by Maxwell Y. Maxwell, LL.B.
Volume 11, no. 00, 1900, pgs. 205-213
"For human nature is so constituted that it can forgive almost anything except that which ruffles its dignity"
[Read before the Hampstead Branch of the P.N.E.U., December 8th, 1899.] [Part 2 is below]
"To sage Philosophy next lend thine ear,
From Heaven descended to the low-roof't house
Of Socrates; see there his tenement,
Whom well inspired the oracle pronounc'd
Wisest of men; from whose mouth issued forth
Mellifluous streams, that water'd all the schools
Of Academics old and new, with those
Surnam'd Peripatetics, and the sect
Epicurean, and the Stoic severe."
These are the words of our great philosophic poet Milton--himself a man of the highest culture and the widest intellectual attainments [from Paradise Regained]. And the opinion which he has so sympathetically adopted and which was first pronounced in the well-know words of the Delphian Oracle, "Socrates is wiser than any other man," has been echoed and re-echoed by every great philosopher and every great historian in ancient and modern times, from Plato and Aristotle to John Stuart Mill, and from Xenophon to Mr. Grote.
On this occasion, however, we are not so much concerned with the wisdom of Socrates as with the man himself. For "wisdom" was only one of the elements of his many-sided character, and it will be perhaps more interesting to consider him, not only as a wise man, but also as a great man, and not only as a great man but also as one of the greatest men that the world has ever produced. It is true indeed, as we have recently been reminded by the published opinions of one who has often been called "the great German Statesman," that a man may accomplish a great work and yet be himself not really great, just as we have often been reminded (though I most strongly dispute the justice of its original application) that it is possible to be classed among the "wisest" and the "brightest" and yet to be the "meanest" of mankind.
Perhaps, therefore, it will be desirable for us, before dealing with Socrates as one of the greatest of men to clearly define what we mean by the term "greatness"; and it also seems desirable that the form of the definition to be adopted should not be that of the a priori method ["from before"] (which is after all only the expression of the personal ideas of the definer), but rather that which is referred to by Lord Bacon as Inductio per enumerationem simplicem. That is to say, let us take the lives of some men whom we all agree to call "great," such as Paul, Luther, Wesley, and let us then make an enumeration of the qualities which, taken together, have constituted their respective characters and dispositions, and have led us to call them great. Of course it will be seen, as indeed Lord Bacon has pointed out, that such a method has the disadvantage of not being exhaustive, but it may perhaps serve as a good working definition which can afterwards be supplemented by further particulars.
From this point of view, I would therefore venture to maintain that there are three elements or factors, the presence of which, in any individual, is absolutely necessary to establish his claim to permanent greatness; and conversely, that the absence of any one of them in any individual is absolutely fatal to such claim on his part. These three essential elements of "greatness" in its highest and its most permanent sense, which we may see fully manifested in the three eminent examples whom I have already indicated, and which I will venture to maintain were also implicitly present, if not fully developed, in the person of Socrates, are these:--
(1) Personal uprightness and goodness;
(2) The fact of having a special mission and a special message for the benefit of humanity; and,
(3) Absolute and permanent reliance upon a supernatural power.
The truly great man, in the first place, must be pure, for if a man cannot control himself, how can he influence other men? He must be simple, i.e., free from ambition or self-seeking, and utterly indifferent to such accidents as wealth or poverty, as one knowing that a man's life doth not consist in the things that he possesses. He must, moreover, have a high ideal, both of thought and in action. He must be true and just in his dealings and in all the phases of his intercourse with his fellow-men. And finally, he must be heroic, striving, if necessary, unto death, as one that counts his life not dear to him in comparison with the importance of the truth that he teaches.
In the second place, he must have some special message or teaching for men, which he and he alone of his own time, can best deliver. Such message need not necessarily be original in the sense that it is absolutely new, and not a revival of old and forgotten truths. But it must be original in the sense that it is part and parcel of the man himself, and that he is so permeated and endued with it that he needs must proclaim it. It must also be original in the sense that his contemporaries have either not known it, or have forgotten it, or have never perceived its vital value and importance. And finally, it must be such a truth as will appeal to humanity at large; be simple enough to respond to the untutored instincts of the multitude, and, at the same time, wide enough and large enough to satisfy the trained intelligence of the cultured few.
And in the third place, the truly great man must be fully conscious that, both in respect to his life and in respect to his message, he is not self-centered nor self-sustained, but that he is what he is by reason of a Divine call, and that, both in his life and his work, he is altogether dependent upon a supernatural power. It may be that he knows that power to be a Loving and a Willing Person outside himself, or it may be he knows it only as the reason or soul of the universe speaking to him and through him as a "Voice." But, in either case, he must be fully conscious that the roots of his own life are not planted in himself, but in that external and supernatural Power who is the source and supply of all his energies, and before whom his constant attitude and daily aspiration finds its appropriate expression in the cry, "In Thee are the very wells of my life, all my fresh springs are in Thee."
