`IT is probable,'' Socrates said in his prison cell, ``that those who take to philosophy in the right way are engaged in one thing only, namely in training themselves for dying and being dead.'' Such a defense philosophy we could do without, and it may explain why so few in the United States pursue a philosophic career. But the fortunes of philosophy in the US may be changing.
To begin with, there were last year's best sellers, ``The Trial of Socrates'' by the late I.F. Stone, and ``The Closing of the American Mind,'' by professor Allan Bloom.
Mr. Stone took the Greek philosopher to task for his anti-democratic leanings, while Mr. Bloom argued that Socrates' life and thoughts offer important lessons for Americans. Bloom wrote, ``The essence of it all [the problems with higher education] is not social, political, psychological, or economic, but philosophic. And, for those who wish to see, contemplation of Socrates is our most urgent task.''
Bloom added that such contemplation is ``properly an academic task.'' This leaves us a little in the dark since the work hasn't been completed in two and a half millennia. Why, we ask, should we be concerned with an antique old quibbler like Socrates and the apparently fatal muse of philosophy?
Perhaps for some the answer lies in another allusion to the philosopher made last December in connection with Michael Milken. Several newspapers displayed a photo of the junk-bond king with the caption, ``Milken: Comparison to Socrates.''
Such a comparison is worth contemplating. Never mind that it originally came from one of the financier's sons, who said Mr. Milken resembles Socrates in being persecuted for ``his unconventional views even though he had devoted himself to the pursuit of truth and goodness.''
If the comparison seems a little strained, then consider the added testimony of then-California congressman Tony Coelho, who is reported to have said at a Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. conference in Beverly Hills last year, ``I am here tonight to show my respect and deep admiration for Michael Milken. He is constantly thinking about what can be done to make this a better world.''
The real question is not whether Milken spends his time thinking about making this a better world, nor whether he is admirable in some private or perhaps unSocratic sense - say in keeping with the philosophy of Adam Smith. According to Mr. Smith's principles the acquisition of wealth is an act of public as well as personal benefaction.
The real difficulty comes from bringing Socrates into the equation. The great philosopher made himself clear on the point in question: ``Wise men say, Callicles, that heaven and earth, gods and men, are held together by the principles of sharing, by friendship and order, by self-control and justice ... it is your neglect of geometry which brings about your opinion that one should strive for a share larger than that which other men possess.''
How is it, then, that Socrates is brought to the defense of the University of Privilege, in Bloom's case, and to the defense of Milken, who on an ordinary day last year, before coffee break, made more than I'll see in my lifetime?
These are weighty questions, not to be answered by asserting that it was not wealth itself that Socrates found objectionable but wealth without wisdom. Nor is it enough to point out that economic life is simply not geometrical. To those of us near the bottom, it does sometimes resemble a pyramid.
The fact is, as Stone argued in his book, that while Socrates was concerned with the great issue of social justice, he was not very concerned with justice for everyone. He hardly gave a thought to slaves and women, for instance, let alone the barbarians.
It was perhaps just this volatile combination of social criticism and elitism that led Socrates into his well-known conflict with the Athenian democrats. If so, our new oligarchs might indeed do worse than reflect on the case of Socrates.
Not that they will be led to a broader concept of social justice, but those who take the injunction to follow philosophy too seriously may consider the limits of that calling in an imperfect and ungeometrical world. As Callicles tells Socrates in the same dialogue: ``Of course, Socrates, philosophy does have a certain charm if one engages with it in one's youth and in moderation, but if one dallies overlong, it's the ruin of a fellow.''