Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Death of Socrates

I'm staring over a steep cliff into a fog-filled canyon where only the lush pine tree tops can be seen sticking out of the clouds like volcanic rocks along a beach.  Behind me is a thick forest and the shadows within push towards my back and I feel trapped.  I swing my head back around and gaze out into the narrow crevasse in front of me and I think, "How the hell am I going to make it through this alive?"  I clench my eyes shut tight and methodically step forward.  The rush of adrenaline is as immediate as the g-force and wind wrapping around my body.

Risk taking.  I've done enough in my life to fill twenty books or more; to have a very long series of films.  From career oriented ventures to dating, it's enough to exhaust me as I think of it.  Yet though I remain willing to tempt my future professionally and am still a bachelor, I cannot fathom a me that would not continue to be a risk-taker.  If I had an uneducated say, I'd assert that it is embedded in our DNA; that being subconsciously provoked to make risky decisions is who we truly are as human beings.  There are indeed some who scoff at the idea of making waves or even appearing to create dissension, but in my mind, there are far too many gray areas and unspecified lines that need to be explored.

For you see, I'm a tactile man.  In learning, I glean the most when I'm knee-deep in what I need to learn, running my hands in and through, along and around whatever it is I want to know more.  In love, I'm a wholehearted advocate of Public Displays of Affection, of lots of closeness, and of ensuring my sweetheart knows with each touch and each look, she's on a pedestal of appreciation she will hopefully never have felt before.  That's just who I am.

The unfortunate side to all of this is the lack of appreciation folks seem to have for those of us who are risk takers; for those of us who are expressive even unto the very last moment.  We sacrifice our own dignity and self-respect for what we are truly passionate about and in the eyes of far too many, we're shunned and outcast as weird, as weak, as compensating, or as someone who is implausibly manipulative.  Along the way, there are a few who look beyond the superficialities but unfortunately, there are a greater number who would rather selfishly wallow in a comfort zone of ignorance and apathy than step out and see the deeper qualities that make us unique, incredible, and most likely a dying breed.

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) is the painted illustration of the moment the great Socrates defies his option of exile and agrees to be put to death by the Athenian government.  With incredible detail, David captures the moment where Socrates' disciples rue in anguish while Plato (at the foot of the bed) and Crito (clutching his knee) remain in touch with the reality at hand.  And in defiance, Socrates expresses his continued passion for philosophy with a hand raised upwards, face turned away as he readies his final words, while his other hand reaches for the deadly goblet of hemlock his is to drink.

Socrates was a risk taker.  Defining the human psyche and giving meaning to the feelings humans felt, he went beyond what other orators and teachers did with gentle discernment.  One might argue the significance of these assertions I'm making today, but the proof is in his heralded and oft studied works.  One can't deny the fact that even to this day, Socrates life and defiance of then stereotypical prudence has changed the way we understand who we are and why we do what we do.

When judgment leads us with sound reason to virtue, and asserts its authority, we assign to that authority the name of temperance; but when desire drags us irrationally to pleasures, and has established its sway within us, that sway is denominated excess.  When desire, having rejected reason and overpowered judgment which leads to right, is set in the direction of the pleasure which beauty can inspire, and when again under the influence of its kindred desires it is moved with violent motion towards the beauty of corporeal forums, it acquires a surname from this very violent motion, and is called love.  (Socrates)

In both, Socrates lived by example and his wisdom is still revered by many.  Correctly expressed, Socrates defines the balance between reason and foolishness; between lust and love.  For in this painting these things are uniquely illustrated in the various individuals around Socrates.  Even in the background leaving the death chamber, we can see Socrates' wife making her way out before his ultimate demise.  No, she's not waving goodbye, she is grasping for emotional relief from the inevitable.  Much the same, the men around him clamor and cringe in emotional agony save for the two other like-minded philosophers, Plato and Crito.

So where are the risk takers?  Where are those willing to stick their necks out for what's morally right and for the greater good?  Where are those willing to set aside comforts so he or she can grow in wisdom and knowledge?  Where are those good enough inside to find the good inside others?  Where are those who can truly love?

Plato put it best when he said, "I exhort you also to take part in the great combat, which is the combat of life, and greater than every other earthly conflict."

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