Reflections on Childhood and Philosophy
Every person who has ever lived on the face of the earth started out life as a little child. This is so obvious a fact, it seems hardly worth mentioning. But that’s the problem. We don’t mention it and we don’t think about it – certainly not when it comes to the towering figures of philosophy. Somehow we always imagine them as the grown-up people they came to be, and their philosophical thought as the mature, finished writings we find in books. But how does a little kid grow up to be a philosopher? And does it matter for his or her later ideas what kind of childhood he or she had experienced?
I have spent the last decade exploring the childhood of Socrates. How, you may wonder, could I possibly claim to be doing that? For Socrates never wrote a word, and those who knew him – Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes – described him only in adulthood. Yet all three of the ancient writers presented Socrates as a character, not just a set of ideas, and in portraying his personality they also reproduced his odd habits and peculiar mannerisms. It is in these puzzling details of his behavior that we may find the key, I believe, to much of Socrates’ boyhood experience.
I first met Socrates almost forty years ago, my freshman year at Bryn Mawr College, in Philosophy 101. The dean of the college had advised me to put off so important a course until I had grown more mature – say, a sophomore. But the catalog description promised knowledge of God, of Truth, Beauty, and Justice. How could I wait?
What a shock it was, then, when I actually encountered Socrates in the pages of Plato. I had expected a kindly and generous soul filled with love for all mankind, a somewhat more intellectual Jesus, I suppose. But here was an argumentative, annoying, ugly little man, who spent his life wandering the streets of Athens, jabbing people with his gadfly’s stinger. He clearly enjoyed humiliating other people, and he seemed to care very little even for his own family. His only request, as he faced execution, was that his sons be “punished” if they failed to measure up. I simply couldn’t stand the man.
My disapproval grew to horror when I read the plan in Plato’s Republic to rip infants away from their mothers. As long as I could remember I had yearned for a baby, and now Plato, through the voice of Socrates, intended to rob me of my future child? And beyond that, to censor my every thought and action in a totally controlled society?
These were wise men? I turned away in dismay, not to reopen the pages of Plato for almost a quarter century. When I did finally meet Socrates again, I was a much different person, and so, it seemed, was he. No longer a young girl sitting at the feet of the great men of history, I was now a mature woman and a mother. Suddenly behind the grown man I could see a frightened, angry child. “You poor dear, what a sad, unhappy little boy you must have been,” I whispered in his ear.
I knew now, from a husband and sons, that all men are still very much the little boys they used to be. And I had learned to notice the small things. Years of interest in the field of psychiatry had taught me to pay attention not just to what a person actually says, to the ideas he or she overtly proclaims, but to all that is left unsaid. For ideas can serve as a powerful defense against feelings that are too painful or frightening or shameful to admit into conscious awareness. But the defense is never total, and indications of what is going on beneath the surface seep out, betrayed by mood or body language or strange aspects of behavior.
Socrates, it seemed to me, was seeping out all over, though he and his followers, and scholars ever since, have explained away even the oddest of his habits as the attributes of a brilliant mind or a noble character. Unable to join in the glorification of Socrates, I tried to uncover what might really have been going on.
Socrates, for example, had sometimes stood immobilized for hours on end, once even for an entire day and night. Why? What was his daimonion all about, the little spirit voice that had accompanied him since childhood, continually inhibiting his actions? Why did he call the laws his “parents?” Why did he repeatedly warn that the worst thing a young man could do was to raise his hand to his father, no matter what the father was doing to him? Why did he feel compelled, year in and year out, to attack others with his verbal barbs? Why did he gather so many admiring young men around him? Why did he deliberately antagonize the jury at his trial, virtually forcing them to condemn him to death?
The more I pursued these questions, the more the answers came, until a picture emerged very much at odds with Socrates’ image of himself. He thought he was a man of pure reason, his passions fully under control, wanting only to lead others to the paths of virtue. But I glimpsed a different sort of man, one who really did not understand himself very well, driven by emotional needs of which he himself was largely unaware. Beneath the calm clarity of Socrates’ logic I found a very angry man, who did not even know how angry he was. Socrates’ inner life had been complex and troubled, it seemed to me, and the trouble had to have begun in childhood.
I slowly realized that Socrates had started out life as a badly abused child. This is not as wild or unsupportable a claim as it may seem, for just about every Athenian boy had been abused. As Greek literature makes abundantly clear, boys were beaten as a matter of course by their fathers, or even by their own slaves, the pedagogoi who accompanied them to and from school. And they were forced to bury their seething anger, with no way of striking back. When Socrates warned against raising a hand to a father, he no doubt spoke from the fear within himself and other boys that they would lose control and even try to kill their own fathers. Such anxiety lay deep within the culture, for Greek mythology is replete with sons attacking fathers.
The dominant male of a household exercised immense authority over his wife, slaves, and children. Indeed, it was up to him to decide if a newborn child would live or die. If he declined to accept an infant officially into his household within the first week of its life, it lost its right to be reared and would be taken from its pleading mother and exposed. Socrates would have known of many such discarded babies, for his own mother worked as a midwife. The proposal in Plato’s Republic for a wholesale removal of babies from their mothers was but a logical extension of this brutal practice.
The Athenian mother, by the way, would have been closer in age to her son than to her husband. Typically at about age thirty-five a male citizen married a girl of fourteen or so who had never left her parent’s home. She was altogether uneducated and in no way a companion for her husband. He continued all his outside activities, using prostitutes, slaves, or best of all, young and attractive free boys, to satisfy his sexual desires.
It is fashionable among scholars today to dismiss Greek pederasty as a harmless practice, fully accepted in ancient culture and even helpful to the boys, initiating them into manhood and citizenship. But to do so is to buy into the rationalizations of the ancient pederasts themselves. As I have tried to show in my own work  many Greek boys had to have been profoundly traumatized by the experience, more damaged psychologically and physically even than similarly abused boys in our own society.
Greek sexuality was based entirely on dominance and submission. Proper sex could take place only between an active, superior person and a passive, inferior one. Two boys or two men of the same age and status who wanted to have sex with each other would have been regarded as perverted. Sex essentially was something a person did alone, for his own pleasure, by acting upon the body of another, and mutual satisfaction did not enter the equation. Indeed, a boy who felt pleasure when a man had sex with him also would have been regarded as perverted, for he was supposed to be feeling nothing at all.
The boy found himself in a perilous, confused, and deeply shameful position. The worst thing that could happen to a Greek male was to be penetrated by another male, for it turned him into a woman. It was the boy’s responsibility to control how far the man went, and if he failed the shame fell on him, not the man. And the problem did not end in boyhood. If as a child he had taken money for his services, even if forced to do so by his father, and then in adulthood had dared to cast a vote in the assembly, knowing he had been turned into a woman, he could lose not only his citizenship but his very life.
The shame was mitigated if the boy had entered into the relationship not for money but for the purpose of improving himself, of gaining an education. There were no high schools or colleges in Athens, only older men with experience to whom boys with intellectual or political aspirations could attach themselves. No wonder eroticism and intellectuality were all mixed up in Socrates’ and Plato’s thought.
The boy was at his most attractive between the ages of twelve and sixteen, but as soon as his body began to mature the man would abandon him, replacing him with a younger child. The older boy now faced the task of flipping his sexual identity from passive recipient to active pursuer, and if he could not quite manage it, he once again was regarded as perverted.
Greek vase paintings often show a young boy standing immobile, neither moving nor running away, as an older man reaches for his genitals. Some boys in paintings do flee, but others, the really young ones, simply stand there as if paralyzed. The ubiquitous “herms” of Athens, peculiar statues set up in the doorways and squares of the city, perhaps symbolize it best. A herm consisted of an elongated wooden cube for a body, sporting only a head of the god Hermes and an erect penis. It had no arms or legs, no means of movement or flight. What would a modern psychiatrist or neurologist make of it, if a child today were to draw such a picture?
Many other patterns of Greek life exacerbated an impotent male rage. The culture swung round the axes of honor and shame, superiority and inferiority, dominance and submission, and boys especially were caught in its many degradations. Socrates’ spells of immobility, the little spirit voice inhibiting his actions, even his desire for a death brought on by the ascending paralysis of hemlock poisoning, all seem to me to reflect the trauma and anxieties of his Athenian boyhood, the paralysis of the abused child.
Of course the young men of Athens flocked to Socrates. Similarly victimized in childhood, they resonated with his suppressed anger and thrilled to his verbal aggression. For Socrates had found a brilliant way out of the Athenian boy’s dilemma. Without raising a hand to the fathers of Athens, he could shame and humiliate them through verbal rather than physical aggression. The sexual symbolism of his penetrating gadfly’s stinger is evident, as is the pleasure he took in inflicting pain on others.
Socrates also found a way to rid himself of his body. If I were to read you some passages from Plato, in which Socrates describes his clean, pure soul floating above the room, looking down upon his dirty body from above, and I had not identified the source, you might swear you were hearing the words of a modern severely abused child dissociating from his or her body. Through the higher reality of pure ideas, Socrates could transcend the pollution of his body, leaving its filth behind in the shadows of an inferior world.
It is no wonder Socrates welcomed his trial and execution. In the closing days of his life it served as a great psychodrama, through which he could act out his childhood issues, with the whole of Athens watching. He could stick it to the fathers of Athens, all the while claiming he was obeying his “parents,” the laws. He could abandon his family and friends, as he no doubt had been abandoned in his youth. He could even end up paralyzed. And through death he could achieve the final separation of pure soul from defiled body.
I do not think I ever could have recognized what Socrates was doing had I not experienced similar childhood miseries and found similar ways out. Fortunately I was not used for sex as a child, nor was I beaten, but some of the assaults on my emotions and my body were not so very different, and I too fled to a shimmering world of transcendent ideas. The ordinary things of everyday life faded into shadows, just as they had for Socrates.
