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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Socrates as Philosopher

In the history of philosophy, Socrates was known above all for three things:

  1. It was Socrates who was responsible for turning attention away from speculation about the physical universe. This had pre-occupied Greek philosophers for the previous century and a half. Instead,  with Socrates,  the central question became “what does it mean to be a good human being?” Obviously, the Sophists were also interested in this question. But with Socrates it meant bringing up the question of the purpose of human life. The Sophists did not really consider this very important at all. They did not ask, “for what purpose am I here?”  For Socrates, knowing the purpose of something meant that you had essential information as to what it was. In more technical terms, questions of identity, were inseparable from “teleological” questions. Teleology refers to the purposes or ends of something. You could only know what something was (its identity) if you understood it primarily in terms of its function or purpose, its telos. So Socrates understood the command of the Delphic oracle to “know thyself” (which he mentions in The Apology)  as requiring that he understand the purpose, or end, of being human. To know the purpose of human life would mean to know what is good for a human . And vice versa, to know what is good for human beings would mean to know what the purpose of being human would be. Through coming to know what is good or fine or excellent, or a human virtue, you would come to know the purpose of living. Therefore Socrates went about the business of inquiring from everyone who would submit to his questioning what they thought was meant by the virtues everyone claimed to recognize. These were the traditional Greek virtues like moderation, wisdom, justice, piety, courage, etc… For Socrates, the main concern a person should have in their life was “the care of the soul”, and caring for one’s soul meant acquiring knowledge of those things that were good in themselves, unconditionally good, not merely good for something else, not instrumentally good.


  1. The second thing he was known for was therefore his endless and usually inconclusive search for “general definitions”. According to Aristotle, who was pretty well informed about the history of previous philosophy, Socrates’ main contribution to the development of knowledge was this search for “universals”. For Socrates, the first and essential step in turning ethics and politics away from the relativism of the Sophists was to apply to human conduct the demand for exact and rigorous knowledge. How could we talk about the virtues if we did not know what they were, that is, if we did not know how to define them? Without this knowledge we would be at the mercy of whatever opinion was more powerful at the moment, and as power changed and shifted so would our understanding of what it meant to live well; we would be the slaves of mere habit, subject to the opinion of others who could themselves at best be confused, or at worst, interested in manipulating and using us. Without some definition in mind we would not even be able to recognize a virtue (or its opposite) when confronted with one. Whatever goodness we might possess would be the product of accident and chance and, above all, the habits of those around us who simply took for granted what was told to them. For Socrates, any goodness that rests on more than habit and accident would embody some sort of principle, and as a principle, it would have to admit of definition. You should be able to define it. In order to formulate a principle, you must have some definition of the things that are related in the principle. And --- with those definitions, you should be able to teach the principle. What matters, therefore, is not simply what you know as the way in which it is known. Someone could, as a matter of happy accident, be unconsciously or naively good, but you could not really be good unless you knew what it was that made what you were doing a good thing. You had to know “why” something was good, and in order to know why it was good you had to know what purpose it served.

With this quest on his part, you really do get with Socrates something very different from what the Sophists were offering. The Sophists acquired and claimed to be able to teach goodness, excellence, virtue (arete) in the same way a craft or art might be learned and taught: rules for practicing any craft could be abstracted by observing how it was done, and the virtue associated with that art could be acquired through learning and practicing its rules. There were as many virtues as there were arts or purposes. And a man was virtuous to the extent that he was technically skilled in the attainment of a given purpose. With Socrates, we get the belief that goodness is something more general and independent, a general capacity of the whole soul to which all other skills are subordinate. The ordinary arts, according to Socrates, can be used or misused; the art of medicine can be used to heal or to kill, but goodness can only be used to one effect. For Socrates, real virtue was “architectonic” – it ordered and arranged all the various departments of life in order to bring them into proportion and proper relation with each other.

