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Socrates and Jesus – A misconstrued correlation

Philosophy opposite theology

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“We must not examine who said it, but whether it is true or not”161c
Plato, Charmides

“I am the way and the truth and the life; no one can come to the Father except through me”
John’s Gospel 14:6

Some of Socrates’ positions, even the conditions of his death, simulate ideas and narrations of Christianity. But they do not identify with them, since their common elements are mostly superficial. Socrates’ idea that gods are good and only do good things, is something that alienated him from the common religion of his time. This new viewing found many Christian adherents when their religion spread from the Middle East in Europe, since they recognized some common ground in the philosophy that influenced the ancient world to such a degree. But the god of Socrates is not the one who defines what is good and bad (Euthyphro), like the god of the Bible does with his commandments. Morality’s source is, for Socrates, reason; not some divine orders.

The early Christian theology was greatly influenced by Socrates and in the early centuries AD the Christians saw him as a “saint before Christ”. In Preparation for the Gospel by Eusebius of Caesarea (3rd – 4th century AD), Plato is considered to have somehow perceived the truth of Christianity, receiving inspiration from god: “For what is Plato but Moses speaking in Attic Greek?” The Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino (15th century) makes detailed parallelisms between the trials and deaths of Socrates and Jesus. One of Erasmus’ dialogues (The Godly Feast) includes the phrase “Saint Socrates, pray for us” and likens Jesus in Gethsemane with Socrates in his cell. Saint Augustine said “Platonism is the antechamber of Christianity”. This tradition continued with Diderot (though he never finished his dramatization of the Socratic death) and Rousseau (First Discourse, 1751).

Jean Delville - The School of Plato (1898)
Jean Delville – The School of Plato (1898) (photo)

The rationalistic approach to religion of the 17th and 18th century, while rejecting fanaticism, presented Socrates as a martyr of the rational religion, since his death resulted from the actions of fanatics. Voltaire wrote a play about Socrates’ death (Socrates, middle 18th century), Nietzsche named Plato a “preexisting Christian”, while Engels considered him the great precursor to Christianity. Bertrand Russell observed that Christianity extended an idea that had already been expressed by Socrates and later by the Stoics. The one that our duty towards god is more imperative than our obligation to the state; that “we owe to obey God more than Man”.

When the early Christians heard the crimes of which the Romans accused them, they considered themselves to be in the same position as Socrates and were willing to die for the truth, like he did. Socrates did not want to conform, and would be freed if he promised to stop speaking the truth. Same with the Christians, if they would allow themselves to be forced to conformity, and deny their past behavior and their chosen way of life, they would be saved. In Acts of the Martyrs we can find references to him. During their apologies in court, the accused would evoke Socrates, as he was very liked by their pagan accusers and judges, and their evoking him was a way for them to earn their respect and their compassion, parallelizing Jesus’ behavior in front of Pontius Pilate to that of Socrates in front of the Athenian judges. But the idolaters reproached Jesus for his stance, which they deemed not a prudent one. He was too humble, submissive and silent and many thought that this behavior was not a decent one; that it was not to be expected from a saint.

In antiquity everybody thought Socrates to be a wasted hero, and the Christians utilized this. After the 2nd century though, a lot less knew of Socrates and only a few educated people would feel compassionate towards him. Several writers with orthodox Christian convictions denounced the likening of Socrates and Jesus, claiming that by accepting to drink the hemlock, he had in fact committed suicide, while others were annoyed by his homosexual inclinations and his peculiar vows (“by the dog”). And so, his influence in the official Christian thought began to decline.

The real tribulation for Socrates was not to avoid death (nor was Jesus’ of course), but to avoid committing injustice. Since he believed that there is no excuse to wrong someone, even a wrongdoer, and since the wrongdoer is harmed more than his victim, to turn the other cheek becomes, for Socrates, a basic element of a just life. Jesus might indeed also turn his other cheek, but he had come to Earth not to bring peace, but a sword[1], let alone the promise of hell. And if his rejection of reciprocity sounds like the peace loving messages of Christianity, the difference is that Socrates searched for a fully evolved and worthy life in this world and not after his death.

Besides, Socrates’ “do not reply injustice with injustice” is centuries away from the command to “love your enemy”[2]. Socrates’ exhortation concerns the behavior, ensues from reason and has a practical result in the life of the individual and in society. Jesus’ command concerns emotion, ensues from an impulsive will and promises benefits in the next life. And if we accept this divine command, we would have to say that the bigger the crime of a wrongdoer is, the more we must love him. But how could someone be commanded to feel one way or another? Jesus’ claim is as much irrational as it is impossible to follow. No one can convince himself to alter his emotional part of his soul (“θυμικό”), but only, at best, to suppress it. Meaning, one would hate his enemy but act as if he didn’t. But this is not love (or virtue), this is hypocrisy.

Εγγονόπουλος – Σωκράτης και Πλάτων
Eggonopoulos – Socrates and Plato (photo)

In Matthew 22:39 we read: “…Love your neighbor as yourself”. The ‘as yourself’ part makes the command absolutely impossible, and condemns the believer to perpetual guilt and failure. No one can love anyone literally as himself, and this divine command to love is not limited to one’s children or spouse, but extends to all of humanity. Therefore, the believer can only compromise and never follow the command truly faithfully; only as make-believe. Make-believe, of course, only to men; you can’t fool god. But the command doesn’t settle for conciliations: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

And not a word about forgiveness from Socrates –nor about vicarious redemption. He will not hold a grudge nor will he ever take revenge. Even when he allows a punishment for the unjust, he only aims at their soul’s improvement. Because if someone wants to be called good he must only do good things, and extend goodness as much as he can. But forgiveness seems impossible. As Christopher Hitchens argued, one could pay the debts of his friend; he could take his place in prison or a torture chamber; he could even die in his place if he chose to. What he could not do is absolve him of his sins. But forgiveness and, mostly, vicarious redemption through the sacrifice of a scapegoat, are refusals of responsibility, and therefore absurd. For a free man, his responsibilities belong to him, and burden him, completely.

Nevertheless, the apparent similarities of the two figures are many, and they were exploited by Jesus’ followers: An enigmatic figure in his times (today also in a sense, since he didn’t write anything himself), annoyed the rulers and reproached every kind of injustice and abuse of power, believing he spoke in the name of a higher power. He was accused that he denied the religion of his community and introduced a new one, corrupting the youth. Extremely capable in the art of conversation, indifferent of material goods, he was only concerned with higher things. His peers turned against him along with the rulers, the powerful and the rich, who executed him as a blasphemer, and even though he could escape execution by asking for forgiveness and repentance, he chose not to betray his principles and his cause. In the end, he died as he lived, not harming anyone. All of the above can be attributed both to Socrates and to Jesus, but it is more that separate the two than unite them.

Johann Friedrich Greuter – Ο Σωκράτης και οι Μαθητές του (17ος αιώνας)
Johann Friedrich Greuter – Socrates and his students (17th century) (photo)

It has been said that perhaps there was never such a person as Socrates (as a historical figure) or that the figure we find in Plato’s work was completely made up by him as a literary trick to promote his own ideas. This (even though it doesn’t stand to criticism) has no bearing on the texts, as his ideas do not depend on the person expressing them. Ideas are ideas; it remains for logical examination to judge their value (“We must not examine who said it, but whether it is true or not”). There are no authority figures in philosophy, like there are none in science. The philosopher has to convince with reason, as the scientist with evidence. If the arguments suffice, the reader should not care whether he reads Plato or a taxi driver.

The same has been said of the historicity of Jesus; that he never existed but was an invention of the writers of the Gospels, or at least that he was not the son of god but only a mere human; that he was only Jesus and not Christ. In case this is correct, though, his teaching fall short to scrutiny, in contrast to Socrates’. It matters that what Jesus, or any other religious figure, says comes from the mind of god or by divine inspiration. Commands like “give up your families, your friends, your fortunes and professions and follow me”[3] become immoral without the quid pro quo of the entrance in heaven. Because if there indeed is a heaven and if indeed the way to get in is this, then putting our families aside and abandoning them is a trivial sacrifice when the alternative is eternity in hell. But, what could be more immoral than a mere human detaching someone from all that he holds dear, from his family, his friends and the thought of his (earthly) future, to gamble everything on one roll of the dice, when the promise of heavenly eudaimonia is false?

The dying words of Jesus reveal a grievance: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” –and then a “loud voice”[4]. Socrates’ last words in the trial were, addressing the judges: “But now it is time to go, I to die and you to live. Which of us goes to a better place, nobody knows but god.” And later, in his cell, he bids farewell to his friend like this: “Let’s leave all these, Crito, and let’s do what I propose, because god asks us to do it”. Socrates has done his duty as he saw fit and lets himself be led wherever the road he chose ends. Before he dies, and after he laughs joyfully at his friends who are sad about the execution of their teacher (another thing in which they differed was that Socrates had a sense of humor – Jesus never laughs), he asks Crito to sacrifice on his behalf a rooster for Asclepius, the god of Medicine. He owes it to him, since the escape of the soul from the body, precipitated by the hemlock, constitutes a cure; not a catastrophe.

[1] Matthew 10:34: “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”

[2] Matthew 5:44 & Luke 6:27-36

[3] Matthew 19:29: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life”. Matthew 8:22: “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead”. Luke 14:26: “”If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”.

[4] Only if we believe Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34). The Lord’s last words did not escape the inconsistency of the biblical narration. In the other Testaments we read: Luke 23:46: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”. And John 19:30: “It is finished”.

Socrates, the law of nature and the value of the examined life

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“We said there were two treatments that might be used in the tending for any particular thing, whether body or soul: one, making pleasure the aim in our dealings with it; the other, working for what is best, not indulging it but striving with it as hard as we can”513d
Plato, Gorgias

In Socrates’ conversation with Callicles[1] two completely different views on how to live collide. The sophist accuses Socrates that he supports the human law in contrast with the law of nature which he says we ought to follow. He claims that it is power which defines who is superior amongst men and should rule the people. As Polus said previously, obtaining power is for a rhetorician the greatest proof of a good life, and therefore the absolute and only goal of ideal living.

“According to nature the ugliest thing is that which is the worst, to be the victim of wrongdoing, while according to the laws it is to wrong others”483a. The rule of manmade law punishes the wrongdoers and those who attempt to obtain many and envied goods, while it promotes social equality regardless of the individual characteristics of the person. In a polity it is the many, the average, that define the laws at the expense of the powerful and the worthy ones by intimidating them, “so that they don’t take advantage of them. They say it is bad and unjust for someone to have more”483c. They name the better man’s aspiration injustice, so that all may have the same goods and rights, and thus have their own inferiority satisfied. “Those who make laws are the weak and the masses”483c.

He continues: “Nature itself shows, I think, this, that it is fair for the better man to take advantage of the worse one and the stronger of the weaker one”483d. In nature it is deemed for the most powerful to hold the right to rule and have the edge on the weaker, and the weaker are expected to yield. Callicles likens the powerful to lions that the rest of the population tame and enslave by saying that it’s good and right for all to be considered equal in the eyes of justice. “It is not truly proper for the [powerful] man to be subjected to this, to be wronged, but for the slave for whom it is better to die than live”483b. And in case there emerges someone with a superior nature who manages to slip the leash and rid of all these obstructions to escape the unnatural laws, “the slave becomes our master”; and in this case there is “resplendence of the law of nature”484a.

Ρωμαϊκό μωσαϊκό του 1ου αιώνα π.Χ. από την Πομπηία. Ενδεχομένως να αναπαριστά την Ακαδημία του Πλάτωνα.
Roman mosaic of the 1st century BCE from Pompeii, now at the Museo Nazionale et, Naples. The image may represent Plato’s Academy (photo)

Socrates replies with the rather obvious argument for the strength of the mass. “Aren’t the many superior to the one according to nature?”488d However more powerful a few may be than each of the many, there will always be strength in numbers. In this way the laws of the many are in fact the laws that obey the law of nature. “The laws of these [the many] then are good by nature, as the laws of the superior ones”488e. And the opinion most people hold is that it is just for all to be considered equal.

Callicles complains about Socrates’ word-hunting and that he lingers on an unfortunate phrasing of words while pretending to have made a great discovery (something we would now call “sophistry”). What he meant before, he says now, is that the human laws are made by people less strong in spirit, not necessarily in physical ability. “In case a mob of slaves and other people illaudable of anything other than maybe their physical strength is formed, and they decide something, will that be a law?”489c

So, what Callicles says is that we must observe the laws of nature and the superior ones should rule, but not the superiors in their bodies; the superiors in their souls -the prudent ones. He does not, therefore, realize that by evaluating the “mob” -by introducing the notion of prudence- he himself removes the natural law from his argument, and now argues for some kind of ‘social contract’. He has been countering this idea of a social contract so far, but now he just proposed one; with the difference that this is a contract of his own making. Because, if nature is to be considered as something separate from humans, then the laws of nature cannot be used as a model for us while at the same time acknowledging that which separates us from it. What else is it that separates us from nature than the human spirit; the ability to be “prudent”? Why then should we, who are prudent, follow the natural law, which is established while lacking prudence?