Taking, then, these three ideas as our basis, we proceed to trace out the
greatness of Socrates in its three-fold manifestations, viz.:--
(1) In relation to his public and private life.
(2) In connection with his divine mission.
(3) In respect to his "message" or work, that is to say, his teaching and its permanent influence upon humanity.
Socrates was born at Athens in the year B.C. 469, and died there in the year 399, so that his life extended throughout that last 70 years of the fifth century before Christ. But what a century! Surely the most wonderful, as well as the most interesting, in the history of the world (if only we except the first century of the Christian Era); inasmuch as it witnessed the rise of the glory and greatness of Athens, its noontide splendour known as the age of Pericles, and, alas, also its decline and fall. First came the period of the Persian wars with their accompaniment of military and naval glory and heroism which are for ever associated with the names of Marathon and Salamis. Next came the period of its material greatness, when the city was much enlarged, entirely rebuilt, and surrounded by a wall about seven miles in circumference and about forty feet in height. This was followed by the building of a new city, which stood on the sea-coast about 5½ miles from Athens and was called Piraeus or "The Harbour," from its including the chief of the three natural harbours that existed there. This new city which became almost as large as Athens itself, was surrounded on its land side by a wall about 6½ miles in circumference, about 40 feet in height, and about 14 feet in thickness, at least at its base; and it contained the docks, magazines, and arsenals for the use of the huge fleet which was also created at the same time, together with a large maritime population; so that it was at once a fortress, a dockyard, and an immense city. But its utility and importance to Athens was still further increased by the later erection of what were termed the "long walls," that is to say, two parallel walls about 5½ miles in length and 60 feet in height, with an interval of about 550 feet between, which connected the two cities; and thus rendered both of them impregnable against any land assault, and, moreover, rendered it impossible for Athens to be reduced by famine so long as she retained her naval supremacy. Next followed the Delian Confederation composed of all the Maritime States with Athens at their head, which secured to her, not only the position of mistress of the seas, but also an abundant supply of ships, men and money in case of any future attack by the Persians or other foreign foes.
And finally, there followed the richest bloom of art that the world has ever seen, the art of the Age of Pericles. It was the Age in which the Acropolis was crowned with the Parthenon or Temple of Athenè the Virgin; with the Erectheum or Temple devoted to Poseidon, joint protector with Athenè of the city; and with the wondrous Propylea or entrance gates that gave access to the whole. It was the Age that gave to the world the marvellous statue of Athenè the Virgin which stood inside her temple, and which was executed in ivory and gold by the hand of Pheidias; and also the colossal statue in bronze also executed by Pheidias which stood in the open air and represented Athenè the Defender as the guardian deity of her favourite city. It was the Age that produced the great tragedians Sophocles and Euripides; the historians Herodotus and Thucydides; the sculptors Pheidias, Myron, and Polycletus; the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius; Pericles, the great orator and statesmen; and Socrates, the founder of Greek philosophy. It was the Age above all others than has manifested in the highest degree, the beauty, the lucidity, the grace, the self-contained dignity and grandeur, which we are accustomed to associate with the highest genius. And closely intertwined with it, partly as root and partly as stem, there was the perfect freedom of a perfect democracy, freedom of thought, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, with full capability to every free citizen of electing, or of being elected, to every office in the State. And perhaps I may add that, while it is almost impossible to exaggerate the feelings of admiration and astonishment for the many manifestations of individual genius in almost every branch of knowledge and art which this Age produced, it is only right that we should also reserve almost equal admiration and respect for the marvellous people that produced them; and that nourished, developed, and stimulated them by their intelligent and sympathetic appreciation.
I have dwelt at some length upon the characteristics of the Age of Pericles, partly because in order to comprehend the special genius of any great man we must, to some extent at least, take account of the time in which he appeared and of the circumstances by which he was surrounded; for although it is an essential mark of genius to "break its birth's invidious bar," it must also, to some extent, be influenced by the ideas, manners, and social and political conditions of the epoch in which it is manifested. But, furthermore, I have been somewhat obliged to give prominence to the leading characteristics of that period, because, although the first 40 years of Socrates' life were conterminous with it, it is almost the only fact in connection with his early life of which we have any knowledge. All that we really know of him during that period of 40 years is the fact that he followed the occupation of his father, which was that of a statuary; and that he married Xantippe, by whom he had three children, but who does not appear to have had any other claim to notice beyond the fact of her being the proverbial type of the conjugal shrew. We may suppose, likewise, that he was trained in the usual branches of a Greek education, which included gymnastics, reading, writing, the committal to memory and power of recitation of the Homeric poems, together with knowledge of arithmetic and geometry. And we may also suppose that, although poor, as a free citizen of Athens he participated in all the advantages resulting from those elements of culture to which I have previously alluded; and, moreover, he would naturally obtain that higher education which would result from his friendship for, and intercourse with, the most distinguished men of the period.
