The True, the Good and the Beautiful
One of the items in this issue of SCR is Plato’s “Phaedo”, which describes Socrates’ last day of conversations with his friends, before he drank the poison prescribed by the Athenian tribunal. He could have opted for exile or he could have promised not to continue propagating his “subversive” ideas. For a true philosopher, however, these alternatives would have been dishonorable and cowardly; therefore he chose death.
There is a more important reason though. Socrates is convinced that by dying his soul goes to a better, freer place than while imprisoned in a physical body. So he isn’t losing anything. Rather is he gaining. He then proceeds to prove, by philosophical logic, that the soul is immortal and must have existed before physical birth and continue to exist after death. Furthermore, not yet being perfect, it must be reborn on earth in order to perfect itself.
Apparently in those times no one – at least none of Socrates’ friends – doubted the existence of the soul, so he had an excellent starting point, one which nowadays in no longer self-evident. For the very existence of the soul cannot be proven by science, and science is the determinant philosophy of the day. The body (hardware) with its brain (operating system) has been investigated down to the smallest synapses. The program hasn’t yet been completely analyzed, true, but some of the most brilliant scientists are convinced that they, or their successors, will someday be able to devise a program for humanoid robots “who” will put humans to shame in respect to intelligence, productivity and efficiency. Who, then, will need us?
Socrates claimed that he would go to a better place and hobnob with those poets and philosophers who preceded him there. A modern scientist can only smile condescendingly at such a thought, for in all the two-thousand-five-hundred years since Socrates and Plato, no one has been able to find that other place or prove that man is more than a sophisticated biological machine which has evolved over the eons by chance.
Obviously, however, the great majority of human beings living at present know little or nothing of science and believe in the soul described by whichever religion they happen to be born into. It is only when they become educated, or half-educated, that the doubts arise. Muslim suicide bombers believe in the soul and that killing for their cause will gain them entrance to paradise. This is a distortion of philosophy which would have shocked Socrates even more than it does us. For he considered what he likened to paradise to be the home only of those who practiced the “true, the good and the beautiful” on earth.
Although suicide bombers are a grotesque example of pseudo-religious fanaticism, the other established religions, both in their histories and their present activities, are hardly models which the true philosophers of antiquity could recommend. The Roman Catholic church has been morally and politically corrupt since its founding; the present U.S. administration is full of born-again Protestant Christians who think nothing of developing and using smart bombs against innocents; the leaders of the Jewish state of Israel are still using the primitive concept of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth against their Semitic brothers and sisters; Hindu India, where thousands of Westerners go for spiritual enlightenment, is one of the most violent, unjust places on the face of the earth. And so on.
This is not meant to condemn the religions themselves, but the un-Socratic interpretation of them. Nor does it condone materialistic science, which would rather toss the human soul and spirit onto the garbage heap and get on with the development of machines which wouldn’t have to worry about ethics or immortality.
I think it would behoove us to go back to Socrates and Plato and start all over – becoming philosophers of the soul, but not forgetting the most essential part: the true, the good and the beautiful.