Lives Well Lived

8. Socrates (469–399 BC)

Socrates was, by his own account, “a gadfly”. He spent his days in the ancient Athenian marketplace asking awkward questions, disconcerting the people he met by showing them how little they genuinely understood. His typical approach was to innocently question an established idea; he started with simple questions that a politician or businessman or military general invariably found easy to answer. Then, moving logically from one question to the next, Socrates would soon have the powerful man flummoxed and red-faced, fumbling for a valid response. Within minutes, the foundations of the “established idea” were shown to be weak, and the interlocutor was storming away. To be clear, Socrates’ goal wasn’t to annoy people; he was simply trying to get at the truth. He endeavored, through dialogue, to strip the falsehoods away. His was a position of ultimate intellectual humility: “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”

Socrates essentially invented Western philosophy, and he did it not by preaching his ideas, but by asking questions. His was the spirit of the young child who asks “why?” to everything. We’re supposed to stop asking “why” when we grow up—this is construed somehow as a sign of maturity—but Socrates saw the crucial importance of inquiry, and he wielded it around the marketplace like a weapon. The elites of his day fully appreciated the danger of this man. They understood that their power—as is true of all elites—relied heavily on a non-thinking populace, and they sentenced him to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens”.

This is a standard response to anyone who seriously threatens the status quo. If one considers the response to those who do so today—Noam Chomsky, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Tim DeChristoper, Thomas Drake, the Occupy movement—one suspects that the elites would dearly love to feed them hemlock, if only they thought they could get away with it. Socrates was no respecter of power; his allegiance was solely to the truth. He wrote nothing down—we can thank Plato for our knowledge of his life. And his life was lived literally as an example to others—the embodiment of the intellectual tradition we call philosophy, and the standard bearer for free thinkers everywhere.

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