Socrates and Plato - Session 01 (17 January 2001)

This is to go the west. Of course while reading Sri Aurobindo we had both east and the west together but when we go to Socrates we go exclusively to the West. Just as when we read the Vedas we were exclusively in the East. We do not know yet the beginnings of human thought, even where the man appeared first in the world is not yet definitely known, and there are speculations. Similarly what were exactly the first stirrings of human thought, what they thought about is not yet known except that the earliest records are the Vedas and the first evidence as to what man thought first is to be found in the Veda. In the West how far the Greek civilisation was away from the Vedic civilisation in historical terms is still difficult to determine. But it is certain that one of the first thinkers of the West known to us is called Thales. He is supposed to have been around the 7th century BC.

Now it is agreed that Rig Veda was at least 1500 BC. It may be much older according to many other thinkers but 1500 BC is the most conservative date for the Rig Veda. That means that the Vedic thought was earlier than the earliest Greek thinker —Thales. But it does not mean that before Thales there was no thought, no tradition, in fact there was one big tradition in ancient Greece related to Orpheus. He was supposed to be a very spiritual personality and he had a great influence in determining the Greek religion. There is a tradition called Orphic tradition. The entire Orphic tradition is called the tradition of mysteries. And the Vedic tradition is also called the tradition of mysteries,—Vedic mysteries and Orphic mysteries. There are many similarities between the two traditions but decidedly even Orphic mysteries are supposed to be later than the Vedic. These are only a few facts that I am giving you so that in the mind there is some chronological idea. I do not wish to burden you with many controversies, what was earlier, what was later and so many other details that is not relevant for us just now. That there are some similarities between the Vedic mysteries and Orphic mysteries is now acknowledged, accepted, although which were earlier is not exactly determined. After Thales a few more thinkers in ancient Greece, who belong to what is called Milesian School—Milesian School of philosophy. There came a great philosopher who is very well known called Pythagoras. We know Pythagoras because we all learn geometry and we have got Pythagorean Theorem. In India we also had a theorem corresponding to Pythagorean Theorem in what is called Shulba Sutra, which is an ancient school of mathematics in India which was prior to Pythagoras. This is an established fact, acknowledged now everywhere that what is called Pythagorean Theorem was not the original theorem of Pythagoras because the same theorem was known in the Shulba Sutra, which is much earlier than Pythagoras.

As a part of a general knowledge you can ask your Professor of mathematics to tell you Pythagorean Theorem and it will add to the richness of your knowledge of the Greeks, at least this much, you should have accurate knowledge of the Pythagorean Theorem. It concerns the right angled triangle and tells you the measurement of the three lines of a triangle, if the triangle is a right angled triangle.

Pythagoras however is respected in the West not only as a mathematician but as a great religious leader. He had his own school of religion,—Pythagorean Religion, which had a great origin in Orpheus, in the Orphic tradition. Pythagoras is also to be known because he influenced Plato a great deal. We shall come to Plato in due course but because Plato is the greatest philosopher of the West and without Plato you cannot understand the West at all. If you want to understand the Western culture one thing that you should know best is Plato and since Plato was influenced by Pythagoras, the importance of Pythagoras is very great. We shall come to this later on when we come to Plato himself and ask what are the important points in Pythagoras which influenced Plato so much?

Another great philosopher was Heraclitus. One day when you have done a good deal of Socrates, Plato and many other Western thinkers, we shall visit Heraclitus also. You might know that Sri Aurobindo himself wrote one book on Heraclitus, so that makes a good reading on Heraclitus and a greater illumination on Heraclitus and the entire Greek thought. Another great thinker of these times was Parmenides. Perhaps you might have forgotten his name but if you remember or if you try to remember, I spoke of Parmenides several months ago and since I had spoken about him I shall speak about him again so that a very important argument that he had developed which remains even up till today extremely powerful, it’s even today used in one form or the other. I don’t know if you can recall it but I shall read out to you once again that argument. That argument relates to the Reality of being, the reality of the permanent, the Reality which is forever what it is. It’s an argument to show that the world is that is often used refers to the permanent reality that reality is permanent and is permanent must be permanent is demonstrated by him in the form of an argument. So let me read out once again what I read out much earlier several months ago, I’ll read out to you once again:

Thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.

