And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul?
Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul.

The ‘real’ Socrates is shrouded in mystery as he did not leave a written corpus of his own and there is no purely historical account of his life and thought. The three principal sources on Socrates are his pupils Plato and Xenophon and the comedian Aristophanes. These sources do not claim historical accuracy, and their portrayals of Socrates are undoubtedly influenced by their authors’ biases and agenda. The richest source on Socrates is Plato, in whose writings it is always uncertain whether the character Socrates is the real Socrates or a ventriloquist’s dummy. It is generally agreed that, as Plato’s thought developed, the character Socrates became less and less of the real Socrates and more and more of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Socrates was born in Athens in 469BC, after the final defeat of the Persians at Plataea and Mycale, and before the start of the Peloponnesian Wars against Sparta and her allies. According to Plato, Socrates’ father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason, and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. Socrates grew up under Pericles, in the heyday of Athen’s imperial hegemony. He grew up to be ugly: short in stature, pot-bellied, snub-nosed and pop-eyed. In the Theaetetus, Socrates asks the geometer Theodorus to tell him which of the young men of Athens are ‘showing signs of turning out well’. Theodorus immediately singles out Theaetetus, the son of Euphronius of Sunium, whom he describes to Socrates as ‘rather like you, snub-nosed, with eyes that stick out; though these features are not so pronounced in him’.

Socrates married Xanthippe, a shrew of a woman, but some forty years younger than he. According to Xenophon, Socrates married her because, ‘If I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else’. According to Aelian, she once trampled underfoot a cake sent to Socrates by his eromenos Alcibiades, the famous or, rather, infamous Athenian statesman and general. ‘Xanthippe’ has entered the English language as a term for an ill-tempered woman, although Plato himself portrays her as nothing other than a devoted wife and the mother of Socrates’ three sons, Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates is crazy about beautiful boys, constantly following them around ‘in a perpetual daze’. Yet he also says that Socrates cares very little whether a person is beautiful or rich or even famous: ‘He considers all these possessions beneath contempt, and that’s exactly how he considers all of us as well’.

Socrates’ friend Chaerephon once asked the oracle at Delphi if any man is wiser than Socrates, and the pythia (priestess) replied that no one is wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of wise men and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know’. From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not’. In the Apology, he says that the gods attached him to Athens as upon a great and noble horse which ‘needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly’. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says of Socrates that,

…he makes it seem that my life isn’t worth living! … He always traps me, you see, and he makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time, while all that matters is just what I most neglect: my personal shortcomings, which cry out for the closest attention. So I refuse to listen to him; I stop my ears and tear myself away from him, for, like the Sirens, he could make me stay by his side till I die.

According to Plato, Socrates devoted himself entirely to discussing philosophy, for which he never accepted payment. It is unclear how he earned a living, but a combination of meagre needs and rich friends may have been enough to get him by. Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, and when he did it was always because he had learned it from somebody else or because he had been divinely inspired. For example, he claimed to have learned the art of love from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea, and the art of rhetoric from Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles. In the Theaetetus, Socrates famously compares himself to a midwife who attends not to the labour of the body but to the labour of the soul, helping others to ‘discover within themselves a multitude of beautiful things, which they bring forth into the light’. When Socrates asks Theaetetus to define knowledge, Theaetetus says that he has never come up with an adequate answer to this question and cannot stop worrying about it. Socrates tells him, ‘Yes; those are the pains of labour, dear Theaetetus. It is because you are not barren but pregnant.’ Socrates’ method, the celebrated ‘elenchus’ or Socratic method, consists in questioning one or more people about a certain concept, for example, courage or temperance, so as to expose a contradiction in their initial assumptions about the concept, and thereby provoke a reappraisal of the concept. As the process is iterative, it leads to an increasingly precise or refined definition of the concept or, more often than not, to the conclusion that the concept cannot be defined, and thus that we know nothing.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that there are two kinds of madness, one resulting from human illness, and the other resulting from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. This divine form of madness has four parts: inspiration, mysticism, poetry, and love. Socrates probably believed that madness, like virtue, is a gift from the gods and that the two are intimately connected. He frequently questioned the sophists’ doctrine that virtue can be taught, and observed that virtuous men rarely, if ever, produced sons that matched them in quality. For Socrates, virtue and knowledge are one and the same, as no one who really knows the best course of action can fail to choose it, and all wrongdoing results from ignorance.

