Socrates(as) – Development of Greek Philosophy and Religion

Review of Religions: December 2001 33 Introduction The Greeks were one of the earliest cultures alongside the Egyptians, Persians and Indians to contemplate their lives, actions, beliefs, life after death, and the universe in which they co-existed with the rest of nature. Over a period of a few hundred years before Jesus(as), the Greeks had made huge advances in mathematics, philosophy, art, a s t r o n o m y, medicine, music and politics. Their achievements are acknowledged to this day, but would have been lost but for the endeavours of the Islamic culture to preserve and translate their work, and to take their knowledge to new boundaries. Early Development of Gre e k Thought The Greek civilization began to develop as early as 7000 BC when a farming community settled in the region. By around 2000 BC, the Minoan culture of Crete (a large Island near the Greek archipelago) became the dominant power of the region. After the erruption of the volcano on Thera around 1500 BC, the Minoans lost their power, and the Greeks began to rise in strength. Over the period 1000 BC to the time of Jesus( a s ), the Greeks began to develop concepts of philosophy linked to science, politics and the arts. The question could be asked as to whether these were random developments in an advanced Socrates(as) – Development of Greek Philosophy and Religion by Fazal Ahmad – UK Ancient Greek culture developed rapidly before it came into contact with foreign cultures from Egypt, India and elsewhere. At some point in time this triggered the development of philosophy and religion. This article examines the early development of religious concepts related to God, the soul, morality and society in Ancient Greece and the role of Socrates(as) and his contemporaries. Socrates(as) Review of Religions: December 200134 culture, or whether any of these developments could have been framed within a religious context, and perhaps even through the bounty of Divine Revelation. Greek Philosophy Flourishes It was at this time that some of the early schools of thought emerged. The Greeks had an essentially pagan culture in which they worshipped a plethora of gods and godesses which were ultimately to have an effect on shaping the new religion of Christianity many centuries later. The Greek pantheon consisted of the following: • Zeus – sky god • Athene – virgin goddess • Apollo – the brilliant god • Artemis – chaste goddess of the hunt • Poseidon – god of the sea • Hades – the underworld There were several others, but this list gives a flavour of ancient Greek religion, and there was a vast web of mythology by now built up around each of these characters. It was out of this chaotic view of religion and deity that the later philosophers of Greece tried to carve some harmony and order. Pythagoras (580 – 500 BC) of Samos began to delve deeper into spirituality. Born in the 6th century BC according to some legends of a virgin to the god Apollo, in the knowledge that he was to serve mankind, he travelled widely and was trained in the Orphic, Judaic, Egyptian, Chaldean, Hindu and Zoroastrian traditions. A g a i n according to some traditions, Pythagoras was later known as the ‘son of god’ and was the first Greek to call himself a philosopher – one trying to find out. Pythagoras was aware of the soul, and taught that the soul was trapped in the human body as a punishment for sin, and could therefore be condemned to several incarnations, whether human or animal. His views showed an influence from Indian Hindu beliefs of reincarnation, and indeed, the pantheon of gods and goddesses amassed by the Greeks also bore the hallmarks of the Vedic Triad and other Hindu incarnations. He also taught that all knowledge stemmed from mathematics, and related musical, astronomical and spiritual phenomenon to numerical relationships. He died at the age of Review of Religions: December 2001 Socrates(as) 35 60, but the order of his followers lasted 250 years. Another contemporary of Pythagoras was Xenophanes (563 – 483 BC) from Colophon who is reported to have said: ‘There is one God, greatest among gods and men, neither in shape nor in thought like unto mortals. … He is all sight, all mind, all ear. … Yet men imagine gods to be born, and to have raiment, voice and body, like themselves.’ Map of Classical Greece Socrates(as) Review of Religions: December 200136 Xenophanes was arguing against the unsophisticated approach of the Greeks to their deities. He argued that all creatures could view God in their own image, and thus humans had created a complex mythology assigning human form and weakness to God, as he wrote: ‘If cattle or horses, or lions, had hands, or were able to draw with their feet and produce the works which men do, horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make the gods’ bodies the same shape as their own.’ (Xenophanes quoted by Diogenes Laertius) In actual fact, Xenophanes was showing that God is a supreme p o w e r, beyond the forms and attributes that we could envisage. Could Xenophanes have been one of the first true monotheists of Europe? So we can see that religious thought was evolving and debated at the time in Greece, and this was fertile ground for spiritual advancement. The state view was that all youths had to study Homer’s epics T h e Iliad (story of the siege of Troy) and The Odyssey (journey home of the hero Odysseus after the war). I r o n i c a l l y, nothing is known of H o m e r, and indeed doubts have been raised about whether Homer was a person or a group of traditions. Nevertheless, to the Greeks, the writings embodied everything that was moral, practical, heroic and poetic, and therefore all young Athenians had to digest Homer, and this alone would arm and equip them to cope with the rigours of life. Life of Socrates(as) Socrates(as) was born in Athens in 469 BC. He soon developed his thoughts on philosophy much as Pythagoras had done before him. U n f o r t u n a t e l y, he left behind no direct written record of his beliefs, however we do have detailed accounts of his life recorded by Plato and also by the Greek historian Xenophon of Athens. From these records and accounts, we can piece together information about his life, his beliefs and his character. As a youth, Socrates(as) would have received the normal training in science, music and gymnastics. These were the accepted subjects of Review of Religions: December 2001 Socrates(as) 37 virtue during the classical Greek period. He was known as a sculptor, and some of his work is thought to have been on show on the road up to the Acropolis of Athens at one point. H o w e v e r, he soon gave this up as he received a series of dreams, revelations and signs which pointed to his Divine mission to reform the people of Athens. He wanted to show them the futility of their beliefs and lifestyle in order to encourage them towards a more intellectual and moral lifestyle. Throughout the rest of his life, he was guided by his ‘divine voice’, and referred to this contact with God in such personal terms that modern religious people would recognise. Socrates( a s ) b e l i e v e d his ‘voice’ and never went against it, believing that the voice always pointed him to truth and good. S o c r a t e s( a s ) had a unique style of preaching in which he would question someone on a subject from several directions and then draw out his conclusion, a style also later used by Confucius ( a s ) among the Chinese people. A good example is a recorded conversation between S o c r a t e s( a s ) and a retired general, Laches, on the subject of what constitutes bravery: Socrates: I wanted to get your opinion not only of bravery in the hoplite line, but also in cavalry engagements and in all forms of fighting; and indeed of bravery not only in fighting, but also at sea, and in the face of illness and poverty and public affairs. And there is bravery not only in face of pain and fear, but also of desire and pleasure, both fearsome to fight against whether by attack or retreat – for some men are brave in all these encounters, aren’t they, Laches? Laches: Yes, certainly. Socrates: Then all these are examples of bravery, only some men show it in pleasure, some in pain, some in desire, some in danger. And there are others who show cowardice in the same circumstances. Laches: Yes. Socrates: Now what I want to know was just what each of these two qualities is. So try again and tell me first, what is this common characteristic of courage which they all share? Do you understand what I mean? Socrates(as) Review of Religions: December 200138 In these discussions, Socrates( a s ) encouraged people to think about deeper meanings, and to dwell on why they did and said things. He also encouraged the youth to think about their actions and thoughts, and not to leave all of their understanding to Homer as the state had mandated. He also held some status, although he shunned politics as it interferred with his spiritual mission. However, in holding some office, he was bold and fearless in often standing alone for what he believed to be the right course of action. Examples included when he alone stood against the proposal against the victors of Arginusae in 406 BC. Two years later, he also disobeyed the Thirty Tyrants during their reign of terror. The extensive preaching of Socrates(as) and his principled stance had annoyed the Greek state who had him arrested in 399 BC. The accusers were Meletus, a poet, Anytus, a politician, and Lycon, an orator. The charge was as follows: ‘Socrates does wrong by not acknowledging the gods the city acknowledges and introducing other, new powers. He also does wrong by corrupting the youth.’ (Freeman, p.267) According to the account of Plato, he refused to take up a rhetorical argument in order to defend himself, but instead adopted a more sober approach. He began his defence according to Plato’s apology with the following words: ‘ Well then, I must make my defence, and endeavour to clear away in a short time, a slander which has lasted a long time. … And so leaving the event with God, in obediance to the law, I will now make my defence.’ (Apology, 19a) He had opportunities to get himself a lighter sentence but resisted and stood his ground. He seemed oblivious to his impending death, and even stated that he could be going to a better place. He was sentenced to death, and after many days of imprisonment, he was forced to drink hemlock, and died. Character of Socrates(as) Plato in his work S y m p o s i u m , captures the thoughts of Alcibiades, a wealthy politician in Athens, and his reaction on listening to the Review of Religions: December 2001 Socrates(as) 39 preaching of Socrates(as) as follows: ‘When I listen to him, my heart pounds … its a sort of frenzy … possessed … and the tears stream out of me at what he says. And I can see a lot of other people that he’s had just the same effect on. I’ve heard Pericles, I’ve heard plenty more good speakers and I thought they did pretty well, but they never had an effect like this on me. My soul wasn’t turned upside down by them and it d i d n ’t suffer from the feeling that I’m dirt.’ (Freeman, p.264) Alcibiades was describing his interaction with a unique man, not a politician, nor an egotist, but someone with conviction and a strong sense of good and evil, right and wrong, who could stir his listeners in the way that only a prophet of God can. Plato even described Socrates(as) as ‘the most just man of his time’. Another of his friends described him in the following terms: ‘so pious that he did nothing without taking counsel of the Greek Philosophers Pythagoras (580 – 500 BC) – originally of Samos, he developed a fraternity who believed that the unity and order of the worldcould be seen through Science, Mathematics and Music. Socrates (469 – 399 BC) – developed concepts of virtue and vice, and encouraged people to contemplate on their actions. Plato (427 – 347 BC) – founded the academy in Athens in 387 BC. He stressed the major virtues of wisdom, courage, sobriety and justice. Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) – founded the Lyceum at Athens. He encouraged analytical thinking, experimentation and specualtion. Epicurus (342 – 271 BC) – brought his concpet of a life withdrawn from politics from his upbringing on Samos. He encouraged the fight of reason, and in its path, the acceptance of pain and no fear of death. Zeno of Citium (336 – 263 BC) – developed Stoicism and the humanist ideal. Aristarchus (320 – 250 BC) – from Samos, developed concept of a Sun- centred universe, with the Earth revolving around the Sun. Posidonius (130 – 50 BC) – came from Apamea and founded of the School of Rhodes, and the fusion of Stoicism with mysticism. Socrates(as) Review of Religions: December 200140 gods, so just that he never did an injury to any man, whilst he was the benefactor of his associates, so temperate that he never preferred pleasure to right, so wise that in judging of good and evil he was never at fault – in a word, the best and the happiest of men.’ These attributes describe a pious man who reflected upon his own actions and words, and took each step with care so as not to offend God, and the ‘voice’ of God that he had grown accustomed to. T h e historian Xenophon made the following observations about him: ‘No one ever knew of his doing or saying anything profane or unholy.’ Another interesting facet of the character of Socrates(as) was that he was able to discuss his ideas and beliefs with people of all strata of society and from all walks of life. Greek culture was very structured and hierarchical just as society was in India, Egypt and elsewhere, and normally poets, scientists and politicans held discussions amongst themselves as the intelegensia. At that time, Athenian society consisted of the following classes: • pentakosiomedimnoi – upper class of property owners; • hippeis – middle class; • zeugitai – peasants; • thetes – property-less class. Even in political life, the Athenians elected their A rchons and the keeper of the Treasury from amongst members of the first class, and the 400 members of the Council were elected from members of the upper classes. The lower classes were permitted to take part in the popular assembly and courts. However, for Socrates(as), his God was the creator of all mankind, and the messages and the reform of society applied to all men and women in Athens, therefore he was just as comfortable having discussions with poets, historians and military men at one level, and then with shoemakers and carpenters at another (Ahmad, p.81). This again is a quality that we see amongst prophets such as Jesus(as), Moses(as) and Buddha(as). Beliefs of Socrates(as) At that time, much of the brain- Review of Religions: December 2001 Socrates(as) 41 power of Athens had been devoted to the study of science and external nature, but he began to change that balance more towards mankind and the effects of actions and thoughts. He wanted to give his followers an understanding of what it would mean to live a good and pious life. S o c r a t e s( a s ) tried to teach people about the meaning of life and death and was surpised at their reaction as he said: ‘Nobody knows what death is, nor whether to man it is perchance the greatest of blessings, yet people fear it as if they surely knew it to be the worst of evils.’ He also challenged the ancient Greek concept of the soul or psyche. Ancient belief was that the soul was a mirror of the deceased person which moved from the worlds of the living and the dead. Socrates( a s ) argued that the soul was distinct from the physical body. He argued that the psyche had a natural tendency towards good, a concept which was later challenged by Aristotle (Freeman, p.281). Most strikingly though, Socrates(as) held a personal view of God which leads us to the view that he was the recipient of dreams and revelations, especially when we consider the impact that he suddenly made upon Athenian life. He was able to reconcile his belief in a Supreme Being and Creator of the universe against the state polytheism by referring to the common law of nature. He was defiant against the plurality that had developed in Greek religion out of their mythology. He encouraged his fellow Athenians to pray for good rather than for material gain. After Socrates(as) Many schools of thought developed after Socrates( a s ). The reason we have so much knowledge about him in the first place is through the writings of his admirer Plato. Plato was so moved by the predicament of Socrates(as) that he wrote about his life and the subsequent trial in his famous works Dialogues, Apology and Symposium. He also accepted the view that the Universe was governed by an invisible force. At the same time, there had been many followers who had got closer to Socrates( a s ) during his lifetime according to Xenophon in order to: Socrates(as) Review of Religions: December 200142 ‘become good men and true, capable of doing their duty by house and household, by relations and friends, by city and fellow citizens.’ Some of these followers had got closer still (in Christianity, they would have been called disciples) and upon his death, they took it upon themselves to continue to transmit his message. Plato believed that the visible world did not contain all knowledge and truth, and was rather a façade for an unseen world where truth and knowledge existed. By the time Aristotle of Stagira came on the scene, the concept of God was reduced to one of the initial cause of Nature, but as not playing an active role thereafter (Ahmad, p.77). Conclusion Islam, Christianity and Judaism all share a common heritage of prophets in the line from Abraham(as). However, the Qur’an is unique in acknowledging that other prophets also existed outside of the middle east, as we later understood through a study of Krishna( a s ), Buddha(as), Confucius(as) and so on. The Qur’an alludes to this in several places: ‘And We did raise among every people a Messenger preaching: “ Worship Allah and shun the Evil One”. Then among them were some whom Allah guided and among them were some who became deserving of ruin.’ (Holy Qur’an, Ch.16: v.37) In another verse we read: ‘Surely, We have sent revelation to thee, as We sent revelation to Noah and the Prophets after him; and We sent revelation to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and his children and to Jesus and Job and Jonah and A a ron and Solomon, and We gave David a book. And We sent some Messengers whom We have already mentioned to thee and some Messengers whom We have not mentioned to thee’. (Ch.4: vs.164-165) There are no written works from many of the early prophets of God to demonstrate their beliefs, however the evidence they leave behind in the reaction of their people and their Review of Religions: December 2001 Socrates(as) 43 influence on historians and future generations of religious thinkers provide us with strong clues about them. In the case of Socrates(as), we are lucky in that accounts of his life, works and beliefs have been recorded in some form by one of his students, Plato. While the accuracy of these works could be debated, there is no doubt about the general picture that emerges. We have to rely on this kind of evidence for prophets among other races also such as the Egyptians. So using the best sources of evidence that we have available to us, we can infer through the life, works and sayings of Socrates(as) that he was more than likely a prophet of God. References 1. The Greek Achievement – The Foundation of the Western World, Charles Freeman, Penguin Books 1999. 2. Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Islam International Publications Ltd, Surrey 1998. 3. The Early Greek Concept of the Soul, Jan N Bremmer, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1983. 4. The Penguin Atlas of Wo r l d H i s t o ry, Volume 1, Hermann Kinder and Werner Hilgemann, Penguin Books, Munich 1974. 5. The Encyclopedia of Myths and L e g e n d s, Stuart Gordon, Headline Books, London 1993.