Imaginary Interviews to the great humanists of History is an attempt to recover some of their contributions to the important changes that need to take place today in order to move to a nonviolent and more humanised world. It has no pretensions of historical accuracy but it hopes to inspire a deeper search into those figures’ thinking.
A little stony-faced and pale Socrates comes nevertheless to the Pressenza interview with his reputation as one of the most important founders of Western philosophy intact.
Question: We live in times that impose strong contradictions on people, so that sometimes it is very difficult to think, feel and act in the same direction. What is your view on this incoherence that many have come to accept as just the way things are? A kind of normalisation of contradiction?
Socrates: It would be better for me… that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself.
Q: Do you think the direction in life people choose can have any influence on their possibilities of transcendence?
S: He who has lived as a true philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to receive the greatest good in the other world.
Q: As we see the big lies that are being told to people by politicians and those who describe this violent and dehumanising system as the only possible, what can you say about the consequences of such actions, not just to the people who are being lied to, but to those who concoct this make-believe scenario?
S: False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. To not speak well is not only sinful by itself, but lets evil intrude into the soul.
Q: When you heard that the Oracle of Delphi told one of your friends that you are the wisest man in Athens, you responded by interviewing those considered wise in order to prove the Oracle wrong. You found then they believed they had knowledge but had very little. You admitted then you may be the wisest because you alone were prepared to admit your own ignorance. How is for you wisdom related to ethics?
S: I myself know nothing, except just a little, enough to extract an argument from another man who is wise and to receive it fairly. I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know: but I do know that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonorable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil.
Q: You have been accused of impiety and corrupting the young with your philosophical enquiry. This is a charge frequently brought against those who question injustice and violence and realise a new generation is ready to chose a more humanising direction. Is it worth taking the risk of being at the receiving end of such accusations?
S: Either I do not corrupt them, or I corrupt them unintentionally, so that on either view of the case you lie. If my offense is unintentional, the law has no cognizance of unintentional offenses; you ought to have taken me privately, and warned and admonished me; for if I had been better advised, I should have left off doing what I only did unintentionally — no doubt I should; whereas you hated to converse with me or teach me, but you indicted me in this court, which is the place not of instruction, but of punishment. Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong — acting the part of a good man or a bad. …For wherever a man’s place is, whether the place he has chosen or that where he has been placed by a commander. There he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything, but of disgrace.
I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person.
Q: You questioned the collective notion of “might makes right”. Plato called you the “gadfly” of the state (as the gadfly stings the horse into action, so you stung various Athenians), insofar as you irritated some people with considerations of justice and the pursuit of goodness. It has landed you into so much trouble, is it worth it?
S: Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say that the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living — that you are still less likely to believe.
You think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censoring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.
Q: You are known to be inspired by a dæmon (or daimon) a kind of ‘internal oracle’ or voice of guidance warning you that certain actions or events would lead to disaster but without coercing you into following its advice. This inner guide was, however, silent during your trial which you interpreted to mean that accepting the possibility of death is more important than renouncing what you believe is right. Is this the source of your strength?
S: I would rather die having spoken in my manner, than speak in your manner and live. The favor of the gods has given me a marvelous gift, which has never left me since my childhood. It is a voice which, when it makes itself heard, deters me from what I am about to do and never urges me on.(1)
To fear death, is nothing else but to believe ourselves to be wise, when we are not; and to fancy that we know what we do not know. In effect, no body knows death; no body can tell, but it may be the greatest benefit of mankind; and yet men are afraid of it, as if they knew certainly that it were the greatest of evils.
Q: What is your view of desire, the desires of the body and the way they affect yourself and the world?
S: …whence come wars, and fighting, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? For wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in service of the body; and in consequence of all these things, the time which ought to be given to philosophy is lost.
Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live. Often when looking at a mass of things for sale, I would say to myself, ‘How many things I have no need of!”
Q: Do you have any views about spirituality, in general?
S: I conceive that the founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated in a figure long ago that he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the world below will live in a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods. For “many,” as they say in the mysteries, “are the thyrsus bearers, but few are the mystics,”—meaning, as I interpret the words, the true philosophers.
Q: You claim to have been deeply influenced by two women besides your mother: Diotima a witch and priestess from whom you learned about love, and Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress, who taught you the art of rhetoric. Do you think it is time to promote equality in education?
S: If we are to use women for the same things as the men, we must also teach them the same things.
Q: Any final words of wisdom for your Pressenza public?
S: …the true disciple of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men!
All Socrates responses are taken from Wikiquotes https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Socrates except for (1) http://daemonpage.com/socrates-daimon.php. The grammar and spelling of the quotes’ translations have been left as in the original