It is a commonplace that Western philosophy began with the Ancient Greeks. In the opinion of many, the greatest of the Greek philosophers was Socrates whose life and work, because he left no writings of his own, were communicated to succeeding generations by Plato, an important philosopher in his own right.
Socrates lived from 469 to 399 B.C.E., dying, according to the well known story, of a draught of hemlock, his punishment for upsetting the Athenian establishment. Plato’s life overlapped that of his master (427-347 BCE) by a respectable margin but both great men died more than 2,300 years ago. It might seem reasonable to think that the problems they tackled, being those posed by a pre-technological society, have long since been solved and are no longer of interest except to students of ancient history and culture.
After all, the world has changed amazingly since their day. Science has accumulated knowledge beyond their wildest dreams and technology has provided us with tools, comforts and entertainments beyond their wildest imaginings. How could we not have moved on from their primitive investigations into life and ethics?
The answer of course is that we have not moved at all. Every society at every age faces the same problems that both vexed and enchanted Socrates and that Plato in his turn tried to solve. Does this mean, as some cynics assert, that philosophy is a huge waste of time since it uses up a lot of words but never produces any final answers?
If we were to apply this logic to the rest of life, we would find ourselves in a very peculiar world, one that is static and dead like a fly in amber; one in which every question has a fixed and final answer and no difference of opinion is tolerated; a world ruled by dogma, fixed and lifeless.
Every generation and every community has to investigate the same problems that Socrates investigated and find its own answers. The answers might be the same as his or different: only by discussing them can we find out. Some answers will seem to have perennial value and others to depend on conditions at the time. What is important is finding the answers and finding them for ourselves. Only in this way can we be sure that the answers resonate with the sort of people we are, our needs and ambitions.
It is no good smiling complacently and saying “I don’t need to do this. My God has spoken and told me all I need to know.” Look at religions around the world and you will see that most have evolved over time and are today very different from what they were at their inception. Even religious dogmas change over time to accommodate changes in circumstances. To be fair, many religious groups recognize this fact and have “modernized” to varying degrees.
But this goes beyond such issues. How we live and treat one another (whether with compassion and respect or with hostility and cruelty), how we react to advances in scientific knowledge (do we do everything we can do or are there some things we should never do?), how we deal with those whose beliefs are anathema to us (engage them in dialogue and cooperative action or try to coerce them into acceptance of our own norms?) – these and more are the problems that we, and every generation before and after us, have to confront and answer in our own way.
Socrates showed us the need and how to meet it. We cannot expect him to come up with the answers as well: that’s our job.