Socrates: Mentor for Humanists

Ronald Gross

We can draw energy, inspiration, and strategies from the gadfly who launched the Western tradition of independent thinking 2,500 years ago.

As humanists, it is natural for us to look to our fellow human beings for the values and motivation to become all we are capable of being. As we strive to make the most of our lives, our work, and our world, we should find our mentors among the best thinkers and doers of all ages. We should make ourselves part of what Wordsworth called “the one Great Society alone on Earth—the Noble Living and the Noble Dead.”

Socrates has been such a figure for generations of men and women of reason in every generation. And today he is more relevant than ever as we face crises in our lives and culture that are strikingly similar to those he confronted in fifth-century Athens.

Socrates called on us to free ourselves from the “Cave” of illusion and seek our own encounter with what is real—prophesying our culture of couch-potatoes dwelling among the “shadows” on their television screens. He demanded that we speak the truth to power—foreseeing our desperate need for “whistle-blowers” to do in our day what he did in his time and place. (He was dubbed “The Gadfly” for his provocative confrontations.)

Socrates pioneered a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity in which gratification came from self-development rather than the accumulation of possessions. (“How many things there are that I do not need,” he often observed as he tramped around the Agora in quest of dialogue.) He urged others to enrich their lives with the joys of friendship and true community, so that people would grow together. (Today thousands of Americans are joining Socrates Cafes and other convivial groups to do this, as noted below.)

Socrates confronted a citizenry frightened by unprecedented threats to its security and willing to betray its treasured freedoms. His decision to accept the death penalty rather than flee into exile launched our tradition of civil disobedience. He valued quality of life over mere longevity. (He was the inspiration for the name of the right-to-die organization, The Hemlock Society.) Socrates enjoined us to think for our-selves and examine the preconceptions of the day using his Socratic method of critical questioning and dialogue.

A Mentor For Humanists

These virtues have made Socrates a mentor for humanistic spirits through the centuries, from Montaigne to Benjamin Franklin. “St. Socrates, pray for me!” exclaimed Erasmus as he struggled to mediate the savage fanaticisms of his time. Among activists, Socrates’ choice to take hemlock has been an inspiration to contemporaries such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Even in our mass media, the tradition of Socratic dialogue impels some of the finest broadcasting programming, such as the conversations of Bill Moyers on PBS.

Socrates has also appealed powerfully to imaginative writers. Maxwell Anderson put him on stage in his play Barefoot in Athens. Mary Renault portrayed him in her novel The Last of the Wine. Iris Murdoch, the renowned woman of letters, composed two Socratic dialogues published under the title Acostos. Journalist I. F. Stone rewrote Socrates’ Apology to strengthen its theme of freedom of expression. Novelist Walter Moseley created the character of Socrates Fortlow, a Black “gadfly” who is as fast with his fists as he is with his questions.

Socrates’ humanism can help us to live more rationally, compassionately, enjoyably, and responsibly. He was the first figure in Western tradition to exemplify many of humanism’s basic principles and practices, including using reason to seek truth; freeing the mind from delusions and faulty ideas; focusing thinking and effort on human life rather than supernatural speculation; seeking to understand, as the basis for authentic living; recognizing the limits on our knowledge, understanding, and wisdom; challenging conventional thinking when necessary, and seeking to verify truth for ourselves rather than relying on unexamined tradition; championing the rights of the individual; thriving on and protecting freedom of thought and open dialogue; and valuing the human gifts of friendship, pleasure, healthfulness, and love.

Only Human

Fortunately, Socrates is a figure from whom we can learn much, because he was very much an “everyman.” He did not wield immense political power like Pericles; he was not a man of great artistic talent like the sculptor Phidias or the playwright Sophocles; he was not an Olympic champion or a great business success or even good-looking.Socrates always insisted that any of us could do what he did—if we were willing to give full expression to our innate capacity to ask questions, learn from everyone, challenge our own beliefs, and stand up for what is right.Among the notable practical applications of Socrates’ principles to contemporary living are:

•A remarkable project with prison inmates, conducted over the past several years by philosophy professor Lawrence Jablecki. He introduces Socrates to hardcore prisoners in Texas, causing them to “awaken to a totally new perspective on life” and start on the road to true rehabilitation.

•The burgeoning network of “Socrates Cafes” throughout the country, in which people of all walks of life are reviving the art of Socratic dialogue in coffeehouses, homes, and libraries.

•The work around the world of the Democracy Is a Discussion project, which fosters grassroots discussions of politics and morality and nurtures the skills of civil discourse.

Socrates would also have been quick to point out that we are all “prisoners” in the Cave of conventional thinking and unexamined beliefs—as he portrayed us memorably in Book Six of Plato’s The Republic (see below). We all can benefit from scrutinizing our core beliefs, assuring that we are living authentically and committing ourselves to reaching higher. That was just the impact that Socrates had on the circle of friends who were drawn to his wit and wisdom on the streets of fifth-century Athens.