If, on the other hand, animals and men, along with everything else, are seen as part of ‘nature’ as a whole, then natural law is whatever has been allowed to happen within it; and whatever that is, it must be called natural law; and therefore, for Callicles, it must be deemed right, good and just. So, even the human laws, which were made within the totality of nature, must be deemed ‘natural’.

As we learned from the dialog Euthyphro, morality (and by extension the laws) do not originate outside of humanity, from the gods or anywhere else. It is men’s responsibility to judge which behavior is just and which is not. Nature and the gods can only be simplistically used as alibis to confirm what we decide, and enforce the implementation of the human laws when there is an inability to use reason. Callicles unwillingly invalidates what he has been saying from the start, forcing terms and restrictions on natural necessity.

He maintains that in many cases one person is superior to big masses without prudence, and therefore it is fair that he governs them and has more goods than the governed. But what would happen, asks Socrates, in a society where one is more prudent than all, even if some of the people are weaker and others stronger than him? Would he have to be able to obtain more goods than the rest (foods, shoes, clothes, seeds etc) “or because he is the leader he must portion everything and, concerning his own consumption and use, not acquire more, if that will not damage him, but have more than the weaker and less than the stronger ones; but if it happens that he is the weaker of all then he, who is the best one of all, should get less than everyone?490c

Callicles loses his temper saying that Socrates rambles on, talking about things irrelevant to what he means. “What shoes? You blabber”490e. When Callicles spoke of superior men he meant “those who are prudent in public matters, in correct governing; and not only prudent but also courageous, being able to manifest what they think and not recede due to spiritual softness”491b. Once more, the sophist introduces new concepts in the discussion when he finds difficulty supporting his position. This time it is courage and the ability to govern the city that are proposed as the new qualities of a superior man.

But, Socrates replies, in order for someone to govern a city, he must first know how to govern himself, “to be moderate and rule his self, ruling his pleasure-seeking”491d. Callicles claims that this (to moderate one’s desires) is equal to becoming a slave, which would avert him from happiness and greatness. The ability to satisfy one’s desires is, to Callicles, proof of freedom and manliness, therefore desires must be allowed to grow and be satisfied by the prudence and the courage of the superior one. The many are unable to do such a thing, and out of shame, to hide their own inferiority, they say that debauchery is a bad thing while they praise moderation because of their own inability and cowardice. For Callicles, then, sophrosyne (moderation) and justice (human laws) are causes of misery, since they deter the courageous from allowing themselves, and offering to their friends, whatever they desire.

In order for Socrates to show that satisfying pleasures cannot be considered the singular criterion of happiness, he claims that according to Callicles he who has crabs and scratches himself, satisfying his itch, must be deemed happy. Callicles, rather unexpectedly, agrees to the crass example, saying that the one with crabs who scratches himself lives in gratification and therefore is happy. But what would we have to say about the vulgar men and the indecent ones if they become affluent in what they need? Will we also call them happy? Callicles, although clearly displeased, feels obligated to stand firm to what he said previously “so that my speech will not be reversed”495a), and Socrates wonders whether there are bad desires at all.

Ανδριάντας του Σωκράτη μπροστά από το Μέγαρο τη Ακαδημίας Αθηνών, έργο των Λεωνίδα Δρόση και Attilio Picarelli.
Statue of Socrates in front of the Academy of Athens, a work of Leonidas Drosis and Attilio Picarelli.

Like he told Polus earlier, any action someone performs, he does so not because he wants to perform that action in particular, but for its benefit. The one who makes sea trade does not travel because he enjoys traveling but to gain profits from buying and selling goods. Meaning, it is a beneficial action, even though it does not provide pleasure. In contrast, there are actions that offer pleasure but do not offer benefit, or even harm us; like smoking, which is pleasurable in the moment but harmful in the long run. Gratification does not secure happiness.

Most practices, like guitar playing, flute playing, dancing and poetry, are not usually concerned with improving the souls of men and care for them, but only look to their pleasure (Socrates is obviously referring to those artisans who only care to satisfy the common taste). So, in order to recognize rhetoric as a virtuous practice, we must find the rhetorician who cares to “let justice enter the souls of his co-citizens and discard injustice, let sophrosyne enter and discard debauchery, let virtues enter the soul and discard wickedness”504e, regardless of whether what he says is pleasant or unpleasant.

We must therefore deter those souls who are imprudent, perverted, debauched, unjust or unrighteous from their desires, and induce them to do whatever will improve them. Deterring them from their desires constitutes punishment, which was found earlier with Polus to be beneficial to the punished person, even if it is a kind of “enslavement” or if it limits freedom in some way.

“Whoever wants to be happy must, as it seems, aspire and practice sophrosyne, and avoid salaciousness as much as he can, and train himself in that way that it will not become at all necessary to get punished. But if punishment is indeed necessary for himself, or someone familiar to him or a citizen or the city, punishment must be enforced, if he is to be happy”507d.

But according to Callicles, if someone doesn’t want to be wronged, he must be a tyrant himself or a friend to the rulers. Some say, Socrates replies, that the like-minded become friends, and that the dissimilar ones cannot. This is because if a citizen is stronger than the tyrant, the tyrant will fear him and will not be able to befriend him. On the other hand, if the citizen is weaker than the tyrant, he will despise him. So if a young man wants to obtain power or not to be wronged, he will have to “get accustomed to having the same delights and annoyances as the tyrant does, and prepare himself to be as much as possible alike to him”510d. So, in reality, Callicles’ suggestion for the natural law leads away from freedom and pluralism, since the goal of the citizens will be to not divert from what the ruler considers good and pleasurable, by reducing distinctions that would separate them from the ordinary. Callicles’ practice leads to totalitarianism and fear, the enemies of freedom, and transforms the individual to the tyrant’s puppet. The will to power leads, in the end, to submission.

Socrates observes that all this time “our speeches regard…the way in which one ought to live. In which way, the one which you impel me to follow doing the workings that befit a man, delivering public speeches and practicing rhetoric and politics in the way you do, or in the philosophical way of living?”500c. Callicles’ attack is from the first moment aimed at, not Socrates in particular, but the philosophical living itself. He suggests that Socrates would see the truth of his words as long as he quits his practicing of philosophy, which befits a man only up to a certain age. “But when I see an older man practicing philosophy and not rid himself of it, I think, Socrates, that man deserves to be punished with a whipping”485d. That man ends up being a coward and avoids the central places of the city and the agora “hiding all his life, living by some corner with a bunch of young men, whispering without once uttering a free man’s speech, a great and satisfying one”485d-e.

Ανδριάντας του Πλάτωνα μπροστά από το Μέγαρο τη Ακαδημίας Αθηνών, έργο των Λεωνίδα Δρόση και Attilio Picarelli.
Statue of Plato in front of the Academy of Athens, a work of Leonidas Drosis and Attilio Picarelli.

The young politicard opposes philosophy, saying that too much thought confuses the mind, ends up in distorted conclusions and leads men to destruction. With only philosophy and without rhetoric, he says, “you would become confused and agape unable to say a word, and if you appeared in court, though your accuser might be ever so paltry and a rascal, you would have to die”486b. Here, he foretells Socrates’ death when he chose, during his trial, to speak with “simple words” without begging his judges or using a speech written in advance, like most did by employing the services of rhetoricians. He suggests “to envy not the men who practice these insignificant things, but those who have fortune, fame and many more goods”486c.

According to Socrates’ philosophical living, in order for someone to avoid injustice he would have to try and create just citizens. Even Pericles who is considered by most to be a worthy man, after his death he was the victim of many accusations, however unjust these accusations might have been. To the degree that he couldn’t better the Athenian citizens so that they become just, it could be said that he failed in his work, since his role was this; to improve the souls of the Athenians. “Therefore, if someone eradicates exactly this, injustice, there is no fear for him to be wronged”520d. This is the reason he believed he was perhaps the only one to practice the true political art; “alone among the present ones” (though, in this case, it would have to be deduced that he himself failed as well, since he wasn’t able to make just citizens of the Athenians, who executed him unjustly).

Why then, Socrates asks, do many sophists complain that their students don’t pay them for their services? Aren’t they the ones who claim to teach justice and virtue? If the students can be accused of injustice for failing to reimburse them, the teachers can be accused of failing to create virtuous men (or lying about their ability to do so).

Socrates knew that if he was led to court by a wicked man (“no righteous man would judge a just one”521d), he wouldn’t be able to offer any flattery, pleasure or gratification to the judges, and it would therefore not be strange if he was condemned to death, as it indeed happened. But he didn’t envy those who do offer gratification nor the ones who receive it. “If I was about to die because I fell short in flattery and rhetoric, I know very well that you would see me enduring death with ease”522d.

Socrates, naturally, fails at convincing Callicles that he’s wrong. It is probably impossible to dissuade such a cynic. But this is of little importance. The socratic dialogues are like political debates. When a party leader confronts an opposing one, nobody expects either of them to change their mind –the debate is for our sake, the viewers. Plato’s dialogues were written in a similar fashion, for their readers. They were written so that we might become witnesses of two differing ways of thought, so that each of us can choose the way of life we want to live.

So, in reality, it is Callicles who fails in the end to justify his positions and introduce us with a way of life that would be desirable for a society to thrive. Socrates contents on illustrating where his opponent’s views might lead; and as for the values he proposes himself, he tells us that he still awaits anyone to change his mind, proving him wrong.


Plato – Gorgias (or on rhetoric)


[1] Student of Gorgias, later he will enter politics. Many consider him an example of a “realist” politician, of what would later be called “real-politik”. The only source for his person is the dialogue Gorgias.

The Grimm brothers – Not so much a fairy tale

“I am Death, who makes everyone equal”
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Godfather Death’

The brothers Grimm did not write for children. Their goal was to offer an exhilarative reading to adults at the end of a tiring day. They would wander in 19th century Germany recording folk tales and myths, which they then completed and embellished with their own personal literary style. The first version of their collection did not have the success they wanted, and in every following version they would make additions and trimmings according to what they thought their readers would like to read.

But they were not completely honest in their claims. Even though they earned the fame of being the collectors of peasants’ tales, many of their stories came from the middle class or even from aristocrats. Also, apart from folk tales, in the first edition of 1812 several original stories by Charles Perrault (written in 1697) were included, which were written for the French “elite”, with the pretense that they originated in the common folk, in the form of a tale.

As Angela Carter notes, to ask where a fairy tale comes from is like asking who invented the first meatball. The versions of each one differ from one region to the other, including parts of local myths and culture, and time and again phrases of folk songs would be incorporated, as well as segments belonging in other tales; in order to produce an image for the protagonist that would seem as similar to each audience as possible.

Grimm atmosphere (photo)
Grimm atmosphere (photo)


Wilhelm Grimm was the one who took on the editing and rewriting of the stories. He made them similar in style, added dialogues, removed “provincial” phrases to not alienate his target audience, improved the plot and introduced psychological motifs. He also added religious (Christian in particular) references, as well as elements from Greek, Roman and Norse mythology. Gradually he removed every sexual element and beautified the language to make the text more appealing to his bourgeois readers. He only started addressing children after 1819, adding new tales as well as purely didactic elements to already existing ones.

So, the relationship between the girl and the prince in the original version of Rapunzel, which is sexual (the girl gets pregnant) is a detail not included in following versions, and moral elements absent from the original were added (like the king repenting for condemning his wife to death in the fire). Words with a French root were replaced with German sounding words (“Königssohn” in stead of “Prinz” – “king’s son” instead of “prince”), and angels replaced fairies.

The brothers’ aim in preserving and schematizing the tales as something uniquely Germanic, in the times of Napoleon’s occupation, was a form of “intellectual resistance”. In doing so, they established a methodology of collecting and preserving traditions, which became the model many writers would adopt in the future throughout Europe during occupations. The Grimms’ fables were nationalistic: they wanted to make the children feel more German. They celebrated and encouraged several pestiferous nationalistic characteristics, such as obedience, discipline, autarchy, militarism and the glorifying of violence. The brothers Grimm are representatives of the nationalism that transformed to Aryanism, and the Nazis were grateful to them. Hitler made their work mandatory reading in schools and, later, the victorious Allies banned them from the school curricula.

