Socrates on Death Row-or- Aesops' Fables Rock

"It takes a village to raise a child"

The memory of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates lives on in Western philosophy and civilization. Part of that memory are the dreams that he reported having, this article is about those dreams and Socrates legacy.

"Man must rise above the Earth-to the top of the atmosphere and beyond-for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives." Socrates

Socrates Dream of Western Philosophy -or- Where Shall Wisdom be Found?

An unpaid debt by Western civilization is owed to a man who was condemned to death, because he dared to dream and asked others to dream with him. We are talking about the ancient philosopher Socrates who was accused of poisoning the minds of Athenian youth with his seditious ideas, and thereby undermining the social order. If we listen carefully..., we can still hear the agonistic rhetoric and legal arguments that Socrates opponents used at his trial to convict him. The Socratic dialogues functioned as a subversive satirical weapon against the ruling authorities of Athens. Socrates defended himself in what he considered to be a kangaroo court, others would invoke the proverb, that he, Socrates had a fool for a lawyer.

The Socratic dialogues were the forerunner of Menippean satire, in which ostensibly reasoned logic is shown to be illogical and fallacious. Socrates' technique of feigning ignorance and stupidity was intended to trap his interlocutor thereby exposing errors and logical fallacies. But argument becomes pathological when we engage in a rhetorical war of words for egotistical or ideological reasons. In an authentic Socratic dialogue we seek a unified epistemology of the mind and of nature. The Socratic dialectical method helps to map the boundaries of our abstractions and theories.

Plato tells us that Socrates chose to drink hemlock, because he believed that the sacrificing of his own life would act as a folk medicine on the ancient Greek body politic. It is this act of humble self sacrifice known in modern times (a term coined by Emil Durkheim) as altruistic suicide that still excites to this day, echos within the modern philosophical landscape of Western civilization. By taking his deadly medicine, Socrates clearly understands that the hemlock will act as a pharmakon (medicine) for himself and his community. Socrates discloses to his friend Crito (and the audience) that he has had a dream that prophesized that he would go to Pythia, the priestess who was the caretaker of the Oracle at Delphi (first image seen in theatre above).

Socrates believes that the meaning of the dream is obvious; he knows he will be sentenced to death and he goes freely to it. Just before his death, his last recorded words are, "Crito, we owe a cock to Aesclepius; please pay it and don't let it pass." Aesclepius was the ancient Greek god of medicine and these words implied that Socrates felt that he owed a sacrificial debt to the god because of the cup of hemlock he had just drunk. Socrates is a rebel, a martyr, a prisoner of conscience, a role model and a philologist, a wise man who understands that his actions while fatal to himself, can provide a cure for his community.

Socrates and the Death Penalty-or-Collective Memory and the Body Politic 

The political metaphor for society is the body, one that has endured since Plato conceived of the body politic. It follows that we metaphorically speak of a "head" of government or state. In Plato's Republic, the city is governed and ruled by Philosopher Kings, men whose metaphysical love of wisdom allows them to wisely steer the ship of state. This captain charts the waters of the Republic and pilots it through storm and calm. But captains are not always wisely guided. The Socratic parable of the unjust ship finds a voice in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The ship and crew is piloted by Captain Ahab, who is drunken with the motive of revenge. Ahab's obsession leads to his own destruction and that of his crew. Only Ishmael survives to tell the tragic tale. If Harold Bloom asks Where Shall Wisdom be Found?, then I shall follow Socrates lead and state that it is to be found in our dreams.

Plato who saw the injustice of the death penalty for the philosopher, created a literary rememberance of his life, and founded the first institution of higher learning. When Socrates became memorialized in the collective literary unconscious of the ancient Greeks, his memory then shaped their collective memory, thought and ethics which was personified by their goddess Mnemnosyne (who was the mother of the nine muses).

