The Age of the Tyrants, which produced the “Seven Wise Men,” the early Ionian School and the Pythagorean School, ended about 500 B.C. Shortly afterward Greece was invaded by the Persians under Darius and Xerxes, who left Athens in ruins and the Greeks more closely united than ever before. In 460 B.C. Pericles assumed the leadership of the progressive party, gathering around him a glittering galaxy of statesmen, philosophers, dramatists and artists. Aided by the immortal Phidias, he undertook to restore the smoke-blackened Acropolis. Slowly arose the Parthenon, with the magnificent frieze by Phidias inside the colonnades. Ten centuries later the Emperor Theodosius, dictator of the Western world, turned it into a Christian Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In 1687, while the Turks were using it as a powder magazine, a German lieutenant fired the fatal shot which reduced this crowning glory of Grecian art to a mere skeleton.
In 469 B.C. Phaenarete, the wife of an Athenian sculptor, gave birth to her son Socrates, whose fame was immortalized by his pupils, Xenophon and Plato. Despite his poverty, Socrates participated freely in all the cultural advantages of the city, from which not even the humblest citizen was debarred. After spending several years in his father’s workshop, he decided that his mission in life was not to be a sculptor of figures, but a moulder of souls. This conviction came to him after hearing that the Delphic Oracle had described him as the wisest man in Greece. Failing to understand the Oracle’s statement, yet not daring to contradict it, Socrates went among his learned friends, contrasting their knowledge with his own. He soon realized that they were all as ignorant as he, the only difference being that they were unaware of their ignorance, while he, at least, knew that he knew nothing. He therefore concluded that the Oracle had chosen him as an instrument to prick the bubble of self-deception and conceit which permitted ignorance to parade itself in the borrowed garments of wisdom.
Socrates carried out his mission with no background of wealth, social position or personal charm to aid him. In appearance he was the exact opposite of the Greek ideal of beauty, his thick lips, protruding eyes, snub nose and shambling gait making him the laughing stock of Athens. Poverty was his bosom friend, frugality his boon companion. He walked through the streets of Athens barefoot, clad in a single threadbare garment which served for summer and winter alike. Between his life at home with Xantippe and the wars of the Greeks abroad in which he participated, Socrates found little opportunity for quiet study. Despite these obstacles, he has come down in history as a model of the virtues. Xenophon wrote:
No one ever heard or saw anything wrong in Socrates. So just was he that he never injured anyone in the least; so master of himself that he never preferred pleasure to goodness; so sensible that he never erred in his choice between what was better and what was worse. In a word, he was of men the best and wisest.
The Phaedo, in which Plato describes the last hours of Socrates on earth, closes with these words: “Such, Echecrates, was the end of our associate, a man, as we should say, the best and also the wisest and most righteous of his time.”
Our knowledge of Socrates is almost altogether based on the dialogues of Plato. The best of modern scholars now regard the picture of the sage presented by Xenophon as drawn from Platonic sources. The only other source of any importance is the caricature of Socrates made by Aristophanes in the Clouds—material hardly suitable for accurate biography. John Burnet, in the first volume of his Greek Philosophy: Thales to Plato, observes:
Like Shakespeare, Plato had a marvellous gift of suppressing his own personality when engaged in dramatic composition. That is why his personality is so elusive, and why that of Socrates has so often been substituted for it (p. 149).
It would be natural for an initiate—which Plato was—to “suppress his own personality,” allowing the figure of his teacher to appear as the author of the sublime philosophy which Plato recorded. Plato was only following the ancient practice of prefacing all teaching with the Buddhist formula, “Thus have I heard,” and observing the occult injunction: “That power which the disciple shall covet is that which shall make him appear as nothing in the eyes of men.”