Whilst Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, he did claim to have a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or instinct that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics. In the Phaedrus, he says,

Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings … the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art … So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense … madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.

Several of Plato’s dialogues refer to Socrates’ military service. Socrates served in the Athenian army during the campaigns of Potidaea (432BC), Delium (424BC), and Amphipolis (422BC), which were more or less the only times he ever left Athens. In the Laches, Laches calls on Socrates for advice because of his courageous behaviour during the retreat from Delium. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea, and that he took the hardships of the campaign ‘much better than anyone in the whole army’.

In the Apology, Socrates says that ‘a man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time’. Socrates cites the time in 406BC when he was chairing the assembly meeting and alone opposed the trial as a body of the generals who, after the Battle of Arginusae, failed to pick up the Athenian survivors because of a violent storm. At the time the orators had been ready to prosecute him and take him away, although later everyone realised that the prosecution would have been illegal. Socrates also cites the time in 404BC when the Thirty Tyrants asked him and four others to bring the innocent Leon of Salamis to be executed, and he alone refused, even though his refusal may have cost him his life.

In 399BC, at the age of 70, Socrates was indicted by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon for offending the Olympian gods and thereby breaking the law against impiety. He was accused of ‘studying things in the sky and below the earth’, ‘making the worse into the stronger argument’, and ‘teaching these same things to others’. The real basis for Socrates’ indictment may have been his anti-democratic leanings and his close association with aristocrats such as Critias and Charmides, who had been prominent in the oligarchic reign of terror. Yet his behaviour when faced with the demands of the Thirty Tyrants suggests that he placed his ethics far above his politics.

In the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defense, intimating to the jurors that they should be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honours as possible, whilst not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. In an aristocratic flourish, he insists that ‘wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively’. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he tells the jurors that he was sentenced to death not because he lacked words, but because he lacked shamelessness and the willingness to say what they would most gladly have heard from him. ‘It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death.’

After being sentenced to death, Socrates had an opportunity to escape from the Athenian prison. In the Crito, one of the main reasons he gives for not escaping is that, by choosing to live in Athens, he tacitly agreed to abide by her laws, and is reluctant to break this ‘social contract’. In the Phaedo, which was known to the ancients as On the Soul, Socrates prepares to die. He tells his friends that a philosopher disdains the body in favour of the soul, because the just or the beautiful or the reality of any one thing cannot be apprehended through the senses, but through thought alone. Socrates warns his friends not to become ‘misologues’, as there is no greater evil than to shun rational conversation. Instead, he urges them to take courage and be eager to ‘attain soundness’. After joking with his gaoler, Socrates drinks the poisonous hemlock. His famous last words are, ‘Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?’ (A cock was sacrificed by ill people hoping for a cure, and Socrates probably meant that death is a cure for the ills of life.)

After his sentencing, Socrates told the jurors: ‘You did this in the belief that you could avoid giving an account of your life, but I maintain that quite the opposite will happen to you. There will be more people to test you, whom I have now held back, but you did not notice it.’

His pupil Plato was standing in the audience.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow

The Oracle of Delphi

Whilst no one can escape using ego defence mechanisms altogether, some ego defence mechanisms are thought to be more helpful or ‘mature’ than others. For example, if a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog (‘displacement’), or he may go out and play a good game of tennis (‘sublimation’). Sublimation is the channeling of negative feelings into useful activities such as study, sport, or art, and is thought to be a far more mature defence mechanism than displacement, which is the redirection of negative feelings towards someone or something less important.

There are a number of other ‘mature’ ego defence mechanisms like sublimation. Altruism, for example, is (contentiously) thought of as a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic careers such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their needs into the background. Similarly, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress once this role is removed from them.

Another mature ego defence mechanism is humour. By seeing the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an emotion, event, or situation, a person is able to put it into its proper context and thereby to diffuse the anxiety that it provokes in him. If human beings laugh so much, this is no doubt because they have the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom, and Freud himself famously noted that ‘there is no such thing as a joke’. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies, and the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death.

Further up the scale of mature ego defence mechanisms is ascetism, which involves denying the importance of what people normally fear and strive for, and so denying the very grounds for anxiety. The Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (1868–1940) felt that ‘anxiety is fear of one’s self’; if the importance of the self can be denied, so too can the grounds for anxiety. If people in modern societies are more anxious than people from another time or people from traditional societies, this is perhaps because of the undue emphasis that modern societies place on the self. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu ‘Song of God’, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra and tells him not to give up but to do his duty and fight on. In either case, all the men on the battlefield are one day condemned to die – as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit in them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna says, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist (…) the wise are not deluded by these changes.

– Bhagavad Gita

Arguably the most mature of all ego defence mechanisms is anticipation. Anticipation involves finding self-knowledge and, like the blind prophet Teiresias, using this self-knowledge to predict or ‘anticipate’ our feelings and reactions. In the Ancient World the greatest of all the oracles was the oracle at Delphi, and inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was a simple two-word command.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν

‘Know thyself.’

Adapted from The Meaning of Madness.

People suffering from depression are often stigmatised as ‘social and moral failures’. However, many people who suffer from depression do so not because they have failed, but because they have high standards and expectations for themselves and for life in general, and have come to be disillusioned by the comparative baseness or hopelessness of their life circumstances, human nature, or the human condition.

In such cases, the onset of depression is not so much a sign of failure as it is a sign of ambition, and even of nobility.

Furthermore, the experience of depression may enable a person to recognise and to address difficult life problems, and, in so doing, to develop a more refined perspective and deeper understanding of her life and of life in general (much more on this in a future post). Indeed, many of the most creative and most insightful people in society suffer or suffered from depression. They include the politicians Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, the poets Charles Baudelaire, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke; the thinkers Michel Foucault, William James, John Stuart Mill, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer; and the writers Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Waugh, and Tennessee Williams – to name but a few.

Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.
- Sigmund Freud

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, ego defence mechanisms are unconscious processes that we use to diffuse the anxiety that arises when who we really are (our unconscious ‘id’) comes into conflict with who we think we are or who we think we should be (our conscious ‘superego’). For example, at an unconscious level a man may find himself attracted to another man, but at a conscious level he may find this attraction completely unacceptable. To diffuse the anxiety that arises from this conflict, he may use one or several of a number of defence mechanisms. For example, (1) he may refuse to admit to himself that he is attracted to this man. Or (2) he may superficially adopt ideas and behaviours that are diametrically opposed to the fact that he is attracted to this man, for example, go out for several pints with the lads, speak in a gruff voice, and bang his fists on the counter. Or (3) he may transfer or ‘project’ his attraction onto somebody else and then berate him for being ‘gay’ (young children can teach us much through utterances such as ‘mirror, mirror’ and ‘what you say is what you are’). In each case, he has used one of three common ego defence mechanisms which are, respectively, denial, reaction formation, and projection. A broad range of such ego defence mechanisms are recognised, and the combination in which we use them reflects our personality. Whilst we cannot escape using ego defence mechanisms, we can gain some insight into how they are used and of how we use them. This self-knowledge enables us to better understand what is happening to us and around us, and, quite simply, to make the best of it.

