N MATTERS OF REVELATION AND RATIONALITY, it is difficult to find many Greek philosophers fitting into the genuine description of a prophet who combines in him a perfect balance of the two. Socrates is an exception.
Socrates, (470–399 BC) being a class unto himself, occupies a unique position in the history of Greek philosophy which fails to mention anyone other than him to belong to that class. There must have been prophets before and after him but of them we can only infer from some oblique references by Socrates himself. For instance, he is known to have said that he is not the only one from God who has been the recipient of revelation; there have been great men before who did the same to serve the cause of goodness. Again, he warns Athenians not to put him to death otherwise they would never see the like of him again, except if God so desires to teach the right path to the Athenians by sending someone else.
This chapter is largely devoted to Socrates and what he stood for, because he manifests a perfect balance of revelation and rationality; but it is impossible not to mention Plato and Aristotle when one talks of Greek philosophy. It is indeed they who pioneered a new mode which has become almost eternal, but they certainly owed their greatness to their revered master.
It was Socrates who had introduced into philosophical discussions of the time, the elements of knowledge, truth and rationality with emphasis so powerful that some biographers describe him as having brought high-flown ethereal philosophies from the heavens down to earth. We believe that the converse is true; the philosophical babble of the sophists before him were the acts of earthly men. It is knowledge, truth and rationality which lift human thoughts to sublime loftiness. That is why though Plato and Aristotle left a most profound and rich heritage for us concerning all philosophical discussions, there is nothing like the lasting noble influence of Socratic integrity which went largely into the making of Plato and Aristotle. The philosophies of Plato and Aristotle are but briefly dealt with, just by way of introduction.
Both Plato and Aristotle give priority to rationality in the understanding of the universal scheme of things. What is the relationship between rationality and the external world? How is knowledge attained and what is eternal truth? On these questions, the two great philosophers offer divergent views.
With Plato it is incorrect to consider the perceptions of the external world as the ultimate truth because a superficial study of any external matter is not sufficient to gain true knowledge of its inner nature. Plato believes that hidden within every external phenomenon is a deeper, invisible world of meaning that cannot be reached by mere superficial analysis.
Plato accepts the existence of an unseen realm, governed by a Supreme Conscious Being with numerous other subordinate agents working under Him for the maintenance of the whole system of creation. However, he does not appear to believe that revelation plays any role in providing knowledge of the unknown. For him, it is through an interaction between rationality and intellectual inspiration alone that true knowledge is acquired. This interplay of intellect and inspiration can sometimes result in fascinating or even strange consequences. The outcome of this process may result in leaps of knowledge rather than step by step advancement. New ideas may be created but they are always related to the thought processes of man. Their value, according to Plato, depends on the quality and level of rationality of the perceiving mind.
For Plato, rationality demands an intensive search being carried out to penetrate into the deepest recesses of all categories of natural phenomena. By arranging the data thus gained into an intellectual orderly form, man is able to attain truth. According to him:
'Because of the presence in him of something like a divine spark, he can, after suitable preparation, fix his intellectual gaze on the realities of the unseen world and, in the light of them, know both what is true and how to behave. He will not attain this result easily—to get to it will involve not only immense intellectual effort, including the repeated challenging of assumptions, but also turning his back on everything in life that is merely sensual or animal. Yet, despite this, the end is attainable in principle, and the man who arrives at it will exercise the most important part of himself in the best way that is open to him.'1
Thus for Plato, knowledge can be attained merely through the faculties of observation and rationality, aided sometimes by the faculty of inspiration and intuition. Truth is the knowledge gained as a result of this exercise. In short, Plato held that the apparent world is only a façade while the truth, which lies hidden behind, could be quite different from what is observed. This means that however hard we may try, we cannot completely comprehend the nature of any external fact, because all external facts or objects are constantly changing. Thus an observation made at any given time could differ from that made at another.
'Plato held that the idea is an ideal, a non-sensible goal to which the sensible approximates; the geometer's perfect triangle "never was on sea or land," though all actual triangles more or less embody it. He conceived the ideas as more real than the sensible things that are their shadows and saw that the philosopher must penetrate to these invisible essences and see with the eye of his mind how they are linked together. For Plato they formed an orderly system that was at once eternal, intelligible, and good.'2
In contrast to Plato, Aristotle gives priority to the external observable reality. For him any understanding gained by man at any particular moment is to be taken as the truth. It seems as though for Aristotle the external world was itself the eternal truth. Aristotle was also persuaded of the existence of ideas towards which all the 'various physical forms' are moving. In sharp contrast to Plato, he perceived matter to be an independent eternal reality and presents a view of continuous evolution in which no External Conscious Being has a hand to play. He considers this evolution to be dependent only upon the natural propensities latent within matter itself.
That should not be taken to mean that Aristotle does not believe in God, the Creator. On the contrary, he believed in a Supreme Being Who was responsible for the entire chain of cause and effect and could be referred to as the Ultimate First Cause. However, as we trace the idea of God discussed by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, we see a gradual change in relation to their concept.
OCRATES seems to have a very personalized and intense relationship with the Supreme Being. His very personality is built on the pattern of the messengers of God. Plato represents the first generation of his pupils, who are also charged to a substantial degree with the Socratic spirit. In their philosophic and scientific discussions there is an inevitable stamp of spirituality. But in the transitional period, from Plato to Aristotle, we notice a perceptible decline in the idea of God playing a live and active role in the phenomena of nature. In Aristotle we do not detect any evidence that he believed in any form of communication between God and man.
Although the idea of eternal truth is not explicitly mentioned or explored in Aristotelian philosophy, an analysis of his work allows us to attribute a notion of eternal truth to him. This notion is linked to the constant motion of matter and its natural propensity to evolve towards an ideal state. According to this philosophy, matter progresses to an ideal form towards which it has always been evolving.
It becomes clear that to Aristotle, whatever one observes at any given time can be classed as a fact at that particular moment. The conclusion derived from such facts, as compiled by reason, can be called knowledge. This knowledge, when verified from different angles of observation, should be considered the truth.
Among the early philosophers Aristotle stands out because of the unbroken continuity of his influence over many an era of philosophical thought. Even today, there is no branch of philosophy which is altogether free from the influence of his dominating intellect.
We may conclude by pointing out that among most Greek philosophers, even when they believed in God, revelation was not specifically mentioned as an essential instrument for the transfer of knowledge from God to man. Rationality wedded to observation and human examination is all that is accepted as the most reliable means of gaining knowledge and truth.
This brief reference to Greek philosophy does not cover all the major Greek philosophers who have made an indelible mark on the history of human thought. The main purpose of this exercise is to present a brief review on the concept of rationality, revelation and truth, as found in the works of Greek philosophers whose words and fame have become eternal. It is here that we must introduce Socrates in his full image.
Socrates, the noblest of all Greek philosophers who presents no contradiction between his ideas and personal righteous deeds, is portrayed by many modern writers in a strange dusky light of contradiction. An outstanding moral teacher, largely seen today through the reflective mirror of Plato, Xenephon and some others of his contemporaries, Socrates is not as yet placed where he truly belongs. Of Xenephon it must be said, that being himself a believer in the polytheistic mythology of the Athenians, he was largely responsible for attributing to Socrates the belief in many gods. That is why in all that is written on Socrates today, one repeatedly finds contradictory references to him as believing in many gods as well as in One, Who is the Creator of the universe. Every fibre of his monotheist personality throbs with the life and spirit of a devotee to One God.
His belief in the Unity of God was unshakeable; his defiance of the plurality of Greek mythology was uncompromising. Virtue, knowledge, truth and eradication of all contradictions from one's person, were the subjects of his lifelong dedication. His whole life was in itself a holy war against evil, ignorance, arrogance, and duality in man. He believed in absolute justice and answerability; he believed in life after death and the consequent punishment or reward. Readily he gave up his life with such peace of mind and tranquillity of soul, on the altar of his conviction in the Unity of God, as behoves any great prophet of God.
But that was not all that there was to his supreme sacrifice. To compromise with falsehood—even with the faintest of its shades—was not in the grain of Socrates. He would have smilingly given up his life, rejecting any unjustified pressure upon him by society to change even the smallest of his convictions under the threat of death. It is this great Greek philosopher of a prophet, who is paradoxically described as 'the father of Western Philosophy'.
Whatever was there common between him and the philosophical pursuit of the western philosophers, is prominent only by its total absence. Virtue, humility, absolute justice, firm belief in the Unity of God, accountability of humans both here and in the hereafter can be summed up as the main body of his philosophy. Could he be the father of the philosophies of Descartes, Hegel, Engels and Marx? If so, all genetic marks of his paternal stamp must have been totally wiped out by the passage of time. Could their negation of morality be traced back to him with any sense of justice? No—certainly not.
His was a different world. His was a world of Prophets. He believed in Divinely revealed dreams; he believed in revelation; he believed in knowledge to be truth, and truth to be knowledge. He believed that no knowledge is trustworthy but that bestowed upon man by God Himself.
He was charged with the mission of delivering a Divine message to the people of Greece. To him this life was only a preparatory stage for the life to come. It was the human soul which mattered to him. It was this soul which was decreed to be delivered and transferred to the hereafter. This was his philosophy, call it Divine wisdom if you will, but certainly not a secular philosophy as portrayed by modern intellectuals.
Repeated attempts have been made to pluck him away from the comity of prophets to that of mere philosophers. Many modern writers, great as they may be in their learning, are miserably confused about his true identity. They have wasted bookfuls of material on him to try to place him where he does not belong.
Some renowned scholars have seriously attempted to remove an imaginary contradiction in him which actually did not exist. For them the contradiction was between his belief in Divine revelation and his profession of rationality. If rationality and Divine revelation ever posed a paradox, it was always posed by all the prophets of God, Socrates being no exception. Every true prophet and all the founders of great religions simultaneously believed in Divine revelation and rationality, holding fast to both with absolute tenacity. They saw no contradiction between the two. Had they seen any, true as they were, they must have rejected either the idea of God or the idea of rationality, or both perhaps. To them, the idea of rationality and God could not belong to opposite camps. Hence those who see a parallax in Socrates' beliefs and his rationality must be suffering from diplopia themselves. Let them read Socrates once again and all that is written of him by authentic sources. They are bound to discover a new person in him who can never simultaneously be separated from his adherence to God and his rational philosophy. They must notice the fact that central to all the important material on him is his obsession that people do not pay proper attention to the importance of virtue and do not understand its real meaning.
The dilemma of contradiction is between the real image of Socrates and the unreal one—which is being transposed upon him—and is largely responsible for the distortion of some significant terms used in the source material. Whether one such term arete really means virtue or whether it has a secular connotation, is one of the questions which needs to be addressed. In the view of W.K.C. Guthrie:
'We know now that the word "virtue" attaches false associations to the Greek arete, which meant primarily efficiency at a particular task.'3
It is this, according to Guthrie which jarred the sensibilities of the 'practical' Athenians. The word 'practical' reveals a glaring contradiction in Guthrie's understanding of arete because if his definition is correct then it is Socrates who emerges to be the most practical man in Athens, not his critics: who were interested only in 'political ability' and 'moral obligations'.
'One of the things about Socrates which irritated the sensible, practical Athenian was that he would insist on turning the talk to such humble and apparently irrelevant people as shoemakers and carpenters, when what they wanted to learn about was what constituted political ability or whether there was such a thing as moral obligation.'3
It is evident from this statement that in the eyes of Guthrie, Socrates was not at all interested in 'virtue' as a moral term. All that he was really interested in was a common artisan's know-how of his trade and a clear understanding of the purpose for which he was working. He must understand for instance, what a ladder stands for and to serve what purpose a ladder is to be built. This is the secular philosophy of Socrates as seen by Guthrie. The only theme which occupied him was the purpose and trade of an artisan. That is how he visualized Socrates roaming the streets of Athens, addressing the common people and teaching them how to achieve excellence in arts and crafts. He completely misses the main thrust of Socrates' philosophy, whom he would allow no interest in virtue and piety.
One thing is certain about Socrates—whatever he indulged in was arete. So if at the same time he is condemned by society for not discussing morality it can only mean that according to them arete had no connotation of moral sense. We protest against this allegation of the author which is most certainly wrong. Athenian society never blamed Socrates for not discussing morality. Quite to the contrary, the Athenians condemned him of overmuch indulgence in his brand of morality which they considered tantamount to corrupting the youth of Athens. Thus, by ridding arete of any moral sense, Guthrie denies Socrates his status as a moral teacher. By this rather devious method he has attempted to change the facts of history. But all that he succeeds in is the creation of a parallax between an imaginary personality of Socrates, which the author himself imposes on him, and the real one that he possessed. Anyone who knows Socrates presented by the writings of Plato and some of his other contemporaries, cannot accept this baseless conjecture of the author. It is but common knowledge that what irritated Athenian society was not what the author proclaims. Socrates pleaded the Unity of God and waged a holy war against immorality. That was all the mission of Socrates and all that arete meant to him. These are the facts which must be understood in relation to the meaning of arete.
