I have just finished a biography of Socrates read on the heels of a biography of Julius Caesar for an intentional contrast. These two ancient leaders had diametrically opposed approaches to leadership and life. Caesar was guided by an implicit assumption about the essence of human happiness – implicit and assumed because he was a man of action, not reflection. Socrates, on the other hand, was guided by a crystal clear explicit belief about happiness. He said the unexamined life was not worth living, so he examined his guiding principles quite clearly.
Caesar was all about Caesar. He did things for people, but with the idea of earning their loyalty and so strengthening his own hand. Caesar lived to maximize his own power and glory. In the end, they killed him.
Socrates lived humbly. A poor man, he owned almost nothing, earned little, went barefoot. He claimed to know nothing either. His goal was to become virtuous through learning the ways of virtue. He believed he had been called by God to help others find their own ways to virtue by asking them provocative questions. In the end, they killed him too.
I suppose one moral of the two stories is that you can’t win. But I wonder if the quality of one’s death may sometimes say something about the quality of one’s life. When the Senators assassinated Caesar, his last act after having been stabbed multiple times, was to draw his cloak over his head so that people would not see his suffering and death. He died still trying to cover a shame – in this case the shame of being a vulnerable, mortal creature. He failed to amass enough power and glory to hide his shame. Socrates’ dying words were to the effect that he owed a cock to Asclepius, so he wanted his followers to pay the debt. Given that Socrates was a monotheist, executed in part for not believing in the gods, and that the fact that he was dying suggested Asclepius, the god of health and healing, was not serving him well, it was – in a word – a joke.
It strikes me that Socrates made a better death.
Socrates had something in common with Paul and also had a major difference with Paul. Socrates believed we all want to do good but that we misunderstand the good and so do evil through ignorance. Paul thought our propensity to do evil resided not in a defective intellect but in something deeper and less rational. “The good that I would do, I do not. The evil that I would not do, that is the very thing I do.” Paul is more Freudian; Socrates, more Kantian. That is the difference between them. But Paul and Socrates agreed that human happiness resides in virtue.” Rabbi Jonathan Sachs agrees that happiness consists of holding a set of moral values and living according to them.
I believe Paul is closer to right than Socrates about the way we go off course. But I believe Socrates, Sachs, and Paul together offer a striking contrast to contemporary assumptions – which may I add are implicit assumptions worthy of Caesar – about what will make us happy. We are guided by Madison Avenue, not our theologians or moral philosophers.
Most of us assume happiness lies in getting what we want – usually consisting of material possessions, glory (social or professional status), power or some such thing. Happiness goes along with something we can get, hold, grasp, and cling to. If we are unhappy, we are apt to seek guidance from psychotherapy, which helps is clarify what it is we really want – like Socrates, therapy helps us “figure it out.” Unlike Socrates, it is figuring out what we want instead of what we believe is right.
What if happiness is not a matter of getting what we want, since the very wanting keeps us unhappy, and because our desire is inherently insatiable, the quest for what we want is what keeps us unhappy? Buddha would see it that way. What if Jonathan Sachs, Socrates, and Paul are right that happiness consists in habitually doing the right thing? Might we be missing a critical moral foundation to psychology?