Wednesday, February 17, 2010

This Week in History for Kids - Socrates, Truth, Knowledge and Courage (Feb 15-21)

In a nutshell:
"This Week in History for Kids" is a weekly post I publish in my website. Since this week's theme is especially suitable for this blog, I decided to publish it here, too. Enjoy!

Jacques-Louis David: The Death of Socrates

This highly expressive painting of Jacques-Louis David, entitled "The Death of Socrates", actually depicts his life much more than it does his death.

In February 15th in the year 399 - 1,611 years ago - a Greek court decided Socrates should die. For what reason? "defying the gods and corrupting the young", said his prosecutors. How true was this accusation?

In this case, as in many other cases ever since, the charge arose from the accused's attempt, and subsequent success, in educating the young to critically examine everything they might otherwise have taken for granted.

The Agora's "Stoa" (porch), where Socrates used to conduct his teachings

The remains of the Athenian Agora's "Stoa" (porch), where Socrates used to conduct his teachings (photo from Kidipede)

Socrates used to roam the agora - the marketplace - wearing rags, and challenge his friends, his enemies and anyone else to an intellectual duel: a dialog. These dialogs, or others resembling them in nature, were later written down by Socrates' most prominent student - Plato. Anyone wishing to look into them - highly, highly recommended - might enjoy starting with The Symposium or Meno.

How were Socrates' dialogs conducted? Usually, he would start with a seemingly simple concept. Try "justice", for instance. What is justice? Can you define it? Socrates, or his interlocutor, would offer a definition, but ususally, Socrates would point to a counter-example, or a flaw in the definition. In David's painting shown above, Socrates' friends surround him, apparently thinking that his execution - using a hemlock - is unjust. Socrates, however, seems strangely at ease, and explains to his disciples that since he lived in Athens, he - by definition - accepted the Athenian law, even if it meant losing his life. This, he explained, is a just act. Do you agree? Can there be one definition of justness, valid in all cases? Should there be?

The Oracle of Delphi

The Oracle of Delphi (The Pythia)

A famous story of Socrates tells how he met with the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle had proclaimed Socrates the wisest of men. How can this be, wondered Socrates, when he clearly knew there was so much he couldn't understand? Then it dawned on him: he was the wisest for knowing that he didn't know. This, perhaps, was what drove him always to learn and explore more and more. A worthy drive, wouldn't you say? However, it led him to a love of truth - philo-sophia - so intense, that even when he was given, during his sentence, an upportunity to "confess his crimes" and thus replace the death sentence by exile, he preferred to stick to the truth.

If you are philosophically inclined, it would be wonderful to engage your kids in a Socratic Dialog - and actually, in any kind of dialog - on the nature of justness, truth, knowledge, love, beauty and other seemingly banal ideas. To ease it up a bit, I strongly recommend Jeremy Weate's A Young Person's Guide to Philosophy.

For some fun ways to get acquainted with ancient Greece, try these links:

Philosopher's Island;

BBC's "Primary History - Ancient Greeks";

Adventures in Ancient Greece;

Design a Greek Pot - click "Ancient Greece", then choose "design a Greek pot" (or, of course, any of the other interesting choices offered...)

... Once you're done with all the other definitions, can you come up with a definition of "philosophy"?

This was originally published here


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