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Parshat Vayelech — Writing to remember

Socrates refused to write down his ideas, but committing a text to writing can make an author's words immortal -- that's the point of the written Torah
The Death of Socrates (1787), by Jacques-Louis David. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
The Death of Socrates (1787), by Jacques-Louis David. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Socrates is best known of all the Greek philosophers. His philosophy shaped Western thought so much — to the extent that he defines the end of an era, and any philosophers before him are known as “pre-Socratic.”

His methodology, of questioning everything, has become its own metaphor, as has one of his most famous phrases, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

In his youth, Socrates served in the army as a hoplite, fighting against Sparta — the archenemy of Athens — during the Peloponnesian Wars. He left the army before the war ended and spent the rest of his life in the city of Athens, where he challenged passers-by with philosophical questions. In fact, he was almost superhuman or godlike in his quest for knowledge. Or at least, that is how Plato describes him. Socrates is the main interlocutor in most of Plato’s dialogues.

But most experts agree that even though Socrates is also the main protagonist in Plato’s later works, these writings contain more of Plato’s own ideas and less of Socrates’.

Luni marble bust of Plato, copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BCE. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

However, during the Renaissance period, Xenophon’s description of Socrates was considered more accurate. Xenophon was most famous as a historian, rather than as a philosopher, though he also studied under Socrates. He was three years older than Plato and was not as infatuated with their teacher as Plato was. According to Xenophon, Socrates was not the divine genius that Plato described, and his description of Socrates’ trial and death feels more human and realistic than that of Plato, though also a bit boring.

But in the early 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who first formulated the Socratic problem, argued that Xenophon was not a philosopher, but a simple citizen-soldier, whose lack of proper understanding led him to describe Socrates as dull and philosophically uninteresting.

Statue of Xenophon in front of the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna. (CC BY-SA, MrPanyGoff/ Wikimedia Commons)

However, Xenophon and Plato agree that Socrates was a pious man who was firmly opposed to sophistry and empty rhetoric.

Which is completely different than Aristophanes, who made Socrates the main character in “The Clouds,” which was first performed when Socrates was 46 years old. Aristophanes turns Socrates into a comic fraud, who denied the existence of Zeus and the power of the gods, who accepted money from students to teach them empty, false reasoning, and who liked fart jokes.

Carnelian gem imprint representing Socrates, Rome, 1st century BCE–1st century CE. (CC BY-SA, PHGCOM/ Wikimedia Commons)

Almost the only thing that the three authors agree on is that in an age that worshiped male beauty, Socrates was incredibly ugly. He had a pug nose, his eyes bulged out of his head, and he may have had a potbelly. He also didn’t care much for personal hygiene, so was quite smelly.

Aristotle was born 16 years after Socrates died, and was himself a student of Plato, so it is unclear how much value we should give to his unique description of Socrates (in “Metaphysics”: Book XIII, chapter iv, 1079):

For two things may be fairly ascribed to Socrates –
inductive arguments and universal definition,
both of which are concerned with the starting point of science –
but Socrates did not make the universals
or the definitions exist apart;
they, however, gave them separate existence,
and this was the kind of thing they called Ideas.

By “inductive arguments,” Aristotle actually means something similar to the use of metaphor, and that and his point about universals are not found in any of the other students of Socrates.

Antisthenes described Socrates in his dialogues, and many claimed his version of Socrates was the most accurate. Unfortunately, very few of Antisthenes’ writings survived, so they are no help to us. Aeschines of Sphettus and Phaedo of Elis also wrote dialogues featuring Socrates, but these too have been lost to the depths of time.

Statue of Socrates in the Irish National Botanic Gardens. (CC BY-SA, UtDicitur/ Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone agrees that at the age of 70, Socrates was sentenced to death and chose as his death sentence to drink hemlock. However, nobody agrees as to exactly what his crime was, and how he defended himself against the charges. Plato was present at the trial, unlike Xenophon or Aristophanes, but perhaps Plato exaggerated his hero’s arguments and legendary death.

