‘I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil,’ says Socrates in Plato’s Apology as he stands by his virtues right till the end. For Socrates, a worthy life is one lived in accordance with (what he would call it had he seen The Men Who Stare At Goats) one’s optimal trajectory.

Socrates, right through till his death, acts according to what he sees to be the “will of the divine agencies”. He is not looking to some super-powerful person in the sky, or a mythic personification of some human quality on earth, but he looks to connect to some perspective outside himself, accessed via the voice inside.

In following this path Socrates teaches us the importance of seeking the highest virtues, and placing wisdom before our our private interests. Call it the “will of God” or “the signs of the universe” or simply “intuition”, Socrates values a life that is is self-aware, self-critical, self-confident and connects action with faith.

Today I will focus on the question my philosophy mentor posed when he recommended I read Plato’s Apology: What does Socrates believe makes a life a good/worthy one?

Close to his death, when asked to recommend a penalty, Socrates says,

‘I will not say of myself that I deserve any evil, or propose any penalty. Why should I? Because I am afraid for the penalty of death which Meletus proposes? When I do not know whether death is a good or an evil, why should I propose a penalty which would certainly be an evil?…’

He ponders options of prison, and exile, and says, ‘I must indeed be blinded by the love of life if I were to consider that when you, who are my own citizens, cannot endure my discourses and words, and have found them so grievous and odious that you would have fain have done with them, others are likely to endure me. No, indeed, men of Athens, that is not very likely… Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue?…’

And here he tells about his values and living out his optimal trajectory, even if this trajectory leads to death:

‘Now I have a great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examine myself and others, and that the life unexamined is not worth living that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.’

After the jury then condemns him to death, Socrates says: ‘I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet at law ought any man to use every way of escaping death… The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.’

Socrates talks about how to follow one’s optimal trajectory – listening to that deep intuitive feeling that warns you not to do something, and letting this guide your actions:

‘I should like to tell you of a wonderful circumstance. Hitherto the familiar oracle within me has constantly been in the habit of opposing me even about trifles, if I was going to make a slip or error about anything; and now as you see there has come upon me that which may be thought, and is generally believed to be, the last and worst evil. But the oracle made no sign of opposition, either as I was leaving my house and going out in the morning, or when I was going up into this court, or while I was speaking, at anything which I was going to say; and yet i have often been stopped in the middle of a speech; but now in nothing I either said or did touching this matter has the oracle opposed me. What do I take to be the explanation of this? I will tell you. I regard this as a proof that what has happened is a good, and that those of us who think that death is an evil are in error.

Now he goes on to tell us why he doesn’t fear death:

‘There is great reason to hope that death is a good, for one of two things: – either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain

if evernight is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this?… Above all I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not.’

Socrates values are noble and wise. He says he ‘never had the wit to be idle during his whole life; but has been careless of what the many care about – wealth, and family interests, and military offices, and speaking in the assembly, and magistracies, and plots, and parties. Reflecting that I was really too honest a man to follow in the way and live, I did not go where I could do no good to you or to myself; but where I could do the greatest good privately to everyone of you, thither I went, and sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the state before he looks to the interests of the state; and that this should be the order which he observes all his actions.’

Although by the sound of The Symposium I think Socrates didn’t mind the occasional party 🙂

Socrates did not die in vain. Through his ideas and conviction, Socrates inspired Plato and many-a-philosophers, religious thinkers and people like you and me, to not blindly accept authorities, institutions and ideas, but to question them. Science and philosophy are Socratic legacies that allow us to examine the world around us, and distinguish truth from fallacy, while acknowledging the great limitations of our knowledge.

Socrates lived his life in sync with the energies of the universe, living out what he believed to be the will of the divine agencies (that he did not believe was some old man in the sky), right through to his death.

If you take one thing from this long list of quotes, please take away Socrates’ request. He asks the jury that if, when his sons are grown up, ‘they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing, – then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing.’

Seeing as we are all (at least the majority of Western mentalities) are sons of Socrates, I think this is good advice. We should take Socrates advice, look around us, and at ourselves, see if there is anything we value more than virtue, and whether we are pretending to be something we are not… and if the answer is yes to either question then ask ourselves WHY? Is this our optimal trajectory, or is our intuition telling us there’s another path we might be better to follow?

Picture – from The Men Who Stare At Goats – it may not have received the best reviews, but I thought it was hilarious!