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22. Who is this Man Socrates?
In Plato’s Drinking Party (Symposium), Alcibiades offers an encomium of Socrates. He recalls a passage from Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds. “I couldn’t get your words out of my mind, Aristophanes: ‘Swaggering through these alleys with your slyly sideways-glancing sallies’.”
In the midst of battle [Socrates] was making his way exactly as he does around town. He was observing everything quite calmly, looking out for friendly troops and keeping an eye on the enemy. Even from a great distance it was obvious that this was a very brave man, who would put up a terrific fight if anyone approached him. This is what saved both [Laches and himself]. For, as a rule, you try to put as much distance as you can between yourself and such men in battle.
Alcibiades was struck by the way Socrates embodied his philosophy. While being hunted down by soldiers intent on killing him, he carried himself in the same relaxed, calm, circumspect, and ironic way as he did in daily life. What protected him and Laches was his utter fearlessness. Such a figure was the very opposite of the comic-book philosopher depicted in Clouds. This was someone you simply did not mess with — let alone think of burning down his school. Alcibiades had chosen one of the few lines in the play that had any bearing on what Socrates might actually have been like.
Alcibiades had already witnessed Socrates at war during the siege of Potidaea, one of the first campaigns of the Peloponnesian War, during which Socrates had saved the young man’s life. The two of them had shared the same tent, allowing Alcibiades to observe Socrates at close hand. “One day at dawn,” he recalled, “Socrates started thinking about some problem or other. He just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot.” Alcibiades claimed that Socrates remained in this trance all day, lost in contemplation. As night fell, some of the soldiers brought their bedding outdoors, curious to see how long he would continue. “He stayed in place until the next morning, when the sun came out,” continued Alcibiades,” and he made his prayers to the new day.”
For Alcibiades, Socrates was totally unique. “There is a parallel for everyone,” he went on, “— everyone else, that is.”
But this man here is so bizarre, his ways and his ideas are so unusual, that, search as you might, you’ll never find anyone else, alive or dead, who’s even remotely like him. … If you were to listen to his arguments, at first they’d strike you as totally ridiculous; they’re clothed in words as coarse as the hides worn by the most vulgar satyrs. He’s always going on about pack asses, or blacksmiths, or cobblers, or tanners; he’s always making the same tired old points in the same tired old words. … But if you go behind their surface, you’ll realise that no other arguments make any sense. They’re of great — no, of the greatest — importance for anyone who wants to become a truly good person.
In contrast to the sophists lampooned in Clouds, Socrates employed the ordinary, everyday language of artisans to teach philosophy. Rather than develop metaphysical theories or make scientific claims about the natural world, he kept returning to the only thing that mattered for him: how to lead a good life. Socrates’ exclusive concern was ethics.
“Socrates is the only man in the world,” reflected Alcibiades, “who has made me feel shame.” For as long as he was with his teacher, Alcibiades readily assented to everything Socrates said, but as soon as he found himself alone again, he reverted to his old ways, “caving in to my desire to please the crowd.” He admitted that he spent much of his life doing his best to avoid Socrates. At times he wished him dead, only to realise that Socrates’ death would make him even more miserable. “I can’t live with him,” he confessed, “and I can’t live without him.”
Socrates made his students acutely aware of their moral contradictions. He achieved this not only by what he said but by the example of how he lived. He appeared completely indifferent to the things most people craved, such as beauty, wealth and fame. On seeing items displayed for sale in a market, he would remark: “How many things I can do without!” He refused any payment for his teaching and had no other source of income. His wealthy students may have invited him to fancy dinner parties but essentially Socrates was a beggar. “He considers all possessions,” declared Alcibiades, “beneath contempt, and that’s exactly how he considers all of us as well. In public, his whole life is one big game — a game of irony.” Alcibiades seems to imply that Socrates’ life was a self-conscious performance played out on the great stage of Athens.
While seeking to lead an impeccably ethical existence, Socrates claimed not to know anything about the nature of truth, goodness or virtue. “He likes to say he’s ignorant,” noted Alcibiades, “and knows nothing.” At the end of a dialogue on the cardinal Greek virtue of justice in the first book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates concluded:
The result of the whole discussion has been that I know nothing at all. For I know not what justice is, and therefore I am not likely to know whether it is or is not a virtue, nor can I say whether the just man is happy or unhappy.
Socratic dialogues often end in such a state of perplexity and doubt (aporia), leaving the participants suspended midway between “is” and “isn’t,” unsure of what to think or do. This liminal state of mind is similar to Alcibiades’ finding himself unable to live either with or without Socrates. Leading a fully committed ethical life founded on such radical uncertainty lay at the heart of Socrates’ philosophical practice. How to achieve this remains, to this day, the great conundrum and challenge of the Socratic way of life.
As the night wore on, a group of drunken revellers burst into the room and the party broke up. Only Socrates and the two playwrights, Agathon and Aristophanes, remained. As they passed a large cup of wine between them, Socrates tried to convince the tragedian and the comedian that “authors should be able to write both comedy and tragedy: the skilful tragic dramatist should also be a comic poet.” Before he could clinch his argument, Aristophanes fell asleep, and, as the first roosters announced daybreak, Agathon dozed off too. Socrates stood up and left. He spent the rest of the day as he always did, discussing in the agora what it meant to lead a flourishing life, “and only then, as evening was falling, went home to rest.”