Socrates: Midwife to Our Souls

By W. T. S. Thackara

Part I

Although philosophy often conjures a picture of dry semantics and intellectual debate, it was not so for Socrates or Plato. Their common goal was to help bring forth our innately human and divine qualities in an everyday, wonderful, and inspiring quest they called philosophy. For them philosophy was what the word literally denotes. It is about love and wisdom, and, by extension, all else that is important and meaningful in life: truth, goodness, beauty, justice, virtue, friendship, and -- not least of all -- happiness.

As with many of the world's great teachers, Socrates wrote little if anything; and it is principally through Plato's Dialogues that the world knows him. Other far briefer and less well-known accounts exist, such as those of Plato's contemporary, Xenophon and, some 600 years later, of Diogenes Laertius, whose biography attempted to synthesize all known Socratic lore. There is also Aristophanes' parody in The Clouds which tells us little about Socrates, except perhaps something of his early career, before the Oracle's famous utterance which so profoundly changed his life. Plato's account, on the other hand, portrays a mentor and friend -- by his own admission an idealized rendering, making it difficult to determine what is uniquely Socrates' teaching and what is Plato's. But the problem is not so important, for their aim was essentially the same.

When Plato writes of Socrates as a midwife, he tells a story about the relationship between teacher and student, about education, and about the birth of spiritual-intellectual fire in the soul. Plato's choice of the dialogue as his principal literary vehicle serves many purposes. Besides illustrating Socrates' good-natured but persistently one-pointed method of inquiry, it provides insight into the nature and goals of the teacher-student collaboration. At a deeper level, the Dialogues themselves invite us to participate with Socrates in our own unfolding search for truth.

According to Socrates, education is far more than instruction and mental discipline. It is also about devotion to virtue and consideration for others which, when practiced in the affairs of daily life, enables a progressively maturing vision of the highest reality. For example, in the Republic or the ideal state, education includes a harmonious balance of music for the mind and gymnastics for the body, recalling that music in Socrates' time had much wider significance than it has for us. It encompassed reading, writing, history, astronomy, poetry, dance, and music per se -- in other words, the arts and sciences inspired by the Muses.

Besides the regular curriculum, there is also a special lifelong training for those who show an aptitude for philosophy, those who are truly "lovers of wisdom." Socrates indicates that the philosopher's goal is a superior kind of knowledge, a gnosis that flowers in wisdom, justice, and a deep caring for the welfare of all the citizens of the state, not an elect few. (1) Only thus can true and enduring happiness be achieved. Yet neither Socrates nor Plato ever gave a complete or exact description of this knowledge, only hints and allusions. Towards the end of his life, Plato explained:

This knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long companionship with it, as between teacher and pupil in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself. -- Seventh Letter, § 341

To help us understand more fully what is implied here, Plato has given us a teacher in the person of Socrates who, "reborn beautiful and new" in the Dialogues, (2) becomes our guide into the philosophic life.

Socrates conversing with a Muse. (Musee du Louvre, Paris)

Perhaps our best introduction to Socrates is the two dialogues about his trial in Athens in 399 BC: the Euthyphro, named for the dialogue's principal character, and the Apology, the Greek word apologia meaning "a speech in defense." The Euthyphro serves mainly as a preface to the Apology, while providing keynotes which recur throughout the entirety of Plato's dialogues: the nature of holiness, justice, duty, and moral integrity, as well as the importance of having "knowledge about divine things." Socrates meets Euthyphro, a friendly acquaintance, outside the magistrate's court, explaining that he has been called to defend himself on charges of atheism and corrupting the youth: specifically, disbelief in the old gods and inventing new ones --crimes in Athens punishable by death. Euthyphro replies that he understands the indictment:

It is because you say that you always have a divine guide, Socrates. Your accuser is prosecuting you for introducing religious reforms; and he is going into court to slander you, knowing that slanders on such subjects are readily accepted by the people.

"The Athenians," Socrates respectfully observes,

may think a man to be clever without paying him much attention, so long as they do not think that he teaches his wisdom to others. But as soon as they think that he makes other people clever, they get angry, whether it be from resentment, or for some other reason. -- § 3

In the Apology Socrates amplifies the thought before his judges: he believes the accusations are actually shameless falsehoods trumped up by a few unhappy and politically influential men who had been offended by his way of searching into himself and others -- the philosopher's mission he called it.

