Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Desperately seeking wise old Socrates

From The Daily Telegraph, October 12 2010

It may be more than 2,400 years since his death, but the Greek philosopher can still teach us a thing or two about leading 'the good life’. Bettany Hughes digs deeper

By Bettany Hughes

Sharing breakfast with an award-winning author in an Edinburgh hotel a few years back, the conversation came round to what I was writing next. “A book on Socrates,” I mumbled through my muesli. “Socrates!” he exclaimed. “What a brilliant doughnut subject. Really rich and succulent with a great hole in the middle where the central character should be.”

I felt my smile fade because, of course, he was right. Socrates, the Greek philosopher, might be one of the most famous thinkers of all time, but, as far as we know, he wrote not a single word down. Born in Athens in 469BC, condemned to death by a democratic Athenian court in 399BC, Socrates philosophised freely for close on half a century. Then he was found guilty of corrupting the young and of disrespecting the city’s traditional gods. His punishment? Lethal hemlock poison in a small prison cell. We don’t have Socrates’s personal archive; and we don’t even know where he was buried. So, for many, he has come to seem aloof and nebulous – a daunting intellectual figure – always just out of reach.

But that is a crying shame. Put simply, we think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did. His famous aphorism, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, is a central tenet for modern times. His philosophies – 24 centuries old – are also remarkably relevant today. Socrates was acutely aware of the dangers of excess and overindulgence. He berated his peers for a selfish pursuit of material gain. He questioned the value of going to fight under an ideological banner of “democracy”. What is the point of city walls, warships and glittering statues, he asked, if we are not happy? The pursuit of happiness is one of the political pillars of the West. We are entering what has been described as “an age of empathy”. So Socrates’s forensic, practical investigation of how to lead “the good life” is more illuminating, more necessary than ever.

Rather than being some kind of remote, tunic-clad beardy who wandered around classical columns, Socrates was a man of the streets. The philosopher tore through Athens like a tornado, drinking, partying, sweating in the gym as hard, if not harder than the next man. For him, philosophy was essential to human life. His mission: to find the best way to live on earth. When he had taken a swig of his hemlock dose, Plato tells us he offered up this thought-provoking one-liner: “I go to die, you to live. God only knows which is the better journey.”

As Cicero, the Roman author, perceptively put it: “Socrates brought philosophy down from the skies.” And so to try to put him back on to the streets he loved and where his philosophy belonged, I have spent 10 years investigating the eastern Mediterranean landscape to find clues of his life and the “Golden Age of Athens”. We might have a yawning gap where Socrates’s personal testimony is supposed to be, but any artist will tell you a good way to paint a true portrait of an object is to fill up the space around the hole. Using the latest archaeology, newly discovered historical sources, and the accounts of his key followers, Plato and Xenophon, I have endeavoured to create a Socrates-shaped space, in the glittering city of 500BC Athens – ready for the philosopher to inhabit.

It seemed the right time to undertake this immensely tricky task, because copious amounts of new archaeological evidence are emerging from the glory days of Greece. Urban developments around the millennial year, the 2004 Olympics and a new Athenian metro system have all yielded rich pickings. As you walk over the glass floor of the new Acropolis Museum, sections of ancient Athens are laid out beneath you like a honeycomb. It is clear what a cheek-by-jowl place this was, where political chat and new ideas could race through the backstreets. The identification of “ethics”, of the “psyche”, of “atheism” and political “amnesty” – all these were developments of Socrates’s age.

The detailed evidence that is appearing from the 500BC excavation layers, 20 feet or so below the modern city’s surface, is not all rosy. It is becoming increasingly clear that Socrates lived through very hard times. When the philosopher was about 40, his city suffered a horrifying plague, with as many as 80,000 people wiped out. The tooth pulp of an 11-year-old Athenian girl has recently been analysed. Myrtis, as she has been nicknamed by her excavators, was struck down by a particularly virulent form of typhus. The girl’s face has been reconstructed from her young skull. With bright eyes and slightly sproggy teeth, she is a reminder of the humanity of Socrates’s day (he had three young children when he died), and a testimony to what his city suffered.

Throughout the philosopher’s life, the democratic Athenian Assembly voted to go to war the equivalent of every other year. Socrates would have sweated in the gymnasia of the city to train to fight; and as a foot-soldier on campaign in the north of Greece he would have heard the rumours of cannibalism in the rebel cities he besieged. He must also have seen the stinking horror of Greek soldiers butchered by Greek hands and left on battle plains to rot. In his later years, civil strife tore through his beloved city. Like so many others, he lay at night, listening to the death squads who roamed the streets, fists pounding on doors, the unfortunate occupants “disappeared” come the morning. In fact, there was so much of “the bad” in the heady, paradoxical fifth-century world around him, it is tempting to consider whether this was why the philosopher was so vigorous in his search for “the good”.

The street jargon used to describe the Athens of Socrates’s day gives us a sense of its character. His hometown was known as “sleek”, “oily”, “violet-crowned”, “busybody” Athens. Lead curse tablets left in drains, scribbled down by those in the world’s first true democracy, show that however progressive fifth-century Athenians were, their radical political experiment – allowing the demos (the people) to have kratos (power) – did not do away with personal rivalries and grudges. Far from it. In fact, in the city where every full citizen was a potent politician, backbiting and cliquery came to take on epic proportions. By the time of his death, Socrates was caught up in this crossfire. His life story is a reminder that the word “democracy” is not a magic wand. It does not automatically vaporise all ills. This was Socrates’s beef, too – a society can only be good not because of the powerful words it bandies around, but thanks to the moral backbone of each and every individual within it.

The truth is that the Athens that Socrates lived in, the one we consider to be high-minded, enlightened, egalitarian, was indeed thrilling but also highly charged. In the workshops of the Agora excavations conservateurs are picking over a silver-coin hoard worth around £250,000 in today’s money – proof of the great wealth that Socrates’s hometown enjoyed. The philosopher himself was always critical of conspicuous consumption, famously wandering around in bare feet and a shabby cloak.

But Athenians became greedy, they overreached themselves, and lived to see their city walls torn down by their Spartan enemies, and their radical democracy democratically voted out of existence. The city state needed someone to blame. High-profile, maddening, eccentric, freethinking, free-speaking Socrates was a good target. Socrates seems to me to be democracy’s scapegoat. He was condemned because, in fragile times, anxious political masses want certainties – not the eternal questions that Socrates asked of the world around him.

In the search for Socrates I’ve been lowered down into stinking, ancient wells, I’ve been stranded in summer storms off the coast of Asia Minor, I’ve experimented with lethal plant poisons and seen what a bowl of freshly spilt animal blood looks like when it is poured over an altar stone. But this was all worthwhile because Socrates’s life’s mission was primarily to discover how we can all live the best lives we possibly can.

I don’t think anyone has quite cracked that one yet. Whether or not we go along with Socrates’s ideas – he is described by some as the world’s first ideological martyr – his take on life was incendiary enough to earn him the death penalty. That alone means we should take heed of what he had to say.

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