It is a higher moral and philosophical ground that we tread when we take the premise that an individual should in all respects live by the convictions that he was reared by or has acquired in life by means of education or political affiliations. Personal philosophies are dangerous grounds for breeding warped convictions that could be deemed as a threat to society. However, Socrates believed that a man of intellect was entitled to live by his beliefs until the end.
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The background of Socrates is one, which must have molded his beliefs. Although trained as a sculptor, he spent the better part of his life in the quest for a truth through learning and interaction by questioning anyone who purported to know some truth. He did his duties as a citizen, and stoically bore the privations of poverty and a shrewish wife. he did not expound his philosophies, but rather chose to converse with people and by the very act of asking questions revealed not just the other’s ignorance ,empowered the latter to think clearly and act reasonably.
Ultimately it was this dissemination of rational thought that led to his death conviction he stood accused by his enemies and detractors of crimes against the State like,” impiety” and “corruption of the young”. It is believed that he could have escaped the death sentence if he had been willing to take a more conciliatory tone, but he died a martyr because he refused to abandon the principles that he had devoted his life to. In ‘Crito’ he shows this respect for the Athenian law, because he refuses to plead for clemency-“I cannot abandon the principles which I used to hold in the past simply because this accident happened to me.” This shows a man who has come to terms with the inevitability of his death.
One would ask whether such adherence to principles got him some high accolades other than respect from his followers. If Plato, who was Socrates’ student , had not chosen to write his Four Dialogues –Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo with Socrates as the central disputant, the world would not have a record about this high principled man. As Plato developed the philosophy of Socrates, especially on speculative lines, far beyond the point reached by Socrates himself, it is impossible to judge with any exactness precisely how much of the teaching is the master’s, how much the pupil’s. It is admirable to live by such high and rational principles in so far that you tread a moral path, which is socially acceptable too. In the case of Socrates, the State feared an uprising of its young men propelled by the line of questioning that Socrates had taught. Insurgency in any century or in any government is a potential threat to the inherent peace of a country.
In the case of Socrates, he was a man who not only disciplined his thoughts but also his actions. He says,’ one must not even do wrong when one is wronged, which most people regard as the natural course.’ Not everyone who aspires to high mindedness can choose to be so calm and in command of his senses.The average citizen would not accept the State’s sentence of death without some stirring of rebellion. Socrates on the other hand says,’ If you cannot persuade your country you must do whatever it orders and patiently submit to any punishment that it imposes.’ This consequence could have been avoided if he had either pleaded for clemency, or chosen to escape to Thessaly as arranged by Crito. His convictions cost him his life and left his wife widowed and his sons fatherless. His followers and students were deprived of his further rational teachings and advice and the world lost a great philosopher at a relatively young age. Such high-mindedness comes at a price.
Some would call Socrates a fatalist who is sufficiently sure that the path he has chosen is the only one and is prepared for whatever inevitability will follow the said chosen path. Socrates tells Crito,”Then give it up Crito, and let us follow this course, since God points out the way.” Can God be linked to a choice based on one’s own convictions? Socrates has determined that the courage of his convictions come from a divine source which in itself is a rather high assumption. It can be dispassionately observed that it was fortunate indeed that Socrates was indeed concerned only about the greater good. Such convictions in the mind of a lesser individual with no moral compass to guide his thoughts, could lead to tragic consequences.
So is it moral fiber or rigidity that governs Socrates? This has a two-pronged answer that may seem ambiguous. On the surface we feel admiration and respect for a man who is ready to rather face Death than rescind on his convictions. A school of thought argues that it would be wrong for Socrates to abandon the arguments that he has clung to, simply because now Death looms ahead. It would smack of cowardice to shuffle backward when he has propounded a philosophy that spoke of seeing consequences through to the end. On a second level, one has to examine the fact that if Socrates were to adopt a conciliatory tone, would his students and followers view him in a different light? He would prefer to die with the respect of a few good men than live with a tainted soul as a man who sacrificed his convictions to preserve his mortality. Socrates was not concerned what he has to do in order to live but to live with honor and dignity.
When Socrates spoke of “integrity, institutions and laws, are the most precious possessions of mankind,” he had lofty ideals that governed his mind. Integrity can be interpreted quite differently from individual to individual. “Good and “bad” realistically are open to interpretation.The philosophies and theories one subscribes to need not be in line with societal thinking. The greater common good is more relevant than the goodness of an individual. If a person chose to live by some flawed conviction that endangered the very institution of governance in his country, would he be justified in seeing it through to the end, despite the consequences. In this case, no. A philosophy is good in theory but should be logically amended to fit the circumstance.
Objectively, if we were to analyze the basis of the premise that an individual should live by his convictions regardless of the consequences, we should realize that it comes with a large footnote as regarding the moral stand of the individual in question. It is very laudable to live by the courage of your convictions as long as it does not throw a spanner in the works as far as societal governance issues are concerned. Working towards the greater good of society is commendable provided it does not pose a threat to the general public. Socrates says,”….orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death or any other fear:…”(Pg 36,Crito)Live by your convictions-dying for them does not justify your purpose on earth.