The fact that we know nothing at all about the historical Socrates, but instead have multiple versions from his students is because Socrates himself did not write down any of his teachings. We have no primary sources to tell us who Socrates was, what he thought, or what values he held dear. In fact, there is even a (now discredited) school of thought that Socrates never existed at all but was merely a construct used by the other philosophers for dramatic effect.

And this is the paradox of Socrates. He is perhaps the most important philosopher in the Western tradition, yet we know nothing at all about him.

The reason he wrote nothing (except perhaps a couple of lines of a poem which was recently discovered) was that Socrates was philosophically opposed to writing down ideas. In Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates give a parable which illustrates the dangers of writing:

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth… and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters.

Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt… To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them… But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.

Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them… For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Socrates held that writing down ideas prevents people remembering them or learning them. In this, he was very prescient, because today we live in an age when far more information is available online to us at the touch of a button than even Socrates could have imagined. Yet it has not made us smarter or brought us closer to truth.

But the ironic flipside of Socrates not writing down his thoughts is that today we have no clue what his actual ideas were. Even his antagonism to writing is only known to us because Plato wrote it down. We would know more about the real Socrates if he had written down his philosophy, and we would never have even heard of him if his students had not written down his thoughts for us.

This week’s Torah reading marks the explicit transition from an oral culture to a written one. God commands Moses to write down the Torah and give copies to each of the tribes.

Scribe writing the last words in a Torah scroll. (CC BY, Mitzpeh Hilla Archive/ Wikimedia Commons)

The written Torah is mentioned in last week’s reading also, but this week is the explicit instruction to write it.

Until that moment, any questions, uncertainties or doubts could be clarified by asking Moses. And on the rare occasion he didn’t know the answer he would ask God.

After his death there were still prophets, but they were not qualified to rule on matters of law. Rather, the text itself became the tool to discover the will of God.

The Talmud (Temurah 16b) describes this transition:

Rabbi Yehuda said that Rav said: Before Moses departed to the Garden of Eden he said to Joshua, ‘Ask me all the questions you have.’ [Joshua] replied, ‘Did I ever leave you for a single moment to go somewhere else? Didn’t you write about me that, “His servant, Joshua bin Nun, never departed from the tent,” (Exodus 33:11)?

Immediately, Joshua became weak. He forgot 300 laws and had 700 uncertainties. All of Israel arose to kill him. God said to him, “It is impossible for me to tell you.”… Nevertheless, Otniel Ben Kenaz was able to restore [the forgotten laws] through his in-depth study.

The written Torah, which was Moses’s life work, replaced Moses as the source of instruction. And paradoxically, by writing down the Torah, we lost Moses the person. We don’t know what he looked like, what he sounded like, or even how he thought.

We know he went to all the Children of Israel as described at the beginning of this week’s Torah, but we have no definitive knowledge of why he did so, or what he said to them.

This fundamental difference between a written culture and an oral culture is the reason that for centuries it was forbidden to commit the Oral Law to writing.

Time and again, portions of the oral law were written down, and then themselves became the subject of oral commentary.

The rabbis of the Mishna, and even more so of the halakhic midrashim, relied on the written Torah as the basis for their words. But once those texts were written down they were subject to new and innovative interpretations by the rabbis of the Talmud.

The Talmud was written down some time between the sixth and ninth centuries and almost immediately the later rabbis began interpreting its words.

The Mishneh Torah, from 1200-1400 CE. (CC BY-SA, Matthew G. Bisanz/ Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps no rabbinic author has been separated from his text more than Maimonides. Many interpretations of his Mishne Torah ignore, or are unaware of, what Maimonides himself wrote in his letters or elsewhere. Some commentaries on Guide for the Perplexed disregard the historical context or religious views the author expressed elsewhere.

Committing a text to writing disconnects it from its author. Yet paradoxically it can make his or her words immortal.

For this reason, the very last of the 613 commandments listed in Deuteronomy is for each person to write a Torah scroll for themselves.

And perhaps this highlights the biggest difference between Moses and Socrates. One refused to write his ideas so they would be remembered. The other was commanded to write the Torah so it would not be forgotten.

Thank you to Our Fake History podcast for his clear explanation of the Socratic problem.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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