Page:EB1911 - Volume 25.djvu/349

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
333
SOCRATES

and instructive appendix to his edition of Plato's Phaedrus, “he represents himself in all companies as the dullest person present. Morally the purest, he affects to be the slave of passion, and borrows the language of gallantry to describe a benevolence too exalted for the comprehension of his contemporaries. He is by turns an ἐραστής, a προαγωγός, a μαστροπός, a μαιευτικός, disguising the sanctity of his true vocation by names suggestive of vile or ridiculous images. The same spirit of whimsical paradox leads him, in Xenophon's Banquet, to argue that his own satyr-like visage was superior in beauty to that of the handsomest man present. That this irony was to some extent calculated is more than probable; it disarmed ridicule by anticipating it; it allayed jealousy and propitiated envy; and it possibly procured him admission into gay circles from which a more solemn teacher would have been excluded. But it had for its basis a real greatness of soul, a hearty and unaffected disregard of public opinion, a perfect disinterestedness, an entire abnegation of self. He made himself a fool that others by his folly might be made wise; he humbled himself to the level of those among whom his work lay that he might raise some few among them to his own level; he was ‘all things to all men, if by any means he might win some.’ ” It would seem that this humorous depreciation of his own great qualities, this pretence of being no better than his neighbours, led to grave misapprehension amongst his contemporaries. That it was the foundation of the slanders of the Peripatetic Aristoxenus can hardly be doubted.

Socrates was further a man of sincere and fervent piety. “No one,” says Xenophon, “ever knew of his doing or saying anything profane or unholy.” There was indeed in the popular mythology much which he could not accept. It was incredible, he argued, that the gods should have committed acts which would be disgraceful in the worst of men. Such stories, then, must be regarded as the inventions of lying poets. But, when he had thus purified the contemporary polytheism, he was able to reconcile it with his own steadfast belief in a Supreme Being, the intelligent and beneficent Creator of the universe, and to find in the national ritual the means of satisfying his religious aspirations. For proof of the existence of “the divine,” he appealed to the providential arrangement of nature, to the universality of the belief, and to the revelations and warnings which are given to men through signs and oracles. Thinking that the soul of man partook of the divine, he maintained the doctrine of its immortality as an article of faith, but not of knowledge. While he held that, the gods alone knowing what is for man's benefit, man should pray, not for particular goods, but only for that which is good, he was regular in prayer and punctual in sacrifice. He looked to oracles and signs for guidance in those matters, and in those matters only, which could not be resolved by experience and judgment, and he further supposed himself to receive special warnings of a mantic character through what he called his “divine sign” (δαιμόνιον, δαιμόνιον σημεῖον).

Socrates's frequent references to his “divine sign” were, says

Xenophon, the origin of the charge of “introducing new divinities” brought against him by his accusers, and in early Christian times, amongst Neoplatonic philosophers and fathers of the church, gave rise to the notion that he supposed himself to be attended by a “genius” or “daemon.” Similarly in our own day spiritualists have attributed to him the belief—which they justify—in “an intelligent spiritual being who accompanied him through life—in other words, a guardian spirit” (A. R. Wallace). But the very precise testimony of Xenophon and Plato shows plainly that Socrates did not regard his “customary sign” either as a divinity or as a genius. According to Xenophon, the sign was a warning, either to do or not to do, which it would be folly to neglect, not superseding ordinary prudence, but dealing with those uncertainties in respect of which other men found guidance in oracles and tokens; Socrates believed in it profoundly, and never disobeyed it. According to Plato, the sign was a “voice” which warned Socrates to refrain from some act which he contemplated; he heard it frequently and on the most trifling occasions; the phenomenon dated from his early years, and was, so far as he knew, peculiar to himself. These statements have been variously interpreted. Thus it has been maintained that, in laying claim to supernatural revelations, Socrates (1) committed a pious fraud, (2) indulged his “accustomed irony,” (3) recognized the voice of conscience, (4) indicated a general belief in a divine mission, (5) described “the inward voice of his individual tact, which in consequence partly of his experience and penetration, partly of his knowledge of himself and exact appreciation of what was in harmony with his individuality, had attained to an unusual accuracy,” (6) was mad (“était fou”), being subject not only to hallucinations of sense but also to aberrations of reason. Xenophon's testimony that Socrates was plainly sincere in his belief excludes the first and second of these theories; the character of the warnings given, which are always concerned, not with the moral-worth of actions, but with their uncertain results, warrants the rejection of the third and the fourth; the fifth, while it sufficiently accounts for the matter of the warning, leaves unexplained its manner, the vocal utterance; the sixth, while it plausibly explains the manner of the warning, goes beyond the facts when it attributes to it irrationality of matter. It remains for us, then, modifying the fifth hypothesis, that of Diderot, Zeller and others, and the sixth, that of Lélut and Littré, and combining the two, to suppose that Socrates was subject, not indeed to delusions of mind, but to hallucinations of the sense of hearing, so that the rational suggestions of his own brain, exceptionally valuable in consequence of the accuracy and delicacy of his highly cultivated tact, seemed to him to be projected without him, and to be returned to him through the outward ear. It appears that, though in some of the best known instances—for example, those of Cowper and Sidney Walker—hallucinations of the sense of hearing, otherwise closely resembling Socrates's “divine sign,” have been accompanied by partial derangement of reason, cases are not wanting in which, “the thoughts transformed into external sensorial impressions” are perfectly

rational.

The eccentricity of Socrates's life was not less remarkable than the oddity of his appearance and the irony of his conversation. Mode of Life. His whole time was spent in public—in the market-place, the streets, the gymnasia. Thinking with Dr Johnson that “a great city is the school for studying life,” he had no liking for the country, and seldom passed the gates. “Fields and trees,” Plato makes him say, “will not teach me anything; the life of the streets will.” He talked to all comers—to the craftsman and the artist as willingly as to the poet or the politician—questioning them about their affairs, about the processes of their several occupations, about their notions of morality, in a word, about familiar matters in which they might be expected to take an interest. The ostensible purpose of these interrogatories was to test, and thus either refute or explain, the famous oracle which had pronounced him the wisest of men. Conscious of his own ignorance, he had at first imagined that the god was mistaken. When, however, experience showed that those who esteemed themselves wise were unable to give an account of their knowledge, he had to admit that, as the oracle had said, he was wiser than others, in so far as, whilst they, being ignorant, supposed themselves to know, he, being ignorant, was aware of his ignorance. Such, according to the Apology, was Socrates's account of his procedure and its results. But it is easy to see that the statement is coloured by the accustomed irony. When in the same speech Socrates tells his judges that he would never from fear of death or from any other motive disobey the command of the god, and that, if they put him to death, the loss would be, not his, but theirs, since they would not readily find any one to take his place, it becomes plain that he conceived himself to hold a commission to educate, and was consciously seeking the intellectual and moral improvement of his countrymen. His end could not be achieved without the sacrifice of self. His meat and drink were of the poorest; summer and winter his coat was the same; he was shoeless and shirtless. “A slave whose master made him live as you live, ” says a sophist in the Memorabilia, “would run away.” But by the surrender of the luxuries and the comforts of life Socrates secured for himself the independence which was necessary that he might go about his appointed business, and therewith he was content.

His message was to all, but it was variously received. Those who heard him perforce and occasionally were apt to regard Contemporary Judgments. his teaching either with indifference or with irritation,—with indifference, if, as might be, they failed to see in the elenchus anything more than elaborate trifling; with irritation, if, as was probable, they perceived that, in spite of his assumed ignorance, Socrates was well aware of the result to which their enforced answers tended. Amongst