Philosophy as a Way of Life—III—Socrates and the finest state of the human soul

by Massimo Pigliucci

I’m going to bet that it is going to be hard to find anyone who has never heard of Socrates. Even in this world of social media and alternative realities the name of Socrates is essentially synonymous with philosophy. Which doesn’t mean one necessarily knows anything about the sage of Athens, or about philosophy. (Which is fair enough. I can name Taylor Swift, for instance, but not a single one of her songs…)

Pierre Hadot, in his influential Philosophy as a Way of Life is interested in Socrates, not necessarily the historical person,  about which it is hard to say much anyway, but the philosophical figure, which has become a symbol for philosophy itself.

He begins with his (alleged) physical appearance. Socrates was ugly, by universal agreement of all the available sources: Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. As Nietzsche put it: “Everything in him is exaggerated, buffo, a caricature.” (Twilight of the Idols. The Problem of Socrates, 3-4) Hadot writes:

“Alcibiades, in his famous speech in praise of Socrates at the end of the Symposium, compares Socrates to the little statues of Sileni [a kind of ugly satyr] that could be found in sculptors’ shops, which concealed little figurines of the gods inside themselves. Similarly, Socrates’ exterior appearance—ugly, buffoon-like, impudent, almost mon­strous—was only a mask and a facade.” (p. 148)

And it wasn’t just his physical appearance. Socrates often behaved like a buffoon, pretending to be naive and not too bright. In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades says: “He spends his whole life playing the part of a simpleton and a child.” (216e) … (continue at Substack)