Apollo, the god of Delphi, had commanded him to fulfill that mission -- a calling which evidently began when a lifelong friend asked the Oracle if there were any man wiser than Socrates. The Pythia replied there was none. This puzzled Socrates, for he knew he had no wisdom. What could Apollo mean, for "he is a god and cannot lie." To understand the riddle, he went to those with a reputation for wisdom and soon discovered that the "men most in repute were all but the most foolish and that others less esteemed were really wiser and better." At last Socrates concluded the Oracle meant that only God (theos) is wise. Being "wisest" among men was simply to recognize that one "is, in truth, of no account in respect to wisdom" (\p23). But Socrates had challenged conventional religious views, in particular the stories of the gods' unholy quarrelings, murder, and mayhem. He had urged people to question unthinking assumption in all matters, secular as well as religious, and his method of examination clearly had left a trail of wounded vanity and prejudice bent on silencing him. This misfortune troubled him deeply, for he had no ill-will, nor could he act in any other way. To his judges and jurymen he appealed:

Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey the god rather than you; and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting . . . [and] persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the young, I am a mischievous person. -- §§ 29-30

He admitted he could be trying and perhaps even tiresome, comparing himself -- not to a midwife -- but to a

sort of gadfly, given to the state by the god; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which the god has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me. -- §§ 30-1

Yet his counsel was always offered as a private citizen; never did Socrates venture to come forward in the assembly and advise the state. It was his divine guide or daimon which prevented him from doing so: "a kind of voice which, from childhood, always turns me back from something which I was going to do, but never urges me to act. It is this which forbids me to take part in politics."

Found guilty by about 280 to 220 votes -- 30 more in his favor would have freed him -- the seventy-year-old Socrates tells the jury he is neither surprised nor indignant at the verdict. He nevertheless remains firm in his belief that he "never wronged any man voluntarily, though I cannot persuade you of that, since we have conversed together only a little time." Anticipating the obvious question -- "Why not withdraw from Athens and hold your peace, Socrates?" -- he replies that his inability to do so would be the most difficult thing in the world to make them understand. How could he convince them it would be disobedient to the god? Far more importantly,

If I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you. -- § 38

Even under sentence of death, the gadfly sought to fasten upon, arouse, persuade, and reproach. Should a condemned man seek to escape his penalty by any and every means? "The difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness." If death were the last and worst evil inflicted by life, then why did his inner monitor give no sign of opposition either to the trial or his defense? Surely it would have opposed him had he been going to meet something evil rather than something good.

Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know of a certainty that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has my own approaching end happened by mere chance. But I see clearly that the time had arrived when it was better for me to die and be released from trouble; wherefore the oracle gave no sign. For which reason, also, I am not angry with my condemners, or with my accusers; they have done me no harm, although they did not mean to do me any good; and for this I may gently blame them. . . .
The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways -- I to die, and you to live. Which is better only the Divine knows. -- §§ 41-2

Socrates' final days and hours with his friends are recorded in the Crito and Phaedo; but this closing statement in the Apology was his last public utterance -- both fitting and typical of the man -- leaving his countrymen, and posterity, with a legacy of hope and a thought-provoking uncertainty. This he would have each of us answer for himself: a mystery touching the heart, the method, and goal of his teaching.

Part II

Plato's Dialogues may be grouped naturally into early, middle, and late periods of composition. They were most likely intended to be read in this approximate order, each group serving as a preparation for the next. Otherwise much of what is imbedded in the later Dialogues might remain hopelessly obscure. The early group thus forms a syllabus or compendium of the philosopher's first lessons in soul education, being principally concerned with the purpose of life and death, the nature of human obligations, and contemplation of the virtues. Socrates' aim here is not to convert us to what he believes, but to encourage us to think for ourselves, to arouse our innate desire to see through illusion and know things as they are.

