The story of Socrates is a kind of fiction. This is not to say it is untrue. The story represents one of the great half-truths of Western civilization. It is a story that is recounted time and time again in undergraduate classrooms and introductory texts – the self-congratulatory tale of a simple man with a sharp mind and an aversion to nonsense, made all the more poignant for the fact that Socrates was condemned to die for his activities. Socrates is the Christ of philosophers. As with Jesus Christ, there is a tendency among the faithful to see Socrates in an apolitical light as a humble teacher and sage. Yet Socrates, like Christ, was a revolutionary of his time. Through his way of living and speaking to his fellow citizens, and through his constant quest to test the truth of the oracle’s statement and to settle the matter for himself, Socrates dealt hammer-blows to the cultural cement that had grounded Greek society for centuries.
This is the story that I want to unearth. My aim is to bring Socrates down to earth, so to understand him, as he was, as an innovative thinker at war with his society and time.
If Socrates is misunderstood, he cannot be held responsible. Socrates did not record his own exploits or express himself in writing. Socrates wrote nothing at all. Almost everything that we know about Socrates comes from his student Plato, who wrote dozens of dramatic dialogues based on Socrates’ encounters with various figures in fourth and fifth century BC Athens. Some of these dialogues are based in real events, but it is impossible to say which ones. Given that the Platonic dialogues were used as teaching tools in the Academy (an institution that Plato set up after Socrates’ death), it is reasonable to suppose that Plato embellished them with philosophical puzzles and arguments that Socrates didn’t venture.
There is also reason to think that Plato might be somewhat one-sided in his account of Socrates’ struggle with the authorities of Athens, presenting an uncharitable account of the old order that has contributed to the way we understand Socrates today. Plato was traumatized by Socrates’ execution by the city of Athens, in 399BC, after sentencing on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. Dialogues such as The Euthyphro, The Protagoras, and The Apology take revenge on the old order by presenting everything from Socrates’ side. ‘How stupid were those Greeks?’ we ask ourselves as we read Plato’s dialogues. ‘Those hidebound traditionalists – they believed every word that came from an oracle’s mouth’.
I think the role of poets and oracles in ancient society is more interesting than Plato allows. The Greeks were not muddleheaded purveyors of poetic fantasy. They had built a centuries-old civilization on the foundations of a form of revelatory or poetic truth.
The idea of poetic truth sounds oxymoronic to our modern ears. When we think of truth today, we think (implicitly or explicitly) about demonstrable truth. Demonstrable truth is verifiable truth. True statements, such as ‘Paris is the capital of France’, or ‘The sun rises in the east and sets in the west’, are statements that can be demonstrated or verified in principle. Indemonstrable, unverifiable, statements, such as ‘Paris will be the capital of the European Union in 2185’ (which is presently unverifiable) or ‘The sun rises in the east and sets in the west because the Divine Spaghetti Monster made it so’(indemonstrable short of the revelation of said Monster) may represent fascinating speculative hypotheses, and perhaps even compelling ideas, but they cannot count as ‘truth’ in the modern sense. For scientists and philosophers in the modern tradition, demonstrable statements are the only kinds of statements that can count as true.
Let us call this the modern paradigm of truth. It is the dominant paradigm in developed societies.
Demonstrable truth is not the only kind of truth that is operational in our societies. As French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) pointed out, there are many kinds of truth, and many different ways of speaking the truth. The problem with assuming that modern scientific (demonstrable) truth is the only form of truth is that it leads us to overlook other forms of truth, even while we make use of them. Such is the case with poetic truth. This form of truth dates back to ancient times. It was challenged by Socrates and defeated by the intellectual culture that grew up in Socrates’ wake.
Yet poetic truth never really went away. We experience poetic truths in the course of our daily lives. We use poetic speaking to articulate truths that have profound implications for our personal, social, cultural, and political lives.
Politicians know all about poetic speaking. When Barack Obama gives his televised address in the Oval Office, he is myth-casting and he knows it. MLK’s speech before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28 1963 is another example of a poetic truth-event. For journalists and critics, poetic speech from politicians and political candidates is bread and butter. Critics of the media know a sound-bite when they hear it. I recently overheard radio talk-show hosts speaking about ‘green tape’ and I felt frustrated because I knew it was a poetic truth that I could do nothing about. At the same time, I know innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs could not create and achieve as they do without drawing on the resources of poetic truth. I am not sure about poetic speaking; but I am generally in favour of poetic truth.
Let’s consider the role of poetic truth in ancient society. On this basis, we can understand how Socrates challenged the poetic paradigm.
