Socratic questioning Socrates

[This post is a draft and in need of a lot of work]
[secondary edit: I’m currently reading Bahktin’s Problem’s of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, and found so much that will help me as I comb through and revise this draft, but also found that Socrates actually referred to himself as a midwife…. I had no idea of that when I originally wrote the conclusion of this piece. So cool. I love life.]

This quote and the following discussion appeared in my instagram feed recently (from @seedsofconsciousness_). Inspired, I tapped in a comment and some replies on my phone in the betweens of playing with my littlest one. But as more replies came in I decided to wait to respond and not do the sort of spur-of-the-moment-friendly sparring that can be fun in a context with less gravity in it. I felt the feelings that were stirred up in the discussion like running my thoughts against cool marble. I wanted to allow more time for the ideas to percolate, to gel, and to treat the conversation with the sort of thoughtful, thorough reflection it was asking for.

The topic felt rich with the novel churnings of our particular historical moment.

Original quote, seedsofconsciousness_
“The hour of departure
has arrived,
and we go our separate ways,

I to die, and you to live.

Which of these two is better
only God knows.”

I was first drawn to this because it piqued my interest in the duality of the set up: the imbalance in its basic structure which can be explained by post-modernist thought—but I am a post-post modernist (thanks Ellen Peel). I was drawn to the quantum conundrum the quote expresses, and the key it offers—a sort of quantum logical puzzle:

depart – arrive

die – live
one (?) =good, one (?) =bad

only God knows [not I]

Knowing only a very little about Socrates specifically, or most of philosophy in general, I am often responding to elements in the quotes themselves; or analyzing the language outside the broader context. Sort of like an alien visitor who speaks enough of the language to get by, but retains their personally estranged aesthetic context.

A longer quote was cited below that first one, and it is what I ended up responding directly to in the thread:

“And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and that is the hour in which men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my death punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you have wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives. But that will not be as you suppose:
far otherwise.
For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more severe with you, and you will be more offended at them.
For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.
This is the prophesy which I utter before my departure, to the judges who have condemned me […] The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways — I to die, and you to live. Which is better only God knows.” —Socrates

I was trained in the classical timed-essay style in high school, and I was very good at it. It’s easy for me to scan a text, intuitively pick up threads and words and patterns and then generate a persuasive set of assumptions that is often [not always] clever enough to please whomever is reading it, well enough.

Close reading with a fully informed context is a distinctively different process for me, and though I remain very un-fully informed about Socrates’ particular context, I will see what I can do here following the thread of the discussion as it unravelled, because what each participant latches on to and responds with is often what is stuck in the historical craw.

I skimmed the longer quote and impulsively wrote:

stardateindefinite “Doesn’t sound like prophesy it sounds like projections from a victim mindset.”
Then I wrote:
stardateindefinite “‘That is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.’
Yes! The entire statement illustrates that there is no escape from the self, that escape itself is a flawed premise. Here Socrates seeks to escape death by creating the illusion that he is more noble and improved than those that murder him. But if he were to take his own advice he would not need to preemptively crush those who are going to murder him, only do what he could to improve his own circumstances, his own perception, making peace with what has already been set into motion (a crux resulting from the choices and decisions and influences of many events and people including himself) and either suffering less before death (and maybe even improving his own experience of it—like, once one accepts one has a stomach ache and is in pain, one can then employe [I’m keeping that odd spelling error as it appears in the discussion] measures to not only alleviate the pain but create a different experience of it) or being inspired to take actions or allowing quantum possibility that would free him from his perception of the inevitability of the outcome.”

That response came from having zero context about the circumstances of Socrates’ death. Having since done a little research, I can see why that response might irk someone with more context, though I continue to stand by it (which isn’t to suggest I believe Socrates should have—or even really could have—done anything different in his own moment than he did).

I’d also like to add, my ten year old got a stomach ache later that same morning—in living I was prophetic, maybe?

Thinking that I hadn’t been clear that I wasn’t condemning Socrates, but applying his own teaching to his statements—and with the initial quote back in mind as the wisdom presented publicly to for consideration, I wrote:
stardateindefinite “the main lesson being, we are all humans, being, and Socrates has a very normal human response to the fear of death.”

seedsofconsciousness_ “@stardateindefinite The thing about Socrates, his trial and his death sentence, is that he never did anything but speak his mind. He didn’t physically effect anyone, but questioned people’s way of life and society in general. He was found guilty in ‘corrupting the youth’ simply by telling them his views on the world. Both those who sentenced him and his friends asked him to just leave Athens as to avoid trial and death, but he chose to stay by ‘his truth’ and let what would happen, happen. And judging by history his ‘prophecy’ turned out to be correct; we still discuss Socrates’ character and philosophy to this day. Socrates’ death together with Plato’s and Xenophon’s excellent retellings solidified his ideas which would go on to effect the world for the next 2500 years.”

