Would there be such a thing as philosophy had there been no such person—or literary character, at least—as Socrates? Surely people the world over have always asked questions about the nature of reality, and come up with all sorts of speculative answers. But the particular form of inquiry known as the Socratic method—a blanket presumption of ignorance—would not have become the dominant force in Western intellectual history without its namesake. And that is, of course, not all. In the work of Socrates’ highly imaginative student, interpreter, and biographer Plato, we find, as Alfred North Whitehead suggested, a “wealth of general ideas” that have made for “an inexhaustible mine of suggestion” for philosophers since antiquity.
As bluesman Robert Johnson did for rock and roll, Socrates more or less single-handedly invented the formulas of Western thought. He might be called the first philosophical rock star—and judging by the Guns N’ Roses soundtrack to the animated video above, the producers of the Greek Public Television series Animated Philosophers seem to feel the same. Dubbed into English, and with character animation that owes more than a little to South Park, this episode makes the case for Socrates’ importance to philosophy as tantamount to Christ’s in Christianity. Overstated? Perhaps, but the argument is by no means a thin one.
To make the point, writer, editor, and host George Chatzivasileiou interviews Greek philosophers like Vasilis Karamanis and Vasilis Kalfas, who basically agree with Roman orator Cicero’s characterization of Socrates bringing “philosophy down from the heavens to the earth”… as well as, says Kalfas, “into the city” as a “teacher of the citizen” in a modern democratic city-state. A key part of Socrates’ appeal is that he “did not take anything for granted, no matter how obvious it may have seemed.” Though this attitude is as much a performance as it is a genuine admission of ignorance, the Socratic approach nonetheless set the standards of intellectual integrity in the West.
The comparison with Christ is relevant in more ways than one. The fathers of the Christian church relied as much on Plato and his student Aristotle—sometimes it seems even more so—as they did on the Bible. Perhaps chief among early theologians, Bishop Augustine of Hippo receives the animated rock star treatment above in another episode of Animated Philosophers, this one subtitled in English. The many other episodes in the series—on Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Empedocles, Parmenides, Plotinus, Epicurus, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras—are all available on Youtube, but only in the original Greek with no titles or dubbing. It’s no great surprise the series focuses almost exclusively on Greek philosophers. And yet, national pride notwithstanding, the ancient civilization does have legitimate claim to the origins of the discipline, especially in that most influential figure of them all, Socrates.
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A History of Ideas: Animated Videos Explain Theories of Simone de Beauvoir, Edmund Burke & Other Philosophers
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Allan Bloom’s Lectures on Socrates (Boston College, 1983)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
How can Socrates be an existentialist when he argued for absolutes and objectivity (ie in The Republic) while existentialists denounce objectivity of any such structures as illusory, etc?