Western Civilization and Socratic Dialogue
The American classicist Bruce S. Thornton, author of books such as Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization, places Socrates at the very heart of the Western tradition, not only because of what he taught but at least as much because of how he taught it, with what has been labeled Socratic method or Socratic dialogue.
Thornton defines philosophy as “critical consciousness systematized,” and states that “Of all the Greek philosophers, the spirit of critical consciousness is best embodied in the late 5th century BC philosopher Socrates,” who was executed in Athens in 399 BC. According to him:
Socrates’s famous method was the ‘dialectic,’ from the Greek word that suggests both ‘discussion’ and ‘analytical sorting.’ The purpose of dialectic was to strip away the false knowledge and incoherent opinion that most people inherit from their societies and unthinkingly depend on to manage their lives. Although Socrates claimed to doubt that he or anyone else could acquire true knowledge about the good and virtue and the beautiful, he nonetheless believed that what he called ‘examination,’ critical consciousness applied to questions of virtue and the good, could eliminate false knowledge and muddled opinion.
Socrates saw this activity of rational examination and pursuit of truth and virtue as the essence of what a human being is and the highest expression of human nature. That is why he chose to die by drinking the poison hemlock rather than to go into exile. “The unexamined life,” he said in his defense speech, “is no life worth living for a human being.” This legacy of critical — and self-critical — rational thought is crucially important. Thornton again:
Western culture has been defined by critical consciousness, the willingness to examine and challenge traditional wisdom and answers in the pursuit of truth, and to stand in opposition to the political and social powers whose authority and legitimacy rest on the unexamined acceptance of received dogma. Science obviously has progressed in this fashion, but even in literature we find an impatience with tradition and a restless searching for ever greater and more finely nuanced explorations of the human condition. A whole genre, the aptly named novel, was invented partly as a vehicle for examining the fluid complexities of human psychology and social relations, a complexity ignored in the stock characters and plots of traditional story-telling.
In this sense, Western literature has been the creation of what Lionel Trilling called ‘opposing sel[ves],’ all those dissidents who, like Socrates, are driven to examine the human condition and probe beyond the traditional answers. The spirit of Western civilization, then, is, as Alan Bloom has suggested, ‘Socratic,’ a process of raising important questions and examining critically the tradition of answers, as this examination is embodied in works of enduring excellence, starting of course with those of the ancient Greeks.
This achievement is by no means self-evident. According to G.E.R Lloyd in his book The Ambitions of Curiosity, “the tradition of debate itself stands out as the key institution (of a different kind from those of bureaux or courts) in the situation within which most Greek intellectuals operated.” Lloyd contrasts this with other civilizations such as the Chinese one:
Criticism of your own teacher — rare, if not quite unknown in China — was common in Greece, sometimes as a prelude to the pupil setting up a rival school of his own. The case of Aristotle is just the most famous of many that can be cited. To be sure, the role of text-books in Greece eventually came to be considerable, even though none, not even Euclid’s Elements, achieved quite the cachet of a Chinese major canon, at least not in Greco-Roman antiquity. Of course, on the Chinese side, not all instruction was mediated through such texts. In the Lunyu [Analects], Confucius, for instance, is described in dialogue with his pupils in an open situation that might seem reminiscent of the fictional conversations of Socrates in Plato.
Yet two differences remain: first Confucius’ authority is never challenged by his pupils in the way Socrates is contradicted by some of his interlocutors (however much Plato stacks the cards in Socrates’ favour in their eventual refutation). Secondly, Confucius’ pupils were not his sole, nor maybe even prime, preoccupation, which was rather, we said, to find a ruler worthy to advise.
It is true that the extremely influential Neo-Confucian thinker Zhu Xi or Chu Hsi (1130-1200 AD) championed the idea that one should “investigate the nature of things,” but according to scholar Charles Hucker, “The investigation of things that it advocates unquestionably has similarities with the modern scientific spirit. However, the ‘things’ that Chu Hsi and his followers principally emphasized were not natural laws, but the ethical virtues traditionally espoused by Confucianism — filial piety, loyalty, and human kindness.” It was not meant as encouraging the pursuit of science in the way that happened in Europe.
Moreover, the rigid framework of the Chinese Imperial examination system, which imposed absolute uniformity bordering on indoctrination, made it a failure insofar as science, innovation and creativity are concerned. As in the Islamic world, Chinese advances in the theoretical sciences (but not in applied technology such as the construction of bridges and canals, which was often encouraged by the authorities) were achieved in spite of, not because of, the official forms of education.