Related posts:
The manic defence
Cognitive dissonance

Epicurus of Samos, who flourished not long after Aristotle died, founded a school of philosophy that convened at his home and garden in Athens and that dedicated itself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason and the application of rational principles. According to Epicurus, reason teaches that pleasure is good and that pain is bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, rather than the absence of pain and tranquillity of mind that Epicurus actually intended. Indeed, Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain.

Epicurus wrote prolifically, but the early Christians thought of him as especially ungodly among the ancient philosophers, and almost none of his works survived their disapprobation. Epicurus held that the gods exist, but that they have absolutely no concern for, or even awareness of, humankind. Indeed, for them to get involved in the menial matters of men would be to perturb the supreme happiness and tranquillity that characterises and even defines them. Human beings should seek to emulate the gods in their supreme happiness and tranquillity, but they need not to fear them.

Neither need they to fear death, this for two principal reasons. (1) The mind of a person is a part of his body, and, just like other parts of his body (and everything else in the universe), it consists of atoms. The death of the person entails the death of both his body and his mind and the dispersion of their atoms. As there is no longer any person to be troubled, death cannot trouble the person after he is dead. And if death cannot trouble the person after he is dead, then nor should it trouble him while he is alive (this is the famous ‘no subject of harm argument’). (2) The eternity that comes before a person’s birth is not regarded as an evil. Therefore, nor should the eternity that comes after his death (this is the famous ‘symmetry argument’).

Epicurus himself died at the age of 72 from renal colic (kidney stones), which is associated with one of the sharpest and most intense of all bodily pains. On the last day of his life, he penned this remarkable letter to his friend and follower Idomeneus, which is nothing if not a testament to the overriding powers of philosophy.

I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.

Epicurus agrees with Aristotle that happiness is an end-in-itself and the highest good of human living. However, he identifies happiness with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain rather than with the pure exercise of reason. Pleasure is the highest good, and anything else that is good is so only by virtue of the immediate or deferred pleasure that it can procure. The behaviour of infants confirms that human beings instinctively pursue pleasure and that all of their actions, including those that may be construed as being either virtuous or altruistic, are ultimately aimed at obtaining pleasure for themselves. Just as human beings can immediately feel that something is hot or cold, colourful or dull, so they can immediately feel that something is pleasurable or painful. However, not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are most likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that people seem unable to handle.

To help them a bit, Epicurus proceeds to distinguish between two different types of pleasure, ‘moving pleasures’ and ‘static pleasures’. Moving pleasures involve the satisfying of a desire, for example, eating a meal when hungry. Static pleasures on the other hand involve the state of having had a desire satisfied, for example, feeling sated after eating a meal. Static pleasures, says Epicurus, are better than moving pleasures because they free us from the pain of need or want. Epicurus also distinguishes between physical and mental pleasures and pains, and argues that anxiety about the future, especially fear of the gods and fear of death, are the greatest obstructions to happiness. To attain a state of perfect mental tranquillity or ataraxia, a person needs to avoid anxiety, which he can do by learning to trust in the future.

Pleasure often arises from the satisfaction of desire and pain from its frustration. Thus, any desire should either be satisfied to yield pleasure or eliminated to avoid pain, and, overall, it is elimination that should be preferred. There are, Epicurus says, three types of desires, (1) natural and necessary desires such as those for food and shelter which are difficult to eliminate but naturally limited and both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy, (2) natural but non-necessary desires such as those for luxury food and accommodation, and (3) vain desires such as those for fame, power, or wealth which are inculcated by society and which are not naturally limited and neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy. Natural and necessary desires should be satisfied, natural but non-necessary desires can be satisfied but should not be depended upon, and vain desires should be entirely eliminated. By following this prescription for the selective elimination of desires, a person can minimise the pain and anxiety of harbouring unfulfilled desires, and thereby bring himself as close as possible to ataraxia. Given the prime importance that he attaches to the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and peace of mind, Epicurus is far more of a ‘tranquillist’ than a hedonist. ‘If thou wilt make a man happy’, he says, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide