Monday, May 08, 2017

True Philosophy

“Philosophy” literally means, “love of wisdom” (philos = love; sophos = wisdom) and all the true philosopher wants to do is accomplish the mission set before him: to see others love wisdom too. He must speak truth. That “philosophy” has come to mean “the nature of knowledge” (as now defined in our textbooks) indicates an extraordinary shift away from the essence of what true philosophy is. Those who study the nature of knowledge actually practice “philognosis” and are hardly philosophers at all.


According to Socrates, the task of the philosopher in speaking the truth is to examine life, questioning the answers (not answer the questions); in other words, test the presuppositions. The differences are staggering. The philosopher wants to see people improved so that society is improved, in turn. This means “philosophy” is much more than a subject to study or a technique of clarification. The philosopher is concerned for mankind and struggles to find meaning.

“Apology” can be a complicated word, for one use communicates realization of inadequacy, regret by acknowledging a failure, repentance. One hears in “Socrates’s Apology,” the emphatic “I do not repent concerning my defense”--so why does Plato title this “Socrates’s Apology” if he is not sorry for anything? Socrates communicates to his judges that should they decide to put him to death, they are the ones who will be sorry. There’s a play on words in Socrates's statement which sets the tone for the entirety of the “Apology” for this is not a translated word, but a transliterated word meaning “a defense.” Literally defined, an “apology” is a speech of “putting off” (apo = away; logos = words/logic). So, what’s going on? 

"La Mort de Socrate" by French painter Jacques-Louis David in 1787
Socrates is accused of crimes punishable by death: misleading young people and inciting ungodliness, atheism, which in his case means “denying the state deities.” What Socrates gives in his defense is not only proof of innocence of any crime but also a demonstration of what a person or people will do to escape truth, which in this case means “kill the truth-teller, the lover of wisdom.” In this proof, Socrates indirectly exposes his judges along with everyone who consents and participates, lovers of foolishness.

But why? Why would anyone be so zealous for wisdom that he would die? What is wisdom? One might say wisdom is simply the discerning way of life.

In this defense, Socrates recalls how he heard that a certain individual asked the Oracle at Delphi if there was any man wiser than Socrates. When word got back to Socrates of this revelation, he put the proclamation to the test since he does not consider himself to be wise. He searched for someone wiser amongst the politicians, artists and poets and found none. But God (whoever that is to Socrates) has spoken through the Oracle, so the statement must be true. He calls his prosecutors to consider “the word of God . . . [for] God [whoever that is to Socrates] who cannot lie . . only is wise.” If there is any person wiser than he, then it must be a divine person. This becomes important when he defends himself against atheism, proving he believes “in a higher sense than that in which any of my accusers believe in them.”

Socrates plainly states that, “God [whoever that is to Socrates] orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, [if] I were to desert my post through fear of death or any other fear, that would be strange . . . “ As much as he loves his fellow Athenians, he chooses to obey God (whoever that is to Socrates) and “shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy . . . and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God.” He will come right out and say it: Socrates sees himself as God’s gift to the state to prevent his fellow man from becoming apathetic and complacent, like a stinging fly. And what does anyone do when bitten by a bug, but swat at it.

Loving knowledge is much different than loving wisdom. The wise man keeps his mind open, to learn, to “entertain a thought without accepting it” as Aristotle would later say. Wisdom is discerning, leading to what is right and excellent and good for all. Yet history records many incidents of those who surrendered their lives for truth at the hands of people who cannot and will not tolerate truth, making themselves out to be fools.

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