Truth, for pre-Socratic Greeks, was not just a matter of words and statements. The Greeks word for truth is aletheia (unhiddeness/forgottenness). Aletheia was a kind of experience, or a transformation in experience. Obviously, not everything that transforms our experience counts as truth. A cerebral concussion transforms our experience, but there is nothing ‘true’ about it beyond the fact that you have taken a blow to the head. The poetic truth that was affirmed in ancient societies was transformative in the sense that it had an existentially orienting effect. This is how we should understand poetic speech. Oracles and poets spoke the truth by using words to trigger insights into the nature of everyday social life and existence. Poetic speech resonates with ordinary experience, triggering, clarifying, and consolidating insights into the realities of our everyday socio-cultural existence. It works to attune us, and ground us in, the norms of social existence.
Poetic speaking opens up our spheres of existence so that we may reflect on and engage with them in the course of our lives. It gives us our sense of ‘being in the world’.
We can now address poetic truth. We experience poetic truths every day. Music is a common vehicle for expressing and experiencing these sorts of truths (as is art generally). Think of the songs that you listen to when you are happy – the songs you play on the jukebox or at a party. Conversely, think of the songs that you play when you are feeling angry, frustrated, and resentful – songs that let you to release your anger and vent. These songs have a truth that is difficult to analyze and define. It is a truth that one feels directly – it speaks to the heart as much as to the head. It is a truth, moreover, that grants access to shared realms of cultural experience. It is impossible to listen to Henryk Górecki’s third symphony without sharing, to an extent, in the pain of the Holocaust. Fans of punk, funk, rock and hip-hop use their favorite artists and albums as means of accessing complex cultural itineraries comprising attitudes, perspectives, speech-patterns, and codes of dress – shared social worlds that revolve about the poetic utterances and expression of the musicians.
Martin Heidegger argues that all great works of art have this ‘world disclosing’ function. Mediocre artists add color to the landscape of our experience. Only great works of art ‘[open] up a world and [keep] it abidingly in force’ (‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, henceforth OWA, 44). The ancient Greeks affirmed these poetic experiences. The rites and rituals at the origins of Greek civilization – the bacchanal and Elysian mysteries – involved poetic truths and experiences that were fundamental to the Greek sense of identity. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were written to evoke poetic experiences that were implicitly understood by their audiences, and that cemented the bond of Greek community. The purpose of art and architecture in the ancient world was to communicate poetic truths. Heidegger evocatively describes the world-disclosing power of the Athenian Parthenon in his essay, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (1936):
Standing there, the building rests on the rocky ground. … [It] holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, yet first brings to light the light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night. … The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves. This view remains open as long as the work is a work, as long as the god has not fled from it (OWA, 42-43)
In the pre-Socratic world, artist, poets and oracles had the social function of expressing a sense of being. Weaving together edifying tales of gods and heroes with an apprehension of social and political circumstance, artists, poets and oracles produced cultural visions that qualified and colored everyday life. Poetic verse provided the Greeks with an emotional and affective framework, and a background for understanding issues of key cultural importance, such as the distinction between what was noble and base, the meaning of justice, beauty, and the good life. Poetic verses guided and edified life, establishing a resonance with everyday experience.
A good book or poem still has this power: it conveys practical wisdom, providing insights into cultural values, strategies and approaches, moral and ethical ideals. In the same way, ancient verse consolidated ideals, triggered reflections, and focused experience. Stories of the gods provided a guide to life. Different gods had different relevance in different spheres of life. Tales of Zeus offered insight into the challenges of power; tales of Ares lessons on war; Athena lessons on justice; Aphrodite cues for erotic life.
Hesiod claimed that poets were in the service of goddess Mnemosyne, or Memory. Once we set aside the religious framing of this idea, we can see it is an accurate description of the social function of poets in ancient society. The Greek word for truth, a-lētheia, literally means non-forgetting. The role of poets and oracles in Greek society was to perpetuate the non-forgetting of deep-rooted cultural experiences through their poetic verse.
In a society with a largely non-literate population like ancient Greece, values and ideals not communicated by oral tradition are quickly forgotten. Poets and oracles transmitted cultural wisdom that functioned as social cement. The function of poetic truth was cultural mnemonics – it held society together.
Socrates challenged the paradigm of poetic truth by introducing a new distinction between true and false speaking. This implied a completely different way of thinking about and speaking the truth. True speech no longer involved using words to evoke profound existential experiences – it was a matter of testing and examining statements to determine which of the ideas expressed in them were demonstrably true and which were false. After Socrates, poetic truth-acts found themselves crowded out of the cultural market. As the centre of civilization in the ancient world shifted from Athens to Rome, the Socratic conception became synonymous with truth as such.
The beauty of the Socratic paradigm is that anyone with the requisite intelligence and training can produce the truth. Why visit the oracle when you can produce the truth at home in a discussion or debate? Socrates’ innovation destroyed the idea that had defined Greek societies from the dawn of time – that poets and oracles had an exclusive right to the truth.
Socratic dialectic stands alongside Euclidean geometry as one of the great intellectual innovations in the history of thought. Socrates was an innovative thinker. He created a new way of determining the truth that made poetic truth, and the society that was based upon it, redundant.