BOOK REVIEW: The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates by Xenophon

The Memorable Thoughts of SocratesThe Memorable Thoughts of Socrates by Xenophon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Xenophon gives us an alternative to Plato’s accounts of the lessons of Socrates. As you probably know if you are reading this, Socrates left nothing behind by way of written teachings. All we know of the great philosopher’s teachings come from the accounts of his students. Xenophon’s version (Memorabilia of Socrates) is stylistically different from Plato’s dialogues(e.g. Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo), though Socrates’ wisdom and method (questioning) remain consistent.

I enjoyed Plato’s dialogues on the last days of Socrates more than Xenophon’s Memorabilia. This owes to Plato’s narrative approach, which tells us the story of Socrates’ trial, conviction, and execution. Philosophy is more palatable embedded in a story. However, all of these works (Xenophon’s and Plato’s) are short, readable translations, and so it is worth reading all of them to get a broader access to the thoughts of Socrates.

As with Apology, Xenophon conveys Socrates thoughts on piety and corruption of the youth (these were the charges raised against Socrates that resulted in his hemlock sentence.) Socrates maintained that he was pious, but he did think it a weakness to trouble the gods with questions that men should be able to solve for themselves. His emphasis on self-reliance and fortitude is part of why we so respect Socrates. One sees the imprint of Socrates on the school of Stoicism that would come later. In Memorabilia, Socrates openly mocks those men who cannot bear adversity as well as their slaves. (Yes, Socrates wasn’t so infallibly wise as to see the folly of slavery. I no more advocate paleomania [irrational exuberance for old thinkers / ideas] than I do neomania [irrational exuberance for new ideas.] Still, people live in the context of their times, and if one expects a person to be ahead of their time in all aspects, one will be disappointed.)

Socrates discusses governance and politics frequently in this volume. To a large extent, this is by way of trying to convince men that he believed would be good for governance to participate, and convincing those who he believed wouldn’t be effective leaders (e.g. Euthydemus) not to participate. Toward the end of book (part IV) he talks about the various forms of government (e.g. Monarchy, Aristocracy, Plutocracy, Tyranny, and Democracy.) These ideas no doubt informed Plato’s illumination of eight forms of government in The Republic.

What I appreciate most about Socrates was his groundedness and appreciation of the importance of the body. One can read a lot of philosophy without hearing mention of the body (beyond the thought that it might be an illusion created by the program that runs our brain-in-a-vat system.) One gets the idea that proponents of this discipline largely think of the body as a cart that drags around their great, big, lovely brains. Not so with Socrates. In fact, he rebukes philosophers for not taking care of themselves. He mentions the importance of nutrition, exercise, and sleep [this is where he’s ahead of his time.] Also, Socrates recognizes the damage done by having too great an attachment to comfort. (Here one sees an interest point of overlap with Eastern philosophies that derive from yoga–with its niyama of tapas [austerity and self-discipline.] By the way, that isn’t the only correlation between the Eastern and Western mindset we see in Socrates. e.g. At one point, a wealthy man complains about the poor behavior of his servant, to which Socrates asks upon whom this condition should reflect poorly—the master not the servant. Confucius made a similar statement to this one.)

I think this classic is well worth reading. It’s short, readable, and offers a great deal of food for thought. If you don’t have time for multiple accounts of Socrates’ teachings, you might be kept more enthralled by the Platonic dialogues, but surely you can make time for Socrates.

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MASTER WORKS: Apology by Plato

ApologyApology by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Apology is Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates. This brief work presents Socrates’ defense of himself as well as his reaction to the death sentence verdict against him. Of course, it is all through the lens of Plato, as Socrates left us no written works.

Socrates was charged with impiety and corruption of the youth. He acknowledged both that he was eloquent and that he was a gadfly of Athens (the latter being a role for which Socrates believes he should be valued.) However, he denied both of the formal charges.

Socrates refuted the charge of corrupting the youth first by denying that he had taken money in exchange for teaching. Taking money was a component of this charge. Socrates’ claim is supported later when Socrates tells the court that he can only afford a very small fine, even in the face of the alternative–a death sentence.

Socrates says that he sees nothing wrong with taking money for teaching–if one has wisdom to share. Socrates says that he has no such wisdom, and suggests the philosopher/teachers that are taking money aren’t in error for taking money, but rather because they really don’t have wisdom themselves.

This is summed up nicely by this pair of sentences, “Well, although I do not suppose either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is–for he knows nothing and thinks he knows. I neither know nor think I know.”

While Socrates raised the ire of the Athenian leaders with what they no doubt believed to be his arrogance, in fact it wasn’t that he thought himself wiser than they, but that he thought they were deluded in thinking themselves wise.

Socrates’ lesson remains valid today. It is the scourge of all ages to think that have finally attained true understanding of the world. Our posterity may know more, but we know all of the essentials and are rapidly converging on a complete picture of our world. We think our generation to be humanity’s sage elders, when, in fact, we are the impetuous teen whose growth spurt has made him cocky. I would propose to you that in all likelihood, even today, the sets of “that which is true” and “that which humanity ‘knows'” form a classic interlinking Venn Diagram. That is, some of the body of knowledge that we take to be proven true is, in fact, false. This occurs because we cannot accept that there are things we are not yet prepared to know, so we use sloppy methodology to “prove” or “disprove.” This one reason we have all these conflicting reports. E.g. coffee is good for you one week, and carcinogenic the next.

VennDiagram_WhatWeKnow

Socrates uses the method that today bears his name, i.e. the Socratic method, to challenge the arguments of Meletus, the prosecutor. The Socratic method uses questions as a device to lead the opposition to a conclusion based on premises they themselves state in the form of their answers. Socrates proposes that if it is he alone who is intentionally corrupting the youth, they would not come around–for no one prefers to be subjected to evil rather than good.

Socrates denies the suggestion that he does not believe in the gods, and in fact indicates that the very suggestion by virtue of the charges against him is a contradiction. What Socrates is guilty of is encouraging those who come around him to develop their own thoughts on god, and not to subordinate their thought to anyone–an idea the leaders found disconcerting.

Socrates goes on to say why he is unmoved by the death sentence. He wonders why it is thought he should beg and wail, when he doesn’t know for sure that an evil is being done against him.

The moral of the story is that those in power fear and will attempt to destroy advocates of free thinking.

This book should be read in conjunction with a couple other Platonic Dialogues, Crito and Phaedo.

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