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Saint Socrates

Mark Vernon thinks about the lives of some philosophers who lived their thinking.

Why did Socrates write nothing? It’s a question that fascinates me. It’s not just that nothing in his own hand survives: we can be confident that he was wary of the written word, because it’s a suspicion with which Plato also struggled. So why? To us, the written word is the lifeblood of thought, and surely Socrates thought highly of that?

Socrates’ concern appears to have been that the written word distracts us from what was for him the primary locus of philosophy, namely life itself. He preferred to talk rather than to read, since conversation emerges out of you, whereas a text asks to be let into you. If your motto for life is ‘Know thyself’, then writing puts the cart before the horse. ‘Get thee a life’, Socrates might retort to the scholar stuck in a carrel [a walled desk – Ed].

There’s another striking aspect to this aversion. We still remember Socrates. His presence persists in the way Western culture respects argument, principles, sacrifice and (more or less) philosophy. The historical centrality of Socrates, 2,400 years on, is so familiar as to be almost missable, although it is remarkable, and doubly so when you think that he left no texts. Where would Freud be without The Interpretation of Dreams, Marx without The Communist Manifesto, or Joseph Smith without The Book of Mormon? They would have been forgotten had they not put pen to paper (and you might think the better for that). But Socrates did not write, and yet we remember him. How did he achieve that feat?

He shares this distinction with a tiny handful of others, Jesus and the Buddha being the two obvious examples. The Bible once records Jesus doodling in the sand, although the wind blew his words away. The incident is like a tease: what would Christians give to know the content of his scribbles? The Buddha’s sayings and talks were written down by his disciples, but he himself, following his momentous meditation under a bodhi tree, appears to have concluded that writing was a distraction. One wonders what Gautama Siddhartha would have made of the thousand embellishments that are now part of the Buddhist canon – hindrance or help?

Why we remember these three is no doubt partly due to the vicissitudes of history. Maybe there were others like Siddhartha, Jesus and Socrates who were forgotten, although that doesn’t seem very likely when you think it through. They had converts and followers who could develop their message so that it informed and shaped civilisations. They led lives that possessed a spirit and energy which spoke of what humanity could achieve, and must have touched something deep in people. Conversely, they were prophetic enough to make enemies too – a sure sign they were onto something. All three ending up being rejected: India refused the Buddha’s reforms and remained Hindu; Jesus and Socrates were both executed by the state.

For the axial religious figures, life itself was primary, and the medium was the message. This is celebrated in the stories that are told and retold about the lives of these founding figures, and also of the saints and bodhisattvas who subsequently embodied the original charisma. So if such reverent biographies are thought extraneous to philosophy today, because it is not lives that are studied and honoured, but logic, it was not always so. In fact, until the birth of modernity, the lives of the sages, not only the saints, were freely rehearsed alongside their systems of thought. Their qualities were captured in portraits; their stories portrayed in stained glass. “I consider the lives and fortunes of the great teachers of mankind no less carefully than their ideas and doctrines,” opined Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century.

It started with the image of Socrates himself, particularly in the iconography of Socrates the martyr: unjustly condemned, bravely accepting the sentence, he confirmed the virtue of the powerless who similarly die nobly for their beliefs. Whether or not the image is justified is another question entirely – what happened when Socrates stood before the jury was contested from early on. This is presumably why Plato wrote not one but three dialogues exploring Socrates’ last days. But the appeal of the image of Socrates drinking the hemlock as he calmly discourses with his friends stems not from it’s historical veracity. The image is archetypal. It speaks to a human ideal, which is why it sticks.

A Plethora Of Philosophical Patriarchs (And Matriarchs)

Plato was not alone in realising that the significance of the new philosophy movement rested not just on its exercise of reason but on its demonstration of the best within us too. The Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics and others remembered the exemplary heroism of their greatest practitioners as well.

Take the Stoics. The story goes that their founder, Zeno of Citium, when shipwrecked off the Athenian coast made his way into the city, and headed for a bookshop. There he discovered a copy of Xenophon’s memoir of Socrates, in which Socrates explains that although an education might teach you many things, it typically fails when it comes to matters that would be extraordinarily useful, such as how to get a good night’s sleep. A training in how to contain the petty frustrations of everyday life would be enormously beneficial, Socrates observes. Zeno agreed, and immediately set to forging the Stoical way of life. It was said that Zeno so mastered his control of the passions, an ability the Stoics much admired, that he died by holding his breath. That’s impossible, a scientist might object. That’s not the point, an ancient philosopher might retort: it’s a story to demonstrate the transformative power of the Stoic art of life.

Alongside the atomic theory of nature he advocated, Epicurus was remembered for the life he led too. “His goodness was proved in all ways,” wrote Diogenes Laertius, the chronicler of the third century CE, who, when he decided to write about philosophy, thought it quite natural to do so by gathering the personal myths in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Epicurus was said there to be as happy as Zeus, who feasted in splendour on Mount Olympus, when all he had to sup on was water and barley cakes. He died in agony, apparently of kidney stones, and yet throughout his illness he remained cheerful. In witness to this striking equanimity, his last letter to Hermarchus was preserved. “On the happiest, and the last day of my life: I am suffering from diseases of the bladder and intestines, which are of the utmost possible severity,” Epicurus wrote. “Yet all my sufferings are counterbalanced by the contentment of soul which I derive from remembering our reasonings and discoveries.”

