Socrates, philosophy made man

“Now that Socrates is dead, the memory of what he did or said when he was alive is no less useful to people, or even more so” (Conversations of Epictetus, IV 1, 169). The word of Epictetus (approx. 50 – 130), five centuries after the death of Socrates in 399 before our era, alone says the value of extreme exemplarity assumed by the latter in the eyes of a broad philosophical tradition, including the Platonists as well as the Aristotelians and the Stoics.

The same Epictetus, in his Manual written by Arrian at Ier century, explains what use the apprentice philosopher should make of his example: “This is how Socrates reached perfection: in everything that came his way, he cared about nothing but his reason. It is up to you, even if you yourself are not yet a Socrates, to live like someone who wants to be Socrates. » Praised for his exceptional virtue, Socrates was indeed one of the very rare and authentic sages in the eyes of the Stoics. Thus he acquired the timeless value of a model of conduct and questioning.

In fact, it is by what he was, no less than by what Plato (ca. 427-348) showed and said about him in his Dialogs, that Socrates has become this universally vaunted and invoked paragon of wisdom. The passage to posterity of this figure certainly implied a literary transmission that the work of Plato particularly ensured, and which moreover determined the later understanding of the character, since the direct witnesses had disappeared.

Originally a “divine mission”

But the figure of Socrates could not have been so magnified by Plato, nor known such an echo, if the historical Socrates had not shown exceptional traits which made his notoriety and guaranteed his influence during his lifetime on generations of young Athenians. The best proof of this is that no less than five philosophical schools have expressly claimed him, all deserving of being qualified as “Socratic”: the Cynic, Cyrenaic, Megaric, Eretriacal Schools, and the Academy of course, founded by Plato.

Read also: Plato, the founding work of Western thought

If we are to believe the words of Socrates himself in The apology of Plato, his singular destiny finds its origin in a “god’s mission” with which he would have felt invested. This idea of ​​mission immediately signals the exception that he is aware of constituting, and refers to the enigma on which it rests.

Indeed, in response to Cherephon, a close friend of Socrates, the oracle of Apollo declares that he does not recognize a wiser man than Socrates, while the latter claims to be ignorant. The mission, as Socrates understands it, then presents a double face: to test the word of the god, which seems devoid of meaning, and simultaneously to confirm it, because it cannot lie. In the service of the god, Socrates thus tests his “human wisdom”in which he himself sees an oxymoron: wise because the god has declared him to be, he can only be so for his conscience of not knowing anything (“Of this wisdom I know nothing”).

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