It was not, however, until about the 40th or 45th year of his life (the exact date is uncertain) that he became conscious of his special mission, and from that period to the date of his death, that is to say, for about 25 or 30 years, he devoted himself to his public work and became thereby the best known personage in Athens. This public work was, he said, forced upon him by God who commanded him to undertake it through the mouth of the oracles, by visions, and in dreams, and in every way by which the Divine Will was ever declared to man, Whereupon he was not disobedient to the heavenly command, but, from that time forward, he devoted to it his whole life, utterly regardless of all else. Everywhere he was seen and heard--in the Agora or market place, and in the public walks; in the Areopagus and the Prytanaeum; in the city and in the Piraeus; in the workshops of the artisans; the assemblies of the professional rhetoricians and poets; the schools of the philosophers; and the gatherings of the politicians; always in pursuit of what he believed to be his special mission--the search after wisdom and the rebuke and confutation of the seeming wisdom which he considered to be more injurious to its professor than a conscious ignorance.
His own concerns he entirely neglected lest he should omit anything in connection with the service of God, and, as his means were extremely scanty, he often suffered great hardships and privations. Indeed, we have not only the direct testimony of Plato and Xenophon, but also the indirect evidence supplied by Aristophanes, who was his bitter enemy and most unscrupulous assailant, as to the extreme simplicity of his daily life, his abstinence from sensual pleasures of all kinds, his scanty clothing, and his uncomplaining endurance of hunger and thirst and the extremes of heat and cold.
Nor must it be forgotten that this life of hardship was entirely self-assumed; and that if he had chosen to neglect the Divine call, and to conform to the custom prevalent amongst the professed teachers of his times, he could easily have passed his life in comfort and even in luxury. For it must be remembered that the position of the professed philosopher, or, as it was then termed, the "Sophist," was one of high dignity and reputation, and that the more eminent of them were accustomed to receive large fees from their respective pupils.
And it must also be remembered that the two arts which they professed to teach, those for which there was a wide-spread and a constant demand, owing to the fact that, not only the legislative but also the judicial and the executive functions of the State, were in the hands of the multitude, who, naturally, were most likely to be influenced by the arts of the orator and the rhetorician. But he always said that his mission was not to teach but to learn, not to convey definite information but to show men how they might gain wisdom for themselves; and the acceptance of a money payment for such service to humanity would have been regarded by him as an act of immorality and impiety. Moreover, the simple life he led was not regarded by him as one of hardship or of pain, but rather as the direct road to happiness and moral perfection. Thus, he says in his discussion with the Sophist, Antiphon, recorded in the "Memorabilia":--"You, Antiphon, seem to think that happiness consists in luxury and extravagance, but I think that to want nothing is to resemble the Gods, and that to want as little as possible is to make the nearest approach to the Gods; that the Divine nature is perfection and that to be nearest to the Divine nature is to be nearest to perfection."
Nor was it only by the exercise of what may be termed the "negative" virtues that the greatness of the personal character of Socrates displays itself. On the contrary, the two writers to whom I have already referred, and who are our best authorities on the subject of his public and private life, invariably speak of him as a perfect man to whom they look up with the most profound affection and the most profound respect, and whom they regard as a great example both in respect to goodness and to morality.
"No one," says Xenophon, "ever heard or saw anything wrong in Socrates; so pious was he that he never did anything without first consulting the Gods; so just that he never injured anyone in the least; so master of himself that he never preferred pleasure to goodness; so wise that he never erred in his choice between what was better and what was worse. In a word, he was of all men the best and the happiest." And Plato's testimony is of a similar character. Thus at the conclusion of the "Phaedo" he thus writes, "Such was the end of our friend, a man, I think, who was the wisest, and the most righteous, and the best man that I have ever known." And throughout the "Dialogues" he is never tired of praising the wisdom of Socrates, his simplicity of life, his moderation and control over the wants and desires of the senses, the deep religious feeling shown in almost all his doings, and the devotion of his life to the service of the Gods, and, finally, his dying a Martyr's death because of his obedience to the Divine Voice.