stardateindefinite “@seedsofconsciousness_  He made a choice to speak his mind. His choice did effect people, which was the intention he had. He wanted to move and inspire others. He probably had not intended to effect people in ways that would create violence. But he knew himself, his agency, to be the source of the violence because he knew himself to be the agent of the inspiration, which created a situation that allowed him to become a target for the violence that emerged as a byproduct of the movement he intentionally fostered. He was murdered [here I note how I still misunderstand the context—but am responding directly, faithfully, to the words as they appeared in the quote, as if they expressed the whole truth, an accurate picture. I didn’t, yet, pick up the assertion that Socrates chose to stay. He was not murdered. He made a choice and knew himself to be choosing freely] because he dared to know himself as a powerful figure of change in a society that was not willing to accept that from him. That is not at all the same thing as saying the people who put him on trial are free from their own responsibility—they are not—they are also powerful agents of change only they could not yet know themselves as such. All figures in the situation are part of a dynamic wave of influence that emerged in a particular historical moment. Once a movement like that has gained momentum, no human can prevent it, but we all have the power to make choices about how we will ride out the wave. It’s only the perception of choicelessness which is fostered by the powerlessness to stop a natural phenomenon that is already in motion.
I think what I’m really getting at is that to truly distill the lesson in the words, it’s important to allow their speaker to have been influenced by his own humanity as well—and so apply the wisdom to his own words and render out what he had not arrived at yet in the state of consciousness he was in when he spoke them.”

seedsofconsciousness_ “@stardateindefinite I still don’t understand what your point is to be honest, even after these long comments–”

[I’ll interject here and say, I can hardly blame you! There’s a big gap in the discussion that I was not yet bridging well, not yet having the materials, so to speak, to do so]

“–If you simply mean that Socrates was just a human, then yes I agree with you ofc. But nonetheless, he is a human example to follow in my eyes. And I disagree with your original comment: ‘Socrates seeks to escape death by creating the illusion that he is more noble and improved’ [than the ones that murder him]. As well as your comment about him having “A very normal human response to the fear of death.” But you are welcome to believe that.”

Here I’d like to ask, earnestly—why welcome me to believe something you don’t? Why not welcome me to share your views and your inspiration?

Why not respond with the faith that your own view is worth focusing on well enough to attempt to enlighten me with? If I am following your discussions it’s likely you’re worth listening to. If you are holding a discussion in a public forum, it’s likely you’re worth listening to. I understand allowing great men of the past to be held up as an example, but is it not worth it, here and now, to learn to focus and articulate what about those great men moves you, personally, subjectively, and why? I don’t want to welcome you to sit on the sidelines of history, a spectator rather than a participant. I want to invite you to the playing field.

Inspiration is worth sharing. Inspiration is worth sharing even to those reluctant to breathe it in. That’s what Socrates did!

Moving back in time to the discussion:

next commenter: “@stardateindefinite honestly to me it looks like you just read this small paragraph and based your opinions about Socrates on this alone–”

Yes. Yes I did. Because words worth keeping for millennia of posterity should be able to stand alone and speak for themselves, or else why save them? If they can only be appropriately understood in their own particular context, then how could they possibly stand the test of time? Or of a dynamically shifting and expanding future? If the words require their own particular context to transmit their meaning, then the context must follow them: that is, the context, the cognitive and social architecture of their formation must be perpetuated in order to preserve their meaning. In that case, the words themselves, with or without context, serve only to recreate the very conditions they originally sought to improve, even where the appearance of conditions has altered sufficiently enough to simulate improvement.

This is not to say, by any means, that context isn’t worth having: context is useful, enjoyable, worth delving in to: it draws out particulars and nuances that contribute to greater understanding and allows the unfolding of more insights.

“–You see his final statement as a threat done because of the fear of death? As the commenter above said, he chose to stay and die when he could very easily escape. He was never afraid, and his last speech has nothing to do with fear or hate towards the people who killed him. What happened to them afterwards was a result of his death, not of his speech. He wasn’t making a grand revenge plan using his disciples. He was simply stating the obvious–”

At this I had to laugh because it’s what I’d initially thought I was doing. Not so much maybe.

“–please go back and read the Apology.”

This statement reflects a classical method of authoritatively dismissing another person’s subjective perspective, and denying ones own responsibility for ones own opinions and thoughts and ability to successfully transmit them—that’s a downdraft so now let’s have the updraft: please go forward and create your own discussion, unapologetically!

And shared context does matter to any kind of discourse, so the suggestion to read the source material wasn’t a wholly bad one.

An enlightened depiction of the final scene under examination:
La Mort de Socrate – Jacques Louis David 1787

“For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.”

What I want to back up to here is the fact that this quote is not from Socrates, but rather from Plato, quoting Socrates; and the distortion I detect in the message is very likely to be a result of the messenger, rather than the source. Not having direct access to the words Socrates actually spoke in this final set of moments-in-time, I plan to excuse myself—unapologetically—for not having actually read or familiarized myself with The Apology.

I don’t think Socrates was very sorry for anything.
And I don’t plan to kill the messenger, either.

I’d like to suggest that this composition reflects Plato’s own cave-dwelling fear of death, rather than that of Socrates,’ though I know little enough of Plato to make a fuller argument—I’m also willing to posit that the words themselves were translated into English, by those other than Plato—the matter of inaccuracy in translation having been also introduced into this particular instagram thread. I therefore won’t claim to know anything at all about what these words indicate subjectively about Plato, either, but rather what they suggest about what wisdom modern western society has thus far been able to distill from these messengers—and that while the messengers themselves could not be killed in the sense of having their teachings immortalized, like a degraded game of telephone the message certainly seems to have been.