Mr. Burnet shows how difficult it is to separate the “real” Socrates from the Platonic account. Xenophon, he points out, is far from trustworthy, and quite inadequate. Following is the view of this authority, after a quarter of a century devoted to the study of this and similar problems:
…in practice every writer fills in the outline with as much of the Platonic Socrates as happens to suit his preconceived ideas of the man. Such a procedure is hopelessly arbitrary, and can only land us in unverifiable speculations. It would be far better to say at once that we cannot know anything about Socrates, and that for us he must remain a mere x. Even so, however, the Platonic Socrates is actual enough, and he is the only Socrates we can hope to know well. If he is a fictitious character, he is nevertheless more important than most men of flesh and blood (pp. 127-8).
The outline of the life and thought of Socrates here presented is therefore of Platonic origin. This is the Socrates who has had such enormous influence on all subsequent philosophy, which was what Plato intended, and it would be fruitless to attempt to “improve” on Plato.
Socrates is frequently described as a “mystic,” the meaning of this term varying with the biographer. It is well known that he was subject to ecstatic trances, that for hours he would stand still in some subjective state, his friends knowing better than to disturb him. During the military operations of the Athenians at Potidæa, when Socrates was not quite forty years old, he remained standing motionless in one place from early morning of one day until sunrise on the next, unaffected by a hard frost during the night. He had an inner “voice,” or daemon, whose injunctions he followed. According to Plato, the daemon gave only negative admonitions, which may account for the theory of some writers that the “voice” was merely that of conscience. H. P. Blavatsky wrote that “the Daimonion of Socrates is the god or Divine Entity which inspired him all his life.” Nevertheless, because of the passive nature of this relationship, Socrates is chosen by her to illustrate the danger of untrained mediumship. “The old Grecian philosopher,” she says, “was a ‘medium’; hence he had never been initiated into the Mysteries; for such was the rigorous law.” (Isis Unveiled I, xx; II, 117.) This pure and unselfish psychic, then, was idealized by Plato, who thus showed reverence and love for the teacher of his early years by making him appear as the channel through which the ancient wisdom was revealed to the western world.
Socrates started his life-work by carefully investigating the various scientific and philosophical systems of the day, finding in Anaxagoras the nearest approach to his own concepts. As he was reaching maturity, the Sophists came into power. Their leader, Protagoras, denied the existence of the human soul, declaring that “the soul is nothing more than the sum of the different moments of thinking.” Gorgias derided morality and tried to prove by metaphysical deduction that nothing really exists. Socrates, opposing these materialistic thinkers, became the leader of a new movement in which the existence of real knowledge and the inherent dignity of the human soul were the leading ideas.
True wisdom, Socrates said, consists in the knowledge of the essence of things. This form of knowledge cannot be acquired from without, but must be sought within the soul itself. His first aim, therefore, was to train men to think, and by thinking to reach the source of knowledge within themselves.
Socrates taught the existence of a real world above the world of sense—a world subject neither to generation nor to decay. This real world he considered as the underlying Unity behind all diversity. But he also believed that, in order to know the Truth about all things, man must start by knowing himself. He taught that self-knowledge is based upon the conviction that man is an immortal entity, a soul which is a spark of the Universal World-Soul. This soul, he said, is entombed in a body, and evolves through the process of reincarnation. Taking his clue from Anaxagoras, he taught that the nous in man is able to penetrate into the region of noumena, the true source of wisdom.
It must not be concluded, however, that Socrates, and not Plato, was the author of the “Theory of Ideas.” Strictly speaking, of course, Plato was the author of none of his doctrines, which are identical with the wisdom revealed by the ancient Hindu sages. The Platonic forms or archetypes were representations of the world as it existed in Universal Mind, as pointed out in The Secret Doctrine I, 200. Mr. Burnet’s fidelity to the Platonic account of Socrates makes him suppose that the Theory of Forms or Ideas was an invention of Plato’s teacher, because the doctrine is enunciated by Socrates in the dialogues. It seems probable, however, that this highly metaphysical explanation of the nature of things originated with Plato and merely was represented by him as being taught by Socrates. Aristotle, who had no reason to conceal the truth of this matter, says in his Metaphysics that Socrates occupied himself only with questions of moral philosophy, and that Plato introduced both the name and the conception of the “Ideas.” We repeat, the Socrates here pictured, insofar as philosophical teaching is concerned, is Socrates as he appears in Plato’s writings, and not Socrates the historical character.