In Plato's picture also the more solemn side in Socrates' character is lighted up by numerous light touches showing his cheery kindness and geniality, together with an Attic polish and a pleasing humour which often expends into a gentle irony and malice of almost feminine subtlety and delicacy. His moderation, too, is shown to be entirely free from the ascetic element, and it may be said that from almost no form of humanity does he appear to have been an alien. Perfectly abstemious himself, he enjoys good company, and is not even averse to carousals provided they are not noisy and do not lead to the subjugation of the intellect by the sense. Indeed in the "Symposium," Plato represents him, after a whole night spent round the wine-table, as pursuing his daily avocations as if nothing had happened. His moderation was thus of the pure Greek character, that is to say, not consisting in a total abstention from all pleasure, but, rather, in perfect mental and moral freedom; neither being dependent upon pleasure as a necessity of existence, not being ever overtaken or degraded by its seductive influences.
Lastly, I may mention that all the public actions of Socrates' life of which we have any record always exhibit the same qualities as his private virtues, being essentially noble and heroic, and giving a picture of moral greatness coupled with an entire absence of any pretence or display. He served in the Athenian ranks as a hoplite or heavy armed soldier in three of the campaigns which arose out of the Peloponnesian War--at Potidea, at Delium, and at Amphipolis, to which fact he refers in the "Apologia." But, at the same time, he omitted to mention, that at the first battle he not only saved the life of Alkibiades, but also renounced in his favour the prize granted for special valour, and that his fearlessness and his bravery at the disastrous battle of Delium won for him universal praise. Still more important was the moral courage which he displayed in the case of the six Arginusae generals, in which, as the President for the day of the Dikastery before which they were tried, he utterly refused to put the question as to their guilt or otherwise in an illegal way, notwithstanding the howling of an infuriated populace, clamorous for their immediate death.
A similar illustration of his moral courage and refusal at the risk of his life to do what was wrong, is afforded by the case of Leon the Salaminian. In this matter, the Thirty Tyrants who dominated Athens for a brief period after the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, had ordered Socrates with four others to bring over this Leon from Salamis to Athens, in order that they might put him to death. And the sequel may best be told in his own words: "That Government with all its power did not terrify me into doing anything wrong, but when we left the Council Chamber, the other four went over to Salamis and brought Leon across to Athens, but I went away home. And if the rule of the Thirty had not been destroyed soon afterwards, I should very likely to have been put to death for what I did then."
To these particulars respecting the public and the private life of Socrates, I ought perhaps to add a brief reference to his personal appearance, which certainly was not attractive, and to keen worshippers of physical beauty in both sexes, like the Athenians, must have been most repulsive. Indeed, the combination of the flat nose, the thick lips, and the prominent eyes, with a bodily presence somewhat resembling the typical satyr or Silenus, formed an abundant matter for jesting both to his friends and his foes.
And as in appearance, so also in his method of teaching he was utterly unlike any public man that the Athenians had ever seen. He openly refused to take any part in politics (though as we have seen he did not shirk any of his duties as a private citizen), declaring that his mission was not to govern men but to teach them first to govern themselves, and when this preliminary was fully accomplished, then to aspire to rule the State. Unlike also all his predecessors and contemporaries, he carefully avoided anything like systematic teaching or lecturing, professing, indeed, not to teach but only to learn, never forcing his own convictions upon others, but simply examining theirs; not dealing out, as it were, ready-made truth like coin fresh from a mint, but seeking only to overthrow spurious, and to discover real, knowledge. And so, in the course of the twenty-five or thirty years of his labours, there grew up a circle of admirers, consisting chiefly of young men of every rank in life who were attracted by the charm of his discourses and the brilliancy of his dialectics; and who remained with him, some for a longer, and others for a shorter period. And from these again was gradually formed the inner group of decided disciples and the nucleus of a Socratic school, united together, not so much by a common set of doctrines, as by the spirit and the new method of enquiry after knowledge, and by a common love for the person of its founder.
But alas, there also grew up that other constant accompaniment of exceptional greatness, the band of detractors, who, although they might be widely divergent from each other in all other respects, were yet firmly united in the bond of a common hatred for the person and the mission of Socrates. Comic dramatists, obscure poets, unsuccessful rhetoricians, the professional Sophists, and the discredited politicians, together with the contingent supplied by that large class who are always the professed eulogists of the times and the men that have passed away and the adverse critics of their own--these formed a host of personal enemies whose fear and hatred was, as usual, more passionate and more conducive of results than the affection of his friends and the esteem of the great mass of the population. And it must be confessed that, for some of them, an explanation of, it not an excuse for, their personal hostility may easily be found in the circumstances under which they became practically acquainted with the Socratic dialectic. For the exposure of ignorance and of the conceit of wisdom without its reality, however salutary it may be, is not exactly a pleasant operation to the subject of it; nor is his pleasure likely to be increased by the operation having been performed in the open air, and in the presence of a highly appreciative and grinning crowd. And hence it followed, that although emanating from a minority, the evil prevailed over the good, and in his seventieth year, the blow fell upon Socrates which at once put an end to his personal mission and to his life.