Then there were the Cynics, ancient Greek philosophers who were not unlike Hebrew prophets, or perhaps present-day eco-warriors: for them, if their lives did not speak, then they had precisely nothing to say. Epictetus (a Stoic) paints a portrait of how such a philosopher should look: “I wear a rough cloak now, and I shall have one then. I sleep on a hard surface now, and I shall do so then. I shall also get a bag and stick, and I shall begin to go around begging from people I meet and abusing them” (Discourses 3.22.9). In another place, Epictetus treats Cynicism as a vocation – a calling to call out to others. Thus, the good Cynic proclaims: “O people, where are you bound? O miserable ones, what are you doing? You reel up and down, like the blind. You have left the real path and are going off on another one. You are looking for serenity and happiness in the wrong place, where it does not exist, and you do not believe when someone shows you” (Discourses 3.22.26).

Neoplatonists had their heroes too, one of whom will feature in a movie called Agora that was premiered this year at Cannes. It concerns the brilliant fourth-century-CE figure, Hypatia of Alexandria. Her father had been the head of Alexandria’s famous Mouseion, from whence she travelled to Athens to study Plato and Aristotle. There she excelled in the mathematical sciences and, upon her return to Alexandria, she became head of the Academy, where she commanded popular appeal. That brought her trouble when the Christian bishops of Alexandria moved against paganism. One called Cyril was especially brutal: he kept a private army of shock troops. In March 422 CE, Hypatia fell foul of a mob. We know what happened from the record of another Christian, Socrates Scholasticus, who was on her side. He wrote: “Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.” This is usually interpreted as meaning she was flayed alive with oyster shells.

The incident went down in the annals as demonstrating the new religion at its worst. It even featured in Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, when he commented: “It is as if the entire civilization had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, so that most of its memories, discoveries, ideas and passions were irrevocably wiped out.” In truth, Hypatia was admired by many Christians as well as pagans – witness Socrates Scholasticus. The elite of both communities studied together. Nonetheless, the bravery she showed in the face of violence speaks to this day, in Hypatia’s case even more powerfully than her ideas.

There are more apocryphal stories. One Iamblichus, another Neoplatonist, is said to have performed miracles. His disciples had been pestering him for a sign, which he resisted, saying it was impious to test the gods. But he gave in to their demands at Gadara. The town was famous for its therapeutic springs, two of which were named Eros and Anteros. ‘Eros’ is what stirs in you when you fall in love. ‘Anteros’ is what stirs in you when someone falls in love with you. Iamblichus found his way to the spring Eros, touched the water and uttered a spell. To the amazement of his followers, a statuesque youth emerged from the calm surface – white-skinned, blond-haired, of pleasing height, and with a back and chest that gleamed in the light. Iamblichus then went to the spring called Anteros. He performed the same trick, only this time the Adonis had dark hair. Iamblichus beamed at his creations, although we are told he greeted them chastely as a father. Maybe he was chuckling, as the onlookers gasped in astonishment. But the story was remembered as a sign. Its message probably concerned the nature of love, for as the Neoplatonists taught, the supreme entity, the One, is “lovable, love itself and love of itself” – eros and anteros combined.

Philosophical Evaluations

Are these stories anything more than of passing interest, a series of colourful footnotes in the history of philosophy? I think we might do well to tell them as integral to philosophy. They remind us that whilst the search for truth for truth’s sake is an entirely justified and worthy goal, we also need truths to live by. Lives that embody these truths, along with impressive stories of them, can be powerful ways of communicating the truths. In fact, a number of contemporary philosophical movements seem to be remembering that philosophy is about the way people live and how they feel as much as how and what they think. There’s so-called experimental philosophy on the one hand, and on the other, the growing philosophical interest in the role of the emotions. The ancient philosophers would surely have argued that something is wrong with philosophy when it doesn’t seek proof of the way people behave, as experimental philosophy does, or when it fails to address the individual at the emotional as well as rational level.

At heart, Hellenic philosophy was a struggle with life, and it deployed reason as an aid to discernment. But the founders of the ancient schools – Plato, Epicurus, Zeno, Diogenes and the like – required that those who were serious about philosophy adhered to a way of life too. Theirs was an art, aimed at a transformation. We live in a plural age, in which religion falls short for many and in which consumerism promises so much and delivers so little worth committing to. Philosophy can once more contribute to the conversation about how to live.

© Mark Vernon 2009

Mark Vernon’s new book is Plato’s Podcasts: The Ancients’ Guide to Modern Living (Oneworld). To find out more about ancient philosophy try whatsyourphilosophytype.com or youtube.com/platospodcasts.

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