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In a renowned British university a tongue-in-cheek sign hanging in the philosophy department says “Philosophy: we have all the questions.”
Most of those questions probably came originally from Socrates, the Greek philosopher, now known as the Father of Philosophy. Socrates first posed many of the philosophical questions we still struggle with today, but he famously asked the most important query that science can’t answer: “How should we live?”
Then and now, no amount of scientific knowledge can help us with that fundamental human question.
Since 400 BC, people have tried to answer Socrates. Few know that he initially asked the question out of personal desperation over the human condition – specifically, our tendency toward violence and war. A veteran of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Socrates served as a hoplite, an Athenian citizen soldier who fought with a spear and a shield in brutal, bloody hand-to-hand combat.
After the war, Socrates began his questioning of all things related to human life. He famously utilized his Socratic dialectic method of inquiry, asking questions of everyone he met in his quest to determine the truth. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he said, so his probing inquiries tried to prompt people to look inside themselves to answer his biggest and most serious question:
For you see what our discussions are all about – and is there anything about which a man of even small intelligence would be more serious than this: what is the way we ought to live? – Socrates, as quoted by Plato in his Dialogues.
What a penetrating vision into philosophy this eminent man had! He is the most distinguished of all philosophers and was highly versed in wisdom. We testify that he is one of the heroes in this field and an outstanding champion dedicated unto it. He had a profound knowledge of such sciences as were current amongst men as well as of those which were veiled from their minds. Methinks he drank one draught when the Most Great Ocean overflowed with gleaming and life-giving waters. He it is who perceived a unique, a tempered, and a pervasive nature in things, bearing the closest likeness to the human spirit, and he discovered this nature to be distinct from the substance of things in their refined form. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 146.
Abdu’l-Baha, the Baha’i exemplar, also praised Socrates and his profound insights into reality:
… he [Socrates] promulgated two beliefs: one, the unity of God, and the other, the immortality of the soul after its separation from the body; that these concepts, so foreign to their thought, raised a great commotion among the Greeks, until in the end they gave him poison and killed him. … for the Greeks believed in many gods, and Socrates established the fact that God is one, which obviously was in conflict with Greek beliefs. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 54.
As to deistic philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, they are indeed worthy of esteem and of the highest praise, for they have rendered distinguished services to mankind. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, p. 7.
Simply living without deeply examining why we’re alive, Socrates believed, would inevitably lead to a wasted life. Instead, he advocated self-inquiry and self-mastery, and illustrated those points with the analogy of a chariot pulled by two horses – one of them, stubborn and willful, representing our animal desire to pursue self-serving pleasure without restraint; and the other horse, sensible and gentle, representing our higher, more selfless nature and our human ability to think and reason.
Each one of us, Socrates said, fills the role of the charioteer, reining in one horse and letting the other one run. We decide which one controls our forward motion.
According to the Baha’i teachings, every human being has to deal with those same two forces along the pathway of life:
It is evident, therefore, that man is dual in aspect: as an animal he is subject to nature, but in his spiritual or conscious being he transcends the world of material existence. His spiritual powers, being nobler and higher, possess virtues of which nature intrinsically has no evidence; therefore, they triumph over natural conditions. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 81.
In his Apologia, Plato quoted Socrates as asking:
Most excellent man, are you … not ashamed to care for the acquisition of wealth and for reputation and honor, when you neither care nor take thought for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?
Socrates believed that this quest – the perfection of the human soul – stood as the highest and best goal of life. He recommended turning the mind’s gaze inward and analyzing both your true nature and the values which guide your life. Doing that means discovering the state of your soul, and evaluating what truly will lead you to happiness.
Many people simply assume they know how to strive for happiness. If they lead unexamined lives, they often consider success, status, self indulgence, and social acceptance as their goals. They tend to think of self-sacrifice, pain, and death as things to avoid at all costs. Socrates vehemently disagreed, and saw this view of good and evil as not only wrong but harmful.
Naturally, we do what we do in this life because we believe it will make us happy. For Socrates, to think of that kind of material happiness as good, and anything that might produce any suffering as evil, means we will spend our lives chasing after things that can’t possibly bring us happiness – even when we attain them.
Instead, if we devote ourselves to self-knowledge and the independent investigation of the truth, Socrates said, we can begin to understand what the truly good really means. In his philosophy, Socrates described that supreme good as the development of human virtue – the same perfection of the human soul the Baha’i teachings also praise highly:
… the honor of the human kingdom is the attainment of spiritual happiness in the human world, the acquisition of the knowledge and love of God. The honor allotted to man is the acquisition of the supreme virtues of the human world. This is his real happiness and felicity. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 166.
Ultimately, Socrates taught what the Baha’i Faith and all other true religion teaches – that the gradual perfecting of the soul comprises the highest human endeavor, and the way we should all live:
Some men’s lives are solely occupied with the things of this world; their minds are so circumscribed by exterior manners and traditional interests that they are blind to any other realm of existence, to the spiritual significance of all things! They think and dream of earthly fame, of material progress. Sensuous delights and comfortable surroundings bound their horizon, their highest ambitions centre in successes of worldly conditions and circumstances! They curb not their lower propensities; they eat, drink, and sleep! Like the animal, they have no thought beyond their own physical well-being. It is true that these necessities must be dispatched. Life is a load which must be carried on while we are on earth, but the cares of the lower things of life should not be allowed to monopolize all the thoughts and aspirations of a human being. The heart’s ambitions should ascend to a more glorious goal, mental activity should rise to higher levels! Men should hold in their souls the vision of celestial perfection, and there prepare a dwelling-place for the inexhaustible bounty of the Divine Spirit. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 98-99.