But before I deal with the final scene, it will be necessary for me to revert to the second of the three "notes" or marks of the exceptional greatness of Socrates, viz., his Divine Call to the work of his mission and his close and intimate dependence upon a Supernatural Power throughout the whole course of his public life.
(To be continued.)
[Note: This article included Greek words, which could not be reporduced in this article.]
Parents Review Vol 11 1900 pgs 310-319
By Maxwell Y. Maxwell, LL.B.
Read before the Hampstead Branch of the P.N.E.U., December 8th, 1899.
Part II. (Continued from page 215.)
That Socrates firmly believed he had received a Divine commission and was the constant subject of supernatural communications, is, I think, abundantly evident, both from his own statements and from the very nature of his work. For, as Mr. Grote has well pointed out, he was not simply a philosopher but a religious missionary doing the work of philosophy; that nothing of this character belonged either to his predecessors or to his immediate successors such as Plato and Aristotle; and that the philosophical motive alone could not have sufficed to prompt him to that systematic and even obtrusive cross-examination which he adopted as the business of his life. But, in addition, we have his own specific declarations on the subject, of which I will give a few illustrations taken from the "Apology."
Thus, in one part he says, "It would be a very strange conduct on my part if I were to desert my post from fear of death or of any other thing when God has commanded me, as I am persuaded he has done, to spend my life in searching for wisdom and in examining myself and others." Again he says, "If you, O Athenians, were to say to me, 'Socrates, this time we will not listen to Anytus, we will let you go, but on this condition that you cease from carrying on this search of yours and from philosophy,' I should reply, 'Athenians, I hold you in the highest regard and love, but I will obey God rather than you, and as long as I have breath and strength, I will not cease from philosophy and from exhorting you and declaring the truth to every one of you whom I meet.'" And once more, "God has sent me to attack the City as if it were a great and noble horse, to use a quaint simile, which was rather sluggish from its size, and which needed to be aroused by a gad-fly, and I think that I am the gad-fly that God has sent to the City to attack it. And you may easily see that it is God who has given me to your City; a mere human impulse would never led me to neglect all my own interests or to endure seeing my private affairs neglected now for so many years, while it made me busy myself unceasingly in your interests, and go to each man of you by himself, like a father or an elder brother, trying to persuade him to care for virtue."
As to the modes by which the Divine Communications were made to Socrates, I have already quoted his own words in which he specially refers to oracles and dreams. But in the "Apology" he also alludes to another mode distinct from these which has not only appeared to differentiate him from all reformers before and after, but has also given rise to much discussion as to his actual meaning and significance. I refer to what is generally known as the Socratic "Demon" or "Genius." Thus, in one place in which he is referring to the careful abstention from all political affairs which had marked his life he says, "You have often heard me speak of my reason for this ; it is that I have a certain Divine sign from God which is the Divinity that Meletus (his accuser) has caricatured in his indictment. I have had it from childhood, it is a kind of Voice which, whenever I hear it, always turns me back from something which I was going to do, but never urges me to act. It is this which has always forbade me to take part in politics."