“He is the only person who makes me ashamed of the way I waste my life,” confessed the high-living Alcibiades in Plato’s dialogue “The Symposium.” But Alcibiades goes on to explain why he submitted himself to such a troubling experience: “If you stick with him—if you really listen, and join him in his questioning, and see how he lives his life—then you will find that there is nothing but sound sense there. You will begin to see how everything he says, and everything he has done, has important applications in your life, too.”

Using his famed Socratic Method, the witty sage interrogated us about our beliefs, convictions, values, and actions—and provoked us to think things through, consider alternatives, and sometimes make surprising discoveries. Socrates applies this “Method” to everything from the nature of courage and wisdom to the causes of the decay of organizations. Plato’s The Republic is the first great management consultant’s report, analyzing the emerging problems of Socrates lifetime “client,” the polis of Athens.

Socrates’ Respect For Diversity

Socrates’ affection and respect for his fellow human beings impelled him to appreciate the humanity of those excluded from full participation in Athenian society: women, slaves, and “barbarians.” At a time when women were not permitted to vote or participate in civic affairs or cultural life, Socrates acknowledged his immense intellectual debt to talented women like Aspasia and Diotema. He insisted that to judge a person’s mental capacity by their gender was like judging a man’s intelligence by how much hair he had on his head.

While he did not take a public stand against slavery, which was universally accepted in his world, he declined to accept slaves as a gift and chided friends for depending on their services. “Have you ever reflected,” he used to ask, “whether it be your slave or yourself that deserves whipping?” In the dialogue called the “Meno,” Socrates coaches an ignorant slave boy to solve one of Euclid’s most challenging theorems. He wanted to show that the seeds of truth lie in every person’s mind.

Socrates’ empathy for these “outsiders” may have derived in part from his own widely noted homeliness. In a culture that exalted physical beauty, he was notorious for being ugly by conventional Greek standards. He was short and stout with a muscular workman’s physique. Dubbed “Frogface” as a child, he had a bulging forehead, protruding eyes, a snub nose, and bulbous lips. When he was awarded a medal for his valor in one military engagement, Athenian wags spread the tale that it wasn’t his courage that carried the day—but that the opposing Spartans got one look at his face and fled in terror!

Socrates learned constantly and from everyone, everywhere. He spent his life in the agora—the teeming, rowdy center of fifth-century Athens. He loved to spend hours in the potter’s shed, the wine-merchant’s stall, the workshop of Simon the sandal-maker. He wanted to understand what made for excellence in every trade and profession—and how it could be a model for wise living or effective action.

“His conversation was full of things he learned from the potters, the horse-trainers, the politicians, the prostitutes,” said one of his friends. “Most of the philosophers talk just ideas, but Socrates seems to have learned something from everyone, and can use it to make his ideas clear.”

The Gadfly

Despite his profound gift for friendship, Socrates was no glad-hander. Quite the contrary: his continual questioning of everyone led his fellow Athenians to compare his queries to the incessant bites of insects that buzzed around the butts of farm animals in the Attic summer. Their stings, like Socrates’ questions, could drive a creature crazy. So they dubbed Socrates “The Gadfly.” And he spent thirty years annoying some of the biggest horses’ asses in Athens.

His fellow Athenians bit back. Imagine how Socrates must have felt when he attended the opening performance of Aristophanes’ The Clouds and discovered that the comic playwright’s new work was about him. Aristophanes portrayed Socrates as the blowhard proprietor of a “thinkery.” He showed the philosopher suspended in a basket, literally with his head in the clouds, dispensing nonsense to his rapt disciples.

Athenians loved this kind of free-spirited debate. Legend has it that Socrates himself relished the lampoon, and, in the middle of the performance, stood up so that he’d “make an easier target.”

Socrates never let up. He loved his fellow Athenians too much to let them ruin their lives by failing to address the tough questions. “I am a proud citizen of Athens,” he declared. “But I am also a citizen of Hellas. And beyond that, I am a citizen of the World.”

But the Athenians grew less tolerant after they lost the war with Sparta, and their city fell on hard times. At the age of seventy, Socrates was brought to trial by three fellow citizens. The charges included failing to worship the accepted gods, introducing new ones (referring to his reliance on his own conscience), and corrupting youth. After a trial he was sentenced to death by hemlock. He died, as he had lived, in the midst of dialogue with his friends.

The reason for Socrates’ enduring appeal to humanists is suggested by Professor Alexander Nehamas of Princeton in his recent The Art of Living: Socratic Reflection. “Socrates shows by example the way toward establishing an individual mode of life,” concludes Professor Nehamas. “His way does not force his followers to repeat his life, but compels them to search for their own.”



Ronald Gross

To challenge Americans to emulate Socrates, author Ronald Gross portrays him on campuses, at conferences, in corporate board rooms, and on street corners. His appearances have been featured in stories in numerous media including the New York Times, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News, and on ABC-TV News. Gross is the author of Socrates’ Way: Seven Master Keys to Using Your Mind to the Utmost (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002). His Web site is www.

We can draw energy, inspiration, and strategies from the gadfly who launched the Western tradition of independent thinking 2,500 years ago. As humanists, it is natural for us to look to our fellow human beings for the values and motivation to become all we are capable of being. As we strive to make the most …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.