The Socratic Method (of getting by)

There are a lot of reasons that it's hard to imagine a life informed by the liberal arts that doesn't derive income from the liberal arts. I wonder if we don't somewhat have Socrates, or at least the story of Socrates, to thank for this. Philosophers lionize Socrates, a tendency for which I don't intend to apologize. But Socrates quit his job and studied philosophy. Why can't we?

Socrates, remember, was a stonemason of some sort until, unsure of where to find wisdom, he sent a message to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, asking who the wisest man in Athens might be. Socrates was looking for a teacher, but the oracle turned his question on its head by replying that he, Socrates, was the wisest. How could this be, as he didn't know anything and was in the very act of looking for a teacher? Socrates set out to find someone wise, asking questions to be sure he had found genuine wisdom. The plan was to drag whomever he found to the oracle, but when he put the plan in motion he found that people's facades of wisdom crumbled before his questions. Maybe, he concluded, the god had been doing two things. Apollo had shown Socrates that his lack of pretense, his knowledge of his ignorance, put him ahead of his fellow Athenians. And the god had given him a mission, a quest, to reveal this deep ignorance to his fellow citizens.

Socrates' quest irritated a lot of people, but it made him friends too. The children of the very rich liked seeing the celebrities of their time shown up. And so Socrates ended up, oddly, as a bit of a mascot for Athens' 1%. This gave Socrates the chance to take directionless young men like Plato and Alcibiades and to try to turn them toward something better. But it also set him up as a proxy for the 1%, which likely played a role in his trial and execution on the charges of atheism and corrupting the youth.

The Socrates we meet in literature doesn’t work, he philosophizes full time. How did he eat? Well, I think there may be several answers to that question. One possibility is that Socrates still worked, but that Plato (and Xenophon, and Aristophanes) don't bother to note that occasionally Socrates did gigs as a stonemason, because, why would they? But another answer suggested by some sources is that Socrates was patronized by the 1%, and although he sent a lot of gifts back, he kept enough to get by on. Even Socrates didn't much like this arrangement, and in Plato's Apology he cheekily suggests at his trial that his 'punishment' should be that reserved for victors in the Olympic games: free meals at public expense. Socrates comes pretty close to suggesting taxpayer-funded tenure.

After Socrates died, the question of how to live as a philosopher arose almost instantly. Not for Socrates' wealthy students, e.g. Plato or Crito, who didn't need to make money. Not for Socrates' friend Antisthenes, or the philosophically like-minded Diogenes, who both lived lives stripped of material possessions and comforts, lives in accordance with nature, as they'd have put it, and consequently didn't need much to get by. No, it was a problem for Socrates' students who weren't rich and still wanted to live normally pleasant lives. Xenophon went into politics. Aristippus worked as a court philosopher. And both seem to have taken a fair degree of flak for it, being widely regarded as sellouts by their fellows. The fragments of Aristippus, especially, are largely geared toward self-justification. Maybe I'll write more about Aristippus in later postings.

What I find remarkable is the extent to which the current situation is similar. Academic philosophers today have tenure, essentially freeing them from material concerns. (There's a bizarre but persistent belief that tenured professors take a lower salary than they could have earned if they had chosen to 'take a private sector job'. This is almost entirely false; tenure is absurdly lucrative and most senior professors are paid in the six figures.) Then there are people (I guess some determined adjuncts are like this) who scrape by with next to nothing, but do philosophy full time. So we have established our cultural Platos and our Diogeneses. The rest of us, the vast majority, are 'sellouts', like Xenophon and Aristippus.

But the point I want to make is that we look like sellouts when viewed from the weird and contingent position occupied by Socrates, apparently to his own distress. But Socrates knew how to earn a living by his hard work, and even after his philosophical turn he kept the kind of entrepreneurial mind to help his friend Aristarchus set up a home business. People who accuse those who have a job and also philosophize of selling out aren't speaking for Socrates.