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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Socrates as an Influence and as a Man
By Ernst Curtius (1814–1896)
 
From the ‘History of Greece’

IF we contemplate Socrates in his whole way of living and being (and in truth no other personage of Greek antiquity is so distinctly brought before our eyes), it seems to us in the first place as if at Athens he were not in his natural place; so foreign to Athens are his ways, and so dissociated from it is his whole individuality. He cannot be fitted into any class of Athenian civil society, and is to be measured by no such standard as we apply to his fellow-citizens. He is one of the poorest of all the Athenians, and yet he passes with a proud step through the streets of the city and confronts the richest and best born as their equal; his ungainly and neglected exterior makes him an object of public derision, and yet he exercises an unexampled influence upon high and low, upon learned and unlearned alike. He is a master both of thought and of speech, yet at the same time an opponent on principle of those who were the instructors of the Athenians in both; he is a man of free thought, who allows nothing to remain untested, and yet he is more diligent in offering sacrifices than any of his neighbors, he venerates the oracles, and reposes a simple faith in many things which the age laughs at as nursery tales; he blames without reticence the dominion of the multitude, and yet is an adversary of oligarchs. Entirely his own master, he thinks differently from all other Athenians; he goes his own path without troubling himself about public opinion; and so long as he remains in harmony with himself, no contradiction, no hostile attack, no derision vexes his soul. Such a man as this seemed in truth to have been transplanted into the midst of Athens as it were from some other world.  1
  And yet, unique in his kind as this Socrates was, we are unable on closer examination to mistake him for aught but a genuine Athenian. Such he was in his whole intellectual tendency, in his love of talk and skill in talk,—growths impossible in any but Athenian air,—in the delicate wit with which he contrived to combine the serious and the sportive, and in his unflagging search after a deep connection between action and knowledge. He was a genuine Athenian of the ancient stamp, when with inflexible courage he stood forth as the champion of the laws of the State against all arbitrary interference, and in the field shrank from no danger or hardship. He knew and loved the national poets; but above all it is in his indefatigable impulse towards culture that we recognize the true son of his native city. Herein lay a spiritual affinity between him and the noblest among the Athenians, a Solon and a Pericles. Socrates, like Solon, thought that no man is too old to learn; that to learn and to know is not a schooling for life, but life itself, and that which alone gives to life its value. To become by knowledge better from day to day, and to make others better, appeared to both to be the real duty of man. Both found the one true happiness in the health of the soul, whose greatest unhappiness they held to lie in wrong and ignorance.  2
  Thus with all his originality Socrates most decidedly stood on the basis of Attic culture; and if it is taken into consideration that the most celebrated representatives of Sophistry and the tendencies akin to it all came from abroad,—e.g., Protagoras from Abdera, Prodicus from Ceos, Diagoras from Melos,—it may fairly be affirmed that as against these foreign teachers the best principles of Attic wisdom found their representative in Socrates. Far, however, from merely recurring to the ancient foundations of patriotic sentiment,—fallen into neglect to the great loss of the State,—and from opposing himself on an inflexible defensive to the movement of the age, he rather stood in the very midst of it; and merely sought to lead it to other and higher ends. What he desired was not a turning back, but a progress in knowledge beyond that which the most sagacious teachers of wisdom offered. For this reason he was able to unite in himself elements which seemed to others irreconcilably contradictory; and upon this conception was based what most distinguished him above all his fellow countrymen, the lofty freedom and independence of his mind. Thus, without becoming disloyal to his home, he was able to rise above the restrictions of customary ideas; which he most notably achieved by making himself perfectly independent of all external things, in the midst of a people which worshiped the beauty of outward appearance, and by attaching value exclusively to the possessions which are within, and to moral life. For this reason too his personal ugliness—the broad face with the snub nose, thick lips and prominent eyes—was a characteristic feature of his individuality; because it testified against the traditional assumption of a necessary union between physical and intellectual excellence; because it proved that even in a form like that of Silenus there might dwell a spirit like that of Apollo, and thus conduced to a loftier conception of the being of man. Thus he belonged to his people and to his age, but stood above both; and such a man the Athenians needed, in order to find the path whereon it was possible to penetrate through the conflict of opinions to a moral assurance, and to reach a happiness containing its own warrant.  3
  Socrates appears before us as an individuality complete and perfect, of which the gradual development continues to remain a mystery. Its real germ, however, doubtless lies in the desire for knowledge, which was innate in him with peculiar strength. This desire would not allow him to remain under pupilage to his father: it drove him forth out of the narrow workshop into the streets and the open places of the city, where in those days every kind of culture, art, and science, was offered in rich abundance; for at the time when Socrates was in his twentieth year, Pericles stood at the height of his splendid activity, which the son of a sculptor might be supposed to have had occasion fully to appreciate. The youthful Socrates however brought with him out of his father’s house a certain one-sided and so to speak bourgeois tendency,—i.e., a sober homely sense for the practically useful, which would not allow itself to be dazzled by splendor and magnificence. Accordingly he passed by with tolerable indifference the much admired works of art with which the city was at that time filled; for the ideal efforts of the Periclean age he lacked comprehension; nor do the tragedies of a Sophocles appear to have exercised much attraction upon him. If there was one-sidedness in this, on the other hand it bore good fruit in so far as it confirmed the independence of his judgment, and enabled him to recognize and combat the defects and diseases from which Athens suffered even in the midst of her glories.  4
