The Socratic Algebra[1] of Subjectivity

Terminal Meditations on Living Philosophically

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma


Plato puts in place some of the major parameters of the Western subjectivity in his Apology, Crito and Phaedo, the three dialogues that contain the last thoughts of Socrates on living philosophically. The parameters are mortality, ethics, law, afterlife and the transcendental experience. Apology is mainly about death as the consummate act of living philosophically. Crito is embedded in the paradox of Socrates’s contempt for the rabble and his obligation to the laws of the Athenian state. Phaedo is an exposition of philosophy as “the study of death” against the backdrop of afterlife and transcendental experience (105).

In Apology, the sentence of death is set against the ethical imperative of living virtuously. Rhetoric may defer the execution, but it cannot stand in for truth. Hence, Socrates would not have recourse to rhetoric to defend himself against the rhetoric of his accusers, though he acknowledges the power of words. At the outset of his defence he concedes, albeit with a sense of irony, that his accusers “made [him] forget who [he] was” (5). Indeed, there is “nothing real” in the accusations, yet the words have fabricated a persuasive effect (21). He understands well that words can forge identities and cause self-estrangement. But one has to have mastered the power of words in order to be eligible to know oneself and conduct the study of death. So it is not that Socrates is incapable of marshalling rhetoric in defence of his innocence and the truth, but that he has little time to undo his enemies’ work (33) and is not inclined to speak more than the truth. The wise man risks attracting the world’s envy, but he must stand on truth (29). And the truth is that virtue is the supreme good (24). Between a long life and the right life, he must choose the latter (21-22). He must forgo worldly success for the sake of virtue (23). Socrates’s ethical self-distancing from the multitude is almost aesthetic in its relish.

The choices that he makes are all endorsed by the voice within. The voice forbids him to do what is not right (26). If it is silent, he goes on to do what his reason tells him is the right thing, for his action is then evidently in tune with God’s will. And a person’s life belongs to God, not to himself, as Socrates says in Phaedo (73-74). Significantly, the voice within has a certain objective existence in Socrates’s inner world and, as such, enjoys a rather enigmatic, oracular status. It is the articulation of reflexive subjectivity, of the critically observant but aloof subjectivity refined to the point of being an objective entity. This is also the basis of Socrates’s absolute intellectual freedom, the kind that cannot bear contact with public office (Apology, 26-27). Paradoxically, the voice leads him to choose a course of action that would effectively remove him from the world in the name of personal dignity and honour as an Athenian citizen, for he would not “demean” himself and weep and beg for life. He would not conduct himself in any manner “unworthy of [himself]”. He would not do anything “common or mean”. Nor does he regret the style of [his] defence” (29-30; 35-36). He must let death come and he must do it in style and with so good a grace as to make death an act of art. He must accomplish philosophy as the art of dying, the art that a philosopher cultivates all his life.

Among people who think themselves to be wise and knowing and who are settled happily in their ignorance, he demonstrates wisdom as the awareness of its limits. Wisdom is the fool’s self-realization. But the demonstration would exact its price (11-14). His wisdom is also a folly from a certain point of view, such as Crito’s who sees him as a foolhardy philosopher bent on suffering an undeserved and avoidable death. The paradoxical relationship of wisdom and folly, thus, parallels that of life and dying and captures the breaking open of the secret of philosophy as the transgressive act between living and dying, of philosophy as the study of death. For death is not the end, and probably it is not evil either (22; 38). Philosophy as the pursuit of immortality implies the overcoming of the body. If death should be accomplished as the overcoming of the body, it would be the consummation of philosophy.

It is interesting that Socrates employs a military metaphor to explain his position. As a philosopher, he has an obligation to search into himself and other men. He must not “abandon his post” for any fear, including that of death (22). The metaphor evokes the subtext of philosophy as resistance and war in which the enemies are smugness and “the doctrines of the multitude”, as he says in Crito (53). He would not abandon his work of philosophical interrogation and awakening because it is God’s work and the greatest service he has been able to do to the state has been his service to God, whatever the officers of the state may think of it. While the Athenian state and its people may not appreciate his work, he believes his actions are endorsed by the voice within and thus derive authenticity from his personal experience of God’s sign.

And yet he would not go against the laws of the state. He is not only subject to God’s mandate but also a subject of the Athenian state to which he owes a huge debt of gratitude. This debt he has been trying to repay by acting as a gadfly to the state and by respecting its laws. His political role as a gadfly integrates the two aspects of his subjectness, for as a gadfly he is God’s gift to Athens. The proof, he says, is his “poverty” (25). He has not gained anything from this work. Instead, he has only earned the enmity of many people. He is being killed because his killers want “to escape the accuser, and not give an account of their lives” (37). The course they have chosen is unethical and imprudent, because “the easiest and the noblest way [of avoiding censure of your actions] is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves” (37).