A very short sentence, it’s like a bullet which has remained as a powerful statement, only two sentences which have not been rubbed out. I shall repeat and you can write it down once again:

Thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.

I shall repeat. Then you write down the second sentence which he repeats in another way. The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered. I shall repeat. The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered.

I am making you write this whole thing because of the fact that if you can master these four or five lines, you have mastered one of the most important arguments in philosophy. You can be a philosopher; as soon as you master this argument at least you begin to understand philosophy. This is one of the arguments which has remained alive throughout up to the present day. Many people have tried to reject it, discuss it, to disprove it but it comes back again and again and again. Even in the philosophy of Plato this is the starting point and since we are going to concentrate on Plato a great deal, it is good to know this particular argument. I shall not explain it now; I leave it to you to think over it again and again and again, until you ask me the question about it. If you don’t ask me the question it will remain as it is.

In philosophy one of the best methods of learning is asking questions. In fact for all knowledge asking questions is important. But in philosophy particularly, asking questions is extremely important, the more you will be able to formulate your question, the better will be your mind philosophically. Therefore I will now not explain this particular statement. Think over it, even if it takes two months, I don’t mind but one day you will ask me the question as to what it means or you will explain to me what it means, when I’ll ask you the question. So this is about Parmenides. Then there were some other philosophers and I don’t wish to burden your mind until you come to Socrates, who was born in 469 BC. This is an important date to be remembered. If you read Western philosophical books, you will find two terms,—pre–Socratic and post–Socratic. Pre–Socratic means that which came before Socrates, post–Socratic that which came after Socrates that is because Socrates stands out as a figure in the Greek thought so colossal that all that was before him is called pre–Socratic, all that came after him is called post–Socratic. It is about Socrates that I want to read to you the paper that I have distributed today—what is his importance. So let us read this paper. I have begun this with a quotation from Sri Aurobindo to indicate what Sri Aurobindo considered to be very important in regard to Socrates. While describing the psychic being, a word which is very often used everywhere here,—the psychic being, it is in describing psychic being that Sri Aurobindo writes as follows, “It (the true soul) is the concealed witness and control, the hidden Guide, the Daemon of Socrates, the inner light or inner voice of the mystic."

Socrates used to say: "I have in me a daemon”, not a devil in his heart but a daemon, the secret soul. So he used to say I have been guided in my life by the Divine and this divine has always spoken to me from within me and what was that within? He called it daemon. He used to say whenever I want to enact; if I should not do it the daemon speaks to me and says” don’t do it.” And then thereafter I don’t do it. But when I don’t get any kind of indication of not doing it, I do it. It doesn’t say do this or do that, it says don’t do it when it is not to be done. Now Sri Aurobindo says this experience is a very important experience in spiritual life. When you begin to have in your being a great aspiration to do the right thing always, never to fall down in your action towards the wrong action, when this aspiration becomes very intense then there awakes in you your inmost soul and one of the best ways that the soul guides you is to reveal to you in one way or the other that you should do this or you should do that, or you should not do this or you should not do that. This is the mark of your heightened aspiration. Very often you find there is uneasiness in your heart, in your being and that shows that there is something that the soul wants to tell you. Mother has said that whenever you feel uneasiness do not try to forget it, whenever there is uneasiness, withdraw for some time, look into yourself and ask: why is it that I am feeling uneasy? Be very, very quiet and you will get indication as to what you should do or what you should not do or at least to wait before you do until your being becomes clearer.

