Socrates: A Man for Our Times


I just finished reading Paul Johnson’s Socrates: A Man for Our Times. It’s a quick read at 224 pages, maybe too quick. (By contrast, I’m currently reading Titan, the acclaimed biography of John D. Rockefeller. Titan weighs in at a massive 832 pages. No offense to John D., but Socrates easily is one of the most influential figures in all of human history. The page differential in these two books seems crazy.)

I was looking for a bit more depth and detail, but Johnson’s book is nice as an introduction to Socrates. He seems completely worthy of the acclaim he gets as the first and maybe the greatest of the world’s philosophers. His character was consistent with his philosophy, and he was greatly admired by seemingly all who knew him in his beloved Athens.

Socrates was not interested in philosophy as an academic pursuit but only in how it could be applied to daily life, to help people live better lives. He wouldn’t be likely to get a job in the philosophy departments at most colleges were he living today.

He fully and humbly embraced his own ignorance, and that makes him such an appealing character. He regularly claimed to know nothing and that he was just trying to find things out. From the book:

His one reiterated insistence was that he knew nothing. What he did feel he could do, and what was the essence of his ministry, was to help ordinary humans to think a little more clearly and coherently about what constituted good behavior, worthy of humanity at its best.

“He cannot teach Wisdom because he has none, and he cannot give birth to Wisdom any more than he can give birth to a child. But if someone else has Wisdom within him, or her, he can assist, by his questioning, and help them to give birth to the truth they carry within their minds and hearts.”

He seems to have felt he knew nothing about the things that really mattered. When his friend Chaerephon, while visiting the Oracle of Delphi, asked if any man was wiser than Socrates, the answer came: “There is none.” When told about this, Socrates was not flattered but puzzled. He eventually concluded that what the Oracle meant was that his wisdom consisted in knowing his own ignorance.

Considered to be one of the wisest men ever, Socrates thought of himself simply as someone who was only sure of how little he knew.

His approach epitomizes one of my favorite notions:

“He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. But he who knows he doesn’t know, knows.”

Socrates regularly challenged others, by words and by his own example, to examine their lives, to not just go through the motions. It’s easy to default to navigating your life on auto-pilot, but you’ve got a fabulously interesting mind and the freedom to inquire and explore. What a missed opportunity if you don’t live with intention and seek to craft for yourself a virtuous and excellent life.

For Socrates, ideas existed to serve and illuminate people, not the other way around. Here was the big distinction between him and Plato. To Socrates, philosophy had no meaning or relevance unless it concerned itself with men and women. It is worth repeating, and emphasizing, Cicero’s summary of Socrates’ work: “He was the first to call philosophy down from the sky and establish her in the towns, and bring her into homes, and force her to investigate the life of men and women, ethical conduct, good and evil.”

For Socrates saw and practiced philosophy not as an academic but as a human activity. It was about real men and women facing actual ethical choices between right and wrong, good and evil. Hence a philosophical leader had to be more than a thinker, much more. He had to be a good man, for whom the quest for virtue was not an abstract idea but a practical business of daily living. He had to be brave in facing up to choices and living with their consequences. Philosophy, in the last resort, was a form of heroism, and those who practiced it had to possess the courage to sacrifice everything, including life itself, in pursuing excellence of mind. That is what Socrates himself did. And that is why we honor him and salute him as philosophy personified.

Examine your life. Embrace not-knowing. Be as excellent as you can be.