The Wisest of the Greeks
by John Philips
The Ancient Greeks were the first Europeans to learn the arts of civilization. With their written language they soon joined the Egyptians, Phoenicians Mesopotamians and other great peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world.
Their many philosophers and wise elders held forth on important questions in sophisticated language, and helped spread the light of learning and civilization among other nations of Europe.
Socrates was a poor illiterate who lived in Athens, Greece. He was a good fighter who fought at the gymnasium, but he knew he was no thinker, and certainly not an intellectual. He wanted to learn from the wisest man in Greece, so he went to the famous oracle of Delphi to ask who was the wisest of the Greeks.
The priestess of the oracle heard his question on her seat in the Delphic cave. Then she inhaled the vapors coming from the rocks and went into her trance to communicate with the gods.
“The wisest of the Greeks is Socrates.” was the answer she gave.
“But, but that’s impossible!” he stammered. “I am a fool.”
“The oracle would say no more but Socrates wasn’t satisfied. He began to go around his native Athens asking questions of those who had a reputation for wisdom, trying to learn from them, trying to prove the oracle wrong.
These Greeks lived long before Jesus or Muhammad were born. They believed in many gods, and made sacrifices to all of them in their temples. Socrates wanted to be pious and to honor the gods, so he approached a famous priest with a reputation for piety.
“What is piety?” asked Socrates.
“It is honoring the gods, and doing their will.” the priest replied.
Poor Socrates was confused again. “But the gods of Greece are many. They often fight among themselves in our myths. Is there one god I should obey, or how do I know when to support one god and when to follow another?”
The priest was embarrassed at the question, and had no answer for Socrates. Onlookers snickered at the foolishness of the priest.
“This is no good at all.” Socrates thought. “This man is as big a fool as I am, but doesn’t even know it.” This, of course, was the meaning of the oracle. Socrates was the only Greek who knew he was a fool.
As the years went by, Socrates still failed to find anyone wiser than he. Many young people began to ask Socrates questions about wisdom at the gymnasium. Some of these young people began openly to question the existence of the gods.
Finally, the important people of Athens had had enough. They put Socrates on trial for blasphemy and impiety, bringing the gods into question, and corrupting the youth with his dangerous questions.
Athens was a democracy, so this charge was brought to a vote of the asssembled citizens. Socrates had to confront his accusers and answer the charges brought against him publicly.
Socrates denied the charges, saying that his questions were intended to honor the gods, and that he had no intention of leading people to disbelieve in them. His accusers did not deny that he believed in supernatural powers, and when he asked whether he could believe in such powers and not believe in the gods they denied the possibility.
Likewise they accused him of deliberately corrupting the youth, although they admitted when he asked them that such corrupted youth would have been likely to cause harm to Socrates himself.
Could Socrates have intended to deliberately harm himself? Again they had no answer and only grew more furious. Despite the difficulty they had making their case against him, they insisted that he was a bad influence on the society and should be put to death, before he caused any more trouble with his questions.
Socrates was convicted by a close vote. His friends urged him to offer to stop asking questions, but he said that would be the same as admitting the charge of disbelief in the gods.
When they suggested that he beg for mercy or offer to go into exile he refused. He was a fighting man, and had never thrown his weapons down on a battlefield to beg for mercy.
This was his first time in a court of law, but he was not about to beg for mercy here, either.
Finally the sentence of death was pronounced. Socrates was a loyal citizen of Athens who believed in democracy. “These people are wiser than I, and must know what they are doing.” he thought. At the appointed time Socrates drank hemlock, a poison, and died in prison, surrounded by his grieving friends.
Socrates’ students never forgot him. One of his students who studied martial arts, Xenophon, led 10,000 men into the Persian empire to take part in a faction fight at the center. When their faction lost, Xenophon nad his men had to fight their way out of Persia. The book Xenophon wrote about his adventures proved invaluable to Alexander the Great when he went to conquer Persia.
Socrates most famous student was Plato. Plato began to think that the world as we know if must not be the true world. The true world, Plato thought, must be an ideal world of the mind.
He also thought that democracy could not be a good system of government, since it had condemned Socrates to death. He developed the idea that government should be run by an elite of wise men.
Aristotle was Plato’s student. He developed the system of rigorous formal logic that is called Aristotelian today, and used it to test ideas. He became the tutor of Alexander the Great (Dhu al-Qarnain in Arabic).
These Socratics were a minority among the Greeks, but their influence today is enormous. When Christianity and later Islam came in contact with Greek civilization and the Hellenic areas influenced by Greece, people began to realize that Socrates’ students had been right to question the gods.
Today, no one seriously believes in the existence of the Greek gods. Their myths are studied as literature, but no one carries out sacrifice to them, or worships in their ruined temples.
Plato’s ideal world had great influence on mystical thinkers of both Islam and Christianity. Such great thinkers as St. Augustine and, in Islam, the Sufis, trace some of their ideas to him. His political ideas have been influential among those who think that an intellectual elite should be responsible for running society, from Usman Danfodio to Vladimir Lenin.
Aristotle’s system of rigorous logic was important in the rise of science and is still central to the scientific method. It is no accident that these sciences were developed in the monotheistic civilizations of Islam and Christianity.
This logical influence is most strongly felt in such Christian philosophers as St. Thomas Aquinas. In Islam this influence is found in various anti-Sufi and rationalist groups. The Mu’tazilite school actually elevated logic to equal place with revelation.
Of all the ancient Greeks, perhaps only Alexander the Great, conquerer of the world, is better known than Socrates. Socrates in his own way has also conquered the world.
Wherever Islamic or Western civilizations are found, there also is found the influence of this poor illiterate, a good fighter but a poor thinker, and certainly no intellectual: Socrates, the wisest of the Greeks.