My own escape was all mixed up with the Nazis. I was born in 1941, the year Hitler began his “Final Solution,” and I remember my father showing me, at age three or four, where we would hide if the Nazis came. Actually we were quite safe, living above our family’s hardware store in a small New Jersey town, but to my father, who had emigrated to this country as a child and then returned to Europe to fight in the First World War, the threat of the Nazis was all too real.
Down the block from our hardware store lay the town theatre, and every Saturday we kids would go to watch an entire morning of cartoons. The cartoons were preceded by grainy black-and-white newsreels – these were the days before television – and in that darkened theatre I absorbed my earliest lessons in world politics. At age four I first set eyes on the piles upon piles of starved naked bodies, as Allied troops liberated Nazi concentration camps and forced the local German townspeople to come and see what they had done. Then and there my conscience was formed, for I resolved deep inside myself never to become the kind of person who could have allowed such things to happen.
From that time forward I felt personally responsible, not just for my own actions, but for the very fate of the earth. I really thought it was up to me, a little kid, to save the world, and I had to do it by figuring out how societies and governments and the human psyche work. By the sixth or seventh grade I had begun reading the New York Times every day and imagining myself President. It’s been quite a burden, I can tell you, running the world all these years. (Though in these days of Monica and Bill, I try not to imagine myself President.) I was destined, of course, to become a political theorist.
A great many years would pass before I could recognize that my childhood preoccupation with the Nazis and with national politics had served another more hidden purpose, that it had helped me deny what was happening within my immediate family. The ill-treatment within my home paled beside war and genocide and presidential travails. And so I could transcend my childhood sorrows by focusing on the larger agonies of the world.
This was an admirable solution, yet not entirely a healthy one, for it failed to confront the real problems of my life. Not surprisingly, perhaps, parts of my personality came to resemble Socrates’ far more than I have ever wanted to acknowledge. For as I sharpened my intellect, I found myself using my abilities not just to figure out the larger world, not just to rise beyond myself, but all too often to put other people down.
I hate to admit it, but like Socrates I really wanted to believe myself intellectually and morally superior to everyone else. I even irritated the people around me with incessant questioning, especially around the breakfast table at Bryn Mawr, when my dorm-mates wanted no more than to be left alone to wake up and sip their coffee in peace.
But I also have spent much of my life struggling against these very same tendencies. That’s probably why I so detested Socrates when I first met him. We are always most angry at those people who openly display the very behavior or desires we secretly are trying to suppress in ourselves. I hated Socrates’ need for aggressive argument, no doubt because I disdained the same need in myself.
I always knew it had to be wrong to tear other people down, even if only with ideas. For the concentration camp bodies lay ever before my eyes, their silent agony testifying that ultimately there can be no such thing as superiority and inferiority. Each and every human being is a marvel of creation, of infinite dignity and worth, and no one – no matter how talented or intelligent or just plain brutal – can ever be justified in seeking to degrade or dominate anyone else.
Yet even with such understanding, it’s hard to grow beyond the need for self-aggrandizement, especially when its origins lie deep in the shame of childhood. I haven’t fully arrived yet, but I keep trying. Socrates, however, never did come to understand these things. He died still sticking his stinger into others, still claiming to be smarter and more virtuous than anyone else, still limited by childhood trauma. It’s a pity, not just for him, but for the whole of western philosophy that was to follow. There has never been much in the way of compassion in western philosophy, very little kindness or caring for others, but a great deal of intellectual haughtiness.
We should never forget that Socrates favored authoritarian government, suggesting the intellectually gifted were entitled to rule over everyone else. Some of his students became the tyrants of Athens, overthrowing its democracy and bathing the streets in blood. As I.F. Stone has pointed out, this may in fact have been the real reason Socrates was put on trial.
Is there not a lesson here, for all of us? At the end of our own most murderous of centuries, surely it is time to recognize how easily the drive for domination presents itself as reasoned argument and elevated ideals.
Much of modern academic life is a sublimated battle, in which we tear each other down in the name of professional knowledge. How many students and colleagues have we skewered with our own penetrating barbs? How many have we sacrificed on the altar of abstract ideas – insisting all the while we were doing it for their own good? Perhaps the story of Socrates may yet help us identify the childhood angers and fears lurking beneath our own aggressive intellectuality.
Know thyself, commanded the oracle at Delphi. Socrates declared at his trial he was not afraid of goblins that scare little children. Isn’t it time we told him to stop fooling himself? And that we unmasked our own unhappy ghosts and ugly goblins?
 Greek pederasty and its consequences for boys are explored in depth in my paper, “Sex Between Men and Boys in Classical Greece: Was It Education for Citizenship or Child Abuse?” presented at the March 1997 Conference of the American Men’s Studies Association, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN. The paper provides extensive references and citations, which I have not repeated here. It will be published in The Journal of Men’s Studies.
 For a full discussion of these arguments see my paper, “The Psychodynamics of Socrates’ Death,” presented at the March 1996 Conference of the New York State Political Science Association, Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY.
State University of New York at Buffalo