Monday, January 09, 2006

Socrates and Me Part-1

Socrates said that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ He actually, implemented this principle and not just lived for it, but even died for the same. This is what I gathered, amongst many curious facts about Socrates from a neat book on the Western Philosophy. At this juncture, I thought I should contemplate once again on my stand in defending my own theory and philosophy.

Well, on the periphery, my judgment of Socrates, his life and thoughts are pretty simple, he was closest to what I comprehend as Perfection. Although many of his thoughts as the present day books suggest look amazingly familiar to a student of ancient Hindu scriptures, I have a doubt whether a character called Socrates did really exist or was it a profound imagination of Plato of a perfect human being.

In this essay, I would like to emphasize on what my thoughts are in relation with what I know of the Socratic thought. I must admit and forewarn that I am still studying Socrates through Plato’s dialogues.

I met Socrates first during high school. In the English course, there was a lesson on him. In fact it was a short account of what Socrates’ life was. I was quite attracted to the philosopher then. And perhaps in my subconscious it cast a deep impression. A desire to learn him more, listen to what he said and think about it.

In “Apology”, Socrates gives an interesting account of the Oracle at the Apollo’s Delphi temple. A friend of Socrates asks the Oracle who was the wisest of men in Athens and the Oracle names Socrates. Socrates is surprised by this and began enquiring all the great poets, scholars and philosophers in Athens. After his interactions with all these people he understood why the Oracle said that he was the wisest of men in Athens. His conclusion is that all the poets and the scholars do not know that they do not know some things. Where as Socrates was aware that he did not know of what he did not really know. He considered himself wiser like “A one-eyed amidst the blind”. I often think about this and keep narrating the same to my friends. In deed it is important for us to know that we do not know. If we merely think that we know everything, it is the most foolish thing in the world and often very dangerous. We should be clear of what we really know and what we do not and admit it, accept it. If possible, try to know what you do not know.

Earlier I stated that Socratic thought is strikingly similar to some of the Hindu philosophical teachings. In the same dialogue “Apology”, Socrates says to the Athenians that “do not worry about your bodies or monies, but worry about your soul.” Well then, he focused that self-knowledge is the most important thing for a human being. I am sure he understood the importance of soul as much as the ancient scholarly seers of India did. I have a fantasy to make a comparative analysis of Socrates as a Yogi. The whole lifestyle of Socrates was similar to that of a Yogi…a Dhyana Yogi, perhaps who forsakes his materialistic pursuits for the knowledge of immortal self. I read somewhere that Socrates roamed in the streets of Athens under the hot sun in bare foot without any trouble. This is possible only through control of senses through control of mind, which is yoga.
In the “Republic”, the discussion on ideal state has the sectarian approach, the classes like the Guardians, the Auxiliaries and the Artisans is somewhat similar to the sectarian classification (Varnadharma) of the Laws of Manu. This is another instance where I felt I should consider an analogy between Socratic thought in the form of Plato’s dialogue and the ancient Hindu Scriptures. I might even speculate that since ancient Greeks were known to travel, Socrates himself or someone close to Socrates might have traveled to India and thus some knowledge got transferred from the Hindu thought. But it seems there is no sign of Socrates having traveled anywhere far from Athens. But Pre-Socratic philosophers like Pythagoras have surely traveled to India. There are many accounts of Pythagoras’ connections to Indian university of Taxila.

In another dialogue “Ion”, Socrates speaks about something most important to me, the art of poetry. He says that “art as a whole” is different from what people perceive it to be. He distinguishes art from the divine inspiration. To quote him: “For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.” And again: “…and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed”. When I first read this, I had a feeling of nostalgia. When I wrote some of poems, some of the best lines seemed to come only when I felt highly inspired or possessed by the objects of my poems. Assuming that all the objects that I perceive are created by God, I was in a way possessed and inspired by God. Yet, I would want myself to be called an artist, even though Socrates wouldn’t agree. He would say that if I was good at writing poems in English and not in my mother-tongue then he would say that my writing of poems is not an art, for if it to be an art and myself to be an artist, I must be able to write the poems in my mother-tongue too. Because art is a whole and has no language, I should be equally good in all the languages I know. I shall continue to examine this debate between Socrates and me during the rest of my life while I study him in more detail.

P.Siddartha
December 2005.