To give an account of our lives requires that we examine them in the light of reason which is the spring of virtue, for “the unexamined life is not worth living….” (34). Despite the sentence of death, therefore, Socrates dispassionately examines his long relationship with the state, to be overwhelmed with gratitude and deference at the end. He distinguishes between the laws and the people of Athens. He is “a victim of men, not of the laws” (Crito, 61). Not of all men, of course, for he regards Athens as a “well-ordered [city]” and its people as “virtuous men” (60). But committed as he is to truthfulness, he does not conceal his disappointment either. Musing on the prospect of meeting in the afterworld with other victims of unjust judgement, he remarks: “In another world they do not put a man to death for asking questions” (Apology, 39). To his reason then, the sentence of death seems fated. But he bears his fate cheerfully with the faith that “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death” (39). As for the question which of the two is better –life or death– he leaves it to be decided by faith: “…God only knows” (40).

Crito opens with the testimony of Socrates living his philosophy. The man’s perfect tranquility in sleep amazes Crito (45). The impending execution does not perturb him in the least, so completely has he overcome the body. At the appointed time he would discard the frame and make his exit. The appointment with death is scheduled for after a day. This he knows from a vision in which a female apparition has recited Homer to predict the day of his execution. Socrates can thus see his life on earth from a vaster perspective that admits of the existence of more than the reality known to the senses. His insistence on a virtuous earthly life is, accordingly, sanctioned by a superior wisdom. His contempt for the opinion of the many also may be understood in this light. The many are really powerless: they can neither do the greatest evil, which is to make someone foolish, nor do the greatest good, which is to make someone wise. Through personal testimony, Socrates thus locates ethics in a transcendental realm accessible to a person in the interiority of his subjective world that the fears and cravings of the multitude cannot contaminate.

Free from the fear of death, Socrates can look at the social implications of his course of action after the verdict and evaluate them in terms of ethics. He would not follow the way of the multitude and repay evil with evil (54). Should he escape from prison, he would harm the laws and the state and break “the implied contract” into which he entered when he chose to continue to live in Athens after his coming of age. Neither did he seek banishment during his trial. An escape would be a betrayal of trust. Indeed the laws are like his parents and teachers; he has been brought up and educated by them (56-58).

The laws speak to him “like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic”, prompting him to persevere in his chosen course so he may “fulfill the will of God, and … follow whither he leads” (62). Like Homer’s poetry, the laws too are emanations of the superior, transcendental wisdom that also speaks through the voice within and that redefines the territory of the subjective by spiritualizing it and opening it up to other worlds. In the process, the usual walls that divide the subjective and the objective in the rational consciousness have also ceased to exist. The fulfillment of the obligation to the laws of the state is, thus, an essential part of the ethical imperative to lead a virtuous worldly life that is necessary for a happy afterlife (Phaedo, 64-65). That the mortal life and the afterlife are a continuum that may be grasped only through an integral vision is clearly indicated also by Socrates’s insistence on the right nurture and education. The soul’s immortality is the condition that should determine what kind of persons we want to be. Education and upbringing should comprehend mortality and immortality and should be essentially spiritual (146). The true jewels of the soul, accordingly, are virtues such as temperance, justice, courage, nobility and truth (155).

Phaedo tells Echecrates that Socrates must have received “a divine call” because he “appeared blessed” before the execution (68). Moreover, in prison he had been rendering Aesop’s fables into verse and composing a hymn to Apollo. He had been doing this in order to “purge a scruple”: a recurrent dream had exhorted him to “[c]ultivate and make music” and he was not completely sure if philosophy was indeed “the highest music” (71). Reason in Socrates is thus never arrogant of itself but is spiritualized through the skepticism of the spirit and hence open to self-overcoming.

Socrates’s blessedness is the fruit of his long “practice of dying” (105) that consists in the cultivation of “the separation of soul and body” (77). The body has a tendency to “infect” the soul and persuade it to identify itself with the body (80; 109). Philosophy is in this sense the practice of the highest self-reflexivity in which “true existence” is “revealed…in thought” that is understood as the event that happens when “the mind is gathered into [the soul]” and is free from the impressions of the senses (78). The philosopher’s mind approaches everything with the clear light of pure thought uncontaminated by the senses (79). Having thus overcome the body, the philosopher “know[s] of [himself] the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth” (81). Philosophy as the state of purity, as the state of the separation of the soul from the body is, then, “the habit of the soul gathering and collecting herself into herself from all sides of the body; the dwelling in her own place alone, as in another life, so also in this, as far as she can….” (81-82). Philosophy is thus the realization of pure subjectivity in pure objectivity and of pure objectivity in pure subjectivity. Wisdom is the state, attained through this realization, of the soul in communion with the unchanging and immortal (81; 102).

Socrates’s pursuit of philosophy is motivated not by the unquenchable desire to know more, as Nietzsche thought, but by the eagerness to “learn” the supreme ethical principle that moves the world, “the principle … of the obligatory and containing power of the good”. In deferring to the laws of the state he is deferring to this principle that comprehends both the mortal and the immortal. His final counsel – “take care of yourselves” – is, therefore, an affirmation of the paradox of self-invention through submission to the ethical imperative (156).


Work Cited

Plato. Dialogues of Plato. Tr. Benjamin Jowett. Ed. J. D. Kaplan. New York: Pocket Books, 1955.



July 2004

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala – 147002






[1] Etymologically, algebra means the reunion of broken parts.