Over the past 20 years I have followed Socrates Way as a spiritual path. This path has led me beyond the conventional image we all remember from school and college: the fierce master of "The Socratic Method," that interrogatory style of argument that exposed muddled thinking.
While that spirit of fierce intelligence still energizes our rational, scientific culture, I have come to know and love another Socrates: the one Nietzche heard, "whose voice descends into the depth of your soul, letting you taste a new yearning."
Gradually I have discovered this other side to Socrates: a master whose chief values included authenticity, personal spirituality, friendship, and care of the soul. This Socrates uses a rich rhetorical repertoire that goes beyond syllogistic logic, as Robert Persig revealed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance.
Paradoxically, the closer I have gotten to this real Socrates, the more I have been impressed by relevance to our lives today. If he walked among us today he help us see how we have betrayed our ideals in four ways:
** We have become frenzied consumers, working ourselves mercilessly in order to buy things we dont really need, and despoiling our environment. We need to look less to our possessions and more to our inner development.
** We have plunged the worlds greatest economic system into crisis by widespread lies and deceptions by corporate leaders. (If Socrates had been on the Enron board he would have asked the tough questions, demanded answers, challenged authority, and told the truth.)
** We have surrendered our minds to the mass media, which distract us as we virtually amuse ourselves to death. We must think for ourselves.
** We have neglected to nurture our bonds of friendship and community.
How can we rectify these flaws in our lives and our culture? Socrates showed the way through these powerful practices, allegories, and metaphors.
Listen to Your Inner Voice
Socrates describes his lifelong practice of listening to his inner voice In the Apology his defense of himself at his famous Trial:
You have heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child.
Several incidents illustrate how Socrates would "go within" to consult this inner voice. At the beginning of Platos dialogue The Symposium, for example, as the guests gather at Agathons house for a party, Socrates is conspicuously missing. One of the guests explains that he is in a doorway up the street, standing silently with his eyes closed.
Even more dramatic was an incident that occurred on a campaign north of Athens, the seige of Potidaea. It was a summer morning, and there was no action in prospect. There wasnt much to do except sentry duty, sleeping, and talking about home.
At dawn the sentry noticed that Socrates had hiked to the top of a small hill, and was standing there, barefoot and silent.. He seemed completely oblivious to his surroundings. There he stood until the sun was overhead, and then until dusk.
His fellow soldiers tried to attract his attention, but Socrates was completely absorbed in his own thoughts. After awhile most of them wandered away. Through the entire night, Socrates stood there a few soldiers slept nearby as the stars gleamed above.
The next morning he was still there. Eventually, he joined them for breakfast, refreshed and robust as ever. Socrates never spoke about what he had been thinking but he often explained his mission in life as given to him by the gods, as a soldier gets his commands from his general. So it may well be that during that day and night of contemplation, Socrates found his soul-work.
And towards the end of his Apology, Socrates explains that he has come to his trial without fear because he knows it is the right thing to do:
When I was leaving my house this morning, or when I was on my way to the court, or while I was speaking just now, my internal oracle made no sign of opposition. In nothing I said or did has the oracle opposed me. What do I take to be the explanation of this silence. I will tell you. It is an intimation that what has happened to me is a good
It was this inner voice that lay at the core of Socrates vociferous dialoguing. He might well have said the same thing that Jung declared late in his life: "There was a daimon in me. It overpowered me, and if I was at times ruthless it was because I was in the grip of the daimon. Since my contemporaries, understandably, could not perceive my vision, they saw only a fool rushing ahead."
Free Yourself from the Cave of Illusion
Socrates best-known parable is that of The Cave. It is the archetypal Western metaphor for our progress from illusion to reality.
"Imagine a group of people confined to an underground cave, in which they have lived their entire lives," Socrates says to his young friend Glaucon in Book Six of The Republic. "They can do nothing but stare straight ahead, at the back wall. Behind them is a fire blazing at a distance, and between this fire and their backs are men carrying figures made of wood and stone, so that the shadows of these objects are cast on the wall in front of the prisoners. For them, those shadows are the only reality." (If this begins to sound like todays coach potato fixated on his TV, the analogy is apt!)
Now Socrates asks what would happen if one of these prisoners were freed from bondage, turned around, saw the fire and the men with the objects, then went further, escaping from the Cave into the sunlight. How would he feel? What would he think?
"Suppose, now, that this escaped prisoner, having grown accustomed to the real world above, returns to the Cave, and tries to tell the other prisoners what he has experience. What would happen?"