In the eyes of Toby E. Huff, “[The examination system] did not produce great systematic thinkers equivalent to Averroes, Peter Abelard, Gratian, Aquinas (and others in law), Buridan, Ockham, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler (in the natural sciences), and so forth. This is not to say that China produced no great thinkers; it clearly did. One thinks here especially of the neo-Confucians Ch’eng I and Ch’eng Hao, Chu Hsi (1130-1200), and even naturalist thinkers such as Shen Kua (1031-95). But it did not encourage or tolerate thinkers who were essentially disputatious and critical of the intellectual status quo (as Abelard was, for example), and who attempted to develop and systematize the intellectual tools necessary to push the life of the mind forward.
There was no Chinese equivalent to the Scholastic method of disputation, no canons of logic à la Aristotle, and no mathematical methods of proof such as one finds in Euclid’s geometry. Derk Bodde points out, ‘Throughout its history Confucianism has deprecated the use of debate as a means of advancing knowledge.’ This is further signified by ‘the virtual absence in ancient Chinese philosophy of anything resembling the Socratic dialogue (meaning a reasoned discourse between two individuals pursued in order to approach closer to clarity and truth.)’“
Wasn’t Socrates led to his death in Athens for being too troublesome? Yes, he was. This demonstrates that no society in history has ever been perfect. Yet as Henry Bamford Parkes points out in his classic Gods and Men — The Origins of Western Culture, Plato used the treatment of Socrates in democratic Athens as a proof that democracy was an unjust system. The irony is that one of our most important sources regarding the life and teachings of Socrates (who wrote nothing himself) is his pupil Plato, who supposedly wished to see the works of his rival Democritus burned. He was certainly correct in pointing out that democracy does not automatically lead to liberty. It did not do so in the ancient world, and it does not do so now. Probably no culture has ever enjoyed total free speech, but democratic Athens was nevertheless closer to this ideal than any other ancient culture.
According to the Danish scholar Mogens Herman Hansen in his carefully researched book The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, Athenian citizens could not be executed without due process of law, except thieves and robbers that were caught in the act. Another rule forbade torture of citizens, although we should of course remember here that citizens constituted a minority of the (male) population. Athenian democracy further provided some protection of a citizen’s home. Some of these measures to protect private property rights may date back to the reforms of the lawgiver Solon in the early sixth century BC:
In addition to the protection of person, home and property, the most treasured of individual rights is freedom of speech, cherished by democrats but suppressed by supporters of authoritarian rule. Once more we find the same ideal in democratic Athens, as in Demosthenes’ remark that a basic difference between Spartan oligarchy and Athenian democracy is that in Athens you are free to praise the Spartan constitution and way of life, if you so wish, whereas in Sparta it is prohibited to praise any other constitution than the Spartan.
The trial of Sokrates is evidence that the Athenians, for once, did not live up to their own ideals, but the sentence passed on Sokrates is unparalleled in the history of Athenian democracy. A decree prohibiting the ridiculing of individuals in comedies was passed in 440 but abrogated four years later, and the decree of Diopeithes, of about the same date, which laid down that there should be a criminal prosecution of ‘atheists or astronomers’ may have led to a trial of Anaxagoras. The evidence for the other public prosecutions of philosophers for impiety — the trial of Protagoras, for instance — is anecdotal and dangerous to rely on without confirmation.
Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (ca. 500-428 BC), the last of the Ionian pre-Socratic philosophers and a friend of the statesman Pericles or Perikles (ca. 495 — 429 BC), was apparently persecuted for impiety because he believed the Sun was a mass of red-hot metal and not a divine celestial object, as most people still believed. This constitutes the first known clash between science and religion in European history, producing the first victim of religious persecution. However, it represents a rather atypical incident. For the most part, many city-states in Greece enjoyed a remarkable level of freedom of speech, and few similar cases arose in the Greek world prior to the Christian era. After Socrates it was an accolade for a philosopher to be charged with impiety, and Hellenistic biographers were eager to bestow this honor on quite a few of his contemporaries, whether this was historically accurate or not. In Hansen’s view, even the trial of Anaxagoras is not entirely above suspicion in this regard.
The problem with Plato is not that he used the shameful treatment of Socrates to demonstrate flaws in the democratic system and show that it does not automatically lead to individual liberty, freedom of speech and respect for private property rights, which is legitimate criticism. The problem with Plato is that he rejected these goals as desirable to begin with. He embraced what we could be called “seductive authoritarianism,” where he argued that since democracy isn’t perfect, we should passionately embrace an authoritarian or indeed totalitarian system where all aspects of human life are controlled by the state.
Although he is not uncritical of Sparta, the system Plato praises in The Republic is a lot closer to authoritarian Sparta than to Athens. In doing so, Plato conveniently forgot that there was no Socrates in Sparta, just like there was no Plato or Aristotle. While Plato was free to be in democratic Athens and praise the Spartan system, praising any state or system other than the Spartan one was quite literally a crime in Sparta.
Sparta had no commercial class and was dominated by a militarized egalitarianism. The men ate at communal messes and lived under “Spartan” conditions, reflecting the idealization of military virtues and strict discipline. The bulk of the inhabitants were helots, serf-like workers who were routinely mistreated or killed. Because of this, the Spartan elites always feared revolt at home, something which hampered them in foreign affairs. Sparta had no artistic or cultural achievement to speak of and produced good soldiers, but hardly any scientists or artists worthy of note. Plato thus praised a system in which no Plato could, or did, exist.
According to the historian J. M. Roberts, “The Republic was the first book in which anyone had ever set out a scheme for a society directed and planned to achieve an ethical goal. It describes an authoritarian state (reminiscent of Sparta) in which marriages would be regulated to produce the best genetic results, families and private property would not exist, culture and the arts would be censored and education carefully supervised. The few who ruled this state would be those of sufficient intellectual and moral stature to fit them for the studies which would enable them to realize the just society in practice by apprehending the Ideal world.
Like Socrates, Plato held that wisdom was the understanding of reality and he assumed that to see truth ought to make it impossible not to act in accordance with it. Unlike his teacher, he held that for most people education and the laws should impose exactly that unexamined life which Socrates had thought not worth living. The Republic and its arguments were to provoke centuries of discussion and imitation, but this was true of almost all Plato’s work. As a twentieth-century English philosopher put it, practically all subsequent philosophy in the West was a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Not only the example of democratic Athens, but also that of authoritarian Sparta, has had a lasting influence on Western thought, yet not always on the best parts of it. As Jonathan M. Hall explains in the book A History of the Archaic Greek World: ca. 1200-479 BCE:
The Spartans’ supposed rejection of private property influenced the utopian ideas of Sir Thomas More and the Abbé de Mably and, much later, the communist philosophy of Friedrich Engels. For the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Spartans’ subordination of their own individual interests to the good of the state offered a prototype for the ‘social contract,’ while the apparent licence accorded Spartan women constituted, for the nineteenth-century Swiss historian Johann Jakob Bachofen, the remnants of a once more universal institution of matriarchy.
But Adolf Hitler also had a particular fascination with Sparta, basing the Hitler Jugend on the Spartan agoge or public education system. In the rambling thoughts that form the Table Talk — itself a title borrowed from Plutarch — Hitler admired the Spartans’ determination to weed out weak or inferior children and compared the fate of his own Sixth Army, cut off in Stalingrad, to that of King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans who fought to the death, defending the pass of Thermopylae against the Persians in 480.
Leonidas, King of Sparta, is alleged to have said “Come and take them!” to the vastly more numerous Persian forces calling for the Greeks to lay down their arms during the Battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his men died after holding their ground for three days, but bought the Greek city-states enough time to defeat the Persians. Spartans could produce excellent soldiers and may in this case have been a force for good, but to cast the battle as one of “Western liberty vs. Oriental despotism,” as is sometimes done, is simplistic.
The Persians did indeed invade Greece and the Greeks had every right to defend themselves, but the Persians were not the worst of rulers and Sparta was hardly a beacon of liberty in any meaningful sense of the word. Hall indicates that the issue of private property is more complicated than sometimes stated, and that may well be true, but in no sense can Sparta be said to have been a champion of free enterprise. Sparta is a very good example for those who, like Hayek did in the twentieth century, see a close connection between political liberty, or lack of such, and economic liberty.
Spartan authorities played an important role in manufacturing the image that they projected to the outside world, but “our perception of that image has been refracted through the lenses of non-Spartan writers — especially Athenian authors of a more oligarchic persuasion, for whom an idealized portrayal of Sparta as a stable, just, and meritocratic society could serve as a utopian blueprint for the establishment of a new political order that did not pander to the Athenian masses.” A key figure in the Athenian contribution to the Spartan mirage was Critias, who is supposed to have written two treatises on Sparta and who was a relative of Plato, for whom Sparta constituted an important point of reference in his political works.
As Henry Bamford Parkes puts it, “Any application of Platonic principles would have destroyed the social milieu that had made such dialogues possible. There could have been no Socratic discussions in the authoritarian state envisaged in the Republic and the Laws.” In his view, Plato’s influence was primarily negative: “In spite of his contempt for empirical observation, his emphasis on the value of mathematics helped to promote the scientific development of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” Yet all in all, “his chief importance has been to provide philosophical support for the belief that order requires the denial of freedom.” According to Parkes, “Sparta represented the totalitarian solution to the political problem, and because of the admiration felt for it by the Athenian aristocrat Plato, it has had a lasting influence on Western thought.”
One could argue that although freethinking is a golden thread running through the history of Western civilization, this legacy gave birth to a radical rejection of freethinking which is also a part of the Western legacy. It is tempting to view Plato as an early forerunner of modern intellectuals with totalitarian longings, who use their freedom to praise political systems in which no freedom exists. Unfortunately, many of them are quite prominent in Western media and academia in the early twenty-first century.
Western universities are now dominated by persons, many of them Marxists, who have no interest in using Socratic dialogue in search of truth. They already know the truth, or consider it irrelevant, and simply view the universities as a platform for ideological indoctrination of students. Mass education has become mass indoctrination. This ideological corruption and anti-Europeanism has recently been infused with an element of financial corruption as well, especially with patronage from wealthy Arabian oil states.
The university as such did not exist in the Greco-Roman world; it was the creation of the Christian civilization of the European Middle Ages. But it was a successful marriage of Christian doctrines and Socratic methods. Dr. Charles Malik, philosopher and Lebanese diplomat, explains how the Greek contribution was vital for the creation of the Western university as a home for reason, free inquiry and unfettered curiosity:
It is interesting to ponder why Chinese or Indians or Muslims or Arabs can enter Freiburg University or the Sorbonne or Oxford or Harvard or Chicago University or Toronto University and specialize and earn a universally respected academic degree in their own Chinese or Indian or Muslim or Arab culture, but no German or Frenchman or Englishman or American or Canadian can enter any Chinese or Indian or Muslim or Persian or Arab university and specialize and earn a universally respected academic degree in his own German or French or British or American or Canadian culture.
The reason is that these non-Western universities (and therefore their own native cultures which they themselves reflect) have not yet sufficiently caught the insatiable original Greek curiosity about all being; they are interested in others only to a degree; for the most part only utilitarian, only to use them, only to learn from them. They are not interested in knowing their essence, their being; they are for the most part wrapped up in themselves; the others are perhaps too strange, too forbidding for them; their original, natural, wholesome curiosity is somehow inhibited.
As Ibn Warraq points out, no university in an Islamic country “offers any profound courses on non-Islamic civilizations, certainly nothing of the depth, quality, and comprehensiveness of courses offered in Western universities on every civilization, ancient and modern. No scholar from the Islamic world writing about his own culture and history has reached anywhere near the scholarship of a Carl Brockelmann or a Theodore Nöldeke,” and there “is certainly no Muslim scholar who has contributed anything significant to the study of Europe, European history, languages, or literature.”
Ibn Warraq warns that this unique critical legacy is now being systematically undermined:
The West, in giving in to political correctness and in being corrupted by Saudi and other Arab money, is ceasing to honor the original intent of the university. In recent years, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries (e.g., Brunei) have established chairs of Islamic studies in prestigious Western universities, which are then encouraged to present a favorable image of Islam. Scientific research leading to objective truth no longer seems to be the goal. Critical examination of the sources or the Koran is discouraged. Scholars such as Daniel Easterman have even lost their posts for not teaching about Islam in the way approved by Saudi Arabia.
In December 2005, Georgetown and Harvard universities each accepted $ 20 million from Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal for programs in Islamic studies. The Carter Center, founded by former president Jimmy Carter, is funded in part by bin Talal. Such money can only corrupt the original intent of all higher institutions of education, that is, the search for truth. Now, we shall have only ‘Islamic truth’ that is acceptable to the royal Saudi family, a family that has financed terrorism, anti-Westernism, and anti-Semitism for more than thirty years.
The decline of the West in recent generations is closely linked to an aggressive assault on the best traditions of European thought and how these are upheld in the education system and the media. We can only reverse that trend by reasserting our Socratic heritage and insist on our right to critically examine everything.