11 October 2011

Smelly disagreeable old men

Socrates had a lot of problems.  To the left you can see what some artist imagines to be a famous scene from his marriage.  Xanthippe is pouring her chamber pot out over poor old Socrates’ head.

It might have never happened.  Some authors paint Xanthippe as a horrible person, some as a devoted and caring person, and she, like most of us, was probably somewhere in the middle.  If she had wanted to pour out what she had in that pot over Socrates she might have had a reason though.  He largely ignored his family and his hygiene, and he spent the vast majority of his days trying to get people to see that what they believed didn't really make any sense.

Socrates is a person whom we can learn a great deal from, even if we would have never wanted to be around him in person.

He was eventually put to death by his fellow Athenians for corrupting the morals of the youth in his city.  At his trial he didn't make an attempt to defend himself, but went about hectoring, lecturing, and insulting the people who put him on trial.  His life had been long and largely satisfying, and he had little desire to tell others that they were right in the pursuit of another couple years of old age.  He willingly took his vial of hemlock and went to wherever people go when they die.  All for corrupting the morals of the youth.

What did that exactly mean?  It is in that "corruption" that we can draw value from what Socrates spent his life trying to do.  His own special brand of corruption was to ask people to investigate their own beliefs, to hold up their ideas to their own, and others', scrutiny, to live a life that was constructive and conscious.  Many people now would never imagine prescribing a steady dose of Socrates within society.  We largely ignore smelly folks with unkempt clothes who ask us to question the sources and validity of our beliefs.

That makes sense personally.  Very few people want to be accosted by a bald old man smelling of cheap Greek wine, especially when he's asking you about what it really means to live a good life.  That's a damn important question though, and even if we're unwilling to hear about it from an honest to goodness living breathing source, we can dredge up, like millions of others have through history, the words of Socrates as written by Plato.

Opening ourselves up to those questions is an exercise in making ourselves small.  It requires us being very open to seeing that some of our ideas make very little sense, but most people, as Socrates said, "do not like to confess that their pretense of knowledge has been detected."  Popping that balloon, admitting that we, in fact, know very little, is the first step on the long road to living a life that's really worth living.

Following is a link to a video about Socrates from Alain de Botton.  
What do you think?


  1. But... I don't get it. I've watched Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure several times, and they don't make any references to So-Crates' hygiene.

  2. Bill: All we are is dust in the wind dude.

    Socrates: Yes, like the sands of the hourglass, these are the days of our lives.

    Classic movie.