Socrates is a pivotal character in the history of Western civilization, a paragon of integrity and of the truth-seeking philosopher. He appeared in the fifth century BC as the Greeks were emerging from the old mythological mindset into a new era in which man felt free to use his rational intellect without relying on the external authority of gods. The Greeks of this transitional era were the first to measure and plumb the world around them in a way we recognize as modern. Philosophers and teachers sprang up offering numerous explanations regarding the nature of the universe, ethics, art and politics, until it seemed to many that chaos reigned and that perhaps all that mattered was “getting ahead” in whatever way seemed personally advantageous.
Among these philosophers, Socrates seems to have been a singularly charismatic and powerful personality: committed to truth yet witty, open-minded yet uncompromising, wise yet without pretension, and above-all unconcerned with the regard of others. Yet he never wrote a thing as far as we know. It’s as though his personality—the living out of an unfettered soul—was fulfillment enough for him. His life was his work of art.
We know about Socrates mainly through the writings of one of his admirers and pupils, Plato. After Socrates’ inspirational death, refusing to compromise his character, Plato did feel the need to write, but he presented his philosophy in an interesting way: in the form of dialogues—plays almost—usually between Socrates and others. This means that it’s hard to disentangle where Socrates ends and Plato begins. 2500 years later, we can only experience Socrates through the prism of Plato. What Plato seems to have done is to attempt a “grand theory” that he either believed Socrates would have agreed with or that he believed was a fitting extension of Socrates’ ideas.
There’s an interesting parallel here with another powerful personality in the Western psyche. Like Socrates, Christ never wrote a thing. We know of him only through the writings of others, who probably wrote between 60 and 100 years after Christ died. Those others were, of course Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, the authors of the “official” Gospels. These authors, though, mainly sought to record Christ’s acts and words, not to interpret or make sense of the ramifications of Christ’s teachings. The man who took on the role of codifier and explainer of Christ’s message was Paul.
Just as Plato presented Socrates to the world, Paul presented Christ. However, in Paul’s case, we may have a better idea of just what he added or subtracted from the original, for we can compare Paul’s ideas—which he of course believed Christ would agree with—with the Jesus presented in the four Gospels. Regardless of how well his ideas actually do match the original spirit of Christ the man, Paul was the principal authority in the earliest establishment of Christian churches, and his ideas have had a powerful influence on subsequent Christian thought.
So neither of the two most luminous figures in Western civilization felt the need to record his ideas or “make sense of them.” (Neither did Buddha, the single most powerful figure in Eastern thought, but I will here focus only on the West.) Both Socrates and Christ were powerful personalities who seemed to have accessed a fundamental truth but who never felt the need to organize or make rules concerning this truth. That’s because this truth cannot be codified and imposed on others. That task fell to dedicated yet “lesser” personalities—the Platos and Pauls of the world. The real truth— what Socrates and Christ knew—was more shadowy, more subtle. The real truth could only be lived, displayed, experienced. It could only be approached indirectly through parables and Socratic conversation. It was, above all, alive.
The world is full of Platos and Pauls, with varying degrees of integrity, energy and inspiration: they include dogmatic philosophers and religious authorities, political leaders and lawmakers, and any others who attempt to impose upon the incandescent life force of each unprecedented individual. Most people look to an outside authority or set of rules for guidance and mistrust themselves. What we miss is the authority of our own personality. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light that flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.” The truth that Socrates and Christ knew was the truth of their own divinity. Their capacity to personify, in their unique human form, a universal divine energy was what made them so charismatic, such powerful examples and teachers. There was no truth to write down—both figures were the truth.