GAINST GUTHRIE, arete is rightly translated by many other scholars as 'virtue' with all its connotations. When Socrates talks of such small things as the nature of the instruments of arts and crafts, and the manner in which they work, and further speaks of a clearly defined purpose that every art and craft must fulfil, he is most certainly talking in cryptic terms referring all the time to humans. Otherwise he would not deny the artisans the knowledge of their own trade and would not condemn them of utter ignorance. What he in fact describes is the human ignorance to discern the nature of Divine knowledge which lies deep beneath the surface of every human occupation, yet humans remain oblivious to it. With this ignorance no human is entitled to be called human, just as an artisan is not worthy of being called an artisan if he does not possess the know-how of his trade or the purpose of building an artifact. It is to this human ignorance that Socrates strives to draw the attention of man.
It is the Divine purpose of their creation which Socrates believes humans cannot attain merely with their own efforts. They do not know how to carve their lives to suit the purpose for which they are created. Of that they know nothing, claiming all the same that they are all-knowledgeable. This is what he considers to be utter ignorance. This exercise of discovering the purpose of one's existence is what arete stands for. But this cannot be achieved without perfect humility and absolute admission of one's ignorance. Only then is man ready to be helped by God with step by step guidance from ignorance to knowledge. The only knowledge known to Socrates is that which is revealed by Him; the rest is ignorance.
This exactly is also the message of the Quran, which attributes all knowledge to God so that even the angels admit their ignorance before him. They beseech:
... Holy art Thou! No knowledge have we except what Thou hast taught us; surely, Thou art the All-Knowing, the Wise.4
The Quran repeatedly reminds humans that no knowledge of the right path can be granted them unless they profess total dependence upon Him and implore His help to guide their steps:
Thee alone do we worship and Thee alone do we implore for help.
Guide us in the right path.5
It is this same lesson in humility which is so forcefully delivered by Socrates, indicating that man cannot acquire knowledge without admitting his ignorance and realizing that he needs Divine help to show him the path.
Thus, cryptically, he is alluding to man all the time while he speaks apparently of a hypothetical artisan. He sees man as suffering from the conceit that he is knowledgeable while as long as he considers himself to be knowledgeable, he cannot ever become conscious of his need to learn. This symbolism helps Socrates to fulfil his prophetic mission which was to awaken his fellow countrymen to an awareness of moral, spiritual and Divine purpose of human creation which cannot be understood or pursued without succour from Him.
Most humans move like pawns, not aware of why they move and who the Mastermind is, behind the hand that moves them. Such oblivious men can neither know their obligations to their Creator nor to their fellow human beings. To impress upon man the gravity of this situation, Socrates reminds him of life after death when he will be finally held accountable for all his deeds during his life on earth. This, the life after death, is certainly not what the secular philosophers talk about. This is the main mission and occupation of the prophets of God. We only wish that Guthrie had remembered what he himself had written about the character of Socrates in the same book. Of particular significance are the following words he claims that Socrates uttered just before his death:
'It is probable that many, if not most, of those who disapproved of him had no wish to see him die, and would have been more than content if he could have been persuaded to leave Athens...'6
He rejected this suggestion point blank and responded by saying:
'...that he had all his life enjoyed the benefits which the laws of Athens conferred on her citizens, and now that those same laws saw fit that he should die, it would be both unjust and ungrateful for him to evade their decision. Besides, who could tell that he was not going to a far better existence than that which he had known hitherto?'6
Many other highly competent scholars have also researched the true and full translation of arete. One of the most prominent among them is Gregory Vlastos who strongly rejects attempts to treat it merely as an artisan's term. Explaining the original Greek word in its various possible connotations, he emphasizes that, in Socratic usage the word arete must be equated with piety and virtue in every form of goodness that they may refer to:
'Any lingering doubt on this point in my readers' mind may be resolved by referring them to the fact that whenever he brings the general concept under scrutiny—as when he debates the teachability of arete in the Protagoras and the Meno—he assumes without argument that its sole constituents or "parts" (, ) are five qualities which are, incontestably, the Greek terms of moral commendation par excellence: andreia ("manliness," "courage"), sophrosyne ("temperance," "moderation"), dikaiosyne ("justice," "righteousness"), hosiotes ("piety," "holiness"), sophia ("wisdom").'7
Thus Vlastos is very rational in his stance that it is far more important to search aretes' intended central meaning which Socrates himself consistently portrays and highlights.
To this intended meaning of arete another great scholar, Christopher Janaway, refers when he states that Socrates:
'...was concerned with questions of ethics, in particular with defining the virtues (justice, wisdom, courage, piety, temperance). This is how Socrates is portrayed by Plato in the early dialogues, and is how he makes Socrates describe himself in the Apology.'8
'Central propositions in Socrates' ethics are: virtue is knowledge; all the virtues are one; virtue is happiness...
'Socrates also believes that no one who has knowledge of good and bad can lack any of the virtues—with such knowledge one must also be courageous, holy, temperate, and just. Finally, he thinks that the perfectly virtuous person is bound to be happier—to have greater well-being in fact—than someone who lacks virtue.'9
We fully accept Janaway's understanding of Socrates' ethics.
What Socrates is describing is a law which relates profoundly to human psyche and has to be accepted in its totality. The knowledge that a thorny bush could be the only safe place against a vicious beast would certainly make a sensible man accept the comparatively lesser evil of thorny pricks and, as long as he is protected, the suffering which the thorns cause will, by comparison appear to him as pleasure. While Socrates does not deny the physical suffering of a truly knowledgeable person, what he emphasizes is that whatever action is deemed suitable by a truly knowledgeable person is the only action in which he will find peace. It is as true today as it was then. It explains the optional acceptance of suffering, by godly people, in which they find happiness. For them the converse of losing God's favour is unbearably painful. Likewise, dignified men who prefer to die in 'pain' rather than live in comfort by sacrificing their principles, certainly die 'happily' with the realization of their moral victory. They smilingly accept physical suffering rather than the spiritual disgrace which to them is far more punishing.
Vlastos has dedicated a long chapter, Socratic Piety, to resolve an imaginary contradiction in Socrates' views and his experience. It is a scholarly yet an apologetic attempt on his part to prove that in reality no such contradiction exists. His philosophy is thoroughly rational throughout, as Vlastos sees it, but his experience of revelation and his belief in a Superior Being Who guides his life is the contradiction which must be removed. Thus, he quotes Socrates himself to bring this point home. Of his perfectly rational attitude, Socrates is known to have said:
'Not now for the first time, but always, I am the sort of man who is persuaded by nothing in me except
the proposition which appears to me to be the best when I reason () about it.'10
Despite his emphasis on reason he appears to Vlastos to be a superstitious man when it comes to his personal experience. Thus he writes:
'And yet he is also committed to obeying commands reaching him through supernatural channels.'10
To support his contention, Vlastos quotes Socrates during his trial:
'To do this has been commanded me, as I maintain, by the god through divinations and through dreams and every other means through which divine apportionment has ever commanded anyone to do anything.'10
Having postulated this, Vlastos has written a long discourse on absolving Socrates of what he himself admits of his spiritual experience. Through an involved logic, he finally assumes that Socrates did not genuinely believe in what appears to be his personal confession. Yet despite all his scholarly effort, Vlastos fails to achieve this purpose. Read again for instance the above quoted passage by Vlastos beginning with the words
'To do this has been commanded me, ...'10
and note that the word God used by Socrates is in the singular, yet the author prefers to write it with a small 'g'.
This statement of Socrates, concerning his personal experience of Divine dreams, revelations and specific commands in other forms, is so powerful and so completely at one with the universal experience of Divine prophets that it leaves no room for doubt that he means exactly what he says. A large number of Quranic verses fully support Socrates when they speak of all the prophets before the Holy Founder of Islamsa having shared with him all the different modes of Divine revelation.
Vlastos further builds his contradiction theory by raising the question:
'Should this incline us to believe that Socrates is counting on two disparate avenues of knowledge about the gods, rational and extra-rational respectively, yielding two distinct systems of justified belief, one of them reached by elenctic argument, the other by divine revelation through oracles, prophetic dreams and the like?'11
NE IS AMAZED to note how imaginary contradictions can be built between what Socrates believed and what he actually experienced. He is known, of course, to have criticized the so-called Greek gods and disparaged the reliability of their revelation through oracles, but whenever he spoke of his personal experience he never ridiculed, even once, his own Divine revelation or dreams. The author has done no justice to him by adding 'through oracles' after 'divine revelation'. The personal Divine revelation of which Socrates has spoken, as quoted above, has no mention whatsoever of any 'oracles'. Invariably when he speaks of his personal experience he speaks of 'God' in singular, with capital G, and not of 'gods'. When he mentions the poets' visions, as though they were god-given, he only uses such expressions as a figure of speech, not meaning them to be actually 'God-given':
'Yes, what the inspired poet puts into his poem is a wonderful, god-given thing; but it isn't knowledge—it can't be knowledge for it is mindless.'12
His criticism that 'it is not knowledge - it can't be knowledge for it is mindless', is absolutely in accordance with the common practice of poetic expressions. No doubt there is a sort of magic in some poetry as though God were speaking through the poet's tongue, but a sensible man would not take this too seriously. For Socrates to speak of a poet as 'god-possessed,' may also have referred to the Athenians' superstitious views of people being possessed by 'gods'. Such expressions are poles apart from the language which Socrates uses for himself. He is never God-possessed but is only addressed by Him as a humble servant of His.
He makes it clear that the poetic experiences which may seem Divine are certainly not so. Whatever their import, they can at best be described as inspiration, not Divine Revelation:
'I soon perceived that it is not through knowledge that poets produce their poems but through a sort of inborn gift and in a state of inspiration...'13
However, the conclusion drawn by Vlastos from the same passage drives the reader out of his mind, rather than the poet he refers to as being driven 'out of his mind':
'...when the god is in him the poet is "out of his mind," ...'13
Again he absolves Socrates of irrationality by declaring:
'Socrates has disarmed the irrationalist potential of the belief in supernatural gods communicating with human beings by supernatural signs.'14
We respectfully yet strongly disagree with him when he assumes that the same applied to Socrates' own experiences. Only two pages after what he has concluded about the nature of the supernatural commands of others, the author has to admit that the God of Socrates was different:
'Because, as we saw earlier, unlike their gods, Socrates' god is invariantly good, incapable of causing any evil to anyone in any way at any time. Since to deceive a man is to do evil to him, Socrates' god cannot be lying.'15
Further, in the same chapter, he rightly attributes a concept of worship to Socrates which was distinctly opposed to the so-called worship of the Athenians. The worship of Athenians according to him was:
'...an art of commercial exchanges between gods and men.'16
Their worship had to be rebuffed because they, the Athenians, make gods appear dependent on them by whatever is offered at their altar, but the God of Socrates—who is wrongly referred to as "gods" by the author:
'... stand in no need of gifts from us, while we are totally dependent on their gifts to us...'16
Evidently, Socratic treatment of Athenian worship is with reference to their polytheistic godhead which may be referred to in plural, but it should be remembered here that the word 'god', whenever used in plural by Socrates, does not always indicate the Athenian gods which were just a product of their fancy. A careful study of Socrates reveals that by the term 'gods', he sometimes refers to angels or any other spiritual form of life above men and under God. However when he speaks of his own experience, he totally discards the plurality and begins to refer to one God.
'I believe that no greater good has ever come to you in the city than this service of mine to the god.'17
(Note the singleness of God in relation to the mission bestowed to him.)
His religio-political philosophy was always at one with the universal trend of Divine teachings. No prophet of God is recorded in history to have risen in revolt against the law of the land, but when the state interfered with his obedience to God, he unhesitatingly rejected the state power without fear and followed the dictates of God.
The same was the philosophy of Socrates. He was absolutely loyal to the state but when loyalty to the state contradicted his loyalty to God, the only conclusion he drew for himself was to discard the lesser loyalty for the sake of the higher one which was due only to the Creator. Addressing the senate which was about to convict him to death, he spoke of this with unperturbed composure and dignity:
'... Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy ...' 18
(Note that Jowett always writes 'God' with a capital 'G' when he relates Him to Socrates.)
When the Athenians offered him release from the death penalty on the condition that he should stop 'corrupting' the youth of Athens by instigating them to defy the Athenian gods and obey his own, Socrates refused them outright. There is a long discourse on this issue between him and Meletus, his chief prosecutor. During this, Meletus insists that his defiance of Athenian gods, despite his assertion that he believed in one God, is tantamount to absolute atheism and as such he must be condemned to death. Socrates' obedience to God stood higher than his obedience to the law of Athens. He stood by it and was felled for it, but before his death delivered to the people of Athens this prophetic warning in the following words:
'... you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God, or lightly reject his boon by condemning me. For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me,...'19
Having said that he goes on building the case of his innocence with incontrovertible logic, clinching the issue finally by an argument which will for ever pay tribute to his greatness. Jowett quotes him as saying:
'...not even the impudence of my accusers dares to say that I have ever exacted or sought pay of any one; they have no witness of that. And I have a witness of the truth of what I say; my poverty is a sufficient witness.'19
He also invokes his past conduct to stand witness by his side and to bear testimony to the truth of his present behaviour.
Then referring to a past incident which singled him out as the only person who dared to oppose the might of the entire senate he declared:
'...I cared not a straw for death, and that my only fear was the fear of doing an unrighteous or unholy thing. For the strong arm of that oppressive power did not frighten me into doing wrong...'20
Socrates, would not demean himself like many so-called nobles in his place might have done. So he goes on to elaborate:
'I have seen men of reputation, when they have been condemned, behaving in the strangest manner: they seemed to fancy that they were going to suffer something dreadful if they died, and that they could be immortal if you only allowed them to live; ...'21
'Do not then require me to do what I consider dishonorable and impious and wrong, especially now, when I am being tried for impiety on the indictment of Meletus.'21
What follows indicates that despite his unshakeable belief in Unity, he also believed in some god-like figures to whom he attributes a different and nobler sense, which does not apply to the so-called gods of Athenians. He speaks of them exactly in the same sense as 'angels' are referred to in other Divinely revealed religions. Thus his belief in gods in the sense of angels was certainly not contradictory to his belief in one God. When he commits his cause finally, it is not to them—the gods of Athens—that he commits it. He commits his cause to the people of Athens and to God:
'And to you and to God I commit my cause...'22
Even to the minutest detail, Socrates is just like any other Prophet mentioned in the Holy Quran and other scriptures. He condemned suicide as an offence against God because he treated life as His gift of which He remained the sole Master. In Phaedo, he is reported to have spoken at length with powerful arguments against the legality of suicide which he considered absolutely unpardonable. Thus, he pronounces his judgment on the issue of suicide:
'...there may be reason in saying that a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as he is now summoning me.'23
His discourse continued until he was interrupted by Crito from whose gestures he understood that he wanted to say something. He dismissed him and all that he wanted to say on behalf of the attendant who was to administer him the poison. The attendant had suggested that if he talked too much it would weaken the effect of the poison and he would be obliged to drink it two or three times. He showed scant respect with regards to the suggestion and the discomfort which his discourses could have caused him. 'Let him mind his business' answered Socrates 'and be prepared to give the poison two or three times.'
'And now I will make answer to you, O my judges,'—here he only refers as judges to those of his admirers who had gathered around him during his last moments—'and show that he who has lived as a true philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to receive the greatest good in the other world.'24
Thus he continued to teach the Divine philosophy to the people of Athens until he put the opiate to his lips. Even as life was slowly ebbing out, as long as he had strength to speak, he continued to discharge his Divine commission never ceasing, before death silenced him at last.
Thus came to an end the life of one of the most glorious prophets of God who lived in the fifth century BC (a contemporary of Buddhaas). Like Buddha, he never wrote his scriptures but they were recorded by his contemporaries and committed to writing later in the form of his Dialogues. Buddha too was accused of atheism because he denied the gods of the Brahmans.
The greatest service he did to philosophy is summed up by Chambers Encyclopaedia in the following words:
'Socrates, in bringing down philosophy from the skies to the common life of men (as Cicero put it), was only carrying out in a conspicuous and earnest way one of the new intellectual tendencies of his age.'25
'He was indifferent to luxury and even to ordinary comfort; but he was by no means an ascetic.'25
As for the nature of his Divine Revelation, the author of the above-quoted article, states:
'There has been much discussion about the "divine sign" () of which Socrates used to speak as a supernatural voice which frequently gave him guidance, according to Xenophon telling him to act or not to act, according to Plato only restraining him from action, never instigating. Later writers, especially in Christian times, speak of it as a daemon, genius or attendant spirit. For this there is no authority whatever in Plato and Xenophon.'25
'... he seems to have had certain vivid presentiments which he took for special divine monitions; and it is possible, as has been suggested, that he was subject to occasional hallucinations of hearing, such as may occur even in quite sane and healthy persons.'25
Socrates' revelation is thus respectfully dismissed as hallucination.
In reality, there is no contradiction in Socrates. Whatever contradiction there is, has to be in the mind of the author who apparently defended Socrates by suggesting that his hallucinations were not all that bad as those of psychic people suffering from mental aberrations. Hallucinations can also sometimes be experienced by sane healthy persons as in the case of Socrates.