Hansel and Gretel (photo)
Hansel and Gretel (photo)


Let’s see some examples:

In The Girl Without Hands we read: The devil fools a carpenter by promising many fortunes to him if he grants him “that which stands behind his house”. Thinking the devil means an apple tree, the carpenter agrees, only to learn that he agreed to give away his only daughter who was standing in front of the tree at the time. When the devil shows up to take what was his, the daughter performs magic to avert him. The devil gets angry and threatens the carpenter that, if he doesn’t deliver at least his daughter’s two hands, then he will take the carpenter himself as an exchange. Desperate, the carpenter explains to his daughter what happened and asks her to let him chop off her hands to save him. The girl obediently accepts, and the agreement is honored.

In Frog Prince, instead of the princess transforming the frog with a kiss (as we know the story today), he throws him on a wall with force. The Grimms’ version of Snow-white ends with the evil mother-in-law being forced to dance at her daughter-in-law’s wedding wearing fiery iron shoes, until she drops dead, while Show-white watches in bliss. In Cinderella, when the prince searches to find who the glass shoe fits on, in order to hide the fact that their feet are larger, her foster sisters end up chopping off some of their tows and even heels. The prince only realizes the deception when, one after the other, they bleed as they start to walk towards his castle.

From a Grimm edition (photo)
From a Grimm edition (photo)


Of the most extraordinary examples is the following: In the tale Juniper Tree, the mother-in-law, as usual, hates her husband’s son. One day, as soon as the kid returns home, she asks him if he wants an apple. But just as the kid crouches to take an apple from the trunk where they keep them, she closes the lid with force and cuts his head off. But now she worries about getting caught. So she balances the headless body on a chair as if the kid was resting, with an apple in one hand, puts the head on top and hides the cut with a scarf. Her biological daughter comes along, and complains about her brother not giving her the apple while he does not appear to be enjoining it himself. Her mother gives her permission to slap him, as she does, and his head launches from his body. She tells her not to worry, that they can hide the body by cooking it. As they do. Next, the father arrives, to whom they offer the stew to eat. He loves it and says he wants to eat it all by himself. “It seems to me as if it were all mine”, he says and throws the bones on the table when he’s done. It’s quite difficult to believe you’re reading this.

To a degree, the violence in these originals reflects the Middle Ages culture from which they were drawn. Usually, the historical realism of the Grimm tales is ignored. In the 19th century death at birth was a common cause of death for babies and their mothers. The widowers usually remarried, and the new wife usually found that her own children had to compete with her new husband’s for the limited resources the new, expanded family had available. Hence, the evil mothers-in-law. In the tale Children Living In A Time Of Famine, the mother tells her two daughters “I have to kill you, so that I have enough to eat”. The little ones plead for their lives and search for food to give to their mother, so that they escape their fate. They return with a piece of bread each, but it’s not enough, and their mother tells them again that they must die. “Dearest mother, we’ll lie down and go to sleep, and we won’t rise again until the day of judgement”. And so they do. Certainly a chilling story; and it also reveals some kind of wishful thinking. That the children will die without crying.

From a Grimm edition (photo)
From a Grimm edition (photo)


In 2001, the Supreme Court of USA rejected a ban on selling violent video games to children. The judge said that the depictions of violence, whether in books or plays, whether in comics or cinema, had never been subjected to government regulation; adding that “Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed”. Some parents would feel awkward reading to their children tales about chopping the hands of girls (The Girl Without Hands) or that of a boy pushing a man down the stairs without a semblance of guilt (The Story Of A Boy Who Went Forth To Learn Fear), but most children would know this is mere imagination.

After World War II there was a tendency to apply realism on children stories –Little Mary Goes To The Firehouse is an example a style not at all similar to that of the Grimm brothers. Those who remained unwilling to depart from the Germanic tales, proposed to keep reading them to children, while at the same time identifying to them the poisonous stereotypes they illustrate. Perhaps they meant that as the child would go to sleep listening to the Cinderella story, it had to be reminded that her rescue from the prince reflected the patriarchal hegemony and a patronizing tone the child should not assimilate. Feminism, later, attacked the powerless and passive caricature of girls and women found in many Grimm tales. The Politically Correct Bedtime Stories is a well-known version where James Finn Garner adapts several famous stories to fit the sensibilities of progressive parents. There, we read in Red Riding Hood:

The wolf said “You know, my dear, it isn’t safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone”. Red Riding Hood said: “I find your sexist remarks offensive in the extreme, but I will ignore it because of your traditional status as an outcast from society, the stress of which has caused you to develop your own, entirely valid, worldview. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.”

I fail to understand how this “feminist” attitude the girl has, or her sassy comments, would save her from the wolf’s teeth. However, this is exactly what happens above and later in the cabin, where her grandma is “awakened” by another inspired tirade by the girl and jumps out of the wolf’s belly to chop his head off (let’s see how something like that might turn out in real life). It’s no accident that adaptations such as these are not meant for children, but rather to satisfy their parents’ progressive sensibilities.

Equally innovative, but not equally paranoid, is the wonderful animated movie Hoodwinked! (2005), which also depicts Red Riding Hood as an energetic, smart and autonomous heroine, utilizing wit and friendships to get out of trouble. Something similar, though for a more mature audience, is attempted in the movie Hard Candy (also released in 2005), in which a modern Red Riding Hood takes revenge from a pedophile (the modern bad wolf) who stalks her.

From the poster of Hard Candy (2005)
From the poster of Hard Candy (2005)


Some years ago Tangled was released and Maleficent followed. The list of modern Grimm adaptations is huge, and I will not even bother to mention other versions in literature, plays and comics. In their collective versions, the Grimm tales have captured our imagination for more than 200 years, and they will certainly continue to do so for centuries more.

Wilhelm Grimm (on the left) and Jacob Grimm (on the right) on a 1855painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (photo)
Wilhelm Grimm (on the left) and Jacob Grimm (on the right) on a 1855painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (photo)


But, the Grimm brothers were something more than storytellers. As academics they excelled in linguistics, ethnology, law, history and philology. They started writing the German Dictionary, which was the model for the Oxford English Dictionary. Through their recording of the original versions of the tales, their variations per region and the following adapted version, one can see the evolution of the German language itself. The phenomenon of chain shifts of proto-Indo-European consonants in the proto-Germanic language, which is the common ancestor of all Germanic languages, was called Grimm’s Law. The evolution of “t” sounds (as in “trinity”) to “th” sounds (as in “thin”) and “k” sounds (as in “kilo”) to “h” sounds (as in ‘hollow”)[1], and other phenomena Jacob Grimm observed in a variety of languages, are included in the law named after him.


[1] The ancient Greek word “tritos” was translated and evolved to “third”, and the ancient Greek word “kynas” was translated and evolved to “hound”.

The discovery of ‘zero’ and why it matters

Today it seems obvious and self-evident, but the existence of ‘zero’ escaped from the mathematicians’ and the philosophers’ imagination for centuries. It is not clear when it was first discovered (some might say invented), nor by whom, in part because its use has been subjected to many changes throughout centuries and also because it appeared in many parts of the world; either as an independent discovery or carried over from civilization to civilization. It is considered to be one the most important discoveries of human thought and without it mathematics would have stuck in 600 AD, with algebra not becoming able to find ways to expand into truly abstract ideas that would allow the use of negative numbers, whose usability had not been identified in antiquity.

While mathematicians started thinking about the concept of zero around 3,000 BC (and rejected it), it was not before 200-300 BC that the Babylonians used a symbol that evolved into what we now know as ‘zero’. The Babylonians changed the form of the symbol many times, from two parallel lines to these:

zero 1eng

In the time when mathematics was merely a method to count physical objects and solve problems of daily experience, there was no need for such a number. In order for someone to say he has “0 camels” he would just say “I don’t have camels”. There is already a large leap of reason from “5 camels” to “5 objects” and to the more abstract “5”. Moreover, the use of zero allowed us to think of mathematics as something abstract, and not only as a method to measure things.

First known depiction of zero as am indicator (two parallel lines), in the city-state Sumer of Mesopotamia, 5,000 years ago. (photo)
First known depiction of zero as am indicator (two parallel lines), in the city-state Sumer of Mesopotamia, 5,000 years ago. (photo)

Later, somewhere between 400 and 1200 AD, the concept of zero evolved, and it was accepted that it meant a number. If this belated reception of zero as a number still seems peculiar to you, consider that for a long time even ‘1’ wasn’t deemed to be a number. It was thought that a number of things had to mean many things at once. So, when there was 1 camel, there was just “a camel”. Only with the appearance of a second camel did the need to count them arrive.

The basic idea in the case of zero was the creation of a number for “nothing”. The important idea was the notion of a new kind of number, which would represent the specific idea of “nothing”.

Initially, zero was used as a punctuation mark, as an indicator, as a means to solve the problem of writing a number with many digits. Without zero, the number 2046 would be written as 246, as would the number 2460. Only using context could someone understand the difference. This is not as strange as it sounds. When, today, someone replies “Two and a half” to the question “How much for an ice-cream?” we understand “2.5 euros”, while the same answer to the question “What time is it?” means something completely different. Context makes all the difference. Here, the zero is not exactly used as a number yet, but as a mark showing us the meaning of whatever is written on paper. More accurately, the number 2046 means we have 2 thousands, 0 hundreds, 4 tens and 6 units.

The discovery of zero allowed us to also construct the negative numbers, which were also not needed for a period. There was no need to know about negative numbers when we were counting camels. Negative camels would mean debt in camels. Fibonacci, around 1,200 AD, allowed negative results in problems that preoccupied him concerning financial issues, and he interpreted them as debt or loss, instead of the profit that a positive number signifies.

An example of the use of zero in ancient Greek (bottom right corner) (photo)
An example of the use of zero in ancient Greek (bottom right corner) (photo)

The ancient Greeks, even though they made great progress in mathematics, used geometry as a basis for their theories. There was no need to think abstractly about numbers, as they counted lengths of lines and circumferences. So they did not think about ‘zero’ even as an indicator (as the Babylonians did before them). There were exceptions, like some astronomers and, later, Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD (in Almagest), who used the symbol “O”, but only as a punctuation mark.

The Indians adopted it, and in 7th century AD they made the first use of negative and decimal numbers, leading it to a more sophisticated form that is similar to the modern one. So, they used it both as a number, meaning a symbol that represents something (this “something”, here, is the “nothing”), and as an index. Some say it is the notion of nothingness (or insignificance) referred to in philosophical texts of the East that this umber was ascribed to. The word “shunya”, which meant “void”, “nothing”, something like “salvation”, is the word they used for the number ‘zero’. But it was the Arabs who evolved its usage developing algebra, and spread it during the ‘golden age of the Arabs’ (roughly between 8th and 12th century). The English word “zero” comes from the Arabic word “sifr”.

In the center of the image we can discern the number 270, exactly as we write it today. This is the first depiction of zero as a number, in the Ganesh temple, in the city Gwalior of India (9th century AD). (photo)
In the center of the image we can discern the number 270, exactly as we write it today. This is the first depiction of zero as a number, in the Ganesh temple, in the city Gwalior of India (9th century AD). (photo)

The adoption of zero in relation to the Arabic numbers that replaced the Latin ones, allowed for the quick and easy modern method of multiplication and division. Imagine the multiplication table in Latin numbers… But their spread was hindered by religious prejudice, as the Arabic numbers were considered too easy to manipulate in order to commit forgery or deception (the number 1 is easily transformed into the number 7) and the negative numbers (that would not be discovered without the zero) were deemed blasphemous by associating them to profit made from gambling and usury that creates debt. Besides, nothingness was identified with chaos and the void, elements of hell in the Christian tradition. The use of negative numbers was spread just in the 16th century AD.



The first Zionists were socialists

Zion refers to Jerusalem and is the goal of the general desire of Jews to return to their homeland, their historical space. The word Zionism was created by Nathan Birnbaum in the newspaper Self-Emancipation! (Selbstemanzipation!), in 1890. It was Theodor Herzl who gave it its modern meaning of creating an independent state for Jews, where they would be able to live without persecution, in safety.

The Zionist ideology has both socialist and religious roots. This return to the Promised Land is linked to the coming of the Messiah and the end of the Jews’ exile from their land. Characteristic in this aspect was the Uganda scheme, a 1903 British suggestion to relocate Jews in the African land (that same piece of land resides today in Kenya) –a suggestion which Herzl was fond of, but was categorically denied by the other, far more inexorable, representatives at the 6th Zionist Congress (and was definitively abandoned in 1905, during the 7th). To appease them, and reassure them of his determination to the original vision, Herzl sang from Psalm 137: “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning”. But even Herzl only viewed the Uganda scheme as a temporary solution to save the Jews from the Russian pogroms and from German anti-Semitism until the plan to return to Jerusalem could be materialized. There were also plans to relocate to the US (in Texas), Cyprus, Australia, Libya or the Sinai, but they were abandoned as well for a variety of reasons (more here).