Echoing the commandment of the Delphic Apollo, Socrates' basic prescription for wisdom is to "know thyself." Simple words -- but an immensely difficult task. Socrates, however, understands human nature, and his first objective is to penetrate the greatest barriers to true knowledge, presumption and false belief, to help us realize how profound is our ignorance. As in the ancient Greek Mystery-schools, before one can be admitted to the precincts of truth, one must first submit to purification -- a catharsis -- to purge the mind of false and degrading thought.

The Meno introduces us to Socrates' purgative method and to his doctrine of learning. Meno is a wealthy man who has purchased instruction from some of the best known Sophists (teachers of rhetoric and a kind of political "wisdom" -- from whence the word sophistry (1)) and he prides himself on his learning. The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates if virtue can be taught. The question seems appropriately directed, for does not Socrates, more than any other man, constantly exhort us to virtue? Socrates, in his typical fashion, does not answer yes or no. But he does astonish us -- and Meno, too -- by "confessing" that he knows "literally nothing about virtue; much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not." If one is to answer the question, one must first know what virtue is; and in Socrates' judgment, although he readily admits he could be mistaken, he has never known anyone who did. The "sophisticated" Meno, however, is pleased to inform Socrates that his teacher Gorgias had taught him just exactly what virtue is:

There will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question. Let us take first the virtue of a man -- he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies; he must also be careful not to harm himself. A woman's virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless, and no lack of definitions of them; for virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do. -- §§ 71-2

From this "definition," we get a fairly good insight into the disastrous condition of Meno's mind -- obscured by conventional prejudice and filled with the thoughts of other men. We also begin to appreciate the enormous task faced by Socrates. He is patient, though, and willing to press on with the inquiry; but not without poking a little fun at Meno: "How fortunate I am, Meno! When I ask you for one virtue you present me with a swarm of them, . . ."

Socrates points out that numerous illustrations do not define the quality that is common to them all. Carefully guiding the conversation away from the purported virtues of men and women, he introduces the thought that neither a state nor a home can be well ordered without temperance and justice. Meno agrees, and suggests that if a definition is to be given, then virtue is the power of governing justly, for justice is virtue. Socrates probes again: Should we say that justice is virtue, or is it a virtue? Are there not other virtues as well, such as courage, wisdom, and magnanimity?

And so the conversation continues, back and forth, Meno trying out new and better definitions -- Socrates trying to help Meno in each attempt to form a more refined and enlightened view. Nevertheless, all the definitions are found wanting; upon examination each is seen to be an example and therefore only a part of virtue. The task is arduous, and Socrates is persistent: "Meno, you have not yet delivered virtue into my hands whole and unbroken." Reduced to exasperation, Meno replies,

O Socrates, I used to be told, before I knew you, that you were always doubting yourself and making others doubt; and now you are casting your spells over me, and I am simply getting bewitched and enchanted, and am at my wits' end. And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish [an electric ray], who torpifies those who come near him and touch him, as you have now torpified me, I think. For my soul and my tongue are really torpid, and I do not know how to answer you; . . . at this moment I cannot even say what virtue is. -- §80

Meno has reached a crucial point in his education, and Socrates has a ready reply. But he astonishes us again: he admits he is the cause of torpor in others, not because he is clear, but because he is utterly perplexed himself. He has said all along that he didn't know what virtue is. And now, it would seem, Meno doesn't either. Having at long last recognized and admitted his own ignorance, Meno may now be ready to begin a profitable inquiry into the real nature of virtue. Or is he?

For ignorance, even when discovered, does not yield its stronghold easily. When one's dearest illusions are challenged, the mind is capable of performing the most extraordinary feats of rationalizing. So we see Meno futilely grasping at one last Sophist argument: In the search for knowledge, how is it possible to discover what you want if you do not know it? Even if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

It is here at the hard spot in the argument that we see Socrates' teaching skill at its best. Simply exposing ignorance is a job half done; in fact to do so is potentially dangerous, for the inquiring soul could perish in a sea of doubt, skeptical of everything whether true or not. Socrates thus attempts to rescue Meno from the dilemma, not by providing a simple intellectual solution, which would be contrary to his purpose, but by breaking away from purely mental analysis and tossing Meno a lifeline in the form of a story. It is a technique that Socrates often uses to help us intuit the real issues at stake, to elicit a deeper understanding which intellectual argument alone can never yield. (2) In this instance, Socrates objects to the Sophist doctrine that a man cannot inquire into that which he does not know, and he tells us why:

