Students of Socrates

The Socratic method is renowned as the foundation of western philosophy. Through asking questions and critiquing implicit assumptions, Socrates destroys the value foundation of Homeric Athens, bringing about a new age of ideas. This age, German philosopher Hegel argued, paved the way for our own time, free from felt values or thought ideas.

‘The debate of Socrates and Aspasia,’ by Nicolas-Andre Monsiau.

Before our modern forgetting of Socrates and the age he endeavoured to challenge, Socrates had his own immediate successors, Plato and Aristotle, who sought to rebuild an intellectual palace in the wake of Socrates’ moral reawakening of the world. Increasingly, Plato and Aristotle looked to politics for an answer, educating the new leaders of the ancient world, including various Mediterranean leaders in the case of Plato (to no avail) and Alexander the Great, student of Aristotle. Socrates taught the greatest philosopher of all time, Plato, while Aristotle taught the greatest warrior-leader of all time, Alexander. Aristotle, by contrast, is known mostly for his defences of sexism, slavery, and pseudo-science, while his valuable contributions are perhaps to ethical and political theory, where he advocated a balanced constitution in opposition to the more hierarchical polity favoured by Plato (and, by implication, Socrates). It is an enduring irony that Aristotle’s egalitarianism led him to defend certain forms of inequality, such as patriarchy and slavery, that Plato condemned. In rejecting Plato’s philosophical inequality, Aristotle embraced a profoundly unphilosophical inequality, leading Plato to be viewed more suspiciously in today’s unphilosophical egalitarian age, but with Aristotle as the more condemnable philosopher.

But neither Plato and Aristotle were condemned in their time (though Plato dangerously entertained his apprentice-kings’ rage on more than one occasion). Socrates was condemned by the people of Athens for his ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’ with a new philosophy. Socrates’ philosophy was deeply critical; a ‘negative dialectic’, as Adorno might say, given its rejection of all that came before him. Aristotle’s philosophy is dogmatic and categorical; a ‘positive dialectic’, perhaps (though ‘positive’ is not to defend some of its indefensible propositions, but rather to describe its attempt to construct something new from the ashes of the old). Between Socratic critique and Aristotelian construction was Plato’s balance. Of course, the real constructive endeavour was made by Alexander, though this came hand-in-hand with destruction, destruction which Aristotle would condemn as a defender of the limited city-state. Plato’s city of Callipolis, by contrast, was an expansionary polity, formed by desire for luxuries among the expanding population. Over time, Plato’s city needed philosophers to keep the peace, but even philosophers make mistake. After the philosophers are overthrown, the soldiers and workers go to war with each other, until the tyranny of a wannabe saviour figure rises to repress the conflicting factions under the rapacious desire of the tyrant. And here concludes Plato’s ‘cycle of regimes’.

Our modern age reflects this conclusion of the ancient dialectic. We are far beyond Plato’s philosophical aristocracy, and instead close to the economic oligarchy he imagined would eventually replace it, after the military timocracy, and hand-in-hand the political democracy of workers who resent their owners’ property. But replacing this war of all against all (to coin a phrase from Hobbes) is the superficial peace of tyranny. Just as the Roman Republic’s civil war ended with Caesarism, culminating in an empire to replace the old republic, it is likely that our own age will end in some form of monarchy. This is the conclusion of the philosophers’ own dialectic, beginning with Socrates’ challenge of the violent and arrogant tendencies of Athenian democracy, and concluding with Alexander’s conquest of half the known world. The perfect was not so much made the enemy of the good as the good was made the enemy of the real. And the real didn’t like that. Reality has a tendency towards tyranny, and rejection of morality, all other things being equal. To try to tame reality is to risk reality’s rebellion against those who would pretend to be its masters — be they philosophers, or worse.

Students of Socrates remain trapped in their master’s contradiction: between depending on a society for their security and livelihood, and wanting to transform that society for the better, in the image of morality. This tension is encapsulated in Plato’s distinction between ‘desire’ and ‘reason’, or, as Aristotle put it, between the needs of the body and the needs of the soul. Political institutions are suspended in a web between economic needs and philosophical ideas. The philosopher can either be the spider at the centre of the web, or the one who wipes clean the web of the past, to make way for the open fields of the future. What path will our philosophers choose? Which way will the students of Socrates go? Must past determine our future? Or can the future be genuinely new? Perhaps the answer is, as the first students of Socrates suggested, a balance between the extremes: we can neither escape the past, nor can we pretend the past is destiny. We may find solace in the peace of the present, as modern Aristotelian Hannah Arendt argued, while also directing our actions towards the Sovereignty of the Good, or a fusion of morality and intellect, as modern Platonist Iris Murdoch contended.

Above all, we must continue asking questions — not because this has the promise of good results (as the case of Socrates clearly shows), but because to do otherwise is to accept our situation, and let it flow. Though perhaps, if western philosophy is to escape its own prison of the intellect, we could learn something from pre-Socratic and eastern philosophy’s emphasis on just this idea: to forfeit power is power itself. To let go of the attempt to control our destiny, to shape the future and avoid the trap of the past, is to live in the present, for the good. Perhaps in this fusion of philosophy and flow, the future is made.

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