Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson
“I can tell whether someone is a good person by how they react which they accidentally step on a snail.”
We were standing on the sidewalk on South Congress- my photographer friend Christina and I, deep in conversation with a man we had just met. She and I have taken to the streets of Austin several times recently, looking for good pictures and good stories. We’ve made ourselves students of the art of asking questions and listening well, inspired largely by Humans of New York. The trail of inspiration goes back further, however- all the way back to 468 BC and the birth of Socrates.
Philosophy. The love of wisdom. Socrates helped define it for Western civilization and he did it not by writing or ruling, but by walking the streets of Athens, making conversation. I recently finished reading Paul Johnson’s biography, titled simply, Socrates: A Man for Our Times. Johnson is a favourite historian of mine and I had a 50% off coupon at Half Price Books, so that’s the backstory. It’s a small book, but it offers a fascinating glimpse into Athenian culture and the life of one of history’s most revered philosophers. Johnson portrays Socrates as a man immanently alive. “There was about him,” he wrote, “a vigor or animation of mind, a power of cheerfulness, vivacity, and liveliness. Some vital power or energy seemed to flow into and out of him.” After centuries of philosophic thought, going back to Socrates and ancient Greece may seem dull. But to catch a glimpse of the person Socrates was– that jolts me awake.
Socrates was not an intellectual- at least, not as Johnson describes an intellectual: “someone who thinks ideas matter more than people.” Plato was an intellectual when he took his master’s character and wrote him into dialogues that sometimes treat Socrates as a mere mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas. But Socrates cared very little for proving statements or imparting knowledge to a rapt audience. He repeatedly said that true wisdom is found in the admission of ignorance, as I mentioned in a previous post. When the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed him to be the wisest man in Athens, Socrates, puzzled, concluded that it must be because his wisdom consisted in knowing his own limitations. We are wisest when we are pursuing wisdom, not when we think we have attained it. This truth was echoed later by another wise man in Greece, the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.”
Instead of insisting on his own superior intellect, Socrates was concerned for people. He spent most of his time asking questions and became an expert interrogator- direct but not imposing. I aspire to this. I doubt he ever had to fill an awkward pause with, “…So, the weather, am I right?” When my conversations lag, I remember how Socrates could linger for hours with a person; going deep and forcing them through questioning to examine their most internally held beliefs. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he declared. As a philosopher, he worked not to bestow wisdom on people like Athens’ other philosophers, the Sophists, but to draw out any wisdom that already dwelt within. He never formed an academy or published a book, and yet he is one of the most famous and foundational philosophers in the Western tradition. It’s remarkable to me, because my mental picture of a philosopher is more like a bookish Professor Emeritus wearing a turtleneck rather than an extroverted, curious urbanite. But Socrates thought truest philosophy happened in conversation and he would laugh at those who relegate it to books. His philosophy was meant to be lived, not merely mulled over. Plutarch said Socrates was the first to apply philosophy to common life, and he did so in a winsome, engaging manner. He also managed to annoy people sometimes, as his nickname, “the Gadfly of Athens” suggests. Some of his tactics weren’t universally appreciated- for example; he was well versed in irony, which was sometimes misunderstood as mockery or false modesty. A friend of mine pointed out that Socrates was master of the ultimate ancient Greek mic-drop! In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates says to his opponent, “You are laughing? Here we have yet another form of refutation – when a statement is made, to laugh it down, instead of disproving it!” But Socrates knew the rare art of slipping subtly between levity and gravitas– which Johnson calls “the essence of sophisticated communion.”
It was his genuine interest in people that drove Socrates and expanded his influence. Athens was his first love. Even near the end of his life, after the city was wracked by plague and war and the so-called democratic system of the time sentenced him to death for “corrupting the young men of Athens” with his questioning, he refused to seek shelter in exile. To him, leaving his city would be worse than death. There’s a quote I’ve seen floating around Pinterest: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” Socrates did.
I don’t know whether Socrates knew the one true God. Either way, he’s not our ultimate role model. But I believe he set an admirable example of how to converse with and improve people. Saint Augustine, in his City of God, says there is no eternal earthly city, but that Christians are members of the eternal city of God and live out their devotion to him by being the best members of their cities here on earth. In the last chapter of Jonah, God soundly lectures the prophet on the proper way to care for the world. When Jonah, camped morosely outside Nineveh, wakes to find a plant that shaded him has died, he cries out angrily to God who replies, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow…. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?” We live in a world of cities that can all relate on some level to Nineveh. Socrates made his home in a city like that, a great metropolitan center full of ignorance as well as promise, and he nurtured the minds of its people. In the 21st century, we need Socrates as much as ancient Athens needed him. We need curious philosophers and examiners and lovers of humanity to dig deep and challenge cultural assumptions and aid in the pursuit of Truth. And as Christians, we should be first to run at the task.
There are two kinds of philosophers: those who tell you WHAT to think and those who tell you HOW. Socrates was the second. “He was keenly anxious,” says Johnson, “to discover how people think and whether they can be encouraged to think more clearly and usefully.” He looked closely at people and asked questions to find what motivations stirred them, what emotions compelled them, and what ideas latched onto them. He was anxious to help each person think more clearly, efficiently, and ethically. Johnson continues, “For Socrates, ideas existed to serve and illuminate people, not the other way around.” His love for people shaped the entirety of Western thought. It shapes me still: whether I’m casually talking with friends or walking the streets of Austin, looking for stories.