I have heard from certain wise men and women who spoke of divine things -- . . . mark, now, and see whether their words are true -- they say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but is never destroyed. And the moral is, that a man ought to live always in perfect holiness. . . . The soul then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all; and it is no wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she ever knew about virtue, and about everything; for as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no difficulty in her eliciting or, as men say, learning, out of a single recollection all the rest, if a man is strenuous and does not faint; for all inquiry and all learning is but recollection. And therefore we ought not to listen to this sophistical argument about the impossibility of inquiry: for it will make us idle and is sweet only to the sluggard; but the other saying will make us active and inquisitive. In confiding that, I will gladly inquire with you into the nature of virtue. -- §81

Nearly the whole of Socrates' -- and Plato's -- philosophy is packed into this one paragraph, its chief feature being that real knowledge is "recollection," an anamnesis -- literally an "un-amnesia" or "un-forgetting." To illustrate the principle, Socrates guides Meno's uneducated slave-boy to the solution of a mathematical problem, suggesting that true learning is not the acquisition of factual information from external sources, but a remembering of truths stored in the immortal portion of the soul -- truths recoverable to those who live in harmony with themselves, who "are strenuous and do not faint" in the effort.

Book 10 of the Republic resumes and elaborates this teaching in Socrates' story about the soul's experience after death. (3) Nearing the end of its postmortem journey, and having already chosen its future life, the soul is led through the scorching plain of Forgetfulness to the River of Unmindfulness, from whose waters each soul, just before it reincarnates, is obliged to drink a certain quantity. According to the tale, "those who are not saved by wisdom drink more than is necessary and forget all things." We may infer that it is these "things" which Socrates would help us remember -- hence his exhortation to Meno:

we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to inquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know; -- that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power. -- §81

Part III

Glaucon: Who then are the true philosophers?
Socrates: Those who are lovers of the vision of truth.
. . . the true lover of knowledge is always striving after Being -- that is his nature; he will not rest in . . . appearances only, but will go on -- the keen edge will not be blunted, nor the force of his desire abate until he have attained the knowledge of the true nature of every essence by a sympathetic and kindred power in the soul, and by that power drawing near and mingling and becoming incorporate with very Being, having begotten mind and truth, he will have knowledge and will live and grow truly, and then, and not till then, will he cease from his travail. -- Republic, §§ 475, 490

Although its authorship has been questioned, the Dialogue entitled the Alcibiades Major was highly regarded by the Platonists of antiquity. Olympiodorus said it was the "entrance gate to the works of Plato" and, according to Iamblichus, it contains all of Plato's wisdom "as in a seed." Perhaps more than anything else, it illumines the sacred trust imposed on the teacher in regard to his pupil's welfare.

The dialogue opens with Socrates explaining to Alcibiades his long and continuing affection for him, even though for many years Socrates had not spoken to him:

I was hindered by a power more than human, of which I will some day explain to you the nature; this impediment has now been removed; I therefore here present myself before you, and I greatly hope that no similar hindrance will again occur. -- § 103

In the ensuing conversation, we learn the magnitude of the obstacles besetting Socrates. Alcibiades, who has a widespread reputation for wealth, wit, and good looks, is also vain, conceited, given to drink, and ambitious -- seeking to rule not only Athens, but the whole of Europe, if not to include Asia in his projected empire. Left to himself, he would possibly become the perfect tyrant, the kind of ruler most detested by Socrates. We might wonder why Socrates would choose to associate with him. The answer emerges, in part, as we read on. Alcibiades, like all men, is not irretrievably bad, although many Athenians thought so. He has good qualities, and to these Socrates makes his appeal:

When you were young and your hopes were not yet matured, I should have wasted my time, and therefore, as I conceive, the god forbade me to converse with you; but now, having his permission, I will speak, for now you will listen to me. -- § 105

The willingness to listen is a necessary qualification, and forms a major turning point in Socratic education -- the importance of which is underscored in the opening lines of the Republic when Polemarchus asks Socrates, almost rhetorically, "But how can you persuade us if we will not listen?" (§ 327). In the Alcibiades, however, a more subtle, yet equally necessary qualification is implied: not only must the student be willing to learn, he must also be ready, a readiness which only a true teacher can know.