It will thus be seen that nothing can be clearer or more definite than the fact of Socrates' own belief in the reality of these Divine Communications; and I venture to think that any difficulty which may arise in respect to the acceptance of his testimony to their existence, or as to the source from when they sprung, will be found to proceed from one of three causes. First, a disbelief in the supernatural altogether, which will explain the attitude of the French physiologist, M. Lélut, referred to by Mr. Grote, who declares that, on this subject, Socrates is a madman, and only fit to rank with Swedenborg, Luther, and Pascal. Secondly, the tendency which existed among the older theologians to restrict the Divine Communications to one or at most two channels, viz., the Jewish Prophets and the Christian Apostles, which has led many early Christian writers and some of their later commentators to regard the Socratic Demon as being either a malignant spirit or a fallen Angel, if not an emanation from Satan himself. And in the third place, much misconception has arisen both in ancient and modern times from the existence of a preconceived notion as to the meaning of the term used by Socrates to express the nature of the Divine Communications made to him. To the earlier commentators, both heathen and Christian, the Greek word daimon (or 'o daimon), like the corresponding term in Latin (genius), had a special meaning and significance, being used to denote the tutelary deity which was supposed to exist behind every individual man. As you will recollect, to the ancient classical world, the physical universe always presented itself in a duplex form, that is to say, as consisting of the material phenomenon with a corresponding spiritual side, the latter being represented by its appropriate nymph or minor divinity which was inseparably bound up with it. Thus the greater seas had their Okeanides; the rivers and fountains their Naiads; the trees their Dryades; and the mountains their Oreades; and in like manner every individual man had his "Daimon" or "Genius" who was his special guardian and spiritual representative. This Daimon or Genius was also always regarded as a divinity, distinct from, and, of course, superior to the individual man in whom he dwelt, but also as being far inferior to the supreme Gods (or o'i theoi); so that while the "theoi" could be regarded as daimones or tutelary deities; it were impious to speak of the daimones, as "theoi". And it was generally taken for granted by the writers to whom I have referred, and by some of their modern successors, that, in his use of the term "Divine Voices", Socrates meant to indicate this special and personally-existing "genius" or "daimon." But a careful examination of the contemporary narratives of Plato and Xenophon will show, in the first place, that the masculine substantive ('o daimon) is never used by Socrates at all; and, in the second place, that the term which is generally used by Plato (To daimonion) is often expressed in Xenophon by the term " 'o theos" or "To theion," and also in one passage in the "Apology" Plato actually uses both terms in the same paragraph to indicate the same thing. Thus, in the first sentence of Section 40, he makes Socrates speak of the Divine Voice as "To daimonion," but in the third sentence of the same section he calls it "the sign of God" (Greek.)
It is impossible therefore to suppose that Socrates was under any delusion when he spoke of the special manifestations made to him as the "Divine Voice," or that they were other than the direct promptings of the Divine Spirit. And, to us as Christians, there is an argument in favour of this view which has, at any rate, the force of an argumentum ad hominem, viz., that in Christianity and in the higher Christian Consciousness we find an almost exact parallel to each of the two instances of the manifestations of the Divine Voice which are recorded in the Apology. In the first case, you will recollect that it forbade Socrates to personally engage in politics or to aspire to rule the State, in order that he might secure the necessary time in which to instruct his countrymen in true knowledge; and to resign the luxury and worldly position of the professional sophist so that he could the more readily inculcate virtue and practise it. And in what essential does this differ from the case of the modern Christian, who abandons the pursuit of wealth, the chances of a political or of a professional success in life, or the academic dignity and ease to which his culture and abilities have entitled him, in obedience to what he believes to be a Divine call to the arduous duties of a Christian pastor; or to undergo the labours, dangers, and sufferings of a Christian missionary in a heathen land? And in the second case, in which, in connection with his trial, the Divine voice forbade Socrates either to accept the assistance of a professional orator which was pressed upon him by his friends, or personally to prepare his defence; are we not thereby reminded of Him who walked beside the Syrian Sea, and who told His disciples that when they should be prosecuted on the charges of heresy and of treason against the State, they should settle it in their hearts not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for that He would give them a mouth and a wisdom which all their adversaries would not be able to gainsay?
But whatever may be the conclusions to which we have arrived as to the nature of the Socratic "Demon" or "Genius," it is perfectly clear that the enemies of Socrates believed, or pretended to believe, that he regarded it as an external Deity whom he consulted and even worshipped, to the neglect of the authorized Gods of the State. Accordingly, in the year B.C. 399, when Socrates was about 70 years of age, a formidable indictment was laid against him in the offices of the Archon Basileus, which ran as follows, viz.:--"Socrates is guilty of crime; first, in not worshipping the Gods whom the City worships; next, in introducing new divinities of his own; and third, for corrupting the youth. The penalty due is death."
It is important and interesting to notice that no charge reflecting upon his personal or political life was ever brought against Socrates, but that his accusers were obliged to fall back upon what has always been the staple accusation against reformers in advance of their times, viz., vague charges of Atheism, heresy, and the corruption of youth. But none the less serious was this threefold accusation, it being indeed equivalent to one of high treason against the State; and moreover, it had a terrible significance and weight owing to some special circumstances of the time. In the first place, you will recollect that to the classical world the charge of Atheism was specially odious, owing to the fact that the Gods of the State were always regarded by its people as its tutelary deities or special guardians. And, hence, the neglect to observe the private rites, or to take part in the public ceremonies of any of the State deities by any individual, was regarded not so much as a sin, as an offence against public morality and as a crime against the State: inasmuch as it was considered that the neglected Deity would not be satisfied by venting his wrath upon the offending individual, but would visit the whole community with his vengeance.