Now Socrates had developed that faculty and used to say: “I have a daemon in me”, a kind of a witness, a guide, a control which tells me not to do something when something is not to be done, that is why Socrates is called a mystic. A mystic is one who leads life in search of the soul, of the spirit, of the inmost being, of the inner master, of the Divine — that is the mystic. Now the whole life of Socrates is a life in search of this inmost being and that is why very often even in the midst of a conversation he used to stop suddenly and enter into a state of trance. Trance is a state in which you plunge into the depth of your being or you rise high above in your being, this depth or the height is so great that there is a disconnection between your present state of consciousness and that depth or that height. In ordinary experience it is something like sleep. In sleep also you go deep and that depth is so distant from your outer being that if you are too much plunged into that depth the link with the outer world gets lost. You must have experienced that when you are feeling sleepy somebody talks to you and you lose contact with that somebody who is talking to you. That somebody goes on talking but you don’t hear anything, you’re absolutely getting plunged into a state of sleep that is because the distance between the outer and the internal is so great that the link is cut.

Similarly when you are into a deep thought, a deep experience or when you enter into a great height of knowledge then also the similar experience is gained. Now Socrates had this great capacity of entering into depth of thought, and great heights of thought and Plato sometimes describes in his dialogues these visitations of Socrates into the depths of his being. Let me see if I can get one passage from Plato which describes one of the experiences of Socrates. Socrates it is said was liable to trances at least that seems the natural explanation of such an incident which occurred once when he was in military service. Socrates was also a soldier; he was recruited as a soldier in the army. So even in his expedition in the army, this is what is described by Plato in a dialogue called Symposium. This word ‘Symposium’ also you should remember because it is regarded as the highest point of human thought,— this dialogue ‘Symposium’. It is written:

One morning he was thinking about something which he could not resolve, he would not give it up but continued thinking from early dawn until noon. There he stood fixed in thought and at noon attention was drawn to him and the rumour ran through the wondering crowd that Socrates had been standing and thinking about something ever since the break of day, at last in the evening after supper some Ionians out of curiosity brought out their mats and slept in the open air that they might watch him and see whether he would stand all night. There he stood until the following morning and with the return of light offered a prayer to the sun and went his way.”

So this is the kind of trance that he used to go into from time to time.

There is also another incident given in the Symposium.

Socrates and Aristodemus go together to the banquet but Socrates drops behind in a fit of abstraction. When Aristodemus arrives, Agathon, the host, says: What have you done with Socrates? Aristodemus was astonished to find that Socrates was not with him. A slave is sent to look for him and finds him in the portico of a neighbouring house. “There he is fixed” says the slave on his return and when I called to him, he will not stir.

Such were the experiences in which Socrates used to plunge but that was his side of mysticism, there was also a side of his rationality. He was at once highly spiritual and highly rational or intellectual. He is a curious mixture of mysticism and rationalism. It is he who pleaded for the development of the intellect in the Western history. We may say that Socrates marks a kind of an evening of mysticism so that mysticism after him begins to diminish in Plato it still remains but after Plato mysticism vanishes, what remains in the Western tradition thereafter is rationalism, the reign of intellect. If the West is called rationalistic it is because of this element. The mysticism was going down like a sunset and rationalism was rising. It is like a sun going down and the moon rising. The moon of reason was rising and the sun of mysticism was setting and the two met together in Socrates and Plato. And thereafter only the intellect reigned and even today it is largely rationalistic.

If the East in India particularly a similar period had come after the Veda. When the Vedic Rishis vanished and what arose was ritualism not rationalism but ritualism, so Vedic mysticism, then ritualism and then there could have developed rationalism, there could have developed rationalism but that did not happen. What happened was another wave of mysticism. It is a very special characteristic of Indian history, after mysticism came the period of ritualism and then came another period of mysticism,—that is the period of the Upanishads. So mysticism, ritualism, mysticism and then came the period of rationalism after the Upanishads. This is how you can distinguish in the mind clearly the course of knowledge in the East and the West, at least in India and in the West so in the West mysticism followed by rationalism, in India mysticism, ritualism, mysticism and rationalism.

Let us now read this note on Socrates. One of the greatest of the Greeks was Socrates who is known as the father of Philosophy. His early life is not much known but he must have lived a disciplined life right from early boyhood. We are told that he had a great power of endurance and could bear extreme cold and heat. He was a sturdy soldier and had shown remarkable skill and valour in several battles. It is, however, said that he was very ugly; he had a snub nose and a considerable belly.

