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Kate Kirkpatrick

AZSocrates.jpgSocrates (469 BC-399 BC) is almost universally regarded as the 'first' philosopher - not in time, but in preeminence. He conformed to few of the stereotypes philosophers are now known for - such as systematic thinking, interest in cosmology - but his life and death give him iconic status. His name has been appropriated for a crater on the moon, a Bernstein serenade, a New York sculpture park, and an EU education program, to name a few examples of his celebrity. In  Shelley's words, he was 'the Jesus Christ of Greece'.

Talking about Socrates often starts with the 'Socratic problem': he wrote nothing down and we are entirely dependent on secondhand knowledge of him. This comes from two of his pupils - Plato and Xenophon - and the contemporary playwright Aristophanes, who mocked him in The Clouds (much to the detriment of Socrates' PR).

Plato leaves us with a vision of Socrates as the 'gadfly' of Athens - like a gadfly stings a horse, so Socrates stung the establishment with discomfiting considerations of goodness and justice, and the idea that 'the unexamined life is not worth living'. When the oracle at Delphi proclaimed Socrates the wisest man in Athens, Socrates was incredulous and set out to disprove it. But after questioning many of Athens' greatest sages, he concluded that though they believed themselves to be wise, they didn't know how little they knew. Paradoxically, Socrates realized that acknowledging his ignorance made him wisest.

Socrates' questioning made the 'wise' Athenians look foolish. It was not long before, in the summer of 399 BC, he was tried for corrupting the young and irreverence to the gods. It did not help his cause that he opposed democracy, or that he had a higher opinion of women than most of his contemporaries (naming foreign women as his teachers); he was uncomfortably unconventional.

The trial was a foregone conclusion. A friend tried to persuade Socrates to escape but he responded that 'neither to do wrong nor to return a wrong is ever right'. So when the hour came, he bathed at the prison's cistern (to spare the women of his household from having to wash his corpse). He met with his family, and returned to his friends. The poisoner explained the effects of the hemlock used for executing citizens. Socrates cheerfully took the cup and drank.

Some have seen his death as the 'foundation myth' of philosophy, a martyrdom for truth. His integrity in living according to his beliefs - counter-culturally - has captured hearts and furnished imaginations. For Socrates, 'the highest form of human excellence is to question oneself and others'. But for Christians, such questioning takes on new dimensions in the Answer of Christ.

Kate Kirkpatrick