And in the second place, the charge of corrupting the youth of the City which was made one of the articles of the legal indictment now brought against Socrates, was unfortunately one with which the Athenians were only too familiar.
For, as you will recollect, it forms the basis of Aristophanes' comedy of "The Clouds," in which Socrates was introduced by name as a professional Sophist who, for large fees, teaches his promising pupil, Phidippides (easily recognizable as Alkibiades), "how to make the worse appear the better reason" and to successfully cheat his father and creditors by his new species of wisdom. And it must be borne in mind, that great as is the influence of the drama at the present time, it was ten times more influential in Athens; partly because it was the most important vehicle of public instruction, and partly also because it was always free and open to all citizens of the State. It must also be recollected that, rightly or wrongly, Socrates was generally regarded by his contemporaries as having been the teacher and instructor both of Alkibiades and of Critias, the two men who of all others were detested (and most justly detested) by the Athenians; the first as being the chief cause of the calamities that befel the City during the Peloponnesian war, and the latter as being the prime mover in the fearful cruelties which accompanied the rule of the Thirty Tyrants immediately following upon its conclusion.
It was, therefore, with much apprehension that these legal proceedings were regarded by the friends of Socrates, and offers of professional assistance in his defence were poured in upon him from all sides. But these apprehensions were apparently not shared by Socrates, who himself manifested the most supreme indifference to the accusation, convinced as he was that all would turn out for the best; and trustfully leaving the final issue in the hands of God, who alone knew whether death or life were better for him. He therefore refused all the offers of assistance that were made to him, declined even to converse about the trial with his friends, and resolutely refused to prepare his defence, being, as he said, forbidden to do so by the Divine Voice.
With regard to the tribunal before which the trial took place, it may be of interest to call attention to its nature and composition, as it forcibly illustrates the extraordinary democratic character of the Athenian Constitution; and also indicates the extreme precautions that were taken to secure an impartial trial in every case, and to prevent the possibility of the bribery, or the intimidation of the judges. As I have already mentioned, every free citizen of Athens (that is to say every male born in lawful wedlock of an Athenian father and Athenian mother) and over thirty years of age, not only possessed the franchise, but was also eligible for election to every office in the State. And not only so, but it was also enacted (in order that the poorer members should possess the same privileges as the more wealthy) that appointment to almost all the offices should not be made by nomination and election, but should be decided by lot. Amongst the offices thus constituted was that of the dikasts, who practically exercised the combined functions of judge and jury in all important causes, both civil and criminal. And the mode of their appointment was as follows, viz., every year, 6000 of the citizens were selected by lot to serve as dikasts for the year in which they were chosen, and of these, 3000 were empanelled in 10 different dikasteries of 500 members each, the remaining 1000 being held in reserve in order to fill up any casual vacancy that might occur. It was further enacted that all matters affecting the life or liberty of any citizen, and all cases of contract beyond a certain specified amount, should be remitted for hearing and settlement to one of these dikasteries; the Archon or magistrate who was engaged in preliminary investigation in each case respectively not even being allowed to choose a dikastery for its hearing, but being compelled to make his selection by lot.
It was therefore before one of the dikasteries that the trial of Socrates took place, the chief accuser being one Anytus, an important and most influential citizen of the period, who had rendered great service to the community in the struggle against the Thirty Tyrants, which had taken place about four years previously. And with him were associated, probably for rhetorical reasons, Meletus, a professional orator, and Lycon, a professional poet: whilst on the opposite side stood Socrates alone. Unfortunately the details of the trial have not been handed down to us, but we know the fact that it lasted three days, and we have, almost in complete form, that most precious heritage for all time, the "Apology" or "Defence of Socrates." Of this immortal defence it is impossible for me to give even a summary, and, indeed, nothing but itself can properly convey an adequate idea of its lofty dignity and grandeur, mingled with a pathetic beauty, and almost a compassionate regard for the honour and true welfare of the Athenian people. Its language, however, is very far from being that of a criminal anxious to save his life, but is rather that of an impartial arbiter who would dispel erroneous notions by a simple setting forth of the truth, or of a patriot warning the countrymen he loves against the commission of injustice and wrong. At the same time, his sense of the dignity and importance of his mission is never so far forgotten as to allow him to address the judges in terms of entreaty. Their sentence is not feared, whatever it may be. He stands in the service of God, is even then supported by the Divine Voice, and is determined to keep his post in the face of every danger. And no earthly commands shall make him faithless to his high calling, or prevent him from obeying God rather than the Athenians.
The result of such a speech was exactly what might have been expected. Socrates was found guilty, but by so small a majority (variously estimated as from six to sixty) that it is evident he would have been acquitted were it not for the independence of his attitude before his judges. For human nature is so constituted that it can forgive almost anything except that which ruffles its dignity; and experience has abundantly shown that neither ancient nor modern judges have ever been noted for extreme patience with language or conduct which seems to them to indicate a want of respect for properly constituted authority. And to the Athenian judges, who had seen even the great Pericles pleading before them with strong crying and tears in order to save the life of his beloved Aspasia, it must have seemed nothing less than contempt for the judicial office on the part of the prisoner, which had thus led him to dispense with the customs and practices, and even with the deferences, usual in a criminal court.
It was, however, still possible for his life to be preserved, for according to the Athenian mode of legal procedure, the accused had the right of suggesting a counter-penalty to that proposed by the accuser; and it is probable that the judges would have been satisfied with the infliction of a small fine, accompanied by his temporary withdrawal from Athens to some other Greek city.
But Socrates refused to listen to any such proposals. "I am not," he says, "accustomed to think that I deserve any punishment. And what counter-penalty shall I propose to you, O Athenians? What I deserve, of course, must I not? So if I am to propose the penalty I really deserve, I propose this; a public maintenance in the Prytaneum," which practically meant the bestowal of the highest honours that it was in the power of the State to grant. Yielding, however, to the entreaties of Plato and his other friends he announced his willingness to pay a fine. "If I had been rich," he says, "I would have proposed as large a fine as I could pay, that would have done me no harm. But I am not rich enough to pay a fine unless you are willing to fix it at a sum within my means.
Perhaps I could pay you a mina (£4; about six dollars?), so I propose that. Plato here and Crito and Apollodorus bid me propose thirty minae and they will be sureties for me. So I propose thirty minae." But the proposal came too late, as the mischief was done. To the majority of the judges, his previous language appeared only in the light of an incorrigible obstinacy and contempt of court; and hence, the penalty claimed by the accusers was awarded--the sentence of death.
And, once more, the old man raised his voice, not in reproaches, but in solemn warning to those who had voted for his death; winding up with those beautiful words with which the "Apology" closes--"Yet I have one request to make of you, O Athenians. When my sons grow up, visit them with punishment and vex them in the same way that I have vexed you, if they seem to you to care for riches or for any other thing before virtue; and if they think they are something when they are nothing at all, reproach them as I have reproached you for not caring for what they should, and for thinking that they are great men when in fact they are worthless. And if you will do this, I myself and my sons will have received our deserts at your hands. And now the time has come and we must go hence; I to die and you to live. But whether life or death be better, is known to God and to God alone."
Under ordinary circumstances the sentence pronounced would have been carried into execution on the following day; but owing to the fact of the absence from Athens of the Sacred Ship on its mission to Delos, the life of Socrates was prolonged for thirty days, during which he was kept in prison, but allowed to hold his accustomed intercourse with his friends. It is to this circumstance that we are indebted for the second and third of the Platonic Dialogues called respectively "The Crito" and "The Phaedo." The first of these is chiefly interesting from the fact that it tells us of the arrangement made by his friends to enable Socrates to escape from prison, and his indignant refusal of the project; both on account of its being derogatory to his personal dignity, and also as being a breach of the Athenian laws. But in the "Phaedo" we have those long dissertations in which Socrates is made to assert the Immortality of the Soul, which, however, I am obliged to confess, seem to me to have rather a Platonic than a Socratic origin: for while no doubt the belief is that of Socrates, the arguments by which it is supported are undoubtedly those of Plato.
And it also contains a full account of the last scene of all, in which, surrounded by his friends, the fatal cup of hemlock is taken, and the heroic soul of Socrates passes away from the City of the Violet Crown into the presence of the Living God, and into the company of the just men who, like him, were made perfect through suffering.
I should now pass on to the third part of my subject, viz., the nature of the permanent "message" to humanity which was given to it by Socrates. But as this practically means an examination of the whole of the Socratic philosophy, both in respect to its matter and its form, and also involves an explanation of its limitations and defects, as well as of its advantages and influences, I am reluctantly compelled by considerations of time to postpone my treatment of the subject until some other occasion, when I hope to have the pleasure of undertaking it.
But in the meantime, I will venture to hope that, so far, I have secured your adhesion to the principles with which I started: first, as to what are the necessary and essential constituents of true greatness; and secondly, that tried by the standard which they present, I have shown that Socrates was one of the greatest of mankind.
Proofread June 2011, LNL
|Top||Copyright © 2002-2010 Ambleside Online. All rights reserved. Use of these resources subject to the terms of our License Agreement.||Home|