Though probably the best known philosopher in the Western tradition, Socrates’ fame is based not on his work, as he wrote nothing, but on the monument of his life as reconstructed by his disciples, mainly Plato. The Socratic question is: How real is the character Plato sketches in his numerous dialogues? Plato’s Apology, reporting the defence (Apologia) made by Socrates at his trial, shows him to be the first public intellectual rather than an absent minded stargazer.
Socrates had no interest in natural science or metaphysics (unconcerned with fantasies of the afterlife), epistemology (his model of knowledge was based on everyday occupations), or theology (he neither spoke on behalf of the gods nor about them). Instead, Socrates positioned himself as practitioner of free inquiry. Interacting with fellow citizens in the Agora (the centre of the city), he forced them to reflect on their own beliefs. His method, stylistically grounding both philosophical prose and tragic poetry of the time, was akin to a judicial cross-examination, in tune with his claim: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” obeying this dictum, he followed his god-given duty to “… go about doing nothing else than urging you… not to care for your persons or your property more than for the perfecting of your souls… for virtue is not derived from wealth, virtue is itself the source of wealth… both for the individual and the State”.(Apology 30).
Care of the self and the examined life are conceptually linked. To say that the unexamined life is not worth living is to make a claim for the importance of philosophical examination in one’s own life. This has parallels in other traditions, in the practice of meditation, confession of sins, etc, but these are usually private rather than public acts.
Care of the self also involves paying attention to what is really important and so becomes the question of how one should live one’s life, a question which, for Socrates, philosophy alone is equipped to answer. In a paradoxical reversal, asking the question becomes the answer. The simple asking of questions (of ourselves, of others) is living the examined life. More recent versions emphasise paying attention to what we do — thinking about and examining our motivations is to live authentically — the hallmark of the Socratic demand that we place ourselves under scrutiny.
Unlike other Socratic paradoxes (“no one does wrong willingly”, “the good man cannot be harmed”), this injunction is easy to repeat but difficult to practice. What Socrates called for was an examination of our belief system as a whole which, once exposed, was subject to a rigorous assessment, leaving no room for anything hidden or unexpressed. This was also the beginning of philosophical therapy: Ironing out the wrinkles of deceit and double dealing, seemingly necessary to everyday existence. Socratic examination was the first step in the care of the self.
Socrates, though put to death by majority vote, was not in opposition but in apposition to democratic Athens, where freedom of speech was every citizen’s right. Even the city’s most vociferous critics could speak openly: Reasoning in the courts (where citizens doubled as either judge or jury) or declaiming in the Assembly (where policies were debated and ratified). Nor was it surprising that the heights of Athenian civilisational achievement was bracketed between the tyranny of Pisistratus and the hegemony of Philip of Macedon.
Unlike the intelligentsia of the past (poets and poet-prophets), Socrates laid no claim to wisdom, nor did he praise rulers. Pilloried by comic poets long before he was brought to trial, he compared himself to a gadfly whose job was to sting the state and its citizens. Although he did not seek office, yet during the brief terror of the Thirty Tyrants, he refused, under threat of death, to obey them. Unjustly condemned by the restored democracy in 399 BCE (“many a good man has been condemned because of prejudice”), he declined to flee. The slow nature of his virtue overtaken by the speed of their wickedness (Apology 39a: Reminding us of Gandhi who had translated this work into Gujarati).
How should one live? The question, signalling the entry of ethics into politics, is possible only in a democratic polity. Only in democracies can the self determine itself, becoming at last no less than the sum of its accidents. The classic separation of mind and body was designed to separate being from beings, contrasting the uncertainty about the self with the certainty of what it is not. Am I not as well what I seem most not to be? Not merely a disembodied soul but an embodied self (jiva)? Knowledge and care of the self still remains the goal of all our endeavours. Refashioning the oracular imperative — know thyself — the real Socratic question turns out to be not about him but about ourselves.
This article first appeared in the May 6, 2019 print edition under the title ‘In Good Faith: The Socratic question’. The writer taught philosophy at Delhi University