Philosophy and Action

socrates and action

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David. Oil on canvas, 1787; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A picture comes to mind of the common representation of what philosophers are considered to really “do,” as in the image of the sculpture, “The Thinker” by Rodin.  Another image may be someone very old sitting on a mountaintop or a beautiful seashore, in deep contemplation.


                     “The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living”

Of course, one must often think before acting, at least it is wise to do so.  But Socrates did not spend his days idle- he walked his days out in the marketplace striking up conversations and questioning passersby things like, “How shall I live and what is a meaningful life?”   And in Euthyphro, “what is Piety?” 
Socrates’ moral urgency to critically challenge commonly held values and beliefs got him in trouble with the Athenian authorities, who charged him with, ready for this?  Disbelief in the gods and corrupting the youth.
 Socrates did not flinch or falter; he died believing it was better to question, keep questioning and be punished, rather than never have questioned at all. 


“THE philosopher cannot—especially in our time—shut himself up in an ivory tower; he cannot help being concerned about human affairs, in the name of philosophy itself and by reason of the very values which philosophy has to defend and maintain. He has to “bear witness” to these values, every time they are attacked, as in the time of Hitler when insane racist theories worked to provoke the mass murder of Jews, or as today before the threat by communist despotism. The philosopher must bear witness by expressing his thoughts and telling the truth as he sees it. This may have repercussions in the domain of politics; it is not, in itself, a political action—it is simply applied philosophy.

“It is true that the line of demarcation is difficult to draw. This means no one, not even philosophers, can avoid taking risks, when justice or love are at stake, and when one is face to face with the strict command of the Gospel: haec oportuit facere, et illa non omittere, “these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Mt 23:23).”

~Jacques Maritain: “On the Use of Philosophy.”


                                 November 18, 1882 to April 28, 1973

Mr. Maritain was also one of the drafters of the United Nations Declaration for Human Rights in 1948,,,   

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


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