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Socrates and His Teaching

Isaac Bashevis Singer translated by David Stromberg

Socrates and His Teaching

He walked around the streets getting into arguments with people. – His mean wife Xanthippe. – He was sentenced to death. – Why he did not want to escape from jail. – His ideas about law and justice. – His influence on human thought.

Socrates is the best-known Greek philosopher among most people. The reason for his fame is not the philosopher himself but his mean wife, Xanthippe. People in no way interested in philosophy know that the great Socrates had a bitter spouse who caused him great suffering. Socrates is also famous for being sentenced to death for his philosophy. He was a martyr of free thought.

Writing about Socrates the philosopher is much more difficult. Socrates himself left no books behind. The person who wrote the most about him was his student, Plato. But it is clear to everyone that many of the thoughts that Plato reports in the name of his teacher were uttered not by this teacher but by the student himself. In a sense, Socrates was Plato’s character, as a novelist has a character and lets him speak the writer’s thoughts. It is difficult, from Plato’s books, to arrive at what Socrates actually said and what Plato said in his name.

When it comes to Socrates’s philosophy, then, we have to be satisfied with general impressions.

Socrates had a remarkable method of philosophizing. He would walk around the streets, stopping people and asking them questions. The questions he presented at first seemed very simple, and people wondered how it could be that a philosopher like Socrates could only speak about such simple matters. But Socrates was not satisfied with one question. He asked one question after another, and it soon seemed that the subject was far from simple, and actually quite complicated. Socrates discovered contradictions in each person’s answer, he explained each idea in detail, he penetrated deep into each matter, and, in this way, he was able to express his thoughts.

The Sophists also liked to carry on arguments. But there was a big difference between the Sophists and Socrates. More than anything else their ambition was to put forth notable thoughts, to dazzle with their outlandish hypotheses, and often to tangle people up such that they no longer knew what was up and what was down. Their sort of analysis can be compared to literal interpretation, hair-splitting. Socrates had a whole different purpose. He wanted to reach the true meaning of words and ideas. He was interested in being not literal but practical, in finding the right way for how people should behave. The Sophists often themselves did not believe in their own conclusions. Socrates was ready to die for his truth.

Socrates belonged to those rare philosophers for whom thought and action went hand in hand. Socrates lived very modestly, went barefoot summer and winter, dressed in old clothes, and ate simple foods. When he sank into thought about an issue that was bothering him, he remained standing in one place – regardless of whether he was in his own home or in the middle of the marketplace – and could stay this way, stunned and pensive, for long hours and even days and nights. He aroused adoration among the Greeks of the state of Athens, but also a lot of hate. Those who sat in government had no patience for Socrates’s sharp questions, with their criticism, their tearing down the masks of pretty words and flowery language. The result was that they put the aging philosopher on trial and sentenced him to death. Socrates exhibited extraordinary courage during the proceedings. In the end, he drank down a cup of poison on his own and died convinced that it was worthwhile to go through all this suffering if it was a question of the freedom to inquire into the truth.

Socrates’s strength lay in demonstrating that people themselves often don’t know what they’re saying. They grasp at words, at phrases, and use them right and left without knowing what they mean. He believed that truth could be reached only through clarity, sharp logic, and integrity. He didn’t like anyone who talked nonsense using flowery language. Socrates developed a belief that later passed onto many other philosophers through the contemporary era. It is the conviction that reason, analysis, and logic can lead to the essence of all things. All mistakes were in essence logical errors.

Here is an example of how Socrates struck up an argument. Socrates’s friend and student Crito comes to Socrates in prison and suggests that he should escape. Socrates begins by asking: Should we follow all opinions, or only our own opinions?

Crito: Surely not all opinions.

Socrates: Should we consider the good opinions as well as the bad?

Crito: The good.

Socrates: When a man learns a certain sport and makes it his pursuit, should he listen to praise and reproaches from everyone, or only from his teacher and trainer?

Crito: Only from him.

Socrates: If he does not take his advice and heeds the voice of the masses, will this then not bring him injury?

Crito: Certainly so.

Socrates: What kind of injury would this be?

Crito: Of the body.

Socrates: When it comes to questions of what is good and what is bad, what is noble and what is loathsome, should we heed the opinions of the masses, or of those who know about this more than others?

