Socrates and Plato

Socrates and Plato always stand together in the imagination of those who think about the origins of Western thought. Together, more than any other two people, they seem to define what become known as philosophy—the love of wisdom. As you probably know, Socrates was Plato’s teacher, and Plato presented his thought as a development of what Socrates taught. Together they have haunted the minds of human beings in the Ancient world, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, down through the birth of Modernity and our time, and finally to me. Yes, Socrates and Plato haunt my mind, too—a good haunting by good spirits that sometimes bewitches me and take me right out of myself. I am haunted by their vision of what it means to think, and live, and be a human being—and I would like to explain to you why.

The first thing to understand is that Socrates was known as the ugliest man in Athens! He had a broad, flat, turned-up nose, protruding pop-eyes, thick fleshy lips, bandy legs, and a big pot belly he was always saying he planned to dance off! And this was not exactly the standard for physical beauty in classical Greece. In fact, he looked like a satyr, the mythical half-beast, half-human divinity that haunted the forest, playing the pan-pipes. But all kinds of people desired Socrates, loved him, were fascinated by him and wanted him; and no one loved him more than Plato did. In fact, for Plato he was clearly the most beautiful man in Athens. And why did they love him? What was it about this ugly old man that fascinated so many people? That fascinated me? I love him, too, you know; I’m one of Socrates’ lovers. Well, listen to something he once said, when he was on trial for his life on the charge of corrupting young people through leading them into philosophy (like he corrupted me, and like I’m trying to corrupt you, too). Speaking to his judges and jury, he says (in The Apology):

If you said to me, “Socrates, we acquit you, but only on condition that you do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die,” I would say to you: “Gentlemen of the jury, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you, and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: ‘You are an American . . . whoops, I mean Athenian, a citizen of the greatest place with the greatest reputation for both knowledge and power; are you not ashamed of you eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?’

The force of Socrates life was the force of a life devoted to truth and wisdom. Above all else, he loved wisdom. But what, exactly, does that mean?

Socrates is perhaps best known for his claim that he was the wisest man alive because he knew what he did not know—his famous claim of ignorance. Most everybody has heard of that in one form or another. But how many know that there is something he claimed TO KNOW? In a dialogue called The Symposium (and in several others as well) he claims to know only one thing: the truth about eros, about erotic love. And strangely enough, it is the idea of this that will take us to the heart what it means to be a lover of wisdom, and to the heart of Socratic/Platonic philosophy.

Once upon a time at a drinking party, Socrates was part of a group who decided to give speeches in praise of love. And everyone began to give their speeches, saying how beautiful love was, and how perfect, and how full of goodness and delight—love, they would say, was the most beautiful and perfect of all the gods, and endlessly captivating. But when it became time for Socrates to speak, he said something shocking. He said that the first thing he learned about love was that it is not beautiful or perfect! He learned that love was not a god, because gods are perfect and complete, and so they have desire or love for anything. But love is above all consists in the knowing you don’t have what you want and need. Have you ever been in love, and desired someone with that full-on kind of intoxicating desire? Then you know what Socrates means—that love wants what it desires, and that means that it lacks what it wants. But gods lack nothing.

So love is not a god. Instead, Socrates said, it is something stretched out in between the gods and humans. It is not a divinity, yet it is divine; not immortal, yet undying; always needy, yet always being satisfied. For to love is to love something which you need, desire, and want, so that love is always aiming for what it does not have.

Socrates also says that love is a particular kind of want or lack. It is a lack of and desire for good things. For no one, Socrates thought, knowingly wants something evil for themselves (which means: something that would make them less complete). We have an inborn desire for self-fulfillment and completion, and what draws us on in desire is what completes us and makes us whole. Love naturally desires what will make us more alive and fulfilled in being alive, and since everyone desires this, love is common to all living things. Every living thing is seeking completion.

Gods don’t have love, then; they lack nothing. But humans lack all kinds of good things—don’t you? And if we are wise, then we know it; if we’re wise, we know our lack, and this sets us free to pursue those things that will fill that lack and make us whole. To be human is to be a lover, and to have at the heart of who we are a terrible passion arising from an awareness of our need that nothing around us ever seems to ultimately satisfy.

And this is Socrates’ wisdom. It’s what he spent his life trying to get people to see. “Know yourself,” he said in effect to everyone he met—know what it means to be human. When Socrates claimed to know what he did not know, he was only claiming to know himself as a human being, to know that he was a lover. Socrates knew himself, was fully self-aware, and so was the wisest man alive. In being fully a lover, he was fully conscious of what he lacked, and so had a passion to pursue the truth he could never fully possess. Do you ever ACHE to know what is real and how you should live? Just as you would ache for a beloved? So that you’re not satisfied with what satisfied most people? If you ache for wisdom like that, Socrates would say, maybe you could follow that ache to the heart of what it means to be human.