For Marie-Louise von Franz in Traeume (Dreams), Socrates' life (as told by Plato), trial, teachings, discursive method, deep contract with the community and dialogical philosophy all have been handed down through successive generations, influencing the philosophical course of Western civilization. Von Franz sees Socrates as being motivated and driven by the poetic archetype of the Wise Old Man. Socrates was an orator of the oral tradition, a man of moral action, a man of principle, thought, and self-reflection. Ironically, it could be argued that it was the Oracle who initially set Socrates on the quest of the philosophers path in search of justice, beauty, knowledge, and truth, and then by later prophesizing his death sentence secured the immortality of his ideas and wisdom.

Socrates and the Communal Healing Power of Dreams

Western philosophy has been on a journey for thousands of years in pursuit of a dream. Its perennial philosophical question revolves around the nature of justice. We are told in legends that the Oracle at Delphi was received by the goddess Themis, Lady Justice, who personifed the forces of morality that underlie and guide the judicial system. In its simplest sense, the trial of Socrates offers a theory of justice whose ideas still resonate in Western consciousness. The trial, said to have been second-greatest trial of antiquity (in the case of the greatest trial, we are told in the Bible that the wife of the Roman judge Pontius Pilate had a dream about the consequences of a death sentence for Jesus). In Plato's Apology, it's stated that the minds of the jurors at his trial were rhetorically poisoned by his envious and malicious accusers. Socrates believed that the philosopher and the citizen should not sacrifice principles or deviate from the epistemic path of goodness and truth.

The dream interpreter uses the dream text as a hermeneutic point of departure to arrive at meaning. One approach to social and moral ills is proactive and preventative. Dream Vision allows for problems like addictions, compulsions, and self-destructive behaviour to be screened before conflicts are acted out and intervention becomes necessary. The healing powers of dreams have a proven record. C.A. Meier Healing Dream and Ritual finds the ancient Greek myth of the power of oneiric healing still operating in modern humans. It is a psychosomatic medicine or pharmakon. This prescription is still found in our dreams, and its incubation is found in the Iliad and the Aeneid. The Asclepius cult presented the healing aspects of the medical arts and sciences. The panacea of oneiric healing included hygiene and cleanliness, and testify to the power of dreams. Indeed, the Hippocratic Oath ordains that doctors should first do no harm. Drugs are seen to have paradoxical effects in that they deliverer poison and therefore death, or medicine and life. The right dreams were incubated in temples, which in turn led to the pharmakon and a cure.

In Power and Innocence, Rollo May tells us that all civilizations need rebels, whose voice and vision provide the driving force needed to shake authoritarian mores. The myth of Prometheus tells us that ancient Greek culture was born in his rebellion against Zeus. This rebellion brought the tool of fire to humanity. A revolutionary is in search of power; the rebel has no use for power, instead non-violent change and reform. Socrates became a martyr in the cause of a philosophical and political rebellion. Socrates was one of the most famous historical prisoners of conscience and an ethical guiding force for Western civilization.

Folk Wisdom and the People's History of Dreaming

The psychologist Wilhelm Wundt Folk Psychology thought that the fairy tale and the fable were the oldest folk psychological forms of cosmological narrative. Said otherwise, it is believed, that the primitive mind with its' collective theory (syntagmatic and paradigmatic structures) of anthropomorphic thought (personifications of the forces of nature) were conveyed via the fable.

Hans G. Furth says in Knowledge as Desire: An Essay on Freud and Piaget that the dream becomes a place where knowledge and desire meet. In this sense children's dreams become a place where perception, thought, and individuation develop via psychosomatic integration of mind and body. The fable of the Three Little Pigs bears this out. The first two pigs build their houses of straw and wood and then go out and play. The third little pig labours to build a strong, invulnerable house that will not succumb to the destructive forces of nature (personified in the Big Bad Wolf). When epistemic, symbolic and libidinal growth and maturation of the mind fails, a pathological metamorphosis of mind and body takes place. Illness itself becomes a psychosomatic process at work, albeit one which may have such a tragic consequence as suicide or murder. Dream Vision exposes tragedy, alienation, and the deadly destructive forces lurking in the darkness. many dreams (such as The Kafkaesque of Everyday Life and Black Comedy) sent to the International Institute for Dream Research illustrate this dark oneiric inheritance.

