Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Wisest of Men

"When we were at Potidæa," says Alcibiades, singing the praises of Socrates to the joyous company which he found at the house of the poet Agathon, "if we were short of food—not an uncommon thing on a campaign—there was no one to compare with Socrates for the way he bore it, while at a banquet, if he was compelled to drink, which he never wanted to do, he outlasted everyone else; no one ever saw Socrates tipsy. As to the way in which he bore cold—and the cold is terrible in that country—here is an example of what he did. Once there was an exceedingly hard frost; no one went out, or if he did, wrapped himself up in the strangest fashion, and put every kind of covering on his feet, but Socrates went barefoot through the ice, with less discomfort than others felt for all their precautions to keep themselves warm."

This is followed by an anecdote which reminds one curiously enough of the raptures of some mediæval saints. "Some idea occurred to him and he stood trying to think it out. Failing to do this he would not give it up, but still stood thinking. By this time it was noon, and the men began to notice him. 'See!' said one to another, 'Socrates has something in his head, and has been standing thinking it out ever since the morning.' When it was evening, some men from Ionia, having had their meal, took out their mattresses to sleep in the cool—it was summer time—and also to see whether he would stand through the night. And he did stand till morning. Then he saluted the sun, and went his way."

Another story of endurance concludes the "Dialogues of the Banquet" from which these anecdotes are taken. One Aristodemus tells the story. "I was overcome with slumber and slept a long time, for it was the time of the year when the nights are long. At daybreak, when the cocks were beginning to crow, I woke and found that some of the guests were asleep and that others were gone, and that Aristophanes, Agathon, and Socrates, who alone of all the company were awake, were drinking out of a great cup which they passed from left to right. Socrates was talking to the other two; but what he said I do not remember, for I had not heard the beginning, and besides, I was somewhat drowsy; but the chief point was this: he compelled them to acknowledge that the same man ought to write both tragedy and comedy. Then they too—and they had not followed him very clearly—began to nod, and first Aristophanes fell asleep, and then—when it was now broad daylight—Agathon. Thereupon Socrates rose, composed them to sleep, and went away to the Lyceum, where he washed. The rest of the day he spent as usual, and went home in the evening."

The power of enduring heat and cold, and still more the possession of a brain which defies all influences of strong drink, may not seem quite as admirable to us as they did to the contemporaries of Socrates. But he had other qualities which we may agree with them in respecting. The virtue of military courage he possessed in the highest degree. In a skirmish before Potidæa he saved the life of Alcibiades, who had been left wounded and helpless on the field. On the disastrous day of Delium he was one of a few infantry soldiers who preserved so firm an attitude during all the dangers of a retreat that the enemy did not venture to molest them.

And he had also in perfection, the rarer gift of political courage. How he bore himself in the Assembly when after the battle of Arginusæ the generals were illegally condemned, has already been described. Then he was resisting at the imminent peril of his life, an infuriated democracy. When Athens fell, and the democracy was overthrown, he offered the same resolute resistance to an unscrupulous oligarchy. The Thirty—this was the name of the governing body which the victorious Lysander had established in Athens—sent for him and four other citizens of repute, and commissioned them to fetch from Salamis a certain Leon, a political opponent whom they had resolved to put out of the way. Socrates alone among the five, refused to obey.

A less tragical story may be told in the words in which Xenophon, a disciple of the philosopher, relates it.

"The Thirty having put to death many citizens, and these not the least worthy, and having turned many to evil courses, Socrates said: 'It seems strange to me that a herdsman should make the cattle that he has in charge fewer in number and of worse condition, and yet not confess that he is a bad herdsman; and it seems yet stranger that one who ruling a city causes the citizens to be fewer and worse, does not take shame to himself and own that he is a bad ruler.' Now Critias and Callicles being among the Thirty, both hating and fearing Socrates, had caused a law to be passed, that no one should teach the art of reasoning. Therefore they sent for Socrates, and showed him the law, and commanded him not to talk with young men.

"Socrates.  'May I ask a question if there is anything in this law that I do not understand?'

"Critias.  'Certainly.'

"Socrates.  'I am quite ready to obey the law; but as I don't wish to transgress through ignorance. I should like to get some clear information on one point. Do you think that this art of reasoning is on the side of right or on the side of wrong that you bid me have nothing to do with it? If it is on the side of right, then it is clear that I shall have to keep from speaking right; if it is on the side of wrong, then surely I ought to try to speak right?'

