A review of the ‘Socratic Dialogues’

Having often wondered about the idea of death, I was driven to go shopping during my stint in India this summer for books about death authored by eminent thinkers. Suffice to say that I found no book that was prepared to focus all its discussions on ‘death’: either it was a novel whose characters prompted the reader to contemplate on the consequences of death or a set of essays that dealt with death on a perfunctory basis, at most including the phenomenon as a contributing factor to some other fears. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that there had been no thinker, author or editor who gave death the importance I thought it deserved – until I chanced upon Plato’s The Republic. The book actually came together with The Dialogues of Plato as well, and that is where I found my answers in the form of the dialectics between Socrates and his disciple. At first glance, they seemed intensely profound to the point of being abstruse. I am reading it right now, and let me tell you, once you go through it from beginning along with the right amount of concentration given to understand Plato’s language and verbosity, along with a mind that is not altogether sharp but more open to ideas (along with the knack to correlate concepts mentioned in passing in the book to real-life happenings), the rhetoric can be immensely informative. I need not tell you this, but Socrates will not let you down no matter what question you have for him. Being in the middle of the book, I cannot give you a review that encompasses all the aspects of the work, but I will try my best to give you a review that is based on the (possibly right) assumption that the first few chapters are as good as the rest.

Foremost, Plato has employed the art of the dialectic and the rhetoric to the most – he has not squeezed persuasion out like water from a wet rag, rather he has put it down with the kind of introduction it deserves and then has let it do its job. If you do not know yet, a dialectic is a method of unravelling mysteries for yourself by the use of questions and answers on the behavior of the mysterious phenomenon and what might have caused it to happen; a rhetoric, on the other hand, is the art of oration, often long and profound. While any other writer might have embarked on a tortuously long jounrey of words, phrases and sentences in order to put down, in as ‘basic terms’ as possible, what Plato has done is he has not quashed the liberty of interpretation one might have lost if forced to go through page after page of language that is so dense and invariably soporific. Next, although the ‘gods of Athens’ appear to be a strong influence on the reasoning used by Socrates throughout the book, you will observe – once you read the book, that is – that they can conveniently be eliminated from the equations. Socrates only uses them in two contexts – both peripheral to the central dialectic:

  1. as beings who prompt him to think, and
  2. as beings who serve as the occupants of the altar at which Socrates places his work in return for what ever they have promised him in the first place.

Like I said, peripheral to the central dialectic. The reasoning he employs – wonderfully simple at just the first glance – are devoid of any reference, or so I think, to religion or religious bias of any sort.

Let me get back to what interested me: at the book shop, for instance, I was flipping through the pages stopping only to look at random tidbits of the narration when I chanced upon one that concerned death and the state of the soul once death was past. Socrates, according to Plato, first takes up the dual notion of the universe with Simmias and Crito – two of the disciples with him then. The argument in question stems from the question put forth by Crito as to why Socrates preferred the death penalty to being exiled from Athens – possibly to Thessaly. Socrates replies that though he who fears death may have opted for the proposed alternative, he has no reason to believe exile will prove to be better than death itself. When doubt persists about the nature of his answer, Socrates states that he being a true philosopher, he ought not to consider any alternative when death itself remains one of the answer. He goes on to elaborate on the philosopher’s objective – that of knowing the truth and understanding it. This, he says, can only be perceived only when the functions of sight and sound are absent because they are corrupters of true knowledge. As an analogical example, he speaks of piety: piety, according to one, is being in a state of favor by the gods. The gods, however, are known to be feudal – many of them have bad relations with the rest on count of various happenings. Therefore, if one is to be considered to be in favor of one god, he is also very likely to be not favored by another rival god, ergo being pious as well as impious. That is absurd and, therefore, the definition is insufficient and wrong. Similarly, while one might consider the moon of the night very beautiful, another man might consider the same sight unsightful. Sight, thus sound too, are insufficient prerequisites for the presence of beauty. Based on the assumption that absolute beauty does exist (which might have a religious basis?), a conclusion is arrived at that the body and the bodily functions with it present only a hinderance to the quest of knowing the truth. In fact, the role of the body is further undermined given that it is dependent on the individual’s intake of food and the very many number of maladies that hamper its condition. Anyway, if anyone is to know the truth, it has to be a conquest of the soul that has been liberated from the invisible chains of the body.

After convincing his listeners about the veracity of his decision, Socrates moves on to talk about what happens once death passes. Crito poses a question at this juncture, asking about the layman’s fear of liberating the soul from the body only to find it to float away like a wisp of smoke in the turbulent wind. To this, Socrates hits back with the dual nature of all things material or immaterial in this universe. Can one know love without knowing hatred? Can one know light without having experiencing darkness first? Furthermore, can one know waking without having slept first? The answer to all these questions, and many more like them, is an obvious no. Similarly, can one know life without having known death? Maybe not. That being the case, where does the soul go if it has known death – perhaps to another body? Perhaps indeed. But it does suffice to be the answer since we no of no other solution nature has provided us with, “nor the gods”. Conclusions such as these, based completely on history that is assumed to be a collective pool of human experience and therefore a pool of the kind of knowledge we can reach out to, are hard to refute – at least destructively (a constructive refusal being that which is based on another line of reasoning, say). Apart from being hard to refute, they are also quite simplistic and easy to understand. I think that has been Socrates’ contribution to all of mankind: the exhibition of the beauty of the dialectic.

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