Socrates, the Sage Who Knew Too Little
“No slave would wish to be treated the way he treated himself.” Antiphon, referring to Socrates.
He was fully aware that his teacher had never had a physically imposing presence, being a rather stocky and paunch man, despite his ascetic life. Nor could he impose his authority through a wealth of writings: Socrates was a lifelong intellectual… and illiterate.
But now he saw him, reclined on his death bed, serenely awaiting the end, and could not imagine anyone more dignified, more impressive in all his austerity and simplicity.
He would miss his peaceful teacher. He did not yet know it, but the life of Xenophon would end up being a military and academic epic, and a fascinating biography. When his legend was eventually studied in the future, the author of the Anabasis (the adventure of the 10,000 Greek mercenaries who fought alongside Cyrus the Great) could not be analyzed without focusing some attention on Socrates, his great teacher.
The cell was eerily silent. The sobs of Xanthippe, Socrates’ wife, had ceased.
“Why are you crying, dear?” asked her husband.
“Because the sentence is unfair…”
“Would you cry if the sentence were fair? Go in peace, and do not cry for me.”
Despite getting on each other’s nerves, the elder couple tenderly loved one another until the end.
Of course, Plato had to be there, sitting next to his teacher, taking note of everything he said. His friend Plato, with whom he had engaged in so many discussions, many instigated by Socrates himself. He had no doubt that he would continue the work begun by what everyone referred to as “maieutics” (the Socratic method), the school of thought that had shaken the foundations of Athenian society.
The term was curious to say the least, as it meant “midwifery.” The profession of Socrates’ mother, with which he saw parallels in the way he would extract the ideas from the minds of his students: through clever and incisive questions, which always disconcerted them and forced them to rethink their most unconscious and deeply rooted beliefs. Twenty-five centuries later, it is still the method we use in business schools…
“I am the Athenian wasp: it is my duty to annoy and pester society so it does not fall asleep, lest it fall into the slumber of ignorance— the worst of all evils.” Socrates liked to say this. An effective wasp, indeed, who could now see the usefulness of his work validated in the cruelest way: the death penalty.
Power will never be a friend to those who do not let their conscience yield to convenience, the comfort of what everyone should think, and political correctness. It will never be a friend to the troublemakers who loathe uniformity, and the mimicry of consciences according to criteria established by those who “look out for their happiness.”
Critias, the Athenian tyrant, a former disciple of Socrates, knew this better than anyone. He could never rest easy on his throne with his former master inciting his fellow citizens to think freely.
Those who think they have the answers to all problems—especially those who believe that they themselves are the answer—will never accept the principle that always guided their master: “I only know that I know nothing.” I just know I don’t have the answers to everything. But I can ask and wonder, think together, reason…
Socrates would be killed, a martyr of the freedom of conscience, and the right to question things. None of those present in that cell would ever know that what had started in that small circle would deeply impact Western thought, giving rise to the world’s first major school of philosophy. And the Socratic method would be taken further, as the touchstone of a simple man, aware of his ignorance, who simply wanted to learn and question the reality in which he lived.