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5.0 out of 5 stars Free soup for Socrates, 19 Dec 2010
This review is from: The Last Days of Socrates (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
The life and legacy of Socrates can be interpreted in many different ways, and have been so interpreted. While that is frustrating, it could be argued that it's also inevitable. The words and deeds of great men have different effects on different people. Most scholars base their accounts of Socrates on Plato's dialogues, especially the four dialogues included in this volume: "Euthyphro", "Apology", "Crito" and "Phaedo". They deal with Socrates' trial, execution and death. And no, they don't answer the eternal questions. Rather, they raise more questions than they answer. But then, that's the point!

What makes Socrates so important? The reason, of course, is his philosophy. The whole point of philosophy is to reject tradition and revelation as automatic sources of knowledge, to be taken simply on faith. Instead, human reason is paramount. True, philosophy doesn't *necessarily* reject tradition and revelation, but it does say that such sources of knowledge should be scrutinized by reason. In this sense, philosophy is subversive and radical. At least in a society gone terribly wrong... I mean, who would need philosophy if society had been perfect?

Socrates wasn't the first philosopher, nor even necessarily the "best" one. The reason why his name has been associated with the philosophical endeavour is, of course, the story of his life and above all his death. Socrates became the first known martyr of philosophy, placing his conscience and convictions above politic. Socrates showed how dangerous philosophy can be, by questioning both the oligarchic regime of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens, and the later democracy. He was the perennial dissident, the man who questioned everyone and everything. Ironically, it was the democrats who had him railroaded and executed. A warning for the future?

I don't think Socrates was necessarily a "radical" in the modern sense of that term. He seems to have mingled in high society, and some of his friends and disciples had connections with the oligarchic regime. Neither his disciple Plato nor Plato's pupil Aristotle were democrats, not even by Greek standards. Socrates didn't seem to believe that society could be changed, and therefore tended to avoid politics, except when he was duty bound as a citizen to perform political tasks (he also fought as a soldier). In some ways, Socrates actually resembled a guru. His teachings were oral, he had a circle of admirers and disciples, and he may have imparted somewhat different teachings to each of them. There are also hints at a fundamentally religious worldview, as when Socrates says that a little god or daemon were giving him advice, when he talks of reincarnation and Heaven in "Phaedo", or when he takes seriously the oracular statements of the priestess at Delphi.

Yet, by his bold questioning of established politics, ethics and religion, Socrates nevertheless showed the radical potential of philosophy and rational discourse. On a more somber note, the trial and execution of Socrates also shows that some people, even in a democracy, simply can't stand the truth.

Free soup for Socrates? Still today, many people, rulers and commoners alike, would consider that proposal to be very provocative indeed.
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