Theodor Herzl’s opening speech at Sixth Congress in Basel, 1903 (source)

As the theoreticians of Zionism were greatly influenced by their contemporary awakening of oppressed people and their aspiration for a just life (e.g. the Risorgimento – unification and birth of modern Italy), it is obvious why they turned to Marx and the socialist ideas in general for guidance. Following the socialist Zionist rhetoric as illustrated below, Stalin adopted a pro-Zionist foreign policy, expecting the new state to be socialist and undermine Britain’s influence in the Middle East. The Soviet Union became the second country to recognize Israel as a state and supported it with weaponry during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Here we’ll see the main actors of the early Zionist movement and how they were influenced by socialist ideas.

Moses Hess, a friend and colleague of Marx, was undoubtedly the first who attempted a composition of Zionism and socialism[1]. But he did not agree that economic issues and class struggle could explain the entirety of history, and saw the struggle among the races or nationalities as the main drive of history. So, living in Germany in 1861-1863, and studying Italian nationalism and the German reaction to it, he foresaw that the Germans would not tolerate any national ambitions of other groups, and that they were particularly intolerant against Jews (“Yet it seems that a final race struggle is unavoidable”). But nobody took him seriously during his lifetime (he died in 1875), not even his contemporary Jews, who were then devoted to the idea of assimilation in the German society. Only by the end of the 19th century, and when Zionism was crystallized, were his writings discovered, which Theodor Herzl lauded.

In contrast to Hess, the more orthodox Marxist Ber Borochov in his book The national question and the class struggle attempted to combine Zionism and Marxism. He thought that the reason for which the Jews were persecuted everywhere was that they were not productive. Jews were hucksters, vendors, craftsmen, writers or teachers –meaning mediators– detached from the productive activities of agriculture and industry (as Marx wrote in The Jewish Problem, “The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general”). They would be forced, therefore, hunted by the European countries, to immigrate to Palestine, so that they create a natural allocation of working Jews in the production process. Besides, he said, the squalor of the proletariat as it stems from capitalist growth, intensifies competition between Jews and non-Jewish workers, making immigration more urgent still. Borochov founded the first Zionist socialist party, Workers of Zion (Poale Zion), which looked to take on labor, class struggle between the bourgeois and the Jewish proletariat and the collective ownership of the means of production. He thought that Arabs and Jewish workers together should take part in this class struggle as soon as the Jews would return to Palestine. During the 1910s his theories were considered outdated, as impossible to act on, since the Jews who had already immigrated to Palestine were finding it difficult to establish themselves financially and thought that inter-class collaboration would be necessary, let alone that a class struggle was irrelevant.

The majority of the socialist Zionists, however, belonged to the socialism of collaboration and reciprocity. A main exponent of this view was Aaron David Gordon. Having in mind to assure the dignity of physical labor and that Jews would take root in the land, his cause was to create the “new man” in Israel, who would replace the alienated exiled Jew (the “new Jew”). Being non-dogmatic, anti-rationalist and a romantic, his approach was characterized as “the religion of labor”. He led the political movement The Young Worker (Hapoel Hatzair). Similarly to Hess, he thought that the cause of the Jews’ suffering was their parasitic life in the Diaspora, where they could not (because they traditionally they were not allowed to) partake in the production process. But in contrast to Hess, he believed that the physical labor would provide Jews with a vision and a spirituality they lacked –and would then unify as a people. “The Land of Israel is acquired through labor, not through fire and not through blood”. He believed that society was bound by organic ties, such as family, community and nation, and not “mechanical” ties, such as state, party and class. The biggest trial for the reborn state of Jews would be its attitude towards the Arabs, and Gordon believed that the relationship between the two peoples should be collaborative, not antagonistic or hostile, and based this belief on moral reasons, not strategic.

Aaron David Gordon

A materialization of this sentiment was the kibbutz, the collective community based on agriculture, where the common production and consumption were combined. They were comprised of workers who would sign a contract to cultivate the lands of a farm collectively and to then share the profits with the management. A second materialization of the movement was the Order of Labor. It was founded in 1920 by immigrants from the Soviet Union, inspired by the Bolshevik revolution and the Balfour Declaration –a promise by the British that they would be given a piece of land in the area of Palestine to found their own state. But the Zionist leaders forced them to dissociate their colonies. The desire for independence led to a rupture in the movement, and its far-left section was amplified, leading the movement to a definitive disbandment. A part of the far-left returned to the Soviet Union in 1928. They ended up in Crimea, where they founded the agricultural colony Via Nova and they were almost without exception purged by Stalin in 1936-1938.

Berl Katznelson (1887-1944) worked for the unification of all the socialist labor parties, which materialized in 1930. Among his plans were a full-scale immigration, the founding of a society based on the principles of equality and freedom, the collective ownership of land and natural sources, and self-government. He adapted socialism for the Palestinian reality: no proletariat, an almost non-existent industry, capitalism in a very early form, and lack of a class struggle, since he supported the existence of only one class in the new reality of the Jewish society; the “labor class”. The working class and the Jewish state, for him, are merged. The primary duty of the movement was the creation of a defensive force and the reception of the immigrants. He, too, desired the peaceful coexistence with the Arabs –“Over the generations in which we were persecuted and exiled and slaughtered, we learned not only the pain of exile and subjugation, but also contempt for tyranny. Was that only a case of sour grapes? Are we now nurturing the dream of slaves who wish to reign?” He even emphasized the religious element of the Jewish tradition and opposed the plan to divide Palestine (he had changed his mind by the middle of the Second World War).

Yitzhak Tabenkin (1888-1971) considered that Jews in communes would comprise a part of a “worldwide alliance of communist peoples” and he also opposed the division of Palestine, supporting the placement of the Jews throughout Eretz-Israel (the general region of Israel with vague geographical borders, as is mentioned in the Old Testament –“Promised Land”, “Land of Canaan”, “Holy Land”). He believed that the right of the Jews to occupy the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula was derived from the Ten Commandments. He, therefore, combined a strict religious strain in Zionism with an expansionist tendency and a dogmatic and austere socialism.

In the dichotomy Zionism/socialism, socialism was undermined and Zionism took ground. By the late 1920s the national struggle made it evident that the collectivist dream would be abandoned. As Ben Gurion phrased it: “From class to nation”. Gradually, Zionism turned into a nationalistic movement, while on the side of the Palestinians the conflict took, and keeps taking, a more and more religious flavor.

[1] Mosses Hess lived from 1812 until 1875. Since the term Zionism was used at the end of the century, Hess is actually considered as a precursor to Zionism.

Read more:

Ilan Greilsammer – Zionism [series “Que sais-Je?”] (To Vima / Gnosi, 2007) [Greek edition] Wikipedia

Wittgenstein and the ritual

“Only describe, don’t explain”
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Sir James George Frazer’s Golden Bough is an anthropological comparative study of mythologies and religions, in which he examines primitive peoples of Europe relating to mythologies from all over the world. In his text Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, Wittgenstein turns against Frazer’s interpretation of the apparently irrational behavior of primitive people in his efforts to make them scrutable for his readers. His explanation of the primitive magic and religious beliefs is not satisfying, says Wittgenstein, as it makes them appear as mistakes. But a mistake, he continues, can be attributed only to someone who has a theory. At the center of a magical or religious symbol there is no theory. People don’t always form scientific hypothesis about the world; there are times when they simply perform a ritual.

“The form of the ascending spirit is veneration” (photo)
“The form of the ascending spirit is veneration” (photo)

Frazer observes that, at some early phase of society, the king or the priest was thought to be the holder of supernatural powers allowing him to control nature. Wittgenstein considers people didn’t actually believe that the ruler had these powers –and neither did the ruler, unless he was “an imbecile or a fool”. What else are we to think since with the king’s first mishap his lack of such powers would become obvious? It’s simply that, Wittgenstein says, the concept of power attributed to the king or priest was adapted in such a way as to be harmonized with the everyday experience of both the believers and the holder of that power. They knew their king did not have the power to control nature but they played the game, for reasons we’ll see below. Wittgenstein recognizes hypocrisy on the primitives’ part here, but only to the degree that hypocrisy generally plays a role with most things people do.

If these primitives sat down to write their knowledge of the natural world, we would see that it did not differ radically from ours. Only their magic would be different. For example, when a people perceives the idea of the soul as a little person, of the same liking with the human it inhabits, he does not do anything different than, say, Plato when he philosophizes on the world of ideas. The modern “magic”, according to Wittgenstein, is philosophy; it’s only that the primitives did it in a more childish manner.

Frazer says of the primitives that it must have been too difficult for them to discover the folly of magic. They could not apprehend that a spell which supposedly brings rain will, at some point, necessarily appear effective, because it will eventually rain anyway. He notes moreover that, in a way, they sabotaged themselves, since they would address their magician for their spell only during the start of the raining season and not during the drought; thus feeding their delusion.

But it is very strange, replies Wittgenstein, for us to think that the primitives could not realize that it would eventually rain anyway and that the spell was not the real cause for the falling of the heavenly drops. And it’s not that they didn’t know about the raining seasons. The fact itself that the custom would be repeated every year at the same period, when rainfalls were about to start, shows us exactly that they were aware of this changing of the seasons. It is also a proof that they didn’t literally expect the magician to bring the rain; otherwise they would ask him to do so during the drought season, when they would need it the most. Magic, then, did not constitute an ultimately irrational act, but a ritual –an expression of joy and hope.

“When you are philosophizing you have to descend in the primeval chaos, and feel like home there” (“Culture and value”) (photo)
“When you are philosophizing you have to descend in the primeval chaos, and feel like home there” (“Culture and value”) (photo)

Wittgenstein says that this erroneous view of our ancestors is rather due to our sense of superiority we feel in relation to them. To see our ancestors’ magic as wrong science –meaning wrong medicine, physics, technology etc- is a foolish prejudice of the 20th century. He goes on to say that the ritual element of those societies, although we look down upon it in disdain, we maintain until today. To burn an effigy of your enemy in order to hurt him, is the same as kissing the photograph of your beloved or of a saint. Obviously, this action is not based on the belief that we actually affect the person depicted on the image. It only aims at a satisfaction, which is accomplished. And actually, it does not even aim at anything; it’s simply that we behave in this way, and then we feel satisfied. We should suppose the same for our ancestors.

But let’s take what Wittgenstein says seriously, to make further parallels. Let’s imagine a parent whose child is seriously ill and in danger of dying. Let’s imagine this parent praying. Is it possible to consider that this parent does not actually expect for his child’s health to be improved, as a result of the prayer? For that to be the case, the parent would have to think in this way: “I know that by praying I will change nothing, I know that I cannot alter the physical reality around me with my thoughts, but it’s alright; the prayer will simply be a celebration of health, a festivity for the value of life; and it will make me feel better (or satisfied)”. I think that these thoughts, followed by the act of prayer in the specific ciscumstances, would make the parent, in the least, inconsistent -even self-contended if we consider the very real danger his child faces. Of course, one could say the real reason somebody prays is that it indeed makes him feel better, that even a false hope is perhaps better than nothing; but the maintaining of a false hope is based on it remaining unstated as a false one. In other words, the one who prays truly believes that through the power of his thoughts he will change the physical world around him, even if at the same time he very well knows the laws of nature or the statistical improbability of such an undertaking. Shouldn’t we suppose the same for our ancestors?