  But although the son of Sophroniscus carried the idea of the practically useful into the domain of science, he gave to it in this so deep and grand a significance that for him it again became an impulse towards searching with unflagging zeal for all real means of culture offered by Athens; for he felt the impossibility of satisfactorily responding to the moral tasks which most immediately await man, without the possession of a connected knowledge. Thus he eagerly associated with men and women esteemed as highly cultured; he listened to the lectures of the Sophists; acquainted himself with the writings of the earlier philosophers, which he found to be still of vital effect upon his contemporaries; thoroughly studied with friends desirous of self-improvement the works of Heraclitus and Anaxagoras; and in this constant intercourse he gradually became himself another man,—i.e., he grew conscious of the unsatisfactory standpoint of the wisdom of the teachers of the day, as well as conscious of his own aims and mission. For in putting questions of a kind which could meet with no reply, and in searching for deeper things than could be offered to him by his hearers, he gradually became himself the person from whom the impulse proceeded, and from whom in the end was expected an answer to the questions which had remained unsolved. He, the seeker after instruction, became the centre of a circle of younger men who were enthusiastically attached to him. In how high a degree that which he endeavored to supply corresponded to the deeply felt needs of the age, is evident from the fact that men of the most utterly different dispositions and stations in life gave themselves up to him: youths of the highest class of society, full of self-consciousness, buoyancy, and reckless high spirits, such as Alcibiades; and again, men of a melancholy and timid turn of mind, such as the well-known eccentric Apollodorus of Phalerus, who, perpetually discontented with himself and others, led a miserable existence until in Socrates he found the sole individuality appeasing his wants, and in intercourse with him the satisfaction for which he had longed. To him Socrates was all in all, and every hour during which he was away from Socrates he accounted as lost. Thus Socrates was able to re-awaken among the Athenians—among whom personal intercourse between those of the same age, as well as between men and youths, was disturbed or desecrated either by party interests or by impure sensuality—the beneficent power of pure friendship and unselfish devotion. Sober and calm himself, he excited the noblest enthusiasm, and by the simplest means obtained a far-reaching influence such as before him no man had possessed at Athens; even before the Peace of Nicias, when Aristophanes made him the principal character in his ‘Clouds,’ he was one of the best-known and most influential personages at Athens.  5
  As Socrates gradually became a teacher of the people, so his mode and habits of life, too, formed themselves in indissoluble connection with his philosophical development. For this was the most pre-eminent among his qualities: that his life and his teachings were formed in the same mold, and that none of his disciples could say whether he had been more deeply affected by the words or by the example of his master. And this was connected with the fact that from the first his philosophy directed itself to that which might make man better and more pleasing to Heaven, freer and happier at once. To this tendency he could not devote himself without rising in his own consciousness to a continuously loftier clearness and purity, and without subjecting to reason the elements inborn in him, of sensual impulses, of inertia and passion. Thus he became a man in whom the world found much to smile and mock at, but whom even those who could not stomach his wisdom were obliged to acknowledge as a morally blameless and just citizen. He was devoted with absolute loyalty to his native city, and without desiring offices and dignities, he was from an inner impulse indefatigably active for her good.
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  6
  For the rest, Socrates, with all his dislike of the pursuit of profit and pleasure, was anything but a morose eccentric like Euripides; from this he was kept by his love of humankind. He was merry with the merry, and spoilt no festive banquet to which he had been bidden. In the friendly circle he sat as a man brave at his cups, and herein likewise offered an example to his friends how the truly free can at one time suffer deprivation, and at another enjoy abundance, without at any time losing his full self-control. After a night of festivity his consciousness was as clear and serene as ever; he had after a rare fashion made his body an ever ready servant of his mind; even physically he could do things impossible to others, and as if protected by some magic charm, he passed unhurt through all the pestilences of Athens without ever timidly keeping out of the way of danger. Fully assured of the inner mission which animated him, he allowed nothing to derange or to confound him. Hostile attacks and derision touched him not; nay, he was known to laugh most heartily of all the spectators when that sinner Aristophanes exhibited him as a dreamer, abstracted from the world and hanging in a hammock between heaven and earth; and when the other comic poets made the public merry with his personal appearance. For the same reason, lastly, he was inaccessible to all the offers made to him by foreign princes, who would have given much to attract the most remarkable man of the age to their courts. The Thessalian grandees in particular, Scopas at Crannon and Eurylochus at Larissa, emulated one another in their endeavors to secure him. But he was no more tempted by their gold than by that of Archelaus, the splendor of whose throne, obtained by guile and murder, failed to dazzle Socrates. He replied with the pride of a genuine republican that it ill befitted any man to accept benefits which he had no power of returning.  7
 
 
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