Which philosopher had the best philosophies?
Whenever a crowd forms in the market square of Athens, there is a good chance that a bearded man with a furrowed forehead will be found in their midst. He calls himself "Philosopher", friend of wisdom, and what he has to offer is free: Conversations about virtue, soul, justice.
Socrates is sentenced to death
Socrates rarely has such a large audience: 501 jurors have gathered to hear what the city-famous philosopher has to say in his defense.
"Disregard for the gods" and "seduction of the youth" are the indictments - however, Socrates' whole way of life is pilloried: his disrespect for all authorities.
His seemingly aimless wandering around the marketplace, always ready for a good conversation, but apparently without the need to do a regular job.
It quickly becomes clear that it could amount to a death sentence. But what does Socrates do? No courtesy, no apology, no pleading for sympathy - nothing like that comes off his lips.
Instead, he exposes his accusers, embroils them in a dispute that ends with evidence of their thoughtlessness and irrationality. "As long as I breathe and have strength, I will not cease to philosophize and cheer you on," says Socrates.
After that, the court quickly agreed: death by the hemlock cup. Later, in custody, Socrates will evidently empty him with complete equanimity - among his friends and companions who want to persuade him to flee to the end.
Socrates rejects that. Doing injustice, i.e. evading the punishment, is worse than suffering injustice, i.e. taking the punishment upon oneself.
Socrates' disciples transmit his teaching
Socrates may be considered the founding father of Western philosophy, but he is a philosopher without work. He never wrote down a single one of his thoughts, which is why many historians have even risen to the bold thesis that Socrates never existed.
However, the meticulousness with which his students draw a picture of him in their works speaks against this - especially Plato and Xenophon.
Plato even went so far as to put his own philosophy into the mouth of his teacher Socrates, so to speak. Plato's writings are written in the form of dialogues that Socrates conducts with other Athenians - a sign of respect for the spiritual foster father, but also a skilful appropriation.
In research today, only Plato's early dialogues are regarded as a reasonably reliable representation of Socrates' thinking. In the later works it is clearly Plato himself who speaks.
In any case, one thing is certain: the difficult tradition leads straight to the heart of Socratic thought. For Socrates, philosophizing does not mean retreating into the study, but rather developing one's thoughts in dialogue, together with others - in the place where Athens has its social and political center: on the market square.
What is philosophy As Socrates argues
"Midwifery", Maeutics, is how Socrates (incidentally the son of a midwife) calls his way of conducting conversations - a kind of spiritual obstetrics, so to speak, which allows the other person to draw conclusions by asking specific questions instead of just teaching.
For Socrates' understanding of philosophy, this means two things. On the one hand, philosophy cannot consist in the search for an irrefutable, ultimate truth.
Rather, every result that the mind arrives at has to face new doubts, challenges, and inquiries. All knowledge is always only provisional. "I know that I don't know," is how Socrates sums up this dilemma of all knowledge.
On the other hand, this also means that real knowledge can only be gained by dealing with a counterpart. Philosophizing is therefore always a service to the community. It takes place in public space and relates to public affairs.
Socrates is particularly fond of arguing with ambitious young politicians - perhaps a habit that will later cost him his life: after all, three of his students later belong to the "thirty tyrants" who established democracy after Athens' defeat by Sparta in 404 BC in the city for some time - admittedly without Socrates' approval.
There is some evidence that the charge "seduction of the youth" can be traced back to this circumstance.
Socrates on state and justice
A dialogue on justice handed down from Plato shows that Socrates is one of the most ardent advocates of Athenian democracy. In it the sophist Thrasymachus claims that what is just is what is beneficial to the stronger.
At the same time, he claims, it is fair that the weaker - in a state that is, the ruled - obey the rulers.
Socrates poses an apparently harmless counter-question: Could the stronger, the rulers, also be wrong? Of course, replies Thrasymachus - thereby giving Socrates the opportunity to turn his whole argument off its hinges.
Because if the rulers could be wrong, Socrates continues, then the ruled must also be allowed to defend themselves against wrong decisions. Otherwise the ruled, i.e. the weaker ones, would have to do something that is actually detrimental to the stronger.
Thrasymachus begins to doubt his thesis. So Socrates makes a further argument: If you are really convinced of your cause, you want not only your own best, but above all the best of your counterpart - as in the case of the doctor, who is the benefit of the sick and not self-interest have in mind.
Thrasymachus has to agree to this, and so Socrates can claim by analogy: Like a good doctor, a just ruler does not act in his own interest - that is, according to the law of the strongest - but in the interest of the ruled.
This refutes Thrasymachos' thesis that justice is only that which is beneficial to the stronger. However, in the end, Socrates has to admit that despite the long conversation he still does not know what actually constitutes the essence of justice.
With his shyness about ultimate truth claims, Socrates proves a kind of intellectual honesty that many of his successors will lack: for him, philosophizing is an open process and not the work on a hermetic structure of thought that no longer casts itself into doubt.
This is exactly what makes him interesting again for modern philosophers two millennia after his death. The French enlightener Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, uses Socrates with his consciously naive questioning technique as a key witness against modern civilization, in which, according to Rousseau, upbringing and education have corrupted people.
"This just man," Rousseau is certain, "would despise our vain science!"
Socrates himself would probably have avoided such big words. The inscription on the oracle of Delphi - "know yourself!" - was also his humble motto; and even as death came, he still had the courage to admit that he was unsure whether his soul would go on or not.
So Socrates' legacy can best be read from his last hours: Be courageous in thinking - and never give up doubt.
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