Victor Ehrenberg
From Solon to Socrates

The charge of irreligion seems, after all, rather far-fetched. The accusation that Socrates had corrupted the youth is a different matter. Everybody knew that he had his endless talks with, above all, young men of promise, largely of the upper class. Many of them might turn out to be harmless citizens, though their fathers will have resented some of the things they claimed to have learnt; Pheidippides in the Clouds is an example, if a caricature. Above all, however, there were among the disciples men like Alcibiades and Critias who had proved to be enemies of democracy. Moreover, the charge might contain more than was said. Socrates' essentially apolitical attitude, with his occasional criticisms of the sortition of officials, or of radical democracy in general, as in the case of 406 when he opposed the masses clamouring for the death of the generals—all that might be sufficient to confirm the mistrust of the politicians and the fears of the people. Not to be concerned with politics was usually interpreted as hostility against the state. It is significant that Socrates twice clashed with the authorities, first with the Thirty, and finally with democracy.

The question arises whether, as has been said, the religious indictment was only a smoke screen for the political charge, that is to say, that Socrates fell as an opponent of democracy. Because of the amnesty law of 403, a purely political charge was impossible. Anytus, as far as we know, was a moderate man and not a religious fanatic. We must assume that he only wanted to get rid of a man who was a 'gadfly' for the present state, and whose disciples might again turn against it. He wanted to silence the voice of Socrates, and he expected him to go into voluntary exile, as others had done before, for example Anaxagoras. He is supposed to have said (Plato, Apol. 290) 'that either Socrates should not have come into court or, when he was here, it was impossible not to execute him'. If Socrates was accused, and by Anytus, the version that he should not have appeared in court at all can only mean that he should have gone into exile. We know how completely mistaken Anytus was. If Socrates kept silent he was no longer Socrates. Moreover, he was one with Athens, all his friends were Athenians, and his loyalty to the laws of the state is stressed again and again. No individual has the right to weaken their authority; Socrates would never flee from their verdict. The great individualist was far removed from the type of individualist hostile to the state.

Yet it is possible to find some justification for democract condemning Socrates. His greatness, his unconcern, and the force of his ideas made a clash with the existing authorities almost inevitable. That was also Hegel's view. Even then, however, we ask whether this is the full story. If political fear and hostility were the only, or at least the chief, cause of Socrates' condemnation, it would have been simply a crime just like the many executions by the Thirty. We have mentioned the background of religion and superstition. It is the traditional union of politics and religion in the polis, and in addition the contrast of the generations, that led to the final tragedy. No doubt Socrates was a seducer, and the whole trend of his influence on the younger generation is revealed not only in Plato's dialogues but also in the fact that all Socratic schools, the Academy no less than the Cynics and Cyreniacs, and even Xenophon, stood outside or even against the polis tradition, whether that led to an Utopian state, or to radical individualism of one sort or another, or even to turning against Athens. The democratic polis, supported by the beliefs of the people, condemned the man who seemed to teach the freedom of the individual. Just as the doctrine of the 'Right of the Stronger' has grown in Attic soil, and suited the extremist politicians at Athens, so its complete opposite, the moralist's view of the individual's obligations within the state, had come to life in Socrates. It is the tragic paradox that democracy confused the two concepts.

Socrates has been called 'the greatest teacher in European history'. What did he teach? In fact, did he teach at all in the usual sense of the word? Education is more than teaching, and Socrates' chief aim was not to impart information but to make the other man think, and thus to make him a better person. Socrates did not believe, as the sophists had done, that anybody could 'teach virtue', but he could search for the way leading towards that end, for himself as well as for others. He says that, acting according to divine will, he had 'to philosophize' (Plato, Apol. 28e), which does not mean 'to be a philosopher'. All the early Platonic dialogues show that by his questioning he does not try to get final results, and thus in the end a systematic philosophy of his own. He looks for definitions of ethical concepts, in order to clear his own and the pupil's minds. He founded no school, he left no philosophical system. Not the weakest weapon in his armoury was his irony, largely exercised against himself. He practised 'midwifery', his mother's profession, in bringing men's hidden thoughts to life. We may perhaps say that he was himself the living urge for philosophy.

All the Socratics learned from Socrates to write dialogues. He who never wrote lived them. This was something new, although we have noticed preparatory steps made by the sophists and Thucydides. Perhaps the influence of tragedy, with its stichomythia, also contributed. Dialectics, the art of the dialogue, became the instrument of men's way of thinking, until Aristotle replaced it by the philosophical treatise. Socrates discussed the highest aims of moral education without ever lecturing. He investigated ethical concepts, but he did not teach them. He never felt like a teacher, his 'pupils' were his 'friends', and 'virtue' emerged, if at all, from the dialogue between two persons; it could not be directly transferred from one to another. The pupils were the opponents in their conversations, though they played very much the weaker part. One thing held both sides together, and that was Socrates' eros. It may at first have been an ironical suggestion of the Athenian pre-occupation with homosexual love, but in fact it was the mutual relationship in the common search for truth.

The highest aim of man is the supreme good which the Greeks called arete, the word which is usually translated by 'virtue', but better by 'perfection'. Socrates, heir to an essentially rational tradition, wanted to reach the goal by deeper knowledge. Not arete, as the sophists thought, but the way that might lead to it could be taught. This is regarded also as the only way towards true happiness, which alone mattered. On a high level Socrates was an eudemonist. He did not aim at a theory of knowledge, but based man's perfection on his knowledge of himself as well as of good and evil. Nobody does wrong willingly and knowingly. It was Socrates' task not to teach perfection but to investigate man's concepts of perfection, and that included practical advice to people how to live their lives in the right way. This remained essential, although the arete he proclaimed was, in fact, unobtainable but for the few. Thus, it became true that 'knowledge is perfection'.

Socrates' aims were clearly and exclusively ethical, and whether deliberately or not, he initiated the distinction between ethics and politics. By exhortation as well as examination, by encouraging his opponents to think for themselves, he opened the only door to true values-knowledge from insight instead of information from others. He established his ethical standards, independent of religious tradition and of the rules of society. If Socrates said that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing, his natural scepticism prevented him from overestimating the intellect, however firmly he believed in its power. He did not want to appear, nor indeed to be, wiser than others. He did not teach philosophy (to say it once more), but he showed by his life and his conversations what it meant to philosophize, that is, to think freely and unreservedly. Thus, the freedom of the individual became a question of morality; the ethical autonomy of man was established.

It was essential to find one's own way to one's soul. That could be done by discussion, but also by quiet contemplation. This is the advice, rather surprisingly given in the Clouds, by the chorus (700) and by Socrates himself (740); there is also the famous story of how Socrates stood for hours on the same spot, without noticing anything outside himself. The man whose restless questioning of people made him notorious was at the same time the man who led a life of inactivity and was the first to preach the beauty of contemplation. He had realized the distinction between mere opinion and real knowledge in a far more personal sense than Parmenides. In the field of rational thought he was the true anti-sophist. More thoroughly than anybody else before him, and more single-minded, he lived the wisdom of the Delphic advice 'Know Thyself'.

We reach the conclusion that Socrates was not a teacher nor a philosopher in the ordinary sense of the words. He was neither a poet and theoretical thinker like Plato, nor a man of practical life like Xenophon. He was unique, yet a product of his age, an intellectual and a saint, above all a humanist before all humanism. His only true interest was man. He was at the same time the clearest intellect and the most passionate explorer, 'a physician of man's soul'.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.