Now let’s change the scenario a little bit, with the child this time not being in danger of dying, but a victim of an accident that left it with one arm lost. Would the parent, this time, pray for a new hand to grow on his child’s shoulder? No. He might very well ask in prayer sympathy or solidarity from god, he might ask for this accident not to become an obstacle for his child in his future happiness or professional success; he might ask a number of different things. But he would surely not ask for a new limb. Why not? This is what the child needs more than anything at the moment. It is because, however unconsciously, he recognizes that god cannot deliver such a thing; even though at the same time the parent considers god to be all-mighty. In the same way, the primitives that made magic to bring the rain only during the raining season, and not when they really needed it, did not find any inconsistence between their thoughts and their actions. This does not mean they are imbeciles, fools or bad scientists, as Wittgenstein might say, it just means that they can suspend their intelligence, which they surely possessed, to maintain hope (or joy, or a festive sense of wonder…). The hope that they will be safe, that there is someone who, if satisfied by their ritual, will look after them (either the magician or a god or anything “larger than them”). The hope that they are, to a degree, responsible for their fate. That they can control, and therefore understand, the physical world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) (photo)
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) (photo)

The basis for Wittgenstein’s criticism is that Frazer thinks lowly of the primitive people, failing to admit their similarities with the “Englishman of the 20th century” (who Wittgenstein himself looks down on). This is not a negation of the importance, let alone the existence, of the ritual in our lives –in primitive times or in the modern ones. We shake hands, we kiss foreheads, we kick the ground without expecting to hurt it but only to release our frustration, and some among us pray. Wittgenstein sees both ritual and reason in the modern man, but only the former in the primitive. But it is these similarities that lead us to the conclusion that they too, like any of us, were capable to hold two contradicting thoughts in their heads at the same time. This does not make them fools, it makes them human. People don’t always think rationally, even if they know how to do it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein – Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough

Use of myth in Plato’s Symposium

This is a chapter from my book, Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

Symposium, part five – Agathon’s encomium and Socrates’ comments

“To be in love is merely to be in a perpetual anesthesia – to mistake an ordinary young man for a Greek god or an ordinary young woman for a goddess.”
Henry Louis Mencken, Prejudices (First Series)

Agathon[1] turns to theology for his own encomium on love (click here and here for some of the previous ones of Plato’s Symposium). “The previous speakers did not praise the god, but felicitated humanity for his gifts. But no one spoke of the nature of the god who gives these gifts”194e. Agathon eulogizes the god himself, speaks of his own mythological characteristics and virtues and then of the things he blesses humans with. The correct encomium, he says, firstly explains the nature of its object and then its benefits, a method that Socrates will be using later on as well.

“Eros is the happiest of all because he is the most beautiful and the best one. He is the most beautiful, Phaedrus, because he is the youngest among the gods…By nature he hates old age and keeps away from it as much as possible. Young men always accompany him and he remains always young, like, as the saying goes, the like keeps company to its alike”195a-b.

Τοιχογραφία στην Πομπηία
Fresco in Pompeii (photo)

Agathon comes in complete contrast to Phaedrus and his lover Pausanias, who had said that the proof of Eros being the most supreme god is his antiquity. And he continues to justify Hesiod’s and Parmenides’ narratives on the creation of the gods and the world, claiming that the true cause of these is “Ananke”. Ananke was the personification of the relentless law of nature, fate or necessity (her Roman counterpart was “Necessitas”). The ancient Greeks thought that even the gods were prey to Ananke, which they could not control or influence. “Against necessity not even gods make war” says Simonides in Protagoras345d. It acts beyond reason and morality, miracle or chance. If Eros was involved in all these (cosmogony and theogony), the brutalities we come across while reading the myths would not have taken place, but love and peace would prevail, like they do now that Eros rules the gods. “And he is not only young but also delicate…He builds his nest in the emotions and the souls of men and gods, but not to all indiscriminately. When met with an emotionally rough soul he retreats, but in the soft ones he settles for good…Because how could he go in and out silently in the souls, which he engulfs, if he was not pliable?…Because between ugliness and Eros an unending war rages on”195c-196a. To describe the delicacy of Eros, Agathon uses Homer’s words when he was describing the delicate nature of Ate[2]:

“Yet delicate her feet, not stepping on the ground
only on heads of mortal men she balances”195d

He ends his description of the god by saying that he only lives in beauty, in places inflorescent and fragrant like the flowers or inside good souls, because Eros cannot reside in a body, a soul or anything else which cannot blossom.

After describing the great beauties of Eros, Agathon moves on to his virtues. Eros neither commits injustice nor does he fall victim to it, he doesn’t act violently nor is he harmed by violence, because everyone falls into him voluntarily. Laws ratify all that the lovers confess to each other; but other than just, he is also moderate. Since moderation is to rule your desires and pleasures, and since no pleasure is superior to Eros (let’s remember that Eros means “love” in Greek), Eros rules and controls all of them, and so he rises to the absolute holder of sophrosyne (here meant simply as moderation). He proves also to be courageous, since he rules the bravest one of all, the god of war Ares, who is a prisoner of his love for Aphrodite. But apart from his virtues of justice, sophrosyne and courage, Agathon praises Eros’ wisdom, maintaining that he was the inspiration of every creative expression belonging in the sphere of the Muses’ influence and can make a poet out of anyone as long as he touches him. “Who doubts that the creation of living organisms is the result of the wisdom of Eros, to which every form of life owes its birth and existence?”197a Technicians too (practitioners of a tecnhe), even gods themselves, used him as a guide to devise their techne; Apollo’s archery, medicine and clairvoyance, the Muses’ artistic creation and Zeus’ governing. “This is why things calmed down in the kingdom of the gods from the moment Eros showed up among them, obviously the Eros [love] of the beautiful – a god wants nothing to do with ugliness”197b.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC
Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC (photo)

Eros calms nature by bringing peace to the oceans and slowing the winds and to humans by uprooting hostility from their hearts, filling them with friendship. He sends away the roughness and brings meekness, provides courage in struggle, pain, fear and battle, and takes the lead in dances, feasts and sacrifices. He is a balm and a joy of life.

So, for Agathon, Eros is the most happy, beautiful, good, loved, peaceful, delicate, soft and pliable. His virtues are justice, sophrosyne, courage and wisdom, and he inspires all the virtues that gods and men acquire. Agathon reminds us of Eryximachus, both trying to ascribe to love a stack of characteristics and qualities, to make him fit into every span of human endeavor and even into nature itself. But where Eryximachus shows himself a shallow and cold encomiast, using scientific language and a speech without substance, Agathon proves to be a better operator of rhetoric, using beautiful phrases and descriptions; but only to become extraneous, since he continues to speak after the point he stopped being coherent or interesting. In contrast to Eryximachus, he makes use of myth, which is not enough, though, to salvage a preferable assessment of his speech, since it is filled with inconsistency (the fact that Hesiod says Eros precedes the gods does not necessarily mean that he also ruled them, therefore the inconsistency in Hesiod’s narrative, that demands Ananke’s role to explain the mythological brutalities, does not seem to be there) and doesn’t endure Socrates’ dialectical criticism (we will see it later). At the same time, concerning his utilization of myth, he counters previous speakers, not just in narrative but also in essence, beginning with Phaedrus.

The difference between Agathon and Phaedrus is not only superficial. Phaedrus takes a clue from Hesiod’s Theogony and uses it as unquestionable evidence of a quality of Eros. In particular, he uses the mythological “fact” that Eros was created before the other gods as proof of a quality of Eros (his superiority). Eros’ antiquity is seen by Phaedrus as some kind of knowledge, or as an axiom, that, through deduction, implies excellence. Aristophanes did a similar thing when he used the myth of the bi-gendered beings to praise unadulterated relationships and the function of the loving emotion in men, as a necessary conclusion of his mythological narration. But Aristophanes created his own myth for the sake of his encomium –and this was obvious to all. We cannot then say that he used the myth as fact, knowledge or as an axiom or any other kind of authority that led him to a binding conclusion. Aristophanes simply has his own convictions to share with the others and in order to make them comprehensible to us, if not to force us to experience them, he creates a story. His narrative is poetic (he was a comic poet after all); therefore we can say that there is a kind of symbolism or transcendence in it. Aristophanes starts backwards, relating to us a myth which is created in such a way so that it leads us to what he already meant to postulate. He is also the only one who doesn’t refer to theogony (the creation of the god Eros). His myth refers only to the creation of men by the gods; we could then say that he introduces anthropogony in the Symposium, which is becoming to the content of his encomium and his use of myth, since Aristophanes centers on man and his emotions, on man’s sensuality and on the irrationality of love, as necessary implications of the myth, while the other speakers describe benefits and attributes that arbitrarily ensue from Hesiod’s work.

Αυλήτρια σε συμπόσιο
Flute-player in a symposium

Agathon shows another particularity in the use of mythical narrative. He corrects Hesiod, not just in ascribing youth to Eros, but also introducing Ananke (today we would say the laws of nature) as being responsible for the theogony instead of Eros, because he considers that if Eros existed in those ancient times of the creation of the gods, and since he was superior to them (something that doesn’t become irrevocably evident in Hesiod’s work anyway), he would avert the battles of the Heavens as Hesiod describes them, since the offerings of Eros are harmony and love. He therefore ascribes the aforementioned qualities of Eros (beauties and virtues) on the one hand despite the authority of Hesiod’s Theogony and on the other because of the content of the existing mythology, when he mentions that even Ares (the bravest of gods and men) is imprisoned by his love of Aphrodite (and is therefore at a disadvantage compared to Eros) to show that Eros is the most courageous of all. He uses myth and negates it at the same time[3].

So, the objects of Agathon’s speech are the attributes of those in love (lovers and loved ones), whose virtues and beautiful characters he merely wants to symbolize with the use of the being he thinks “god Eros” is. But this symbolism is dry and unavailing. There is no actual mythological narrative in Agathon, only a description of the deity (besides, this was his stated goal all along). But in this way his speech does not reach to a conclusion and becomes void of meaning, and he can’t see that it cannot stand to criticism, whether in narrative or in essence.

This criticism comes from Plato speaking through the mouth of Socrates who makes a brief comment on what Agathon has said, opening a conversation with him before he actually starts his own encomium. So, he does not comment with the use of myth or with analysis in the form of a monologue, like the others did, but dialectically.

In his usual ironic tone, he claims ignorance and an inability to offer praise on an equal level as the others did, in the characteristic for Socrates “passive aggressive” manner he used to negate his opponents: “I realized how ridiculous I was when I agreed to make an encomium of Eros, pretending to be an authority on matters of love, whereas I was a complete ignoramus, and ignorant of the way to compose an encomium in general. Because I, obviously out of naivety, thought that one should speak the truth about what he praises and that this is a basic prerequisite”198c-d. Instead, the correct method, according to what he has so far heard, Socrates says, is to load the object of praise with the best qualities, whether they actually exist or not; “it is of no consequence if they are untrue”198e. (We will see this again in Menexenus).

Σκηνή συμποσίου σε τοιχογραφία από τάφο στο Paestum Ιταλίας, 475 π.Χ.
A fresco taken from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver (from Paestum, Italy, c. 475 BC): a symposium scene (photo)

He continues to a short but devastating ‘interrogation’ of Agathon to draw conclusions he will later use in his own encomium. He starts by saying that love can only be understood as something that aims at an object. Eros is love for something. This something, that Eros falls in love with, is something he desires. But that which someone desires is something he certainly doesn’t have, something he lacks. He would not feel this lacking if he had it, and therefore he would not desire it. And when someone says he desires to have health and riches while being healthy and rich, what he means, and what he should be saying, is that he also wants to have these commodities in the future, that he has not secured them. Therefore, if someone says “I want something” he means that he wants something he doesn’t currently have, something that is not secured or certain, something that he himself isn’t or something he is lacking.

So, love is the desire for something one lacks. And as Agathon said previously, Eros has nothing to do with ugliness, but only with beauty and virtue. Therefore, Eros is the desire of beauty and the virtues, which implies that Eros is not himself virtuous or beautiful. How can then Agathon call Eros beautiful while he desires beauty, which means he lacks it? So, already Socrates has rebutted Agathon and all the previous speakers, who also said Eros is beautiful, good, young, wise, strong…

In this way, although Socrates started his speech claiming ignorance and inability to speak as beautifully as the others did, he more or less disproved everyone. Agathon admits defeat saying: “I, Socrates, am unable to contradict you. So let’s admit that it is as you say so”. The philosopher continues saying he himself is not important (besides, he knows nothing); that what actually led them to this conclusion is reason. “Against the truth you have no chance; against Socrates it is almost a piece of cake”201c, he replies, and immediately starts describing his meeting with the wise woman Diotima, to impart what he learnt from her about love.


Plato – Symposium (or on love)


[1] Tragedian whose works are lost. He also appears in Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes. Probably Pausanias’ lover.

[2] Ate: Daughter of Zeus according to Homer, daughter of Eris according to Hesiod. Secondary daimonic deity of injury and corruption, she causes blind passion and confusion in men without them knowing it, by stepping lightly on their heads.

[3] As we’ll see in the next chapter, near the end of the Symposium Socrates also uses a myth that comes to “justify” the claims he has already made. Eros cannot desire beauty and be beautiful at the same time, since what we desire is what we lack. But he can neither be ugly –he is something in between. This is explained in myth, from the fact that he was conceived by the ugly Penia and the beautiful Porus. After completing the myth Socrates goes on with his dialectic method to more conclusions. So he uses myth to prove the correctness of what he said, and then to come to the conclusion that Eros is the subject of desire, not the object. Since he is the object, he has a subject, which he explains to be immortality.

Socrates on death

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“What all of us deeply want is not to do something, but to be something.”
A.E. Taylor, Plato – The man and his work

When Socrates’ execution was certain and impending, and after he bid his family farewell, his friends visited him once more expressing their admiration for his calm demeanor during his trial and imprisonment. Their teacher explains to them how a philosopher ought to think about death and why he should not fear it, but consider it an opportunity to finish his work. The incidence is described in Phaedo.

For Socrates, suicide was impermissible. Man belongs to god, and only god has the right to end one’s life or ask one to die. Like when a slave commits suicide without his master’s permission or expressed desire, his master has the right to be irate and, if it was possible, to punish him, “perhaps in this sense it is not irrational that none should kill themselves before god expresses a need for it, like in my case”[1]62c.

So, even though Socrates does not desire death, he welcomes it when the gods send it. Because he is their property, because they will take care of him after dying and because through his soul’s withdrawal from his body it will escape its carnal imprisonment, something not only one shouldn’t disdain or perceive to be undesirable, but is a great accomplishment for the philosopher, and a crowning of his efforts. “The others might not realize that for those who engage with philosophy in the right manner, their only care is to die and being dead”[1]64a.[1] The philosopher’s goal, says Socrates, is the soul’s ridding of the body.

Ο Σωκράτης (ίσως) στο Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο Δελφών
Socrates (perhaps) in the Delphi Archeological Museum (photo)

To bother with desires, like food, drinking, sex and other cares of the body, are not features of the philosopher. He must unbind the soul from communicating with the body, as much as possible. The body is a hindrance if someone includes it in his search for prudence. When the soul attempts to examine something through the body, it deceives the soul. “Doesn’t the philosopher’s soul neglect the body completely, doesn’t it avoid it, doesn’t it desire to be left alone with itself?”[1]65c-d. Only in reasoning does it see clearly, “when none of these things distract it, neither hearing nor sight nor pleasure nor desire, but on the contrary when it is left alone with itself, without taking the body into account and, to the degree that is possible, without communicating and coming in contact with the body”[1]65c.

Only he who will be prepared to the highest degree and with the greatest precision to reflect on whatever it is he wants to examine, will be able to get closer to really knowing it. But how will he achieve this when the needs of the body distract and deter him? “Our body creates thousands of annoying pursuits with the need for food. Moreover, if some sickness finds us, it raises barriers in our pursuit of being. We are flooded with romances, desires, fears, illusions of all sorts and foolish babbling, that indeed, and this is really true, because of it not a single right thought comes to us. Because even wars, revolutions and battles are not created but for the body and its desires”[1]66b-c. This detachment of the soul from the body, familiarizing the soul to rise from it and live alone with itself after slipping its leash, is the catharsis[2], the final goal of the philosopher. This catharsis, in its absolute form, coincides with (the body’s) death. So, the culmination of the philosophical life, which comes through death, is not a catastrophe but an achievement. The philosopher’s goal is for death to be an apogee, not merely life’s end.

So, it would be ridiculous for someone who throughout his life tried to simulate death, to fret and fear it when the actual death approached him. And it would be unreasonable to not go happily where his hopes of reaching what he desired would be realized, and where he would purge himself, once and for all, of that which chained him and which he detested, the body. A.E. Taylor observes that later, Christian mystics too, like Socrates, considered the life of inner stare, rather than that of action, to be excellent. However, this catharsis of Socrates’ does not only involve passive self-restraint, but looks to the embellishment of practical life, since through the catharsis the intellect becomes more focused and intense, and perceives reality more clearly[3].

Από έκδοση του «World's Famous Orations Vol. 1» του William Jennings Bryan
Από έκδοση του «World’s Famous Orations Vol. 1» του William Jennings Bryan (photo)

Moderation (or sophrosyne), to not be taken away by desires, fits those who have the highest neglect for the body and live in philosophy. The sophrosyne of others, those who live the unexamined life, looks irrational. Because they are moderate only out of fear of being denied a future pleasure; only for this reason do they abstain from a pleasure in the present. “They have become self-restrained because of another kind of self-indulgence”[1]68e. Most of those we call courageous consider death to be one of the greater evils. Those who defy death, when they defy it, they do it out of fear for other, greater, evils. So they are courageous out of fear. But that is also irrational. So these self-restraint men and these courageous men exchange pleasure with pleasure and fears with other fears, like coins are exchanged with one another. But the correct coin is one, prudence (a virtue). It is with this coin that everything must be exchanged; and it is with this coin that courage, moderation and justice must be bought and sold. When these virtues are separated from prudence and substitute one another, virtue becomes a delusion, and something slavish without anything healthy and true. It is catharsis that’s truthfully virtuous.

But here, it is Socrates that is being irrational, as his thinking reaches a paradox. Because the only thing that seems to give him the courage to face death, is the hope that man continues to live even after the body’s demise. Socrates seems to believe that after he dies, he will depart to “another place”, where all the other dead men are, and where he’ll find Homer, Hesiod and Orpheus. There, he will continue to do what he did in Athens; talk to others and examine who is truly wise and who only think he is (“what would be better than this, Athenian judges?…For my part, I would like to die many times if all this is true”[2]41a). “If I did not imagine going to meet other gods, wise and good, and also men who have died and are better than those here, I would be wrong to not grieve death”[1]63b.[4]

Socrates exchanges death with death. He exchanges the final and unknown death –the one that all of us are faced with and called to confront- with the death of only the body, from which the soul escapes. But the soul, for Socrates, is the self. So when he talks about his soul travelling in “another place” he means surviving his own death. And when he goes to that place, all he wants to do is what he was doing while alive, with the same mind, the same memories and the same habits (“wouldn’t all this be untold happiness?”[2]41c). So he expects to remain alive, but instead of being here, be there.

Σωκράτης, στους Εθνικούς Βοτανικούς Κήπους, Glasnevin, Δουβλίνο, Ιρλανδία
Socrates at the Glasnevin National Botanical Gardens of Dyblin, Ireland (photo)

How could we say for someone that he doesn’t fear death, when he doesn’t believe he’s going to die? How can we talk about death if we take it as a given that the soul lives on after death? What is virtuous or courageous about him waiting for his execution calmly, only because he believes he won’t die? If there’s anything particularly wrong with death, it is neither the detachment from fortunes and bodily pleasures (these are fleeting anyway) nor the loss of vitality (that one leaves us with the passing of age) nor the loss of love (love can wither on its own). What is bad, and fearful, is its permanent nature, the fact that it cannot be undone. If it was not permanent and final, if we could be resurrected in our living form and return to our earthly ways or even as pure thought without the annoyances of the body and the needs it brings us, and even more so if we were transferred to an ideal “other place”, what would be there to fear or be courageous against? The only thing left would be to convince ourselves that indeed this is the case, which is what Socrates tries to prove for the remainder of the dialogue. So, he doesn’t exchange fear with virtue (as he should according to him), but, instead, he refuses to accept he’s actually going to die. This is not courage against death; this is a denial that death will even come.

In the Apology he says that he who fears death does what he considers to be the worst (intellectual) crime. To think he knows what he doesn’t know. What he can’t know. Fear of death, he says, stems from the belief that death is the worst evil, something no one can know for sure. “And isn’t it shameful illiteracy to think one knows what one doesn’t know?”[2]29b.  For Socrates, death is one of two things: Either there happens some kind of “change and migration of the soul from this place to another”[2]40c (as we saw just now), or it is nothingness, and the dead simply doesn’t have any experience of the fact. In this way, death looks like a dreamless sleep, and eternity itself looks like a calm night. Socrates seems satisfied with this eventuality, since even the “greatest king” would have great difficulty deeming the best days of his life happier than one dreamless night. “If death is such a thing, I, at least, think of it as a great benefit”[2]40e.

Antonio Canova (1757-1822) - Socrates and Philosophy
Antonio Canova (1757-1822) – Socrates and Philosophy (photo)

But in Phaedo, he goes on with a third contingency (this inconsistency must be viewed as Plato’s ideas forcing themselves in Socrates’ mouth, since Phaedo is one the intermediate dialogues). The third one is reincarnation[5]. If someone, says Socrates, tends to his body’s needs throughout his life, with little consideration for the soul, his soul will desire unison with the body even after death. This desire might be strong enough to pull it back in the “birthing circle”, and the strength of the desire defines the place where the reborn soul will settle. Gluttons and debauchees will come back as donkeys and beasts, while those who have the common virtue, meaning those who, while having fear or pleasure as a motive, acted as courageous and moderate agents according to the dominant morality, will come back as social beings, such as bees, ants or even humans. Conclusively, the goal is the complete detachment from the birthing circle, which will be achieved only by having lived the philosophical life, and will lead to the deification of the soul, its complete removal from the body and the migration to the “other place”.

Socrates himself doesn’t seem convinced by his own convictions, and at the end of the dialogue, after the soul is shown through a series of axioms and arguments to be immortal, he continues to say that the soul is also incorruptible, without further explanations. There is no need, he says, for any more arguments, as “the gods, I guess, and everything else that is immortal, they all must agree that the soul cannot be lost”[1]106d. And when Simmias, one of the interlocutors, expresses doubt on what was just said, Socrates not only agrees with his objections, “but the original hypotheses, even though they are believable, must be examined more thoroughly”[1]107b. But these original hypotheses (these axioms) were those that led to his conclusions. Later still, thinking that Crito believes what Socrates said to be “hollow words, some kind of solace for you and for myself”[1]115d, guarantees he believes them to be true. But we saw how Socrates thought that beliefs (or opinions) and knowledge are not the same thing.

One could say of Socrates that by rejecting the hypotheses, he negates what they implied, but it is not so. In reality he stays consistent to what he always said, up to his trial. That one must not pretend to know things he can’t know. He can think about death and its nature, in fact he has to if he wants to be a philosopher. But as no man has the right to fear death on the grounds that this fear would mean he thinks he knows death to be fearful or evil, so he cannot pretend to be sure of what will follow death without evidence or conclusive reasoning; moreover that death is the greatest gift from the gods.

Jean-François Pierre Peyron - The Death of Socrates (1787)
Jean-François Pierre Peyron – The Death of Socrates (1787) (photo)

But he can hope, and he can justify the life he lived which led him to drink the hemlock, ascribing to the unknown of death what he believed about life (and we will see how this helped him deal with his execution). Perhaps the first concession he makes, the dualism of body and soul, is what necessarily leads him to his conclusion or his hope of the afterlife (for what other reason would we invent the soul if not to credit it with the ability to survive death?). But we, in contrast to Socrates, can maybe imagine even more than two (or three) contingencies (if we use that same axiom of dualism). We can imagine, with a little prompting from Hitchens, an afterlife without gods and/or no heaven and hell, or an eternal rebirth in endless human bodies without reward or punishment according to the way we lived, we can imagine the existence of god(s) without an afterlife or a sadist god who rewards evil and punishes the just, and we can think about all this as if it mattered. Even Socrates, just before the hemlock was delivered, laughs (for the first and only time in the entire Platonic work), dispersing any traces of pomposity in the effort to study death, though not its seriousness. He leaves with the wish for his friends to continue trying to make peace with their own deaths, as he did.

What does matter though, is that Socrates recognized the limits of his knowledge till the end. He doubted himself, he denied considering his hypotheses as known things and, by recognizing the utility of his beliefs, illustrated the subjectivity of his thoughts. It is indicative after all, when he said that, if he did not believe in his postmortem migration, he would grieve death, that developing a system of thought which defends this migration theory is in his interest (and he knew it).

For non-dualists on the other hand (meaning, for materialists) maybe the unavoidable conclusion is the one to which Epicurus reached. That death is final, that it means the person seizes to exist, and that therefore there is nothing to be afraid of since, when death comes we will not be here to experience it, and before it comes we cannot know it so, again, we cannot experience it. Therefore, death concerns neither us, the living, nor the dead. And when Epicurus says death is final, he does not pretend to know what he can’t know, he simply doesn’t make the opposite hypothesis (let alone the concession), since there is no evidence to support it.


[1] Plato – Phaedo (or on the soul)
[2] Plato – Apology of Scocrates


[1] “Life is a constant preparation for dying” (Sykoutris).

[2] Aristotle informs us that for Socrates the soulless bodies were useless and could therefore even be thrown away (Nicomachean Ethics1235a39).

[3] “To know how to die means to know how to live” says Sykoutris on Socrates. You have to know where you’re going to learn how to get there. Meanwhile, a Christian would rather have to say “to know how to live means to know how to die”. When faced with the certainty of the eternal afterlife, this life is but a means to the other, and therefore inferior. We don’t see this in Socrates, whose aim is to benefit in the present life, not the afterlife which might never come. He doesn’t enjoy the same certainty, and is quite satisfied with death as an eternal sleep.

[4] In the ancient world there were several scattered pessimistic teachings on death. Prodicus once gave a lecture to show that life is not worth living at all, because it is filled with worries and pains from the first moment. Many said that the best thing is to not have been born at all, and the second best to leave life as soon as possible. Alcidamas, a sophist after Prodicus, wrote the Encomium on Death (Gigon).

[5] The mystical tradition of the Pythagoreans taught about the after-life and that death is but the road to another life. Followers of Pythagoras believed in the reincarnation of the soul. The Stoics believed that every man had a spark of life within him as part of the life-giving force of the universe. They named it pneuma, or breath. At death, the pneuma ascended to the heavens and united with the cosmic totality. Democritus believed that the most possible thing to happen after death was that everything that man consisted of disintegrates, making death final. There was nothing after death for him. Thus, he gave rise to Epicurus’ thoughts (see end of chapter).

Historical mysteries and conspiracy theories

Skepticism and science against superstition

Its good to keep your mind openbut not so open that your brain falls out
Walter Kotschnig, 1940 – usually attributed to Carl Sagan

In the dark years of medieval times, the unsuspecting population of Europe would systematically become witness of a magical phenomenon that filled the all-too-open mind of those who came across it with wonderous images of magestic creatures and sublime apparitions. I am referring, of course, to common mushrooms. Someone would wake up one fine morning to find sprung mushrooms in almost perfect circular formation in his garden, on the same spot where the previous day there was nothing but clear grass. How could one explain the mystery of the sudden appearance of the fungi and, moreover, the apparently intentional circular formation? The origin of the myth that “solved” this mystery will probably remain unknown, but it spread mouth to mouth through international terrains and in perennial durability. It had to be, they said, that while everyone was sleeping, a gathering of fairies would take place in their garden, for a nocturnal meeting of sorts. And, so that they wouldn’t get tired, they forced mushrooms to bloom for them to sit on, in the manner of a round table. I will not be bothered here with how this narrative took form (there is always an impressionable bloke in the tribe), but with how it got retold and took hold of generations to come.


Surely the majority of the population was uneducated, surely life conditions were unfavorable and perhaps did not allow for the luxury of doubt, surely (I guess) everyone was always so tired by their harsh everyday reality and didn’t have time or care to wonder how come, for example, nobody had ever seen these fairies at work. But there were, certainly, also those who -with equally little time, rest and education as the others- were not convinced by the solution to the mystery with a narration of magical creatures that, not having anything better to do, made congress in the middle of the night behind some shack. In reality, as scientists found out later on, mushrooms indeed grow suddenly, in the middle of the night, when the conditions (temperature, humidity…) are appropriate. Initially, the seed grows a root, which grows downward, and then branches outwardly in every direction (with roughly the same rate of growth), until the proper conditions are met for the branches to rise toward the ground and present the mushroom on the surface. As it is obvious, what someone sees on the ground is the mushrooms in circular arrangement. I wouldn’t like to reproach those who believed the fairy myth (not me…), but they rather proved to be gullible dupes, while those who merely said “I don’t know”, probably died in ignorance without ever knowing the truth of the matter; holding, though, an intellectually honorable stance that I find difficult to disparage, as it is this attitude that is a rarity even today, on issues small and big. Which of the two categories would you rather be in?

If this story of mushrooms and fairies sounds childish and irrelevant, the next ones will surely seem more familiar. But luckily today, apart from a higher education in relation to the medieval peasants, we also have access to much more information on the origins of our own myths that helps us debunk them. On the other hand, according to the unwritten law of escalation, the modern storytellers exploit the smattering and the gullibility towards stories that evoke a sense of awe, and utilize pseudoscientific methods to promote their books or blogs.

Some might be convinced that this is a photograph. (The painting was made by Yuri Shwedoff)
Some might be convinced that this is a photograph. (The painting was made by Yuri Shwedoff)

Erich von Daeniken is one such storyteller who introduced himself as an alternative historian, and it is he who made fashionable the myth of the “ancient astronauts” that still fill both paper and digital pages. As the myth goes, there are monuments, such as Egypt’s Pyramids, that are so complex in their construction and, therefore, so inexplicably made considering the limited technological tools of their time that…surely aliens must have visited Earth and built them for us. In the same manner that the ancient Greeks saw things they could not explain, like thunder, and made myths to limit the frustration of this inability, such as the god Zeus, Daeniken of the 20th century transferred this loosely obstructed inspiration from theology to science fiction. If he wanted to follow the scientific method, he would have to consider the available evidence and conclude whatever he could explain (and say “I don’t know” for the things he couldn’t). But Daeniken did the opposite. He preferred to resort with certainty to the ease of the impressive myth and arbitrarily create a story that, if true, would indeed explain the mystery he was looking at. It should be obvious how simplistic this view of the investigative procedure is, and we should not avoid the comparison with the previous example; if Zeus indeed existed, with the powers and idiosyncrasies he was attributed with, his existence would actually explain the emergence of thunders –it’s just that Zeus cannot be concluded from the available evidence.

The Nazca Lines of Peru are explained away in the same manner; a set of constructions that is not known why or how they were made -therefore: aliens. They were used, he says, by our otherworldly visitors as landing strips, to land their spaceships. The obvious objection to the theory, and before we even address the relative scientific research, is the irrationality of thinking it intellectually unproblematic that starships, which traveled through, at least, our galaxy, were in need of landing strips waiting for them on Earth! Bear in mind that for the aliens to make the journey it would mean they were unimaginably more evolved technologically than us (maybe even able to surpass the speed of light?) -but they need landing strips?. Note that we, humans, have already built airplanes that take off vertically, with no need for any Nazca lines. Scientists, on the other hand, archeologists, ethnologists, anthropologists and astronomers, though they have not yet concluded with absolute certainty on the matter, consider it the likeliest that the Nazca Lines were formed by the locals either so that they would be visible by their gods or in order to point to spots on the horizon where the sun and other celestial objects rested during solstices.

Landing strips or religious art? (art) (photo)
Landing strips or religious art? (art) (photo)

Skepticism and common sense are often enough to deter us from inconsiderately believing whatever we are told. Conversely, those who succumb to these easy and imaginable stories choose to ignore the long and painful scientific research of thousands of scientists throughout the ages and take comfort in something someone irresponsibly says, figuring out solutions while gazing at their ceiling instead of doing the real work, pretending they have access to knowledge the rest of us don’t. So, instead of realizing it’s not possible to discover everything in one day (only in 2014 did we learn how the Egyptians dragged the stones to build the pyramids) and declare ignorance on the questions still left unanswered, they fantasize about fairies and aliens. There is arrogance is this behavior, against those who work honestly to unlock the mysteries of our past, as well as self-complacency, as they cancel out the authority of those who have certainly more knowledge than them. The intellectually honest position to hold is the Socratic one; we should not pretend to know things we don’t know (things we can’t possibly know).

Dimitris Sarantakos in What did we learn from the ancient Greeks? calls Daeniken a “semiliterate noise-maker” as he ascribes to aliens the knowledge of Thales and Anaxagoras, when he writes that “it is a well-known fact that the ancient Greeks did not have such technological equipment, e.g. lenses, and in mathematics they could not count higher than 10,000”. In reality, lenses were in common use in ancient Greece (even Aristophanes mentions them in his play Clouds), and Archimedes speaks of a number that consists of the digit 1 followed by quadrillion zeros…

Unfortunately, the “classic” Daeniken is just an example of those who follow this motif that is reproduced by other modern storytellers who invoke the Masons, the Nephilim, the Hollow Earth, the Atlantis, the flatness of the earth and countless more silliness mixed with Christian Mysticism, the Jews and CIA conspiracy theories. And it is actually them who claim to be skeptics who doubt the “official” or “mainstream” history, while they are nothing but deniers of true science. In contrast, there are indeed those who have made real skepticism a profession -and we call them scientists.

I won’t bother with specific conspiracy theories (that would take many thousands of words) but only refer to certain famous historical mysteries that, even though the scientific community has actually solved, continue to be reproduced.

The Bermuda triangle

The Bermuda triangle is not recognized as a ‘thing’ by the US Navy (photo)
The Bermuda triangle is not recognized as a ‘thing’ by the US Navy (photo)

In 1950, the geographic area within Miami, Puerto Rico and Bermuda was covered in mystery and intrigue, described as a region where airplanes and ships disappear never to be seen again. The story started by a journalist and not long after books appeared with testimonies of the vanished ones themselves, like the pilot of an airplane who, right before it disappeared, appeared to have said “We are entering white water, nothing seems right. We don’t know where we are, the water is green, not white.” Rumors escalated and still persist. However, the “mystery” has been solved since 1975! A researcher from Arizona studied the frequency of ship and plane itineraries within the region, as well as relevant “disappearances”, meaning how often a plane would fall in the sea or a ship would sink. As it was to be expected, the frequency of these kinds of mishaps within the Bermuda triangle was never higher than anywhere else on the planet where there is similar traffic in an area similar in size. Previous claims of disappearances in the Bermuda triangle proved either exaggerated or completely made up. However, the rumored “curse” of the region is still around. In reality, 100 large ships disappear somewhere on the planet every year, usually because of rogue waves.

In the Bermuda triangle there has not been a similar event since 1999 (as far as I can tell).

Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

The statues face the inner island, even though they are next to the sea shore, placed to protect the islanders. They failed. (photo)
The statues face the inner island, even though they are next to the sea shore, placed to protect the islanders. They failed. (photo)

The statues Moai of the island Rapa Nui provided a source for many theories. The Easter Island was discovered by the Dutch in 1722, who found 2 to 3 thousand indigenous people that did not seem to have the abilities and resources to create the majestic Moai, since on the island there were no trees to be found (which might be necessary to move the statues from the faraway place where they were made to where they stood) and the population was too small for the construction of so many statues of such size. So, the statues, around 1,000 in number, constituted a mystery, as no one knew how they were sculpted (no technology), how they were moved on the spot they were found (no trees), what the reason for their creation was (too much trouble considering absence of resources), and neither did anyone know who actually made them (too few people, and they could not answer the questions). The most imaginative theory was (once more) supported by Daeniken, who again insisted on his alien travelers.

The truth is far from the Swiss storyteller’s fables. Several years ago, with more advanced scientific tools than those available in the time of the sea explorers, it was found that the island was, in the distant past, hospitable to almost 15 thousand inventive people, in an environment full of natural life, including trees. So, what had gone wrong? The Rapa Nui people, divided in tribes, were “ancestor worshippers”, a religion that’s been found in other civilizations as well, and is devoted to the “fathers” of the believers. In this case, the statues were devoted to these “fathers” in order to win over their favor and protection. Their fanaticism, though, reached to the point of paroxysm, and the worshippers exhausted the natural resources of their island in a suicidal match to prove which tribe was the most faithful. Building taller Moais meant the use of more human resources, more food for the sculptors (who performed a rather counter-productive task), more cutting of trees to transport the statues to the sea shore (they probably put trunks horizontally on the ground and dragged the statues on them, rolling them like wheels) and several bloody religious wars among the tribes to reveal which tribe was the most “worthy”. The natural disaster caused by this climate change worsened the condition of the isolated between two vast seas people, with their plights reinforcing themselves (the climate catastrophe drove to lack of food and misery that fanaticized them even more, and so their offerings increased, that led to even more food shortage…), until the last tree on the island was chopped; which meant their demise. It’s one of the many cases where Daeniken (who continues to write today) was proven beyond a reasonable doubt wrong in his assumptions. The events are described in an episode of BBC’s Horizon, called The Mystery of Easter Island.

Crystal Skulls

A Crystal Skull in the British Museum (still). (photo)
A Crystal Skull in the British Museum (still). (photo)

Most of us might know them from the last installment in the Indiana Jones movie series, but the mystery that surrounds these objects circulates for a century. They are objects that look like a human skull, made of crystal, without any identifying notch (meaning they are made in one piece). They are supposed to originate in the Aztec era, but the Aztecs did not have the technology needed to make such objects. The theories, once again, revolved around them being alien constructions and involved alleged magical properties, and some of them ended up in big museums (like the British and the Smithsonian). But, in 2008, a team of researchers, using new methods of crystallography, discovered small marks, proved to be circular notches, which could be made with instruments used in the West of the 19th century, available at the time when the skulls were discovered. Their “dating” had been made based on testimonies of the discoverers and, given that the material the skulls are made of can be found in Europe and not in the Americas, in combination to several inconsistencies in the narratives of the explorers who presented them to the world, lead us to the conclusion that the objects were made in Europe and were presented as being of mysterious origin for speculating reasons.  Many museums have retracted the items they had and the most famous of all (the Mitchell-Hedges skull) has not been put to the test, as its owner refuses to present it.

The shroud of Turin

Photograph of the shroud on the left, digitally enhanced on the right – a hoax that dates 6 centuries (photo)
Photograph of the shroud on the left, digitally enhanced on the right – a hoax that dates 6 centuries (photo)

The shroud of Turin is the one which supposedly covered the dead body of Jesus before it was placed in the tomb, and thus it left an imprint of his figure on it. It was found in 1390 AD, and claimed by Pope Benedict 16 as the authentic ritual shroud of Christ. But in 1988, three universities, after independent examination, reached to the same conclusion using carbon dating: the shroud is dated in the 14th century, meaning exactly the period when it was ‘found’. In 2009 an Italian professor of chemistry made his own similar shroud, using only materials available in the 14th century, proving the hoax to be, at least, possible for those who were still not convinced.

So, let’s not abstain from declaring ignorance, unless we want to risk the danger of appearing gullible. There are still plenty of unsolved mysteries but if we don’t want to be exploited by hotheads and liars, if we want to value reason, if we realize that only with skepticism and the scientific method can we describe the natural world, only then will we manage to disenclave ourselves from all-too-easy answers and superstitions. And let’s reread the Bible while we’re at it.

Socrates, the laws and the power of the state

This is a chapter from my book, Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“Their teacher is a prisoner of himself, and the only act of ‘freedom’ he recognizes is embracing death. Will they succeed in convincing him to escape from himself?”
Kostis Papagiorgis, Socrates – the lawgiver that kills himself

In ancient Athens, in order to execute any condemned prisoner, the sacred ship of the city, Paralos, had to be docked at bay. So, after Socrates’ conviction, a whole month interceded until his execution, since Paralos was stalled by bad weather in the island of Delos, attending Apollo’s festival. When the ship was seen approaching, Crito[1], a friend of Socrates, visited him one last time. He tried to convince him to escape, now that he had one day left. Crito said he could pay off the guards and send him in Thessaly, from where he could then go anywhere he wanted or stay there with Crito’s friends who would greet and take care of him until his final days.

With very clear argumentation Socrates explains to his friend why he is forced to deny this offer, and gives reason for willingly accepting his sentence delivered by the Athenians to drink the hemlock[2] that will end his life.

Ana Maria Edulescu - Socrates Look
Ana Maria Edulescu – Socrates Look (photo)

Socrates extols the laws of the city, since it is them that made her “the most grand and famous city for her wisdom and power”[2]29d. It’s the laws that allowed him to be raised and educated, and to have lived such a happy life that “so far I would not accept that anyone I’ve met has lived a better life than me”[3]5. He loved his city so much that he would leave her “for a shorter time than lame men, blind men and other amputees”[1]53a, neither going away as a traveler to other cities nor to attend games. The only time he had to leave the city-state, was to fight for her and defend her (he joined combat in three war campaigns). For his parents to get married, they had to get affirmation from the city, so he feels he even owes his birth to the city. How could he now, that these same laws happen to turn against him, deny them and escape?

His trial and conviction took place as the laws commanded; the court had a lawful assembly and held in session as the lawmaker prescribed. There was no transgression, nor any misappropriation of the lawful procedure. The charge came from men who thought Socrates disrespected the gods of the city, that he denied them and introduced new ones, and that he corrupted the youth. Then, 500 citizens decided his guilt lawfully and freely. Besides, Socrates never felt forced to accept these laws –he freely decided to live lawfully- but he could at any moment leave the city if he believed that the laws were unjust, taking with him his family and any possessions he had. If he escapes “in such a vulgar way, rendering injustice and evilness”[1]54c, Hades’ laws would receive him accordingly, because he would have tried, as much as he could, to break down the laws of Athens. And it’s not the laws that are responsible for his conviction, but the men who made the decision (he himself knew of course that he was innocent, therefore the laws, in essence, are on his side).

His birth, then, his raising and his education are due to the city which, through her laws, gave him the chance to be the best he could. If he now decides to break them, he will cancel an unwritten social contract, proving himself to be a traitor and inconsistent to his responsibilities towards the Athenians. He will smear his honor and reputation. To escape would mean to do “what the most detestable servant did”[1]52d, trying to “escape against the agreements and the promises”[1]52d he gave that he would live according to the law. Besides, in case he reached another city, how could he then live amongst those men, when they would know that he says one thing and does another? Who would listen to him and respect him when they would know that his word doesn’t count for anything and therefore his teachings don’t matter? He would end up, in order to be liked, to flatter everyone and not bother anyone, something he is not willing to do. He would have to stop his annoying questions that so far have uncloaked those who pretended to be wise without knowing anything, not even knowing the extent of their ignorance. “It is impossible for me to live quietly”[2]37e, he had said in the Apology.

Jacques-Louis David - The death of Socrates (1787)
Jacques-Louis David – The death of Socrates (1787) (photo)

Socrates is so dedicated to the laws, that he thinks breaking them would aid in their, and the polity’s, demise and the destruction of the city. “Or do you think”, he says, “that it is possible for that city to still exist and not be overrun, in which the decisions of the courts do not stand, but are made invalid and subverted by civilians?”[1]50b. Whether, he says, the city sends us to war to get hurt or killed, or she throws us in prison if we fail to convince her otherwise, we must obey, and we will not act justly if we avoid conscription, if we retreat or desert from a war or if we avoid punishment from the court. “It is impious to act in violence against our mother and father, but isn’t it a lot more impious to act like that against country?”[1]51c.

We can’t fail to notice here a tendency to idolize in the words of Socrates. Is it possible for the laws to be so highly valued, that he is willing to sacrifice his life (and moreover “the best possible life”) simply because the laws command him to? And is it possible for him to mean literally what he said about the integrity of the city’s polity depending upon his very actions? If this stance looks extreme or even idealistic it is because, in our times, the laws are not our laws but the laws of others. But in ancient Athens, the laws were decided by her citizens by vote, not behind closed doors. Today there is an alienation from the laws (as Cornelius Castoriades means it), that’s why there is no respect for them, since they are forced on people, when they should be convincing them.

Socrates could easily avoid death, either by escaping (utilizing his friend’s help) or accepting exile as an alternative punishment (during his trial). It is this absolute nature of this attitude that makes it difficult for us to understand it. And this is why all that he says can be misconstrued as a dogma for complete surrender to the state, of uncritical self-subjugation to a court decision and of complete control of the citizens through legislature. How else could we explain the acceptance of a conviction that Socrates knows is unjust, when the price is death and escape so easy? Is he likely to try and convince us that we should blindly obey whatever the state dictates? That we should give ourselves completely to it? Give even our lives, if asked?

He, of course, is not so naïve to suggest such an absolute version of the relationship between state and individual. He does not preach the uncritical acceptance of the state’s will, and doesn’t blackmail us by suggesting that we owe our growth and education (even our being) to the state. And that’s because before his surrender to the laws’ power, Socrates has already freely accepted them. He has already stated that he considers Athens’ laws valid and just; he has recognized them as being better than any other city’s. He has not experienced our modern alienation from our laws or from our state. They don’t force on him and don’t repress him. He has agreed to them and this, he says, is apparent by him living and flourishing in this city. If he didn’t agree to them, he would be obliged to try and change them and if he couldn’t convince Athens to do so, he was always free to go to Sparta or Crete, which he also thought to be lawful cities[3]. The laws that allowed him to become who he was, the ones that he utilized for years in his personal and public affairs, now ask him for a price. The price is not death, the price is for him to not contribute, to the extent that he could, to their breakdown. And if his way of paying off this price means death, then he agrees to die.

So it is his conscience (or his daimonion) that stops him from escaping prison and avoiding death, not his deliverance to the power of the state. He puts the (just) laws above everything, and rejects the right to break them in the case they happen to decide against him; let alone after he called on them all his life to his benefit. Because the power and validity of the laws can only be sustained if they are invariable, and they are mocked, or even broken down, if their decisions are only occasionally respected; meaning when someone avoids punishment by will or convenience, having power, money or influence. We are reminded of this, almost twenty centuries later, by another “man for all seasons”, Thomas More, when, faced with imprisonment and execution for defending the (divine in his case) law, a confidant asks him if he would provide the advantage of the law even to the Devil (parallelizing the cleric that is after him on the king’s order to help him break the law in the king’s favor). “Yes”, he replies, “what would you do, break the law to beat the devil?” – “Yes”, the confidant says emphatically, “I would break down all the laws of Britain to do that!” – “And when the devil turns after you, what will you do, with all the laws of the land broken down; how will you defend yourself against the devil?…Yes, I will give the benefit of the law even to the devil; for my own sake”[4].

Σωκράτης, αντίγραφο από έργο, μάλλον, του Λύσιππου (1ος αιώνας) - Λούβρο
Socrates, a copy of a Lysippos work (1rst century – Louvre) (source: Wikimedia commons)

Nor is Socrates so naïve as to believe that the polity of Athens was without imperfections. He is not a deluded idealist seeing in Athens a perfect society with perfect (in their conception or practice) laws. How could he be while waiting unjust death? In the last quarter of 5th century BC, persecuting intellectuals was intensified, especially for religious reasons. Some, in order to avoid the worst, fled Athens while others, like Anaxagoras, Diagoras and Protagoras, were exiled. In the Apology Socrates refers to an episode from his past, when the Athenians wanted to try some generals (for not rescuing castaway soldiers) all in the same trial, while the law demanded separate procedures, using an ironic remark: “and all this happened when there was democracy in the city”[2]32c. Which means that, not only is there no (functioning) democracy now, but also that, even when there was, the people’s wrath could lead to crimes, specifically by not following laws to the letter, which is what Socrates defended.

Therefore, the laws of his time are not perfect nor do they apply as they should all the time. So why then is he ready to lose everything, for something he believes to be fraudulent? It might look as if Socrates contradicts himself, but his argumentation remains logical. This is because when he talks of a contract between himself and the laws, he means the laws collectively; as the means that keep society bound and make it a just place to live in, not every law singularly. Even if some of them don’t function as they should, they overall make Athens the most lawful city. If he breaks one law, it will be as if he attacks the validity of the entire system of laws, and put all of them at risk – since Socrates can break this law, why wouldn’t someone else break another?

Laws then, protect us only through their total and systemic functioning, through their absolute validity, but also through their constant nature. Aristotle took it a step further (even though his take reads more realistic to us), when in Politics he wrote that even when we can change a law with another, better one, perhaps we should avoid the change if in this way we would be risking the trust of the people in it. The constantly changing law reduces its gravitas and the citizen’s respect (“The ease in changing existing laws into new ones is possible to diminish the power of law”1269a24-26). Why should one obey a law, since in a short time it will perhaps change anyway? And why, if someone with wealth, power or connections can avoid the arm of the law even if he has indeed committed an injustice, should the rest follow the rules of society and not attempt to exploit every opportunity they have to sidestep them? Why shouldn’t they, since so many others do so anyway?

So Socrates presents us with an ideal version of dealing with our responsibilities to the state, Aristotle deals with the problem more realistically, Thomas More doesn’t hide his utilitarian disposition and Castoriades illustrates the complete destruction of people’s trust in the lawmaking procedure. What about us? We watch the annual presentation of a new taxation or educational law and wonder whether the reason of the new version is the law’s betterment or to increase the difficulty of tax evasion, which is considered a given. One wonders, how better is our relationship with the law, compared to last year? One need not wonder long. We could use some of Socrates’ irony, but our current disposition leaves us only with cynicism.


[1] Plato – Crito (or on what is to be done)
[2] Plato – Apology of Socrates
[3] Xenophon – Apology of Socrates


[1] Crito was a rich Athenian, in Socrates’ close circle. Perhaps he wrote philosophical texts that are now lost. He makes an appearance in Euthydemus and in Phaedo and is mentioned in the Apology. Even though here he suggests escape, in court he took a vow that there was no “flight risk” for Socrates. He’s the last one Socrates addressed before he died. Xenophon includes him in his Symposium and in Memorabilia.

[2] The poison is produced by the plant conium maculatum. One of the strongest natural poisons along with nicotine, in ancient Athens it was also used as an anaphrodisiac by priests for its narcotic effects. In the form of poison it generates necrosis of the sensory nerves, a loss of muscular strength, an obtuseness of the peripheral senses and intense spasms leading to death.

[3] «The only tolerable form of government was the power of law, which was considered to be an agreement all the members of the city had signed, irrespectively of one’s social position, and therefore binding…the choice one had was to either obey the laws or change them with calm persuasion or to exile himself” (Guthrie). We can also see here that the congruency of Socrates with the laws balances his civil disobedience in the Apology.

[4] The dialogue comes from Robert Bolt’s play on the last days of Thomas More “A man for all seasons”. (this transcription is from memory)