Socrates dreams could be used as our historical, philosophical and philological point of departure for understanding the psychodynamics of a people's folk history. I believe, that one psychological folk pattern we would find is the academic frame story of Western philosophy as the artist Raphael envisioned it in his artwork The School of Athens (which is expressed as a historical frame for polyphonic intellectual dialogue). Another pattern, a more dark and sinister one, would show the people's history and frame story of many children and youth (psychohistory)who have suffered psychological trauma and have been betrayed by a generational nightmare of poisonous pedagogy. Alice Miller sees the need to break down the "wall of silence" of this decadent geneology of children's nightmares and resultant destructive growth and behavioural patterns is necessary to restore the dream for all the children living on the planet.

Socrates, Aesop and the Enchantment of Children's Dreams

According to Jack Zipes The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, the magic spell of fairy tales involves initiation rites for the rites of passage that introduce the child into the mores of a community. The characters, settings, and motifs of folk tales induce a sense of wonder and enchantment, producing astonishment, awe, and fear. These oral tales have served to stabilize the sense of community, and conserve or challenge the common folkways, mores, customs, beliefs, laws, values, and roles of a group. Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment believes that if children are allowed to read about the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures faced by the heroes of fairy tales, this will better prepare them for what awaits them in their own lives. By presenting the polarities of good and evil, fairy tales aid the child's moral development. For the child, the question becomes not "Do I want to be good?" but "Who do I want to be like?" Fairy tale heroes provide the child with role models and values. 

Freud saw in fairy tales, fables and dreams, the foundation for a collective psychodynamic theory of human nature, behaviour and culture. Freud's modern case studies reveal that dreams and their conscious counterpart fairy tales and fables used a similar symbolic language to express often repressed conflicts, anxieties and forbidden fruits of desire. Small wonder, that in Freud's patient known as the Wolf Man, he found that his dreaming mind had internalized the folk symbolism of the brothers Grimm fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood.

If Grimm's literary symbolism is to be found in the modern educated European mythology/German myths, fantasies and dreams, then what about the Greeks of antiquity? Asked another way, if the ancient Greeks' collective mind represents "the cradle of Western civilization", then by which folk literature was their cradle rocked? Alongside of the storied times and characters left to us from Homer, we are instructed that Aesop's fables formed the narrative basis for ancient Greek children's literature and for the child's moral education. How important were the stories of Aesop's fables? We are informed by Plato in Phaedo that the fables were important enough for Socrates who was in prison on death row to rework the fables into verse.

According to Seth Lerer Children's Literature: A Reader's History From Aesop to Harry Potter, Socrates recognized that Aesop's fables the were not only folk tools for didactic and moral aims, they were much more. In fact, they formed the basis for learning the artistic and literary techniques inculcated in the oral tradition of the ancient Greeks. For Lerer, these artistic and literary techniques shaped the "metaphorical enchantment" of the child's imagination and mind. Visiting Socrates in prison, his friends asked, why he was working on Aesop's fables the day of his execution? Socrates replied, that he had a dream that told him; "Make music and work at it." Socrates went on, and said, "since I was not a maker of myths, I took the myths of Aesop, which I had at hand and knew and turned into verse the first I came upon."

Know Thyself, Psychohistory and the Socratic Wisdom of the Dream

Socrates and his use of dialogue, was a didactic technique intended to open the minds of ancient Greek children and youth, to the enchantments of philosophical knowledge. For his arduous hard work, Socrates received his reward, the death sentence. Socrates personified the ancient Greek idiom inscribed at Delphi to "Know Thyself" and he used his dreams as a guide in this lifelong process of searching for self-knowledge. For Socrates the teacher, knowing thyself was the highest philosophical value to be imparted to the next generation. Lloyd deMause History of Childhood provides the background for the burden of histories boulevard of broken children's dreams. The history of children's nightmares weighs heavy in our collective unconscious psychohistory. Socrates' philology prefigures the dream visions of Dante's Divine Comedy and James Joyce Finnegans Wake,in that he provides us with a philosophers path, a royal road to unburdening our dark collective unconscious inheritance, while also showing us the philosophical way to the light and what Ernst Bloch poetically termed the "Principle of Hope".

All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.