What sympathy, what a condescending attitude to Socrates by some modern writer who has faith in Socrates but has no faith in his belief in God. However condescending that remark may be, it is no tribute to the greatness of Socrates who does not stand in need of any apology. Did not the same misfortune befall all the prophets of God before or after him? Each of them was accused of hallucination by the society he addressed though not as politely as the author of the said article has treated Socrates. All such accusers knew full well that the prophets they accused of such mental aberrations were neither frail in mind nor weak of moral health. They were the wisest people of their time, sound of head and heart, respected as such by the society in which they grew from the age of their childhood to that of full maturity. None of them is accused of behaving in any manner like a soothsayer prior to their claim to prophethood; none is ever reported even after that to act as though he were hallucinating. Hallucinations are always unpredictable, disjointed and incoherent. The voices that some hallucinators hear do seem to address them as though they were from God but they never reveal to them any philosophy or way of life which can be shared and practised by others. There is no logic in what they hear and no logic in what they say. Hallucinations never give birth to rationality.
To mix up hallucination with prophecy is but a morbid attempt to discredit Divine revelation. The experience of the prophets of God is essentially different! Truth, wisdom and rationality are their distinctive features while the hostile society they confront symbolizes dogma, falsehood and superstition. The message that the prophets deliver is always based on sound moral code. They breathe wisdom, they exude piety, they advocate rationality, they preach morality, justice, moderation, understanding, kindness, patience, service and sacrifice. Is this the prophetic message delivered to them during their maddest moments of 'hallucination'? What hallucination indeed! One only wishes that their accusers had remembered their own hallucinatory experiences while they were stricken, for instance, by a severe attack of septic fever or typhoid. Do they ever remember a wise code of life bestowed upon them during those temporary derangements which could stand the test of time and deliver a new message to mankind to be taken seriously by them?
Rationality and hallucination never cohabit healthy minds. How we wish that whoever accused him of hallucination had further elaborated his statement by quoting from his own experience. Had a sane person ever learnt an exceptionally sound philosophy of life through his occasional outbursts of delusion? How we wish the author had remembered that all the wisdom and all the piety and all the rationality and faith, which Socrates displayed, he had learnt from the so-called voices of his 'hallucination'! If his faith in revelation is to be rejected as based on hallucination, then all his philosophy of life, and all his wisdom must also be rejected by the same token. He can never be separated from his rationality.
We accept the whole of Socrates. Noble was his character, noble his vision, noble was the life he led. Such as he are never forged by hallucinations. Peace was with him when he was born, peace was with him while he lived, peace was with him when he died smilingly—while the throng of his admirers bitterly wailed and cried and sobbed around him. Athens had never seen the departure of a soul as noble as that of Socrates.
Allah be pleased with him! May He shower His choicest blessings upon him; but woe to his murderers. Athens will never see the like of him again!
- The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vol 24, 15th ed.
- The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vol 25, 15th ed.
- GUTHRIE, W.K.C. (1950) The Greek Philosophers. Methuen & Co, p.72
- Translation of 2:33 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
- Translation of 1:5–6 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
- GUTHRIE, W.K.C. (1950) The Greek Philosophers. Methuen & Co, p.79
- VLASTOS, G. (1991) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p.200
- GRAYLING, A.C. (1995) Philosophy—A Guide Through The Subject. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p.360
- GRAYLING, A.C. (1995) Philosophy—A Guide Through The Subject. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p.364
- VLASTOS, G. (1991) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p.157
- VLASTOS, G. (1991) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 167
- VLASTOS, G. (1991) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p.168
- VLASTOS, G. (1991) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p.169
- VLASTOS, G. (1991) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 170–171
- VLASTOS, G. (1991) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 173
- VLASTOS, G. (1991) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p.174
- VLASTOS, G. (1991) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p.175
- JOWETT, B. (1989) Plato, The Republic And Other Works. Anchor Press, New York, p. 459
- JOWETT, B. (1989) Plato, The Republic And Other Works. Anchor Press, New York, pp.460–461
- JOWETT, B. (1989) Plato, The Republic And Other Works. Anchor Press, New York, p.462
- JOWETT, B. (1989) Plato, The Republic And Other Works. Anchor Press, New York, p.464
- JOWETT, B. (1989) Plato, The Republic And Other Works. Anchor Press, New York, pp.464–465
- JOWETT, B. (1989) Plato, The Republic And Other Works. Anchor Press, New York, pp.493–494
- JOWETT, B. (1989) Plato, The Republic And Other Works. Anchor Press, New York, p.495
- Chambers Encyclopaedia (1970) New Revised Edition Volume XII Roskilde-Spahi. International Learning Systems Corporation Limited, London, p.673