Fredrick once wrote an article on Socrates which we shall read later on in which he had said: he had a considerable belly which he wanted to reduce by dancing. So he had a snub nose and a considerable belly.

He was always dressed in shabby old clothes and went barefoot everywhere. But he was a profound thinker and philosopher. Even when he went to serve in the Army, he used to spend his time thinking. One morning, while he was on military service, he was thinking about something. He thought and thought over some problem which he could not solve. He would not give up and continued thinking from early dawn until noon—he stood fixed in thought; at noon when attention was drawn to him all people began to wonder at him. At last, after supper some people brought out their mats and slept in the open air to watch him and see whether he would stand all night. There he stood until the following morning; and with the return of light he offered a prayer to the sun, and went his way.

At another time, Socrates and his friend Aristodemus went together to a banquet, but on the way Socrates went into a trance and dropped behind. When Aristodemus arrived at the feast, he was asked by the host: “What have you done with Socrates?” Aristodemus was astonished to find that Socrates was not with him; in those days rich people used to have slaves; so a slave was sent to look for him. The slave returned and said: “There he is fixed, and when I called him he would not stir. Those who know him well explain that he has a way of stopping anywhere and losing himself without any reason”. Socrates came only when the feast was half over. Socrates was a great seeker of truth and he had developed a method of enquiry which has come to be known as the Socratic Method. This method, which is also called dialectic, consists of arriving at conclusions by question and answer.

You remember when we were reading the first chapter of The Life Divine we had noticed one argument and called it a dialectical argument. The beginning of the dialectical argument is in Socrates. The word dialectical, it consisted of question and answer.

Socrates used to begin an enquiry by saying that he knew nothing or very little about the subject of enquiry. Then he would invite certain notions or definitions of the subject under enquiry; this would be followed by presenting some difficulties in accepting those notions or definitions; he would then suggest some modifications or present some new hypothesis followed by fresh discussions. Quite often the discussions would end in stimulating questions instead of arriving at conclusions. But when he would arrive at any conclusions, it would be only after examining the subject freely and from as many points of view as possible. This method seems to have been practised by Zeno, the disciple of Parmenides. For if we read Plato's dialogue, Parmenides, (it is also the name of one of the dialogues of Plato) we find that Zeno uses the same kind of dialectic as Socrates uses elsewhere in other dialogues of Plato. But there is no doubt that Socrates developed this method and, through Plato, it has determined to a very large extent the form of subsequent philosophy.

There is a fundamental distinction between science and philosophy; (we have done this earlier,—a distinction between science and philosophy. I think Anandmayi has got the definitions of both the words—science and philosophy but not now, anyway.)

Science seeks facts and the laws governing them, while philosophy attempts to interpret and evaluate the facts from the point of view of the whole. Evidently, the Socratic Method is not the scientific method; for it presupposes the prior existence of notions or definitions about the subject under inquiry; it does not arrive at new facts. What the method attempts to do is to examine the given facts and notions from various points of view,

To clarify them and to give them a coherent form this is the philosophical method for although in philosophy nothing is to be taken for granted it cannot and does not originate in a vacuum. There must already be some glimpse of light in the human mind which would initiate philosophical reflection. This glimpse may be either in the form of a personal experience or in the form of a word or to use Indian terminology shruti, heard from the lips of man of experience or realization. In Indian philosophy, the authority given to shruti is higher than that given to any other mode of knowledge except that of direct experience or realization. In many ways, therefore, the Socratic Method and the Indian philosophical method are similar.

I shall now make some comments on this very important paragraph.

Socrates is a philosopher and not a scientist. That is because Socrates did not follow the method of science, his aim also was not the aim of science. Science discovers facts, its aim is to discover facts and the method is observation, experimentation and verification.