After zeroing in on Alcibiades' imperial ambitions, Socrates begins to inquire about the qualifications of a just statesman. In his usual congenial way, and without being judgmental of Alcibiades' motives, Socrates helps him recognize that to know justice, he must first know himself. In order to know oneself, Socrates explains, one must know that the self is not the body, but rather the soul, especially that part in which occurs the virtue of the soul, which is wisdom. This part houses "knowledge and insight" and is its most divine part (§ 133). Since it resembles deity, anyone looking into it will know all that is divine, and thus may also, in the best possible way, know oneself. By the time the dialogue ends, Alcibiades has awakened to the fact -- at least partially -- that he is enslaved by his own ignorance, and turns to Socrates for help.

Alcibiades: From this day forward, I must and will follow you as you have followed me; I will be the disciple and you shall be my master.
Socrates: O that is rare! My love breeds another love: and so like the stork I shall be cherished by the bird whom I have hatched.
Alcibiades: Strange, but true; and henceforward I shall be attentive to justice.
Socrates: And I hope that you will persist; although I have fears, not because I doubt you; but I see the power of the state, which may be too much for both of us. -- § 135

One of the major lessons about teaching in this dialogue is the gentle but persistent manner in which Socrates tries to help Alcibiades transform his consuming ambition into philosophic aspiration. It provides a glimpse into the nature of the teacher-student relationship and the character qualities a true teacher must possess: patience, acceptance of his student's shortcomings (as well as his strong points), trust, and above all a boundless love -- a love which sustains both teacher and student through the ordeal of soul-birth. In reflecting upon these qualities, we may begin to understand the enormous sacrifice a teacher makes for his student -- and also the responsibility he tacitly assumes.

The dialogue also reveals a more esoteric aspect of Socrates' teaching role. For here he is depicted as an outer representative of Alcibiades' own guiding genius or divinity, a relationship which existed long before Alcibiades knew of it. Furthermore, the role of teacher was unsought by Socrates; like the philosopher's mission, it descended upon him by divine appointment, along with its rules and obligations. Nor were his instructions vague and uncertain: he was forbidden to speak until Alcibiades had reached a certain readiness.

Looking back now on the ground thus far covered, we have seen Socrates as a pesky but divinely-appointed gadfly, a torpedo-fish (electric ray) who stuns us with the truth of our own ignorance, and now a stork who hatches a fledgling into the philosophic life -- a young bird who has yet to grow wings, yet to begin in earnest the discipline which leads to genuine self-knowledge.

Here begins the next stage of Socratic education: the steep and rugged ascent from ignorance to wisdom, from the cave of flickering shadows (our world of illusory, ever-changing appearances) into the noumenal sunlight of eternal reality, where Justice, Beauty, and the Good are beheld in their truth -- described with transcendent imagery in a number of Plato's Dialogues, notably the Republic, the Symposium, and the Phaedrus.

But it is not until we reach the later, more technical dialogue, the Theaetetus, that Socrates reveals his secret role as midwife. The conversation is between Socrates and Theaetetus, a promising young mathematician, over the question "What is Knowledge?" When cross-examined by Socrates, Theaetetus finds he cannot define knowledge per se and, like Meno trying to define virtue, he can only enumerate its parts. Also like Meno, it is not long before Theaetetus recognizes the difficulty of his task:

Theaetetus: I can assure you, Socrates, that I have tried very often, . . . but I cannot persuade myself that I have a satisfactory answer to give, . . . . and I cannot shake off a feeling of anxiety.
Socrates: These are the pangs of labor, my dear Theaetetus, you have something within you which you are bringing to birth.
Theaetetus: I do not know, Socrates; I only say what I feel.
Socrates: And have you never heard, . . . that I am the son of a midwife ... and that I myself practice midwifery?
Theaetetus: No, never.
Socrates: Let me tell you that I do, my friend: but you must not reveal the secret, as the world in general has not found me out; and therefore they say only of me, that I am the strangest of mortals and drive men to their wits' end. -- §§ 148-9

Socrates proceeds to explain the work of midwives, and compares it with his own art. In all the Dialogues I do not believe there is a finer summary of Socrates' mission, method, and purpose. Nowhere does he reveal himself more fully than here, not even in the Apology. The speech, too, is among those which show Plato at his literary best, giving us a vivid yet subtle portrait of the "wisest and justest and best" man Athens ever knew (Phaedo § 118). This is Plato's estimation of the man whose great sacrifice and martyrdom turned Plato from Athenian politics to philosophy, and to preserving for posterity a magnificently human example of one who works not for his own salvation, but for the redemption of all.

