Philosophy as Obedience to the Divine

“Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength, I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you, who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?” Plato, Apology [of Socrates] in The Trial and Death of Socrates: Four Dialogues (New York: Dover, 1992), pp. 30-31. [Emphasis added] 

In this work, Plato set forth his version of Socrates’ statement of defense in response to the charges against him by the Athenian government.  These charges included impiety against the gods of Athens and corruption of the Athenian youth.  In his defense Socrates argued that the god at Delphi had commissioned him to lead the people of Athens into self-examination and inquiry.  This drew many of the elite young men (like Plato) of Athens to him as their teacher.  Socrates explained that the purpose of his teaching was the pursuit of virtue.  And if this teaching violated the laws of Athens, then he was guilty.  However, a higher law, inspired by the divine, compelled him to continue teaching.  Socrates proclaimed:

“For this is the command to God, as I would have you know; and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God.  For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.  I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private.  This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed.  But if any one says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth.” Ibid., p. 31. [Emphasis added]

 

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