Ancient Greece to Modernity – Has Anything Changed?
The Greek philosopher Socrates (469–399 BCE) was renowned for engaging fellow citizens in lively conversations about the nature of the good, the right and the just. Living a simple, frugal life, Socrates, like a true saint, never asked to be paid for his enlightening dialogues. He married, had children and carried out the duties expected of a citizen of Athens, including fighting in war. He could endure great hardships of cold and hunger and went into long periods of abstraction even while on military campaign.
Despite being credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy and contributing significantly to the fields of ethics and epistemology (the origin and nature of knowledge and ways of acquiring it), Socrates wrote nothing about his ideas. Our knowledge of him is therefore dependent on the writings of others, especially those of his disciple Plato (427–347 BCE). As a witness to the dynamism of the exchanges between Socrates and his students, Plato decided that in writing about them, he should recreate the drama of the dialogues both to convey a sense of Socrates’ magnetism and to offer the best alternative to being in the physical presence of the great philosopher. This article presents three extracts from these writings. The first explores spiritual love, the second conveys the love for Socrates by another of his disciples, Alcibiades, and the third describes an incident in which Alcibiades is saved by Socrates.
A stairway to heaven
Plato explores the nature of love in a dialogue called The Symposium during which friends and acquaintances at a social gathering take turns to give a speech about what love means to them. Skilled in the art of oratory and rhetoric, each participant addresses the audience with passion and gusto although all focus on the experience of physical love – until it comes to the turn of Socrates. Raising the level of the conversation to the spiritual, he recalls how a priestess named Diotima had once described to him a stairway to heaven, a path leading upward from the superficial beauty of the physical world to a place of pure, eternal beauty where immortality is guaranteed for those fortunate few reaching the top. For Socrates, the very possibility of such a magnificent opportunity validates human existence:
Contemplating true Beauty, above all else, makes life worth living.… What would it be like if someone could see Beauty itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not defiled with human flesh and colours and all that mortal rubbish, but absolute beauty, divine and unchanging?… He now has the chance to become loved by the gods and become immortal, if any human can.
When Socrates finishes this description, he states his determination to follow Diotima up to the vision of Beauty and encourages others to do the same:
As a believer I now try to win others round to the view that to acquire this possession (immortality) it would be hard for human nature to find a better partner than love. That’s why I tell you that everyone should honour love and that I myself treat the ways of love as very important. So I follow them exceptionally carefully myself and urge others to do the same. It’s also why, now and always, I do all I can to praise love’s power and courage.
Love for the masters
As the party progresses, Alcibiades, a former disciple of Socrates, gate-crashes the gathering. The golden boy of Athens – aristocratic, handsome, clever, and a gifted leader – he is informed that during the course of the party, a series of speeches have been made about love. Inspired, Alcibiades proceeds, with some remorse, to recount his own experience and begins by describing the overwhelming love he feels for Socrates. Despite his proclamations, we learn that Alcibiades’ love is fragile; that his feelings are most powerful when he is in the physical presence of his master, but that away from Socrates he has been unable to resist the lure and glamour of politics. Having surrendered himself to the political arena, Alcibiades goes on to reveal that he broke his connection with Socrates and thus missed a unique opportunity for spiritual advancement.
Whenever I listen to him [Socrates] my heart pounds and tears flood out when he speaks and I see that many other people are affected in the same way. I’ve heard Pericles and other good orators, and I thought they spoke well. But they haven’t produced this kind of an effect on me; they haven’t disturbed my whole being and made me dissatisfied with the slavish quality of my life. He often had this effect on me, and made me think that the life I’m leading isn’t worth living. You can’t say this isn’t true, Socrates. Even now I’m well aware that if I allowed myself to listen to him I couldn’t resist but would have the same experience again. He makes me admit that although I have great defects, I neglect myself and instead get involved in Athenian politics. So I force myself to block my ears and go away, like someone escaping to prevent myself sitting there beside him till I grow old.
He’s the only person in whose company I’ve had an experience you might think me incapable of – feeling shame with someone. I only feel shame in his company. I’m well aware that I can’t argue against him and that I should do what he tells me; but when I leave him I’m carried away by the people’s admiration. So I act like a runaway slave and escape from him; and whenever I see him, I’m ashamed of the promises I made to him.
He saved my life
Upon seeing Socrates at the party, Alcibiades’ feelings for his master have been awakened once more, and memories of time spent together come flooding back. He continues with his narrative and recalls an incident in battle when Socrates saved his life:
We served together in the Athenian campaign against Potidaea and shared the same mess there.… On the day of the battle when I gained my prize for bravery, it was he who rescued me, as he was not prepared to leave me when I was wounded and so he saved my life as well as my weapons and armour.… Just as he does here in Athens he was calmly looking out for friends and enemies, and it was obvious to everyone even from a long distance that if anyone tackled this man he would put up a tough resistance. Generally people don’t tackle those who show this kind of attitude in combat, but rather pursue those in headlong flight.
Alcibiades ends his speech by drawing attention to Socrates’ charisma and the wisdom and truthfulness inherent in his ideas about goodness:
There are many other remarkable things which you could say in praise of Socrates. Some of these distinctive features could perhaps also be attributed to other people too. But what is most amazing about him is that he is like no other human being, either in the past or the present. He is so out of the ordinary, and so is the way he talks, that however hard you look you’ll never find anyone close to him.… If you open up his words and see inside you’ll find his arguments are the only ones that make any sense. You’ll also find they’re the most divine and contain the most ideas of goodness. They range over all the subjects that you must examine if you’re going to become a truly good person.
The short extracts presented in this article are interesting on many levels: as a historical account of life in ancient Greece; as a philosophical narrative about the difficulties of pursuing a good life; and as a metaphysical discussion about the existence of absolute truth and beauty. Yet perhaps their most striking feature is that we can relate to, if not share, the same feelings, emotions and challenges experienced by our brethren thousands of years ago. We may have made a myriad of major technological advances since the days of ancient Greece, but in all that time, it is evident that the human condition remains unchanged. To progress beyond this, we need – as did our ancestors -someone who has already mastered the spiritual journey, who is a living example of the latent divinity within us and, most importantly, who is able to teach us how to awaken this within ourselves. It is only upon meeting such a being, a spiritual master, that we realize – as others did before us – that there is only one purpose in life: to climb the staircase to heaven and return to the Lord as soon as possible.