CAT Aspirants have been looking at this piece regularly for practice on RC and Verbal Ability. Here we go...
They were a motley crowd, these youths who flocked about him and helped him to create European philosophy. There were rich young men like Plato and Alcibiades, who relished his satirical analysis of Athenian democracy; there were socialists like Antisthenes, who liked the master’s careless poverty, and made a religion of it; there was even an anarchist or two among them, like Aristippus, who aspired to a world in which there would be neither masters nor slaves, and all would be as worrilessly free as Socrates. All the problems that agitate human society to-day, and provide the material of youth’s endless debate, agitated as well that little band of thinkers and talkers, who felt, with their teacher, that life without discourse would be unworthy of a man. Every school of social thought had there its representative, and perhaps its origin. How the master lived hardly anybody knew. He never worked, and he took no thought of the morrow. He ate when his disciples asked him to honor their tables; they must have liked his company, for he gave every indication of physiological prosperity. He was not so welcome at home, for he neglected his wife and children; and from Xanthippe’s point of view he was a good-for-nothing idler who brought to his family more notoriety than bread. Xanthippe liked to talk almost as much as Socrates did; and they seem to have had some dialogues which Plato failed to record. Yet she, too, loved him, and could not contentedly see him die even after three-score years and ten. Why did his pupils reverence him so?
Perhaps because he was a man as well as a philosopher: he had at great risk saved the life of Alcibiades in battle; and he could drink like a gentleman—without fear and without excess. But no doubt they liked best in him the modesty of his wisdom: he did not claim to have wisdom, but only to seek it lovingly; he was wisdom’s amateur, not its professional. It was said that the oracle at Delphi, with unusual good sense, had pronounced him the wisest of the Greeks; and he had interpreted this as an approval of the agnosticism which was the starting-point of his philosophy—“One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt—particularly to doubt one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas and one’s axioms. Who knows how these cherished beliefs became certainties with us, and whether some secret wish did not furtively beget them, clothing desire in the dress of thought? There is no real philosophy until the mind turns round and examines itself. Gnothi seauton, said Socrates: Know thyself. There had been philosophers before him, of course: strong men like Thales and Heraclitus, subtle men like Parmenides and Zeno of Elea, seers like Pythagoras and Empedocles; but for the most part they had been physical philosophers; they had sought for the physis or nature of external things, the laws and constituents of the material and measurable world. That is very good, said Socrates; but there is an infinitely worthier subject for philosophers than all these trees and stones, and even all those stars; there is the mind of man. What is man, and what can he become? So he went about prying into the human soul, uncovering assumptions and questioning certainties. If men discoursed too readily of justice, he asked them, quietly, tò it?—what is it? What do you mean by these abstract words with which you so easily settle the problems of life and death? What do you mean by honor, virtue, morality, patriotism? What do you mean by yourself?
It was with such moral and psychological questions that Socrates loved to deal. Some who suffered from this “Socratic method,” this demand for accurate definitions, and clear thinking, and exact analysis, objected that he asked more than he answered, and left men’s minds more confused than before. Nevertheless he bequeathed to philosophy two very definite answers to two of our most difficult problems—What is the meaning of virtue? and What is the best state? No topics could have been more vital than these to the young Athenians of that generation. The Sophists had destroyed the faith these youths had once had in the gods and goddesses of Olympus, and in the moral code that had taken its sanction so largely from the fear men had for these ubiquitous and innumerable deities; apparently there was no reason now why a man should not do as he pleased, so long as he remained within the law. A disintegrating individualism had weakened the Athenian character, and left the city a prey at last to the sternly-nurtured Spar- tans. And as for the state, what could have been more ridiculous than this mob-led, passion-ridden democracy, this government by a debating-society, this precipitate selection and dismissal and execution of generals, this unchoice choice of simple farmers and tradesmen, in alphabetical rotation, as members of the supreme court of the land? How could a new and natural morality be developed in Athens, and how could the state be saved?
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