On Matters That Matter

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

“What do you care what other people think?”

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In the spring of 399 BC, three Athenian citizens brought legal proceedings against Socrates. He was accused by them of failing to worship the city’s gods, of introducing religious novelties and of corrupting the young men of Athens. The severity of the charges called for a death penalty.

In Symposium and the Death of Socrates, a 1997 title of Wordsworth Editions, five dialogues have been offered in one volume for the first time. In Symposium, a group of Athenian aristocrats attend a party and talk about love, until the drunken Alcibiades bursts in and decides to discuss Socrates instead. The setting of the other dialogues is more somber. The 70-year-old Socrates is put on trial for impiety, and sentenced to death. Tom Griffith’s Symposium has been described as ‘possibly the finest translation of any Platonic dialogue’. In an introduction to the book, Jane O’ Grady says that ‘as far as we know, he (Socrates) left no writings at all’.

Socrates was in the habit of approaching Athenians of every class, age and occupation, and bluntly asking them, without worrying about what they would think of him, to explain with clarity why they held certain common sense beliefs and what they took to be the meaning of life. There are numerous stories about such incidents in which one can relish and enjoy the Socratic way of thinking. He was celebrated for his wisdom, and one of his friends (according to the account in the Apology) asked the Delphic oracle if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, getting the answer no. Socrates found in questioning others that in at least one respect he knew more—in knowing that he knew nothing.

He wore the same cloak throughout the year and almost always walked barefoot (it was said he had been born to spite shoemakers). Xanthippe, his wife, was of infamous foul temper (when asked why he had married her, he replied that horse-trainers needed to practise on the most spirited animals). He dubbed himself (referring to his mother’s livelihood) a midwife to knowledge.

In The Trial of Socrates, journalist I.F. Stone notes in the book’s preface, “This project has its roots in a belief that no society is good, whatever its intentions, whatever its utopian and liberationist claims, if the men and women who live in it are not free to speak their minds.”

The reaction of Socrates to his death sentence was that of legendary equanimity. The dialogue Phaedo gives an account of Socrates’ last day. It is an account that leaves one mesmerized and in admiration of the way in which Socrates consoles his friends and answers their queries in a lucid and serene manner. In the dying moments Socrates exhibits, more clearly than ever before, the wisdom and the courage associated with him.

A small extract from Plato’s Phaedo: “And as we went in we found Socrates just released from his fetters, and also Xanthippe—whom you know—sitting beside him holding their youngest child. When Xanthippe saw us, she urged us to be silent, and then said one of those things women will say: ‘Socrates, this is the last time your friends will talk to you, or you to them.’ Socrates glanced at Crito: ‘Make sure someone sees her home,’ he said.

…. “Most of us, up to that point, had been reasonably successful in controlling our tears, but when we saw him drinking, saw that he had drunk, we could do so no longer. …Apollodorus had been crying incessantly even before this, but now he started howling aloud. In his grief and distress he made everyone there break down—apart from Socrates himself.”

“Really!” he said. “What an extraordinary way to behave! The main reason I sent the women away was so that they wouldn’t disturb us like this. I have heard it said one should die in silence. So keep quiet, and be brave.” On hearing this everyone present was ashamed and stopped crying.

The Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety is a book by Alain de Bottom; where he has set six of the finest minds in the history of philosophy to work on the problems of everyday life. Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on some of the things that bother us all: lack of money, the pain of love, inadequacy, anxiety, the fear of failure and the pressure to conform. The Independent described de Bottom’s book saying: “Single-handedly, de Bottom has taken philosophy back to its simplest and most important purpose, helping us to live our lives.”

Though given an opportunity to renounce his philosophy in court, Socrates had sided with what he believed to be true rather than what he knew would be popular. In Plato’s account he had defiantly told the jury: “So long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet.”

The death of Socrates has been a subject of intense interest to painters. Among the many paintings done on the subject, de Bottom describes the one painted in Paris in the autumn of 1786 by the then thirty-eight-year-old Jacques-Louis David. Socrates, condemned to death by the people of Athens, prepares to drink a cup of hemlock, surrounded by woebegone friends. David got his commission in the spring of 1786 from Charles-Michel Trudaine, a wealthy member of the parliament and a gifted Greek scholar. When the picture was exhibited at the Salon of 1787, it was at once judged the finest of the Socratic ends.

“Plato sits at the foot of the bed, a pen and a scroll beside him, silent witness to the injustice of the state. He had been 29 when Socrates met his death, but David turned him into an old man, grey-haired and grave. Through the passageway, Xanthippe is escorted from the prison cell by warders. Socrates’ closest companion Crito, seated beside him, gazes at the master with devotion and concern. But the philosopher, bolt upright, with an athlete’s torso and biceps, shows neither apprehension nor regret. That a large number of Athenians have denounced him as foolish has not shaken him in his convictions. David had planned to paint Socrates in the act of swallowing poison, but the poet Andre Chenier suggested that there would be greater dramatic tension if he was shown finishing a philosophical point while at the same time reaching serenely for the hemlock that would end his life, symbolising both obedience to the laws of Athens and allegiance to his calling.”

Socrates offered humanity a way out of two powerful delusions: that we should always or never listen to the dictates of public opinion. To follow his example, we will best be rewarded if we strive instead to listen always to the dictates of reason.

Richard Feynman—Nobel laureate, teacher, icon and genius—with a gift of story telling carved a beautiful small story about himself and Arlene, the girl he marries within the span of the story, where she teases him with his own line throughout the small and poignant story. Arlene would always corner him by saying: “What do you care what other people think?”; which is the name of the story as well as the book. (The essay also looks at how Feynman was educated by his father: have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look at what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, “Is it reasonable?”)

The scientific spirit is the spirit of Socrates and the reason why it has been such a popular subject for artists is because he achieved the almost-impossible in trying circumstances: asked to choose between truth and reconciliation, Socrates chose the former and calmly drank the hemlock.

Notes:
Symposium and the Death of Socrates – Plato, Wordsworth Classics, 1997; translated by Tom Griffith

The Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety—Alain de Bottom; Penguin Books, 2000, 2004

What do you care what other people think? –Richard Feynman, Penguin Books, as told to Ralph Leighton; First published 1988, Penguin Books 2007

Janet E. Lorenz essay on ‘The Trial of Socrates’; Magill’s Literary Annual, 1989. Salem Press, 1989. eNotes.com. 2006.

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