Observation,experimentation and verification, these are the three steps of any scientific process. After verification you arrive at a conclusion which is normally in the form of a universal statement. All bodies thrown upwards gravitate downward—this is a scientific statement. This is a conclusion derived from an experiment which anybody can do. You throw a stone upwards and you will find the stone. So all statements of science are in the form of universal statements but they are arrived at by observation, experimentation and verification. Now in philosophy you do not seek facts, facts are already taken for granted. You start with facts, you don’t try to seek facts, you start with facts or you start with an idea or you start with a word then you discuss the word, discuss the idea. Let us take an example: there is a great book written by Plato, which is called Republic. It is supposed to be one of the greatest books of the world. One of the highest points of thought ever reached by human beings is contained in this book called Republic; it’s a philosophical book, why? Because it starts with an idea, with one word, it is the examination of an idea from many points of views; it starts with an idea of justice, what is justice? Now we can ourselves write a book on philosophy without reading Plato, if you just think about this word—justice. We can have a dialogue among ourselves and you can immediately start philosophising, which we shall do now, so have a complete experience about philosophising in the Socratic Method. We use the word justice very often, No? This is just, this is unjust, this is fair, and this is unfair. Now tell me one answer: what is justice? Whatever answer comes to your mind, you start with it. Alright, something that is fair. Then in the Socratic Method, you ask the question: what is fair? What is unfair? When do you say this is fair? We have a very good example of what is called lion’s share. Have you heard this expression? If there is something to be shared between the lion and another animal then what is fair in sharing, both have worked together in killing an animal, lion and another animal. Now both of them have now decided to share and we ask the question: what is fair? Lion says: look my strength is so great that this animal could not have been killed merely by your puny strength, I am the king of all animals, and my strength is tremendous. Could you have killed this animal yourself? Look at me, I could have killed myself but I allowed you a little share, you also jumped with me a little, now what is fair in this share, tell me? How much should the lion take out of that animal, equal — would it be fair? Half of the share goes to the lion, another half goes to the other animal. What is your answer? This is a philosophical question. It won’t be fair, in the kill the lion worked harder. Good. The lion worked harder. Therefore let us say little more than the other one. No?

So shall we say: the mightier you are, the greater is your share, right? No, not as yet but this was your answer because you said he worked harder. He worked harder because he had greater strength, right? So it follows, now you discuss with me…

You are good. You got a good point you rightly say that the lion should get I am saying rightly only now I may change my opinion afterwards you say the lion should get more than the other animal why because lion was harder right he worked harder I’m now arguing he's harder because he had greater strength right shall we therefore conclude that the stronger you are the greater should be your share no it doesn't follow argue against me then. This is was the conclusion you derived earlier, the lion worked harder therefore he should get a bigger share. Right?

Now I argued that he worked harder because lion was stronger. Right? Shall we therefore conclude that the stronger you are, the greater should be your share? No, doesn’t follow. …. Some mistake there, some fallacy. Now you find out the fallacy. The stronger you are, the greater is your share — this is my statement. In fact this statement is so powerful in the history of the world, you must have heard a very powerful statement, this statement you must have heard very often, ‘might is right’ and this is the argument, it is the might which gives you the power to work harder. Therefore mightier you are, the more mighty you are the more right you are. No, doesn’t follow………Good. You are a good philosopher.

Your decision was upon how hard the work was, not the mightier, right. So your answer should have been different. You should have said both should get equal because both worked equally. The lion certainly contributed more because his strength was greater but according to his strength he worked as much as the other one worked according to his strength, so both should get half and half,—that is called justice. Might is right is not correct therefore. Justice does not depend upon your might. Justice depends upon the share that you contribute to a result. This is the correct answer. Justice depends upon the share that you put forward. Now this is a short example of philosophical thinking. You have one notion, you start with the word justice, you take an example and apply it and then argue whether it is fair or not and many notions of fairness will come up.

A lawyer goes to the court of law and argues for five minutes, and then he turns to his client and says: give me one thousand rupees; this is what is happening every day, no? You go to court of law and lawyer argues for five minutes, and says to his client now give me one thousand rupees. A labourer goes to a farm, toils the whole day, not five minutes, he perspires, gets fatigued and after one full day he gets only ten rupees. Is it just, is there justice in this? No. why?

