Socrates went around Athens talking to people. His talk, his logos, was the immediate ancestor of what we have come to describe and know so well as the process of reasoning. But we haven’t the least idea any more of what his talking meant. He would start up discussions with powerful politicians or simple craftsmen; lure them into conversation about themselves; make them contradict themselves; show them how, in spite of their belief that they knew things, they knew nothing.
And what’s most difficult to understand is that for him there was nothing at all intellectual about this procedure.
His one concern was with exposing the reality about people’s lives — not just their ideas. He was quite charming in his elenchos, bewitchingly so, but ruthless in his desire to get to the truth at all costs. And after a while the Athenians got so sick of being exposed as idiots that they killed him.
Now, of course, we romanticize the whole thing. Students learn in schools and colleges about the Golden Age of Reason, and Socrates at Athens is held up as the perfect example. But no one dares to be too specific about when exactly this golden age was: whether it was before the Athenians killed Socrates, or after he had been put to death, or perhaps right at the moment of his execution. The one thing we can be sure of is that if Socrates were to come into a modern classroom he wouldn’t last for long. His questions might be tolerated for a couple of minutes. But after that he would be thrown out. There is no more room for him in our institutions than there was in ancient Athens, with the exception of our mental institutions.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Our intellectual progress to date
From The Spiritual Tradition at the Roots of Western Civilization - Excerpts from In the Dark Places of Wisdom and Reality, by Peter Kingsley, A compilation by Ulrich Mohrhoff: