There’s this game I play from time to time, which for lack of a better term I’ll call Walking with Socrates. In my imagination, the Greek philosopher has reincarnated and I am his guide through the modern world. As he notices and expresses wonder at things like automobiles, electric lights, and music on the radio, I try to explain these things to him. It bothers me that I am speaking English and he understands, even though as far as I know his only language was Attic Greek. But in a scenario that begins with the reincarnation of a man who quaffed the hemlock over two-and-a-half millennia ago, this point grows trivial.
You may wonder why Socrates? Why, of all the many great thinkers from the past, have you chosen him? If your concern is with modern technologies, Archimedes would be more interested, and understand more of what he was shown. Even Aristotle, as a philosopher, concerned himself with things in the world more than Socrates.
The fact is, when the game began a long time ago, it was all about me asking Socrates questions about truth, beauty, good and evil–the things he tried to help his students understand so many years ago in Athens. But as I walked with Socrates by my side, I continually found myself distracted by the supposed marvels of the modern world, and imagined him asking about them. In time my delight in impressing one of the world’s greatest philosophers with all of the things we have accomplished overtook my desire to learn from him, and I became the teacher, he the student.
But I do wonder whether, coming from a worldview in which the sun was driven across the sky by a god in a chariot, and the seasons were engendered by Persephone’s periodic sojourns in the Underworld, old Socrates might take modern technological improvements right in stride. More miracles wrought by the gods. The light of an airplane moving through the midnight sky is just another soul who has been deified or immortalized, taking its place in the cosmos. Finally I wonder if it was easier for Socrates (and Plato and Xeno et al) to ponder what is important in life, I mean really spend some serious brain time on it, because he had an easy way to explain natural phenomena?
It’s easy to dismiss this referral of anything unexplained to the agency of the gods as simplistic. Why would an intelligent man such as Socrates not seek further answers? In the first place, I don’t know that’s how he would act, I’m only speculating. In the second place, I have to remember that Socrates was one of the greatest minds of all time. He asked important questions of people, and when they gave what they thought were reasonable answers, he questioned and questioned until they understood that the easy answer is rarely the best answer; that if we do not constantly probe what we think, then we are not thinking. He was more concerned about getting at the root of our own thoughts and beliefs–about establishing whether indeed there were thoughts behind our beliefs–than with explaining things in the physical world. I doubt that his concern in the modern world would be how the toaster works.
So when I can clear my head of my own trivial concerns, and make way for Socrates, he asks me what I think about things, usually about existence, what we are and our place in the universe. I am a science-based thinker, I believe in the cosmic forces that shaped the world and everything in it over the vastness of time. But most humans have a need to feel they have a place in that world. I refer back to Cormac McCarthy’s great line from his book Cities of the Plain. Paraphrasing, the young hero asks an old man ‘Where do we go when we die?’–and the old man asks ‘Where are we now?’–certainly the more profound question.
Indeed. Where are we now, Socrates? As we make our transition from ancient, faith-based methods of thinking and explaining things to a scientific worldview, we still have to ponder this question. People of faith ask non-believers where is the mystery, if everything is explained by science? And non-believers turn the question on its head, asking where is the mystery if everything is explained by miracles?
We don’t get off easy just because we see the world as a place wholly explained by the intricate interplay of natural phenomena. We still have to wonder where we are and what we’re doing here. Of course Socrates knows this. One of the charges against him in his trial was atheism, of sowing disbelief among young people. It was not his mission to sow disbelief, but to get his pupils to question the nature of their beliefs. This is of course a fine distinction, and it was lost on the lesser minds who wanted to find fault and take revenge on Socrates.
So I walk with Socrates, and I tell him things. He responds by asking me if people in their cars are better off than he and I, simply walking along on a sunlit path. He asks me if I am better off at home with the television going, playing advertisements into the air, or in silence, thinking my own thoughts. He asks me if I would rather be typing these ideas into this magic box, or writing them with a pencil on a simple pad of paper, or even just sitting beneath a tree somewhere, thinking them.
I do not know, Socrates. I do not know.