According to Socrates, the existing individual—which mean you and me, here and now—WE are fundamentally incomplete, and we can only realize ourselves through developing an awareness of that incompleteness, with a corresponding passion to overcome that incompleteness and make ourselves whole. But if you don’t know you lack and your need—if you don’t know what you don’t know—well, then, there you’ll sit, poor lump, for the rest of your days; a poor lump who never knows who they are; never knowing that you are a lover.

And there is something curious about knowing what you don’t know, like Socrates did. How could you know you had no knowledge if you couldn’t recognize knowledge when you came across it? Think about it. You would have to in some sense know what knowledge is to know when you were lacking it! And Socrates thought that the possibility to recognize knowledge was in all of us, and devoted himself to waking people up to that recognition. But only the person involved can do this and recognize and knowledge—you have to know things for yourself. Think how ridiculous it would be for me to claim that I could know something for you! My children across the years often seemed to wish that I could do that form them, particularly in mathematics—know this for me, Dad! But I could just a well eat something for you. Here, let me eat your lunch for you! Let me know your math for you! And maybe you want me to kiss your girlfriend or boyfriend for you, too! Some things you just have to do for yourself.

So Socrates practiced what he called the elenchos—the examination—through question and answer trying to wake people up to the requirements of knowledge. And because a person can only have knowledge for themselves, Socrates couldn’t just give anyone the answers, because the only real answer is one you give yourself. So he would proceed in a way in which the truth claims of his interlocutors would be tested and refined, logical inconsistencies revealed, and to look for what he called the idea of a thing—its intelligible shape or form, pointed at in the verbal form of a definition. The Greek word idea, and also eidos, originally just meant the visible shape or form of a thing. So we could say that these sheets of paper (hold them up) have the idea—the shape or form—of a rectangle. And then we could talk about whatever had the same shape, form, idea or eidos. Socrates takes this to another level, and by it means what we find to be the same in terms of thought—the characteristic shape a thing has to the “eyes of the mind” by which we could always recognize it in whatever particular context we find it in. And he then says this is what something is: in Greek, literally ti esti—what it is. And this would be called the ousia—the beingness or reality of that thing. And the worst that can happen in practicing the elenchos is that you come to see that you have no idea—you do not know what something is. And in this way you gain a real sense of what it is you lack, and knowing your lack, your are free to look for it.

In Plato’s dialogues, then, Socrates is presented as going around engaging in the search for these ideas, trying to see who can or cannot put into words a rational account—a logo/v—of what it is. He would ask them to define (as we would put it) such key terms in his culture as courage, wisdom, piety, virtue, justice, and love. And consider: if you can show people they do not know what these things are—that they have no real idea of them—in the process you will also come to show them what it would mean to know them, or to know anything. Show people what they lack—show them their ignorance—and they just might begin to develop a real sense of what they lack and need. And here something is being developed that is absolutely amazing in terms of what it means to be human, but we take it so much for granted that we can’t even see it for what it is. We cover over the wonder of it by saying what Socrates was doing was looking for a definition. But just like with Helen Keller, if you know her story and how she came to understand what a word stands for and what it means, without this ability we are deaf and blind to what definition really means. Here, let’s read her story to see what I mean:
Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (Chapter IV)[1]

The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.

On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch, dumb, expectant. I guessed vaguely from my mother’s signs and from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps. The afternoon sun penetrated the mass of honeysuckle that covered the porch, and fell on my upturned face. My fingers lingered almost unconsciously on the familiar leaves and blossoms which had just come forth to greet the sweet southern spring. I did not know what the future held of marvel or surprise for me. Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me continually for weeks and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate struggle.

Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was. “Light! give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.

I felt approaching footsteps, I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.

The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word “d-o-l-l.” I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But
my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-o-l-l” and tried to make me understand that “d-o-l-l” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is mug and that “w-a-t-e-r” is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them–words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come. [1]

Helen shows us clearly what it means to enounter an idea! And to be able to know it through the words. And to look for a real definition in Socrates’ sense is to assume that there are certain general characteristics which make a thing what it is, and enable you to tell it apart from all other things—to assume that you will be able to tell what is the same and what is different in the things that you deal with. Think about your breakfast, for example, if you got up early enough to have one. All things we call food share the formal trait—the mental form, as it were—of being nourishing to some living creature or other; but no particular thing is food for all. There is breakfast for the sparrow, and breakfast for the crab, and breakfast for the earthworm, and breakfast for the college student, who in hundred years or so might become a worm’s breakfast. and what nourished the worm is very different from what nourished the student, and yet there is a common mark, a common form found in the fact that it nourishes.