Socrates considered the moral and intellectual worlds as inseparable. He could not conceive of true knowledge existing apart from virtue, or of virtue without knowledge. He who knows himself, Socrates said, will of necessity perform right actions. Conversely, he who is unacquainted with his own spiritual nature will, without fail, perform wrong actions. With Socrates, as with Kant, the development of morality was the aim and end of philosophy.
Virtue, said Socrates, is based upon knowledge. He considered all knowledge to be contained in the soul, it needing only to be remembered. As Mr. Judge puts it, “Getting back the memory of other lives is really the whole of the process.” How can that knowledge be recovered save by entering into the storehouse of Manas, where the thoughts of all lives are carefully preserved?
This idea brought Socrates into immediate conflict with the Sophists. They imparted information, while Socrates tried to stimulate thought. They demanded money for their instruction; Socrates taught without remuneration. They imposed their own views upon their pupils; Socrates tried to draw out the inner convictions of his pupils and, by the process of reasoning, to replace false ideas with true. Every day he could be seen wandering through the market places and public walks of Athens, always ready for a word with friend or stranger, always eager to turn a trivial conversation into intellectual or moral channels. Often those who talked with him once came back the following day. After a while a group of young men began to speak of themselves as his pupils. This loosely connected group was the Socratic School.
His mode of instruction, known as the Socratic method, was conversational. Socrates would approach a person and ask a question. In the answer given he found material for another question, this one being a little more profound. Boring deeper and deeper below the surface of popular ideas, like a miner he exposed not only the rocks and debris of false ideas, but also the golden nuggets of true wisdom. The false ideas, which he called notions or opinions, were then discarded; the true ideas, which he called concepts, retained. Thus sorting and eliminating, he led his pupil by gradual stages to the universal truth lying within every proposition. This fundamental truth he called the essence.
Although Socrates refused to enter into politics, he entertained a high opinion of statesmanship. He performed his own civic duties with unswerving fidelity, enduring even death in order not to violate the laws of his country. Believing that the well-being of the state depends upon the integrity of its leaders, he used every opportunity to enlist the able into the service of the state, to deter the incompetent from assuming office, to awaken officials to a sense of their responsibility and to give them whatever help he could in the administration of their offices. He insisted that every man who aspired to the position of statesman should prepare himself for his calling by a thorough course of self-examination and study. He demanded an aristocracy based not upon wealth or birth but upon knowledge and virtue. Instead of the ordinary citizen-rulers, he insisted upon statesmen who were morally without reproach and who had developed the power to think for themselves. The politicians of his day believed in doing good to friends and harm to enemies. Socrates insisted upon universal brotherhood, teaching that it is wrong to injure any person, even a bitter enemy.
Plato gives the Socratic conception of political ideals in Rebublic. There Socrates says:
Unless it happen either that philosophers acquire the kingly power in states, or that those who are now called kings and potentates be imbued with a sufficient measure of genuine philosophy, that is to say, unless political power and philosophy be united in the same person … there will be no deliverance … for cities, nor yet, I believe, for the human race.
This idea is as important today as it was 2,500 years ago. Both good and evil—whether they find their expression in city, state or nation—have their roots in human character. The progress of any nation depends entirely upon the development of the nobler qualities in the citizens themselves.
The blunt criticisms of existing conditions made by Socrates brought out a horde of enemies in both the educational and political fields. Few people are able to bear an exposure of their shortcomings with equanimity. Few statesmen are able to smile when their mental and moral weaknesses are held up for public inspection. The unswerving devotion of the sage to what he considered as his mission sometimes made him careless of the resentment he might arouse. His uncompromising analysis of the government made the Athenians suspicious of his motives. His denunciation of the gods aroused the enmity of those who followed in the old ways. His new system of education fanned the anger of the Sophists to fever heat.
When Socrates was seventy years old, he was publicly accused of atheism and of exerting a harmful influence upon the youth of the land. Although realizing the seriousness of the accusation, Socrates refused to defend himself. The Apology, as we have it in Plato, is rather an unequivocal affirmation of the Socratic philosophy, than a “defense.” At his trial Socrates made no plea for pardon and offered no excuse for his actions. The result was what might have been expected. His proud and dignified bearing offended the popular tribunal, and those who might have been clement to a cringing and apologetic man were merely irritated by the poise and self-assurance of Socrates. After a short deliberation, a verdict of guilty was returned.
Asked if he were willing to give up his former mode of life if he were pardoned, he refused, although he offered to pay a small fine. The judges regarded this as incorrigible obstinacy as well as contempt of court, and sentenced him to die. He was then sent to prison for thirty days. During this period he held his customary conversations daily with his friends and pupils and maintained his usual cheerfulness and unclouded brightness of disposition. His last day on earth was spent in quiet philosophical conversation. When the evening came and the cup of hemlock was presented to him, he drank it with a strength of mind so unshaken and a resignation so complete that the grief of his friends was turned into wonder and admiration.
It is very plain that the recorded charges of irreligion and of corrupting the youth of Athens were not the real reason for the condemnation of Socrates. The accusation of disrespect for the gods, or disbelieving in the mythological accounts of their activities, could not have been so seriously regarded. The comedies of the time treat these matters very lightly, and no one was ever prosecuted for religious opinions. “Socrates,” writes H.P.B., “invariably refused to argue upon the mystery of universal being, yet no one would ever have thought of charging him with atheism, except those who were bent upon his destruction.” (Isis Unveiled II, 264.) John Burnet concludes his discussion of the problem by showing how vague were the Athenians themselves as to the offense of Socrates:
In fact, everyone speculates about the meaning of the charge, and the one fact that stands out clearly is that no one—not even the prosecutor—seems to know it. It surely follows that the charge of introducing new divinities, though stated in the indictment, was neither explained nor justified at the trial.
Mr. Burnet supposes that because the Socrates of the dialogues tried to revive the Orphic theory of the soul and the Pythagorean teachings, he had been initiated in the Orphic mysteries at an early age, before the degeneration of the secret schools. But this was rather an effort of Plato, who had been initiated, to establish in philosophy the truths of Orphicism. As H.P.B. observes, the downfall of the principal sanctuaries had already begun in Plato’s time. (Isis Unveiled II, 305.) The Athenians probably refrained from speaking clearly of the charge against Socrates because this would involve mentioning the mystery teachings. The real offense of Socrates was in teaching to his disciples the arcane doctrines of the Mysteries, betraying secrets which were “never to be revealed under the penalty of death.” But Socrates had never been initiated and is hardly to be regarded as guilty of intentional profanation. For, as H.P.B. explains, “The old sage, in unguarded moments of ‘spiritual inspiration,’ revealed that which he had never learned; and was therefore put to death as an atheist.” (Isis Unveiled II, 118.)
It seems just to observe that various other causes contributed to his condemnation. He had many enemies—among them the Athenian politicians whose faults he had exposed, and among the Sophists, whose ignorance and insincerity he had attacked. Everyone knew that Socrates thought the existing Athenian constitution was a complete failure. He had openly declared that the power of state should not be awarded by lot or election, but should be decided by the moral and intellectual qualifications of the candidates for office. But none of these reasons or all of them together, were sufficient cause for demanding his death. The charge of profanation alone provided a suitable pretext for his enemies. Even the initiate Aeschylus was accused of sacrilege and narrowly escaped being stoned to death because the Athenians believed he had exposed a portion of the Eleusinian teaching in his trilogies performed before the public.
The tragedy of Socrates teaches a mighty lesson as to the dangers of passivity, showing also the wisdom of the rule which does not permit the initiation of mediums. The medium delivers himself into the control of his “familiar spirit,” and one who thus surrenders the sovereignty of self-control to an outside force can not be trusted to keep the rules of initiation—in particular, the rule of secrecy. Socrates was the victim of both himself and his times. His death was not, from the appearance of things, just; but in the larger view—the view which comprehends the working of Karma and the necessity of the Soul to learn from experience, it may have been precisely what was needed to awaken that noble ego from its passive tendencies.