"Callicles  (in a rage). 'As you are so ignorant, Socrates, here is something for you that will be easier to understand. We tell you that you are not to talk to young men at all.'

"Socrates.  'To avoid all doubt, tell me exactly up to what age a man is a young man!'

"Callicles.  'For so long as he cannot sit on the Senate, as not having come to years of discretion. So don't converse with any man under thirty.'

"Socrates.  'If a man under thirty has something to sell, may I converse with him?'

"Callicles.  'Of course you may about such things. But your way, Socrates, is to ask questions about things that you know all about. Don't ask such questions any more.'

"Socrates.  'And if a young man should ask me where Callicles is or where Critias is to be found, may I speak to him?'

"Callicles.  'Yes, you may.'

"Critias.  'But keep away, I tell you, from carpenters and cobblers and smiths and such people; you must have talked them deaf by this time, I take it!'

"Socrates.  'And I must have nothing to say, I suppose, about matters that I have always associated with such talks, justice and piety and such like!'

"Critias.  'Yes, and nothing about herdsmen, or you'll find that the cattle are made fewer by one more.'

"It is clear from this," adds the writer, "that what Socrates had said about the herdsmen had been reported to them and had caused their wrath."

Socrates' external appearance is well known to us. It was as unlike as possible to the Greek ideal of beauty. His face was of the coarsest type, with snub nose and projecting forehead, resembling a Silenus far more than an Apollo. So far, then, we are able to form a tolerably clear notion of the man. He was a sturdy, courageous person, abstaining as far as possible from political life, but inflexibly honest and truthful when circumstances compelled him to act. Of his character as a teacher it is impossible to speak within any limits of space which I can command, nor, indeed, is the subject such as belongs to the scope of this book. Nevertheless, a few details of prominent points may be given. Socrates was the son of a sculptor, and seems for the first half of his life (which extended to nearly seventy years) to have followed the same profession. A group of the Graces was shown to Pausanius when he visited Athens in the second half of the second century A.D., as the work of the philosopher. At the age of thirty-five he gave up this occupation, and thereafter devoted himself to teaching. Unlike his contemporaries, such men as Gorgias of Leontini, and Protagoras, he did not give his instructions in a school or lecture-room, he did not pretend to have any regular following of disciples, and he steadfastly refused to receive any payment for his instruction. He spent his whole day in the streets and squares of the city, talking with any passers-by who might be willing to answer his questions, and ready to answer any questions that might be put to him.

His method was eminently conversational. He did not lecture; he talked. With a playful allusion to the profession of a midwife which his mother had followed, he was accustomed to say that he helped to bring the thoughts and beliefs of others to the birth. The subjects of his discourse were of an eminently practical kind. In the speculations of physical philosophy—speculations which before his time had largely occupied the thoughts of philosophers—he took little interest. Questions concerning conduct, about justice and injustice, right and wrong, in states and in individuals, were the chief topics which he would discuss. His method may be best described by the word "cross-examination." He questioned his hearers, using commonly a somewhat circuitous route, till he compelled them to confess that their notions were confused and contradictory. His great maxim was "Know thyself." He stripped off, or rather he made those who talked with him strip off for themselves, the veils of self-deception which so commonly hide a man's real self from him. This was the meaning of his favourite doctrine, that knowledge is in closest connection with virtue. To exhort to virtue seemed to him useless, unless he could make a man look at himself in his true light, get rid of all false notions, all self-deceptions. We may doubt, indeed, whether a man will necessarily do right because he has knowledge of what is right, and of how he is himself affected towards right, but this need not prevent us from acknowledging the substantial soundness of the Socratic method.

A method and a teaching so novel attracted, it is needless to say, much attention. Not a few strangers came to Athens with the one purpose of making themselves acquainted with it. Among the citizens there was probably no more familiar figure. But it does not follow that because he was well known he was popular: even in his pupil Xenophon's account of his extraordinary hardihood, we have a hint of something like jealousy among his comrades. His fellow-soldiers thought that he looked down upon them. Then again, though he was not a political partisan, his inflexible honesty brought him, as we have already seen, into collision with both the aristocratic and the democratic factions. It is a fact, too, that prominent persons do not conciliate favour by standing aloof in the marked way that was characteristic of Socrates, from politics. A strong partisan at least acquires the favour of his own side; a neutral is very commonly disliked or suspected by both.

