To understand the importance of Socratic thought in European civilization, one must first understand how it arose. First and foremost, one should keep in mind the Athens that he lived in. The most well known parts of Socrates’ life are the events leading up to his trial and death. He was an old man of approximately 70 years at the time of Plato’s dialogues. He was born around 470 B.C., just as the Athenian empire was rising to prominence as a true power in the Mediterranean. He was not born into a noble family. His parents would probably be best described as “working class” today.
In the early years of his life, he was stonecutter by trade, working on all sorts of projects to build the ever expanding city of Athens. He was even to have said to have made statues that stood near the Parthenon. He also was a soldier, fighting in several battles that lead up to the Peloponnesian war.
His was life intimately entwined with the rise and fall of ancient Athens. By the time of the dialogues, Athens, who had once been the most powerful of all city-states, had been reduced to the puppet of Sparta. The hubris and arrogance of the Athenian government had lead it from a golden age to rubble. No city in Greece had ever been so high or fallen so low. His characteristic irony and sarcasm are known for having a general sense of disappointment of humanity in them. The fall of Athens and the flaws in its democratic government played a formative role in such attitudes.
The ideological and scholastic developments that Athens displayed during Socrates’ life are just as important as the political. In his elder years, Athenian academics was thoroughly sophist. Many of the wealthy and powerful in Athens were taught by Sophist tutors. As a school of thought, its core teachings espoused the superiority of rhetoric in all things. The tools of argument, if properly wielded, could be used to sway any audience to any conclusion. It did not matter the truth of what was ultimately being said. Sophist thought is a prime example of “form over function”.
From what the dialogues tell us, Socrates was consistently and vehemently an anti-Sophist. He saw their use of rhetoric as a nihilist abomination, an affront to the gods. He held that the underlying truth of the universe was unchanging and could be reasoned with. Disaster was the only outcome for those who would seek to subvert this fact.
Socrates actions in the dialogues, when viewed through this light, take on a new significance. He is no longer just a wise man, exposing the folly of the citizens of Athens, but a critic of his society. One cannot help but see Socrates’ Athens as a civilization in decay, rotting from the inside out. Whatever ethics they had that brought them glory in the past had fled.
Socrates fought against this pervasive attitude by using the own tools of the Sophists against them. Rhetorical flourish depends on exploiting uncertainty caused by the inexactness of language. One can say something vague enough so that it has an effect on any listener. The Socratic method thrives on absurdity. His method of overcoming this vagueness was by raising questions that demanded exact answers. It immediately put his subjects on the defensive. This easily put himself in control of the debate, from beginning to end.
Most of the people Socrates conversed with in the dialogues were much younger and higher born than him. They had lived their lives in a world dominated by Sophist thought. Things they saw as completely reasonable, Socrates saw as foolish. However, it is important to see that he was not arguing with these people for any personal reason, as they were often strangers to him. He argued for the sake of Athens. Ultimately, he was put to death for this very reason, “corrupting the youth” of Athens. The case brought against him was not for any individual offense. His accusers saw the danger he represented against their society as a whole. The worst punishment comes when the heretic speaks the truth.
There are many parallels between the Athens of Socrates and the modern world. Both are societies who quickly rose to prominence but now are in constant existential doubt. Deep down, both are aware of their tenuous right to authority. They lost the will to create greatness because most realize that the logical conclusion to their way of life creates nothing. It only brings about destruction, yet both societies are too cowardly to change course. As a consequence, they try to stamp out any that might challenge this order as quickly as possible.
Socrates found an effective method for exposing the absurdity of the time he lived in through irony and logic. By questioning everything, including the beliefs held common by most Athenians, he could get people to consider ideas that would otherwise be alien to them.
So much of the opposition to modernity today is pointless. It takes the path of most resistance when it comes to argument. Persuading people against deeply ingrained held beliefs by arguing directly against them is, for the most part, impossible. Trying to save the environment by stopping loggers or picketing an abortion clinic only serves to create contention. Those sort of methods don’t help anybody because they don’t attack the root cause, the insane beliefs brought us here in the first place. One only has to expose the absurdity of the modern world for what it is. Lies collapse in on themselves when the slightest amount of truth is introduced in an understandable way. The Modern worldview is its own worst enemy, but only if people see it for what it truly is.