And to lack this knowledge and to know that you lack it is the condition for the possibility of any knowledge at all. But this is something you can only do for yourself; though others can help you and try to lead you out through giving hints and so forth, ultimately you must do it for yourself for it be real knowledge. You must eat your food for yourself to be nourished, or make love to your own lover yourself, to fulfill your need. Otherwise, Socrates says, you only have an opinion, and not knowledge at all. Knowledge requires that you be able to grasp the eidos, the idea—its mental shape or form.

And this is true in all our daily lives. We are constantly operating in this realm as we act in relation to things in the world around us and speak to both ourselves and others about them; when we speak and are understood, or understand what others are saying. And even the fact—and especially the fact—that we can be mistaken (and maybe we’re mostly mistaken!) shows us that we must have some sense of what the thing really is. For how could else could we come to know we are mistaken if we did not have at least some sense of what it would mean to know the thing we are seeking to know? Socrates would love to put this in mythic terms, and say that when we learn something we must be remembering what we in some sense at least already know: that knowledge really comes to us by recollection (and like no one can remember something for us, so know on can know something for us—no one can teach you an idea!).

And this ability to really speak and be understood, and to understand what a thing is, what it means for it to be—to think it and put it into words—is an astonishing thing. In fact, it seems to me it is far more astonishing than if I could levitate off the floor right now and shoot beams of light out of my eyes! To speak and understand each other! Think of the wonder that reveals! Here we find a sort of everyday mysticism to which our contempt for the ordinary blinds us. The philosophers of Zen Buddhism are very good at pointing this reality of the wonder and mysticism of everyday life in just this way. Consider the old Zen story, attributed to Muju:
Chapter 80: The Real Miracle

When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.

Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.

“The founder of our sect,” boasted the priest, “had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?”

Bankei replied lightly: “Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.”

And the Zen Platonist says: “My miracle is that when I speak, you can understand.”

So if we reflect on our everyday experiences, and on the ways we talk about them, we might be able to clarify our experiences into an awareness that involves knowing things in their beingness—or as a Zen thinker might put it, in their suchness. Knowing what is real in the world around us, we could then begin to live and act in terms of what is real. This meant for Plato that our everyday words and deeds are like the bottom rungs of a mystical ladder that can lead us to the truth of the wonder and terror of the world around us. It doesn’t look very “mystical”, maybe, if you don’t understand what real mysticism means—which involves above all else coming to be aware of what the Taoist philosophers, in a beautiful phrase, call “The Great Ordinary.”

So in The Symposium, we see someone called Agathon in a discussion with Socrates, and through that discussion he comes to understand that he couldn’t have really meant by love what he said he did—that the knowledge hidden in the way he uses his words will force him to realize that love can’t be beautiful and divine, but must be a lack, a real need. We see how Socrates uses Agathon’s own words to show him both what he lacks, and in the process allows him, if he wished, to make some new truths of his own. Agathon can come to have knowledge for himself if he wants to, but this will only become possible when he realizes, as he puts it, that “I really didn’t know what I was talking about.”

This kind of knowledge is hidden in our everyday lives. It is a very practical kind of knowledge that we can only recognize for ourselves through employing (as Socrates puts it in the Republic) all that we are: through both our hearts and our minds, our reason as well as our imagination, cultivating (in the lovely words of Mencius) “the intelligence of the heart”. This is the truth that sets you free. For if truth is something that YOU have to do, then it will do you no good to just believe something or take somebody’s word for it. It is precisely BECAUSE no one can have a truth for you, that no one can know something for you, that knowledge sets you free. For if you are shown a truth and then come to know it you will become liberated in respect to that truth in the very process of coming to know it. Socrates and Plato liked to put this in a paradoxical kind of way that a practitioner of Zen would be pleased with. In The Meno the question is asked: Can human excellence be taught? And the conclusion is reached that there are no teachers and no learners of human excellence, but only those who remember it for themselves. All good teachers want to show you HOW to know, and once you know how to eat your lunch for yourself, well, then, you are free. If you can understand that, you can understand Socrates and Plato. You can understand what it means to be a lover of wisdom.

[1] Helen Keller, The Story of My Life. Archived at This text is in the public domain.


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