Socrates Was a Bum

It always astonishes me to see educated people praise Socrates. Likewise with Plato. Have they actually read Plato? Have they actually thought about it? My strong suspicion is no. They are probably caught up with “what everyone knows”, the myths that they have swallowed. The things people swallow. . . .

Shortly after arriving at Stanford to begin my freshman year I went to the Stanford bookstore to buy the long list of books I would need for the autumn quarter of the Structured Liberal Education program I was enrolled in. One book that I was particularly excited to pull off the shelf and cart to the register was Plato: The Collected Dialogues including the Letters, which of course I still have.

Edited by Edith Hamilton! There was a name I recognized from my childhood infatuation with Ancient Greek mythology. And “including the letters” as well! Oh, my goodness, the secrets of the philosophical universe would soon be mine! Many will understand that I am perfectly sincere when I say that I was truly terribly excited.

So imagine my disappointment when I actually tried to read the dialogues with the intention of acquiring some wisdom directly. To this day I have not encountered anyone who can explain with confidence what the hell Plato was trying to do. Was he just trying to be provocative? Certainly I was provoked and still am.

A passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance comes to mind where the author is writing about his arrival at the University of Chicago as a graduate student to study the Ancient Greeks. He was eager to devour Aristotle but was immediately flummoxed by nearly the first sentence he read:

He’d been prepared to decode messages of great subtlety, systems of great complexity in order to understand the deeper inner meaning of Aristotle, claimed by many to be the greatest philosopher of all time. And then to get hit, right off, straight in the face, with an asshole statement like that! It really shook him.

Now, I confess I am a fan of Aristotle. I disagree with Pirsig in his opinion there. But I sympathize with his trauma, as it was precisely what happened to me when I tried to read Plato as something intellectually serious. For me the memorable moment was when Socrates says in Phaedrus that the first thing one must do if one is to deliberate well on a topic is to properly define his terms. That sounded wise. Good point. Give that some care. But no sooner is that assented to by Phaedrus than Socrates begins to get all, well, sophistic in the extreme. In Symposium Socrates is even more deranged and demented with the words Plato puts in his mouth. Now, I am thoroughly persuaded that a symposium (drinking party) as conducted by the Ancient Greeks is the very most pleasant activity in the world, with the possible exception of one. But what is one to make of the manner of discourse in this dialogue? In this as in the other dialogues I have read, Socrates comes across as a perfect ass, when he is not being an intellectual bully and charlatan.

Decades later, still deeply annoyed, in fact even further inflamed, having read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I came across a fascinating book about Socrates by one I.F. Stone. I didn’t know Stone and wouldn’t have liked him, given my biases, if I had. According to Wikipedia, I.F. Stone was a “a politically radical journalist,” possibly an agent of the Soviet Union, but he wrote an interesting book. It’s a thoroughly documented hit job on Socrates–well deserved and well done.

The scholar Robin Waterfield also condemns Socrates in Why Socrates Died. He sides with the Athenians in finally ridding themselves of this windbag.

The famous Battle of Wits scene from The Princess Bride comes to mind, where Vizzini says, “Let me put this way: Have you heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?” “Yes.” “Morons!” Well, maybe not. But Socrates is certainly a bum. What in German might be called a Taugenichts. He was intoxicated with himself and his vaunted method. What is more disgusting to me is the horseshit that has been perpetuated about him for over 2000 years and the tolerance and gullibility of my cultural tradition for the purest nonsense and manifest falsehood simply because everyone else seems to buy it and repeat it mindlessly at every opportunity. Then again, my culture is not alone in this potentially fatal weakness. Its endemic to our species. And it seems to be well on the way to ruining us and all our good potential.

To me the life and works of Plato are a testament to his idiocy. No other failed playwright has done so much damage to the world. He may well have been a genius, but in the same vein as Hitler and Mao were geniuses. I can easily understand, however, why Plato (in the guise of his character “Socrates”) might be the patron saint of members of the Democratic Party and other totalitarians the world over.