02 May 2024

The Greeks have a word for it:
38, Socratic, Σωκρατικὸς

Did Socrates ever get drunk? … a bar in Piskopianó in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

There is a bar at the top of the hill in Piskopianó with the name Socrates.

As I looked back at that bar some days ago, I wondered whether, at the height of the season, it is filled with tourists who become bar-room philosophers, arguing and debating, and – if so – whether any of them then stumble out drunk.

In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades claims that Socrates, despite allegedly drinking heavily just like the others, never got drunk and that alcohol never has any effect on Socrates: ‘Observe, my friends, said Alcibiades, that this ingenious trick of mine will have no effect on Socrates, for he can drink any quantity of wine and not be at all nearer being drunk.’

There are three great Greek philosophers – Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Some years ago, back in 2017, I bought a T-shirt in the Plaka in Athens with a slogan I had first spotted over ten years earlier:

To do is to be – Socrates

To be is to do – Plato

Do be do be do – Sinatra

I wondered, as I first photographed the T-shirt, what Aristotle might have said, and was amused at how he had lost out to Frank Sinatra. But, of course, I know Plato and Socrates never said such things or put their views so succinctly.

The quotes attributed to them are simplistic and fanciful, if not facile. But they were good ways to introduce students at the time to thinking about how to make the necessary connections between philosophy and theology, and between popular culture and theology.

The order of the slogans changes over the last half century, and the attributions change too, drawing in a variety of philosophers, including Dale Carnegie, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, William James, William Shakespeare and Bertrand Russell. But the punchline continues to be ascribed to Frank Sinatra.

Socrates is regarded as the founder of Western philosophy … a street name in Koutouloufári in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Socrates (Σωκράτης), who lived in Athens from ca 470 to 399 BCE, is regarded as the founder of Western philosophy and among the first moral philosophers of the ethical tradition of thought. But he is an enigmatic figure, for he wrote no texts, and he is known mainly through the posthumous accounts of classical writers, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon.

These accounts are written as dialogues, in which Socrates and his interlocutors examine a subject in the style of question and answer. They gave rise to the Socratic dialogue literary genre.

Contradictory accounts of Socrates make it almost impossible to reconstruct his philosophy, a situation known as the Socratic problem. Socrates was a polarising figure in Athenian society. He was accused of impiety and corrupting the youth in 399 BCE. After a trial that lasted a day, he was sentenced to death. He spent his last day in prison, refusing offers to help him escape, and died drinking the cup of hemlock he was given.

Plato’s dialogues are among the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates to survive from antiquity. They demonstrate the Socratic approach to areas of philosophy, including epistemology and ethics.

The Platonic Socrates lends his name to the concept of the Socratic method, and also to Socratic irony. The Socratic method of questioning, or elenchus, takes shape in dialogue using short questions and answers, epitomised by those Platonic texts in which Socrates and his interlocutors examine various aspects of an issue or an abstract meaning, usually relating to one of the virtues, and find themselves at an impasse, completely unable to define what they thought they understood.

Socrates is known for proclaiming his total ignorance. He said the only thing he was aware of was his ignorance, seeking to imply that the realisation of our ignorance is the first step in philosophising.

Yet, Socrates never wrote about his teachings. All we know about him comes from the accounts of others: mainly the philosopher Plato and the historian Xenophon, who were both his pupils; from the Athenian comic dramatist Aristophanes, who was a contemporary of Socrates; and from Plato’s pupil Aristotle, who was born after Socrates died.

The often contradictory stories from these ancient accounts only serve to complicate scholars’ ability to reconstruct Socrates’s true thoughts reliably, a predicament known as the Socratic problem. The works of Plato, Xenophon, and other authors who use the character of Socrates as an investigative tool, are written in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutors and provide the main source of information on Socrates, his life and his thinking.

Socratic dialogues (Σωκρατικὸς λόγος, logos sokratikos) was a term coined by Aristotle to describe this newly formed literary genre. While the exact dates of their composition are unknown, some were probably written after the death of Socrates. As Aristotle first noted, the extent to which the dialogues portray Socrates authentically is a matter of some debate.

Socrated has a strong influence on philosophers in later antiquity and continues to influence philosophers to this day. He was studied by mediaeval and Islamic scholars and played an important role in the thought of the Italian Renaissance, particularly within the humanist movement. Interest in him continued unabated, as reflected in the works of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Depictions of Socrates in art, literature, and popular culture – including T-shorts – have made Socrates a widely known figure in the Western philosophical tradition.

And, of course, he continues to give his name to bars, such as the one I know in Piskopianó, and to streets, including a back street I know in the neighbouring village of Koutouloufári.

Previous word: 37, Bishop, ἐπίσκοπος

Next word: 39, Odyssey, Ὀδύσσεια

Socrates gives his name to streets in many towns in Greece … a back street in the village of Koutouloufári in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

1 comment:

Panagiotes-Socrates Loumakis said...

Thanks Patrick for your very nice and succinct post on my namesake ancient philosopher. Unfortunately and contrary to him, I have neither his wisdom nor his resistance to the effects of wine drinking.