said that he was not interested in metaphysical questions for their own sake; and I arrived at a similar conclusion, after first toying with the ideas of Anaxagoras. So what difference does it make in the end, whether I am Socrates reincarnate, or you are Siddhartha? Where is the edification in these things?

I will tell you. I have noticed that in this new age, a lot of New Age folk embrace reincarnation, as if it were something to be joyous about. But Buddha did not think it was so, and, I must confess, I am now rather astonished by my boldness and upbeat feeling about it just prior to my own demise. For there would seem to be two possibilities: either one comes back at random, or else one comes back according to one’s desert. If the latter were true, then one would want to be as virtuous as possible. That was surely my goal. But it is another thing entirely to know that one is virtuous, is it not?

Indeed, does it not often seem that an inverse relation exists between people’s self-regard and their actual virtue? So we would be left in this anxious lot: “If I believe I am not so virtuous, I look forward to my next life with dread; if I believe I am virtuous, I ought to be filled with doubt about my selfestimation, in which case I look forward to the next life with apprehension.” The upshot is: there’s nothing to be cheery about!

That does not deprive the system of its ethical influence, though, for one is still obliged to be as good as one can be. The mechanism continues to function, regardless of one’s ignorance of its precise workings. The element of uncertainty may motivate virtue even more, since one can never be sure how well one is doing in the ratings!

So now let us consider the other possibility, that the next life is determined randomly: Would this deprive reincarnation of its moral significance? Think about it this way. What are the odds that you would come back to lead a good life? Cast your mental gaze over the teeming billions of humanity (putting aside other animals for now): How many of those lives do you envy? From how many do you recoil? What are the chances that you would come back impoverished, sickly, emotionally troubled, a refugee, a concentration camp inmate, a victim of bigotry, or torture, or rape, or natural catastrophe, or of a car accident where you are burned alive? Granted, a whole life should not necessarily be judged by a single incident or even a prolonged episode, nor by the way it ends. But one of my contemporary students estimated the odds of a good life as “The same as winning the lottery.” I leave that for you to ponder.

If you believe in reincarnation, then, you are charged to turn not only inwards (to examine your own excellence) but also outwards, since each of us would have, or have for all we know, a stake in the betterment of all of us. That is because we would never know where on the totem pole we would end up, no matter whether the placement were random or based on virtue. (Readers acquainted with contemporary ethical philosophy will therefore sense an affinity between John Rawls’ ‘original position’ and taking reincarnation seriously in the way I have suggested.)

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.org Socrates 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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