“An evil-doer and a curious person, searching into things under the earth and above the heaven; and making the worse appear the better cause, and teaching all this to others.” Such were the charges against Socrates when he was condemned to death by his fellow Athenians. In Ancient Greece, it seems that teaching was a dangerous profession.
Not that Socrates ever called himself a teacher. In fact, he mocked those that did, like the Sophists, for charging pupils fees for access to their knowledge. “I have never set myself up as any man’s teacher,” he told his jury, “but if anyone, young or old, is eager to hear me conversing and carrying out my private mission, I never grudge him the opportunity; nor do I charge a fee for talking to him.”
Of course, this approach didn’t exactly leave Socrates with a healthy retirement fund. By the time of his trial he was, in his own words, reduced to “extreme poverty”. However, his lack of wealth hardly bothered him – in fact, he despised worldly goods. Instead, his chief concern was to get competent men into power. He would ask those who gathered to hear him, “If I want a shoe mended, whom should I employ?” Predictably, someone would answer, “A shoemaker”. And so he would go on about carpenters and coppersmiths. Socrates’ point was that the same logic applied to having a good society – it requires leaders with the appropriate competency: namely, wisdom.
As a teacher, Socrates described his job as the “office of such a fly; and all day long I never cease to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you.” He did not claim to have genius, but only a “kind of wisdom” – a “human wisdom”.
In proof of this wisdom, Socrates offered the following story. Hearing the Oracle of Delphi has declared him the wisest of all men, Socrates is confounded, for surely, he thinks to himself, he knows very little at all. He resolves to speak to a politician with a reputation for wisdom. However, upon speaking to the politician, he discovers that the man is not actually wise.
So Socrates tries to show the politician that he only thinks he is wise, rather than actually being wise. Understandably, the politician is resentful, and Socrates realises that, “I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.” So Socrates continues going around speaking to politicians, poets, and skilled craftsmen, discovering that none of them is wise – leading to his unpopularity. It doesn’t help that his students have followed his lead, and go around the city questioning eminent people’s wisdom. Socrates’ dangerous teachings were therefore not any particular knowledge as such, but a method – a method that would go on to shape much of Western philosophy. That method, the dialectic, can be thought of as a never-ending interrogation, in which what we think we know is unraveled and taken apart until we arrive at the truth.
For Socrates, this job of teaching – of asking questions, especially of authority – was so important that he was willing to die for it. It is in effect, the job of a philosopher. Comparing himself to Achilles, who was duty-bound to avenge Patrocles and kill Hector, Socrates said that he could not desert his post of philosopher even if he had “to die a hundred deaths”. In fact, fear of death is itself a form of thinking one is wise when one is not. To fear death is to presume to know what death is, when in reality we have no way of knowing. Thus armed with the wisdom to neither fear nor welcome death, Socrates tells the jury that unless they kill him, he will continue to say to the people he meets, “Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honour, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?”
Around the time when Socrates was born, on the other side of the world in Ancient China, another great teacher was defining the future development of Eastern philosophy. Like Socrates, Confucius was concerned with getting good men into power – in his case, as advisors to hereditary rulers. For Confucius, it was a love of righteousness (also translatable as justice) that restrained greed and ambition: “to attain wealth or rank by unrighteous means is as far from me as a floating cloud.”
Confucius too took on students from all grades of society, inculcating in them a love of learning. Importantly, this learning was a dynamic process: “To learn, and not to think over [what one has learnt] is useless; to think without learning is dangerous.” In other words, one cannot simply imbibe past wisdom without turning it over in one’s own mind. At the same time, purely subjective meditation and fantasies which have no basis in objective reality can be dangerous. As ever in Confucian philosophy, it is a matter of harmony, and moderation, between those two poles.
What sets Confucius apart from Socrates was his insistence that attaining wisdom could not be a goal in itself. The important thing was to put wisdom into practice in political and social life. The ideal Confucian scholar was expected to guide – and challenge – rulers by directly participating in government. In stark contrast, Socrates said that “the true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even for a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone.”
According to Socrates, the ideal teacher – that is, the philosopher – seeks to mould those who will rule, whilst standing outside the machinery of government. For this, Socrates was put to death, launching a long tradition of the Western philosopher as critic. Confucius on the other hand, suffered a more ambivalent fate. Following his death, his ideas gained in influence to the extent that he became the patron saint of the scholar class and all the institutions of learning. As that class and those institutions came to wield control over China, the deification of Confucius became a way for them to solidify their own power. As sinologist and Confucian expert D. Howard Smith notes, “what had been an ethicopolitical school of thought was transformed into a religion.”
Perhaps even worse, the scholar class turned its back on independent and original thought – cornerstones of Confucius’ teaching – in favour of an educational system which encouraged students to memorise accepted Confucian truths. In effect, the scholar class wished to reproduce itself, without any risk of new ideas developing that would put their own privileged positions in jeopardy.
What was lost, when philosophy became a lucrative profession, was the radical nature of Confucius’ reformist thinking. The lesson for us is that there should always be room for the thinker – that fly that rouses, persuades and reproves.