Monday, January 7, 2013

Earning the Hyperbole

Socrates is probably my favorite historical figure. I admire the man's relentless pursuit of truth and knowledge, as well as his curiosity and need to question: particularly his desire to question the conventional wisdom of his day. He was a thinker who preferred to have a question unanswered than an answer unquestioned. The story of Socrates became the spark that ignited the fire inside me that sent me down the path toward becoming a truth-seeker and a freethinker.

There are those who have questioned what we really know about Socrates. Philosophers have long discussed the possible distinctions between the historical Socrates and the romanticized Socrates. Most of what we know of the man - over 90 percent, in fact - comes from the writings of his student Plato, written several years after Socrates' death. Anything Socrates himself wrote - if indeed he wrote anything at all - did not survive. Critics have accused Plato of presenting Socrates in the most idealistic light possible. Many have (and rightly so) argued that Plato puts his own philosophic musings in Socrates' words as seen in Plato's Dialogues. Such a practice was not uncommon, and seen as a way of honoring one's master, since the teachings of the master serve as the foundation upon which the student continues his own thoughts.

While we can accept Plato's writings (at least his earlier works) as generally historically accurate, Plato most likely presented his master in the best possible light, likely offering the world a hyperbolic account of the life and mind of Socrates. Maybe Socrates wasn't always like the Socrates of legend. That's okay. I think Plato, in honoring his master, shows us that Socrates lived the kind of life worthy of the legend. Socrates earned the hyperbole.

I'm reminded of my dear friend Steve, who died in 2008 of cancer. He was a big guy with big muscles, who had a big personality. Those who remember him, those who loved him and were impacted by his life, remember him as a hero. Regardless of how strong he was, we'll always remember him as being much stronger. Regardless of his flaws, we'll always remember his strengths. Maybe Steve wasn't always the Steve that we picture in our minds when we think of him, but he was a remarkable man. Steve earned the hyperbole.

We need such legends, I think. We need people who have come before us - like Socrates - who inspire us and challenge us to be more than we are. I don't know what people will say of me when I'm gone, and I don't know whether history will have much to say about me at all when I'm gone, but I want to live the kind of life that will perhaps cause someone somewhere to remember me as more than I was: a romanticized version of me. Still me, just exaggerated a bit. I look to my own heroes - Socrates, Carl Sagan, Hypatia of Alexandria, even my college professor Dr. Stark - and see qualities in them which I aspire to possess in myself. I want to seek truth regardless of my personal preferences. I want to live a life based on wonder and awe for the universe, and love for humanity. Even if my heroes didn't always live up to their legend, they lived lives worthy of respect; lives which have inspired me to become more than I am.


No comments: