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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 eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he could continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission. Now, a decade later, he hears a distant summons…

Dear Socrates,

How does it feel to be so great and historic a personage? I feel unworthy to be writing a letter to you. Instead, if I were capable of it, I should be composing a paean.

Yours in deepest humility,

A Mere Plebeian

Dear Plebe,

By this ‘paean from a plebeian’ do you mean to praise me … or pee on me? The latter would be closer to the mark, believe me. I remember a friend in ancient Athens laughingly telling me what had happened when he pointed me out to a distinguished visitor as a highly virtuous man. “Why, he looks like a mean sort,” the visitor had remarked. But that was exactly right. My friend confused seeking virtue with being virtuous. It is only because I have been a stranger to virtue that I seek to know what it is.

So I have been astonished at what the mere passage of time has done for my reputation. It is I who am unworthy: I, who was executed as a sort of religious child molester; I, who made a continual nuisance of himself in the public square; I, who judged himself the lowest of the low … simply because I alone recognized the unworthiness of human understanding and hence, in particular, my own.

Granted, that recognition did give me a kind of stature that is rare in the world. But you must really understand that this quality is readily available to anyone who wishes to participate in it. I have to laugh when I observe people speaking of me in hushed and reverent tones, as if my status were unattainable by mere mortals. Let me assure you, my friend: Socrates is mortal. By various accidents of history I have been singled out, but no differently from the leaf of grass – utterly indistinguishable from all the other leaves of grass – that became the progenitor of all life on Earth today, including you and me.

What is it like to be me? – you ask. I will pass over the usual aches and pains and satisfactions and joys of life and tell you about the distinctive features of my personal consciousness. I am buffeted on a daily basis by feelings of rapture, grief, outrage, and (common to all of the preceding) astonishment. These feelings only intensify as I grow older, not only because the world itself may be offering us greater and greater marvels and horrors (although I often doubt that any truly objective measure would show that to be so), but mainly because the store of experiences of a lifetime creates more and more associations among all things in one’s soul.

I am left with that curious form of speechlessness that manifests itself in unceasing talkativeness. For me an experience is not complete unless it has been expressed and articulated verbally and analytically. Although I myself never write a word (and depend on the good offices of a translator and transcriber and the editor of this magazine for the existence of the present column), I feel akin to that curious fellow, Tristram Shandy – the eponymous and, I gather, fictitious autobiographer of Laurence Sterne’s book – when he laments:

“I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume – and no farther than to my first day’s life – ‘tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it – on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back… It must follow, an’ please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write…”
(Tristram Shandy Vol. 4, Ch. 13)

You see, this poor man found so much to write about his first day of life, that he reckoned – since of course his life proceeded apace all the while – the more he wrote, the behinder he got! I feel the same – not about my life, exactly, but about all the things life makes me want to ponder and appreciate.

Bertrand Russell once suggested a way out of Shandy’s dilemma, based on the notion of an infinite set. According to the mathematician Georg Cantor, an infinite set is one which can be brought into one-to-one correspondence with a proper subset of itself. For example, if you consider the natural numbers… 1, 2, 3, etc… you see that they can be brought into alignment with just the even numbers… 2, 4, 6, etc. That is: 1 goes with 2; 2 goes with 4; 3 goes with 6; ad infinitum. It is an oddity… some would say an absurdity… but it is widely accepted among mathematicians and logicians as meaningful.

An implication of the infinite set, therefore, says Russell, is that if Shandy were to spend, say, one year writing about the first day of his life, then another year writing about the second day, and so on … in infinite time he would finish! Perhaps I will have an analogous opportunity to continue my philosophical discussions for all eternity … and thereby complete them! That was in fact my fond expectation on the last day of my life in ancient times, as Plato had reported from hearsay. But sometimes I am so bursting with emotion and impatience that I have wished my life could just stop (that is, other than the conversations) so that I could catch up with it!

The great diarist James Boswell once wrote, “I should live no more than I can record.” Again, I can empathize, although I would replace ‘record’ with ‘savor and dissect in thought and dialogue’. Perhaps Marcel Proust came the closest among mortals to achieving such a triumph in his A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. If so, he died a happy man.

In any case it is clear that I cannot approach such satisfaction whilst in this mortal coil. And as much as I surely do enjoy the give-and-take of dialectic for its own sake, my true vocation is to grasp the Truth. For this I must perhaps then return to where I sojourned between my departure from ancient Athens and my arrival in modern day. Having drunk the hemlock twenty-four-hundred years prior, I showed up here at the same age of seventy. Although the interim has been entirely clouded by the drafts of Lethe, I infer that the other world is timeless – time enough to pursue my divine mission! Now I am eighty. A little wiser for it? I would like to think so. But still infinitely far from wisdom.

Yours as ever,


After ten years of Dear Socrates columns, farewell and thanks to Socrates from the Philosophy Now team. (And come back to visit soon!)

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