Socrates and Glaucon conclude this returned prisoner would have great trouble adjusting the darkness. Moreover, the other prisoners would have trouble adjusting to his insistence that there was a "higher" reality outside. "The prisoners who had never left the Cave would refuse to listen. And if they were able to get their hands on the man who attempted to take their chains off and guide them up, wouldnt they put him to death?"
Glaucon responds, prophetically: "They certainly would."
Thinking people in every generation have applied this parable of The Cave to their specific circumstances. Down the centuries, philosophers and theologians as diverse as St. Augustine, Rousseau, Spinoza, Hegel, and Freud have evoked The Cave to dramatize the difficulties of seeing through our delusions and fantasies, to attain truth.
Whenever we think of our intellectual progress as a movement from darkness towards the light, we are using imagery which started with Socrates allegory of The Cave. It was his way of dramatizing our journey towards understanding.
The allegory of The Cave expresses this deep conviction. Note that there is pain involved in the ascent from the world of shadows to the world of valid knowledge. And there is comparable pain as well as danger -- in returning to the Cave with ones new awareness. This danger goes well beyond being laughed at, as Socrates explains, prophesizing his own fate at the hands of his fellow Athenians.
Socrates: And if their way was to reward those who were quickest to make out the shadows as they went by and to note in memory which came before which as a rule, and
which together, would he care very much about such rewards? And, if he were to go down again out of the sunlight into his old place, would not his eyes get suddenly full of the dark?
And if there were to be a competition then with the prisoners who had never moved out and he had do his best in judging the shadows before his eyes got used to the darkwhich needs more than a minutewouldnt he be laughed at? Wouldnt they say he had come back from his time on high with his eyes in very bad condition so that there was no point in going up there?
And if they were able to get their hands on the man who attempted to take their chains off and guide them up, wouldnt they put him to death?
Glaucon: They certainly would!
Steer the Chariot of Your Soul
Socrates conveyed our lifelong struggle for emotional harmony through a powerful image: a charioteer challenged to control two mighty steeds.
"Of the nature of the soul, let me speak briefly, and in a metaphor: a pair of winged horses and a charioteer," he says in The Republic.
"One of the horses is noble, and the other is ignoble, and driving them is immensely difficult.
"The right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made he is a lover of honor and modesty and temperance; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word only.
"The other is a crooked lumbering animal; he is insolent and proud, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.
"This vicious steed goes heavily, weighing down the charioteer to the earth because he has not been thoroughly trained: this is the hour of agony and extremest conflict for the soul.
"The charioteer must drag the bit out of the teeth of the wild steed, force his legs to the ground, and punish him sorely. When this has happened several times, and the horse has ceased from his wanton way, he is tamed and humbled, and follows the will of the charioteer."
Socrates was renowned among the Athenians for his understanding and control of his emotions. The allegory of the Charioteer vividly portrayed the struggle which this entailed.
We, too, must become adept at the task of the charioteer in his great metaphor. We must learn to understand and control our most powerful emotions.
Unrestrained, our emotions can bring us to grief despite our rational intelligence. But understood and controlled (not merely ignored or stifled), they can become our wellspring of motivation and passion for life.
Daniel Goleman has explored this terrain for our time in Emotional Intelligence, where he enjoins us to greater awareness of our emotional states, and to control of "emotional hijacks".
Challenge Your Oracles
One of the charges against Socrates was that he failed to worship the gods of the city. And indeed, he could not accept conventional religion of his day.
Conventional religious thinking among Socrates fellow Athenians was a mish-mash of contradictory notions. Legends about the Olympian pantheon of gods Zeus, Aphrodite, and Appolo had proliferated, and taken grotesque turns such as Zeus taking the form of a swan or a bull in order to rape mortal women. Most sophisticated Athenians considered these tales as, at best, metaphors for human emotions.
However, there was widespread conviction that "the gods" were likely to punish human beings for such things as hubrus (excessive pride and arrogance), or even just great good fortune.
Socrates way of thinking about the gods exemplified his way of approaching every issue. He
** questioned conventional thinking;
** demanded clarity;
** learned from everyday experience;
** came to his own conclusions.
These imperatives led Socrates to three conclusions which challenged his compatriots religious convictions.
First, the gods cared for all people otherwise they would not have instilled the divine spark his inner voice -- in a mere stonemasons son like himself.
Second, the gods were good they wished well for human beings, rather than being the capricious and vengeful creatures pictured in the ancient tales.