Socrates did not die for any cause or to prove any point, he died for himself (which dialectically does prove a point, I suppose). Looking at the painting, I can imagine him holding up that goblet of poison, simply curious to find out what would happen next, after death, not bothered by the scenes of grief around him.

Yet the words in the quote itself flicker of shadowy death like the projected ghosts on a cave wall, because those who transcribed them were not philosophers themselves, but the men chained within their own allegorical caves. They are not imbued with the light of wisdom and grace that informs, inspires, and moves men to greater deeds than their contemporaries have known before—history has created and perpetuated such a distinction between great men and the “hoi polloi.”

Which is different than saying a distinction doesn’t actually exist: it does. It is only to suggest that we have had far fewer great men historically than we might otherwise, because of a culturally rendered narrow perception of what distinguishes greatness.

(being a man, for example)

lifengoal wrote in the thread proper, “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

Quantum truth: “I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.”

“He chose to stay and die when he could very easily escape. He was never afraid, and his last speech has nothing to do with fear or hate towards the people who killed him.”

‘Never afraid’ is likely untrue, for any human being. Any subjective fears, doubts, shortcomings, or frailties Socrates may have felt at various moments in his human life are subjected to the censure of the students who recorded their experience of him as a teacher, and that is only counting what they may have witnessed in person or heard about second-hand. All the rest is largely (not entirely) forgotten as inconsequential context.

It is fearful, however, to condemn another person—condemnation arises from a lack of trust, trust being the opposite of fear. The words in the quote are condemning by nature, they speak of punishment, accusation and murder.

“Murder” indicates a denial of personal responsibility: the passivity of a victim. Socrates was not murdered, he chose death. He was personally responsible for it. He could have left and spoken his truths elsewhere, somewhere he might have encountered less vocal resistance, somewhere more receptive to his views, or perhaps less agitated by them. Somewhere less a recognizable seat of power, less of a proverbial stirring of the hornets’ nest. He could have retired from public speaking to appease the situation and begun dictating or even writing his own manuscripts for more quiet dissemination.

But that wasn’t what he wanted to do.

In choosing to stay when he knew he would likely face death, you might say that his “murderers” were a lot more like assistants in euthanasia. The symbolic gesture of drinking one’s own goblet of poison with one’s own hand matters as well: he even literally picked his poison.

“the people who killed him.” He wasn’t killed. He committed suicide (“sui” = of oneself).

Why does the quote rob him of agency by transcribing his death as an act of “murder?”

(because it preserves the historical architecture of personal disempowerment).

“For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.”

To defend my original assertion: accusation is the passing of negative judgement— “Censure” is about disapproval. “Accuser” appears as the subject of this particular sentence, “censuring” the verb, and Socrates is synonymous with the subject.

So if Socrates was passing judgement and disapproving of others and how they chose to live, as indicated by the choice of words, and he is also in this passage condemning those who have passed negative judgment and disapproval as choosing a dishonorable and impossible route, made synonymous with the term “crushing,”—it follows logically that he is in fact “crushing” them reflexively after having lost the case rather than improving his own attitude about his active role in the outcome. And in so doing, he attempts the “impossible” referred to, escaping the self: the only actually, finally, truly impossible thing for a human being is to escape death—humanity might make many things possible but ultimate escape from death is not one of them. It is the very vital thing in human consciousness that creates the capacity for a dualistic system of distinction between possible and impossible from which all things generate.

“Here Socrates seeks to escape death”—what I meant by that phrase was in the distinction between thematically embracing rather than escaping death. I did not mean it literally, so here we can insert my own personal rendition and summary of The Apology:

I’m sorry I didn’t make that more clear. I was playing, in a playful mood when I wrote that, so irreverently tossed all subjects into the realm of the imagination, where there is not the gravity of material considerations
(such as death = bad, rather than death = transformation).

Attempting to escape personal responsibility is synonymous with denying the personal creation of the death. It is to attempt to escape life, the truth of one’s own life, which is, ultimately (but not only), death.

That assertion argued, I’ll recant my initial statements so far as assigning them to Socrates himself, since everything about his death suggests that even in dying, he was living, and that is powerfully persuasive to the masculine imagination. All human beings have both a feminine and a masculine imagination that interplay: the feminine involved with birth and the masculine involved with death. The preoccupation with death—the masculine imagination—has been given far more exercise historically than the feminine, but in the example of Socrates we have a figure whose imagination was balanced, whose agency in his own death was an exercise of birth, of creation: self-creation.

To reiterate, when someone asserts that “What happened to them [Socrates’ supposed killers] afterwards was a result of his death, not of his speech. He wasn’t making a grand revenge plan using his disciples. He was simply stating the obvious.”
I must respond: But in saying it, suggesting it, planting the idea, “prophesizing” it—becoming it through his death—did he not assist in its creation?
Socrates, father and midwife of modern western history!
Now that’s a fun idea.