Now the lawyer argues I am now in favour of a lawyer now. The lawyer says: I was toiling and toiling when my law examination was coming up, day and night, day and night I worked very hard after a long, long labour I got through my examination of law, which gave me the degree of law as a result of which I can go into the court of law. So although I argue only for five minutes, behind those five minutes the work that I have put to be able to go to the court of law is much greater. This labourer does not know how to read, how to write, how to think. To develop my brain power which he has never developed, I have worked so hard. Now what is your argument? …………Is there anybody who can argue against this argument that will really become a dialogue. At present it is only one way traffic, we can have two-ways traffic, three-ways traffic, anybody to argue against this argument? Repeat the argument. The first sentence is very important

Since I had no opportunity to go to the school therefore I could not develop my brain power. Supposing I were to say: "look I know this labourer very well, my father told him; my son is going to the school you also go to the school. He gave him all the opportunity to go to the school. But this fellow said all the time: Oh! No, I don’t like studies." Therefore he remained ignorant, he didn’t develop his brain power, not that he had no opportunity, opportunity was given to him, and he didn’t use the opportunity. I developed the opportunity, I took advantage of the opportunity, and he didn’t. So my conclusion is — I should therefore be paid more than this labourer. That is just, right or wrong, good argument? But… anybody can argue against it. …………..

But. And the labour was said, I may have wanted to go to school but I didn’t have the money at the time.

No. My father gave the money. We gave the money said you go to the school. He didn’t take the advantage of it. “He says no I don’t like studies. It is very bothersome. I don’t understand. Now what to do? What is the answer?.................

Seems to be correct know. Yes.

Now anybody can argue against it. …………..


I felt I was learn more work with my hands….

Quite alright therefore, therefore I don’t know. Good to some extent.

Can you find an argument against this?

She said: I could work better with my hands therefore I went to the labour field instead of going to the school. I could work better…Now you see the argument; I would learn more now you see there is different dimension of the argument start a new argument starts. If I can learn better with one method, you learn better through another method, why should I get less than you? You worked according to the method you wanted, I worked according to my method. Why should there be a difference now?

Now let us take another dimension. ………..

There is a good story in the Bible. There was a master, who had some work to be done so he wanted to employ some labourers. He went in the morning and brought three or four labourers from the market. Then these labourers said: if you want to complete the work by the evening even if four of us work together, we won’t be able to complete the work by the evening. So you should bring some more. So he went back again after one or two hours and brought some more labourers. Instead of coming at 8 o'clock asking them to come at 11 o'clock to work. After some time they also said that if you want the work to be finished by 5 o'clock, even if all of us work together, it won’t be finished by the evening. So he went out again and at 2 o'clock he brought three or four more labourers. They started working. At 4 o'clock they said: work is still so much pending, we won’t be able to finish by 5 o'clock. So the master went again and at 4 o'clock he brought again a few more labourers and by 5 o'clock the work was finished. Then came the time of payment and the master told his treasurer and said: give to all the labourers equal amount of money. Then the ones who had come at 8 o'clock in the morning, protested and said: why, we have worked from 8 o'clock to 5 o'clock and this fellow came at 4 o'clock to 5 only, why should he be given the same amount of money as I am being given? This is exactly what the master said and he gave an argument and said: why should all be paid equal? He said the need of everybody is equal. It’s a new dimension, a new argument — the need of everybody is equal therefore each one should be paid equally. This was your argument that the need of the lawyer and the need of the labourer is the same so why the lawyer should be paid more than the labourer? Good argument, therefore justice consists in what? You give the share according to the need. Justice consists in distributing all that you have according to the need of everybody. Good answer. That is called justice…………….

Now tomorrow you give me an argument against this. This is a good argument. Now think of an argument which will target against this and say 'No'. This is not true. Right? If you can. No… No. There is no argument against to this, and then we say alright fine. This is the final answer. This is justice.

This is the process of philosophising. We want to define what is justice and we have gone through all these arguments. Now tomorrow you should be able to give me a statement which will include all these arguments. It's difficult, when you argue you can go on arguing but afterwards if somebody says all the steps of the argument, it is difficult. Now tomorrow at least two of you will give me the arguments.