Third, the gods required goodness from human beings. The best way to show respect for the gods was to be the best human being you could be.
Even when he received a message from a divine source, Socrates felt compelled to test it by his own intuition and reason. Most famously, the Delphic Oracle told his follower, Chaerophon, that "there is no man wiser than Socrates." Rather than accepting this gratifying accolade, Socrates insisted on mounting a research project to verify or disconfirm it. That quest started him on his search for a man wiser than himself. Only when he failed to find one, did he realize how to interpret the Oracle correctly: that those who thought themselves wise were no wiser than he, who always assumed a posture of ignorance.
One prayer of Socrates has come down to us in legend. Made one summer afternoon in the cool of a many-shaded grove, it was a plea for authenticity for congruence between the inner and outer person:
Beloved Pan, and all you other gods
Grant that I may become handsome within!
May I appear to be that which I am.
May I regard wisdom as the only wealth,
and may my own wealth
be no more than I can bear.
Grow with Friends
For Socrates, philosophizing consisted of talking with others about the issues that matter most in our lives and our communities. Only in the actual moments of interaction, he firmly believed, did real understanding occur.
He held this view so strongly that he eschewed writing down his own views. There are no texts signed by Socrates. We would know nothing about him, were it not for the admiration and affection of his friends, Plato and Xenophon, who devoted a good part of their lives to writing about their dear friend.
"Good friends give me greater satisfaction than other men get from good horses or dogs or gamecocks," he said with characteristic irony. "If I have anything good, I teach it to my friends, and I place them with others from whom I think they will make some gain. There is no possession more valuable than a good and faithful friend."
The very titles of the books about Socrates thought constantly remind us of this: they do not have the customary titles of books of philosophy, like Treatise on Reason or Prolegomenon to Any Future Metaphysics. Rather, they are mostly titled with the names of the particular friend who took a leading role in the conversation reported in the Dialogue: Crito, Euthyphro, Timaeus, Protagoras, Gorgias.
In the Critias, Socrates describes the rapport and mutual understanding which emerges only when friends pursue their spiritual quest together:
"When a group of friends have enjoyed fine conversation together, you will find that suddenly something extraordinary happens. As they are speaking, its as if a spark ignites, passing from one speaker to another, and as it travels, it gathers strength, building into a warm and illuminating flame of mutual understanding which none of them could have achieved alone.
Speak the Truth
Socrates exemplified the independent spirit who is willing to speak truth to power. All his life he challenged his fellow citizens, as individuals and collectively, to examine their principles and their behavior.
"I am that gadfly which the gods have sent to sting you Athenians," he declared in his Apology. "Our state, my friends, is like a great steed powerful and impressive, but lazy and dim. Without the constant provocation by the gadflies, it would grow even more unwitting and unfit."
Socrates commitment to Speak the Truth had three aspects, as he notes in the "Apology": Personal, Social, and Political.
He felt the need to confront individuals who were deluding themselves, social practices that needed scrutiny, and political issues that were misunderstood.
As a result, Socrates has always been a mentor for men and women who have felt the need for honesty, personal and public.
His name has been invoked from their jail cells by Theoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, each imprisoned for their acts of civil disobedience. These dissenters are often recognized, in historical perspective, as having upheld the highest values of their society and culture.
We need our gadflies whether we call them dissidents, whistle-blowers, mavericks, or even revolutionaries. Every organization, every society, rots from the top when it suppresses or ignores criticism. Healthy organizations as well as healthy societies thrive on what Socrates calls "their freedom, their willingness to look at all the evidence in the search for truth."
But this role of challenging the status quo, cannot be left to others. Each of us must be a gadfly of sorts, from time to time, in our own way, in our community and organizations, if not on the national level.
Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Childrens Defense Fund, has put it eloquently in her own Socratic "Apology," The Measure of Our Success.
"Do not think that you have to make big waves in order to contribute," she writes. "My role model, Sojourner Truth, slave woman, could neither read nor write but could not stand slavery and second-class treatment of women. One day during an anti-slavery speech she was heckled by an old man. Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? I dont care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.
"Perhaps not," snapped back Sojourner Truth. "But the Lord willing, Ill keep you scratching.
"A lot of people think they have to be big dogs to make a difference." Edelman observes. "Thats not true. You just need to be a flea for justice, bent on building a more decent home life, neighborhood, work place, and America. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation. Be a flea for justice wherever you are and in whatever career you choose in life and help transform America."
Copyright 2003 by Ronald Gross. All Rights Reserved.