A special cause of unpopularity may be found in the philosopher's connection with unpopular statesmen, notably with Alcibiades and Critias. Both had been his pupils. The latter, especially by the cruelty and injustice of his rule while he was the leading spirit of the Thirty, had made himself hated as an Athenian had never been hated before. Happily for himself he fell on the field of battle, but the memory of his deeds was treasured against all who in the popular judgment were connected with him.

It was also notorious to all who were in the habit of listening to his talk, and this description must have included pretty nearly every citizen of Athens, that Socrates was in the habit of uttering very undemocratic sentiments. He was no believer in the inborn capacity of the multitude for good government. It was his conviction—and his convictions he never hesitated to express in the most decided way—that a man must learn how to rule, if he is to rule well, just as he must learn how to steer a ship, if he is to become a good pilot, and to make shoes if he is to be a good cobbler. The spectacle

"Of those who know not ruling those who know

To their own harm"

was hateful to him. It is true that he might have been found, if questioned himself, to believe that a rich man or even a professional politician might be as ignorant of the true art of ruling as the most ignorant of the "Sailor mob" which so often swayed the decisions of the Athenian Assembly; but this belief had not so many opportunities of making itself evident. The application of the Socratic theory of the relation between knowledge and politics was obvious.

Curiously enough at the same time the philosopher was incurring the suspicious dislike of the party that was most opposed to democratic rule. Aristophanes represented the conservative element in Athenian thought, and to Aristophanes Socrates seemed a dangerous innovator in religion and morals. The comedy of the "Clouds," in which the poet attacks the philosopher by name, brings the two charges most distinctly against him. Socrates is represented as telling his disciples that new gods rule in the place of the old, or rather, for that is the practical upshot of it all, that there are no gods at all, and it is from the inspiration of his teaching that personified Injustice prevails in argument over Justice, her baffled and dispirited rival. The "Clouds," it is true, was put upon the stage as early as the year 427 B.C.and Socrates was not accused till 399. Nevertheless, the calumny, for it was nothing else, was working against him, and was not the least effective of the causes which brought about his condemnation. Finally there must have been a considerable number of personal enemies, made enemies by the relentless cross-examination to which this teacher subjected every one with whom he came into contact. Every self-convicted impostor, made to confess his own incapacity and ignorance, to the amusement of a listening crowd, must have treasured up angry recollections of his exposure against the teacher who had exposed the vanity of his pretensions.

Mr. Grote also thinks, and, it must be owned, with a good deal of reason, that Socrates when brought before his judges did not wish to escape. He was an old man; his means of living were precarious; his mode of life would have become impossible in the face of the growing infirmities of age. He did, indeed, in a way exert himself to procure an acquittal; that he would have welcomed, but rather, we may be sure, for the sake of his judges than of himself. He used, it is true, no persuasion, and he condescended to no artifices, but he stated his case fairly and in such a way as must, we cannot but think, have carried conviction to the mind of an unprejudiced hearer. But when the adverse verdict was pronounced, and it was pronounced by a majority of six votes only, he may be said to have deliberately set himself to bring down upon himself the severest possible sentence.

It was the somewhat strange practice of an Athenian court, when the verdict of "guilty" had been pronounced, to require the prosecutor to assess the penalty which he considered would meet the case. The condemned was required to do the same. In the case of Socrates the prosecutor demanded the penalty of death; the prisoner, had he been anxious to escape this fate, would have mentioned something that would have satisfied, not indeed his irreconcilable enemies, but those who had voted without any very strong motive. Banishment, imprisonment, even a heavy fine, would have sufficed. Socrates did nothing of the kind. He began by saying that if he had got his proper deserts the people would have voted him a public maintenance in what we may call Government House. He went on to say that he had no money, and that therefore it was useless for him to propose a fine. Nevertheless, as his friends were urgent with him to propose something, and were willing to find the money, he would name the sum of five minas or about 20 of our money. This was a calculated affront to the court, and, as there was no alternative choice other than the penalties named, necessarily resulted in a sentence of death.