Crito admits that one should heed the opinion of those who have an understanding for this.

Socrates: Is it then not true that if we listen to the opinions of the ignorant, we ruin all parts of ourselves that have to do with right and wrong (the soul)?

Crito agrees.

Socrates: Should one in no case commit any injustice, or are there cases when one does commit injustice?

Crito: Not ever.

Socrates: If so, we should not repay with evil for any wrongdoing?

Crito: Right.

Socrates: Is breaking a pledge a good thing or a bad?

Crito says that it is bad.

Socrates: What would happen if I chose to escape and the laws of the land came to me and asked: Did you not intend with your escape to violate us, together with the whole state, insofar as we pertain to you? What should I answer them? That the court had not judged properly?

Crito: That is the answer.

Socrates: And what will happen if the laws answer: Socrates, this is nevertheless the agreement that you have with us. Did we then not bring you into the world? Was it then not with the help of laws that your father married your mother? Do you have something against the laws of raising children and providing them with an education? Did we not then defend you against thieves, murderers, crooks, and all other criminals? Why were we, the laws, good when you benefited from us, and bad when because of us you suffer?

We have not reported the dialogue of Crito and Socrates here word for word, but this was the sense of the discussion. Socrates showed Crito that laws must be obeyed regardless of whether doing so brings about benefit or harm. Otherwise, we harm the soul. If the court sentenced Socrates to death, it makes no sense to escape because escaping means declaring the laws invalid.

When reading such a discussion, it may seem like these are nothing but beautiful idealistic dialogues. But in reality, these are important arguments. A great many citizens who have been accused in court have no desire to escape even if they are willing to lose their bail. The word “fugitive” is uttered here in America with more contempt than the word “criminal.” Because a crime can perhaps be committed by each of us in a heated moment. But to run from the law, to hide, one already needs to be a professional criminal.

These thoughts did not appear out of thin air. It has taken a hundred generations for people to come to such conclusions. Many victims had to be killed to make laws powerful. Socrates justified this in his debates, which are relevant, one can say, every day, every hour.

One could ask Socrates: Well and what should we do with laws that have been issued by tyrants? By dictators? How do you start a revolution against an autocratic ruler if you stick strictly to law? Is the history of humankind not one long chain of wars and revolutions?

Here we’re dealing with one of the most complicated problems. In every generation, there are rebellions and revolutions. It is, however, a fact that yesterday’s revolutionaries become today’s lawmakers, and they require that we respect their laws. All lawmakers have the feeling that their laws are final, that this law should never be broken.

This writer has heard these arguments at a trial in Brisk. [1] The dictator of Poland, Pilsudski, had accused a number of Polish politicians in court and charged them with trying to violate his dictatorship. The defense asked the question: Had Pilsudski not then himself violated the laws of the constitution? Had he not then himself struck down a legal regime? Can he complain about people using methods that he himself used?

The prosecutor then sincerely answered that a criminal is a revolutionary who does not succeed. A criminal is a revolutionary who was caught and brought to court. Success is the key by which a person is considered a hero or a criminal.

It is difficult to know what Socrates would say to such considerations. Socrates lived in a democracy. He had the concept that laws were produced because citizens agreed, for their own good, to submit to certain laws so that there would be order. A few hundred years later the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau defended the same position. According to Marx, law is never an expression of free will, but rather is produced by the ruling class. The class fighting for its rights has no reason to heed these rules.

Citizens of Anglo-Saxon countries are inclined to embrace Socrates’s attitude to the law. In most of the countries of Europe, Asia, and South America, there is a deeply rooted opinion that the lawmakers of the entire world are not sages of the soul, but powerful men in uniforms who provide for their class, their clan, their clique. For a while the Germans played the role of being mighty adherents of the law. But Hitler showed that the Germans recognize no law other than the law of the jungle.

Questions of the role of law in the power of the state were treated in the philosophical works of Socrates’s student, Plato. More on him another time.

Translated by David Stromberg, a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem. You can also read an interview with the translator here on Public Seminar.


[1] The Yiddish city of Brisk refers to a city that has been, in turns, the Polish city of Brześć and the Belarusian city of Brest. Singer is referring to the Brest trials of October 1931 – January 1932, which he covered for the Yiddish press, in which opposition politicians were accused of planning an anti-government coup and sentenced to prison or forced to emigrate.

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