Socrates: My concern is not with the body but with the soul that is in travail of birth. And the highest point of my art is the power to prove by every test whether the offspring of a young man's thought is a false phantom or instinct with life and truth. I am so far like the midwife, that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom; and the common reproach is true that, though I question others, I can myself bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me. The reason is this: heaven constrains me to serve as a midwife, but has debarred me from giving birth. So of myself I have no sort of wisdom, nor has any discovery ever been born to me as the child of my soul. Those who frequent my company at first appear, some of them, quite unintelligent; but, as we go further with our discussions, all who are favored by heaven make progress at a rate that seems surprising to others as well as to themselves, although it is clear that they have never learned anything from me; the many admirable truths they bring to birth have been discovered by themselves from within. But the delivery is heaven's work and mine.
The proof of this is that many who have not been conscious of my assistance, but have made light of me, thinking it was all their own doing, have left me sooner than they should, whether under others' influence or of their own motion. And thenceforward they suffered miscarriage of their thoughts through falling into bad company; and they have lost the children of whom I had delivered them by bringing them up badly, caring more for false phantoms than for the true; and so at last their lack of understanding has become apparent to themselves and to everyone else. . . . When they come back and beg for a renewal of our exchange with extravagant protestations, sometimes the divine warning that comes to me forbids it; with others it is permitted, and these begin again to make progress. In yet another way, those who seek my company have the same experience as a woman with child: they suffer the pains of labor and, by night and day, are full of distress far greater than a woman's; and my art has power to bring on these pangs or to allay them. So it fares with these; but there are some, Theaetetus, whose minds, as I judge, have never conceived at all. I see that they have no need of me and with all goodwill I seek a match for them. Without boasting unduly, I can guess pretty well whose society will profit them.
And now for the upshot of this long discourse of mine. I suspect that, as you yourself believe, your mind is in labor with some thought which it has conceived. Accept, then, the ministration of a midwife's son who practices his mother's art, and do the best you can to answer the questions I ask. Perhaps when I examine your statements I may judge one or another of them to be an unreal phantom. If I then take the abortion from you and cast it away, do not be savage with me like a woman robbed of her first child. People have often felt like that towards me and been positively ready to bite me for taking away some foolish notion they have conceived. They do not see that I am doing them a kindness. They have not learned that no divinity is ever ill-disposed towards man, nor is such action on my part due to unkindness; it is only that I am not permitted to acquiesce to falsehood and suppress the truth. -- § 150

Clear about his mission and his abilities, Socrates shunned all pleas to provide easy answers or to do another's thinking and intuiting. He likewise avoided the mantle of celebrity, preferring -- in his words -- "a diviner and lowlier destiny" (Phaedrus, § 230a). The care of the soul was his vocation, his chosen calling, and if he had any wisdom at all, it was, as he said, only a small body of knowledge about love. His prayer to the god of nature, and to the God of All, was brief and simple:

Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who dwell here, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry. -- Anything more? The prayer, I think, is enough for me. -- Phaedrus, § 279
  • (From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1998; December 1998/January 1999; February/March 1999. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press.)

  • World Spiritual Traditions Menu


    1. See "The Gnosis according to Plato," Sunrise, August/September 1986. (return to text)

    2. Second Letter, § 314. Excerpts from the Dialogues are principally from Jowett's translation; also from Church, Cornford, Fowler, and Morrow. (return to text)


    1. Cf. Sophist §§231b, 268e. (return to text)

    2. See "Plato's Myths and the Mystery Tradition," Sunrise, December 1988/January 1989. (return to text)

    3. Cf. "The Vision of Er," Sunrise, June/July 1998. (return to text)