  1. Bearing these first two items in mind, we can turn to Socrates’ most characteristic doctrine:

this is the Socratic belief that virtue is knowledge. Now, obviously, in the old sense that the Sophists were still using, virtue was also knowledge, or at least depended on knowledge. Socrates is proposing something quite different: he means that the person who is truly virtuous, excellent, must have knowledge of his soul (of what the soul is) and of what purpose human life serves. Something that follows right away from this notion that virtue is knowledge – and it is something Socrates held very strictly – is that no one can knowingly do evil. All evildoing is the result of ignorance. Evil is a lack of essential knowledge, lack of the knowledge of the permanent and unchangeable principles that together make up the purposeful order of the world and one’s own role in it as a human being, a living being with a rational soul.  So according to Socrates, when someone does harm to others, it is out of ignorance of the harm he is doing to himself. 

Now, to our ears, or at least to many of us who have been steeped in Judaeo-Christian ideas of sin and sinfulness, this will sound somewhat strange (and maybe it should). We might think of the will as something distinct from the cognitive, knowing side of the whole human being. Lucifer, after all --- and Lucifer is the prototype even in a post-Christian culture of the opposite of goodness --- knew quite well what was good, yet still purposefully flouted God’s will. We tend to think of evil as something ultimately perverse and independent of ignorance: a primordial rebelliousness or resentment directed at bringing down anything at all that that is not our own will. In Christianity, pride is the deadliest of all the sins and the source of all the others. If anything, knowledge is an invitation to pride.

Socrates’ audience had never heard of such beliefs. Yet his doctrine was very quickly criticized by Aristotle two generations later as not taking into account the problem of “akrasia” (literally, powerlessness) --- incontinence --- lack of control over one’s own actions. This is the problem we sometimes have in simply being overcome by something stronger, which we feel to be as much a part of ourselves as the knowledge we also have that we are doing something harmful or foolish. This is the charge of “intellectualism”, and it was first brought against Socrates by Aristotle. It is an obvious, though serious, charge. Why would Socrates not recognize this problem? One of my favourite stories about Socrates is about him walking somewhere with a companion, then all of a sudden stopping in a kind of trance. People are walking by and talking. Little children are perhaps kicking his shins to see if he’s awake or alive – I’m embellishing a little – and through all of this Socrates stands totally immobile, apparently unseeing, unhearing, unfeeling, until, without warning, but many hours later, he comes to life again and continue blithely on his way… He had been thinking about some philosophical problem…

Yet Socrates was neither inhuman nor superhuman, and must have known that the problem of powerlessness exists.  How could he then believe that goodness is essentially the same as knowledge?
The only way that this doctrine makes any sense, in spite of Aristotle, is if you take with all seriousness what Socrates had to say about the soul and its care. Karl Jaspers, a twentieth century philosopher of existentialism put it this way in a brief but very perceptive essay on Socrates: “The essential for man is to risk living as though he knew the good exists.” I think that this applies quite precisely to Socrates. And it implies the reverse as well: any life not lived as though the good exists (the absolutely, unconditionally, objectively and eternally good), was an inessential life. If not degraded and contemptible, then it would still be futility and a waste.

For Socrates, people who do evil are soulless; and they are soulless because they are mindless. They do not know the good in itself, and this ignorance produces in them  a wild imbalance and disorder out of which flow harm to themselves and those around them, even to the whole city. Socrates’ mission is to try to give birth in them to a desire for knowledge of their own souls, a desire that can only begin by revealing to them that in fact they are in the deepest ignorance. Socrates’ use of the Greek word psyche (soul is the usual translation) makes it clear that by it he meant the intelligence. The self is identified with the psyche and the psyche is identified with intelligence. This shows up repeatedly in Socrates’ use of the analogy of the craftsman. Soul is to body as the craftsman is to his tools. The body is something as distinct from the soul as the craftsman’s tools are. It is something to be used in order to create things, something to be disposed of in order to act well, but only something to be used – disciplined, kept in order and in good repair – but essentially something extraneous to the self and inessential to the progress of the soul and to its understanding.

Doing good is identified with a purely intellectual insight, which in turn is the product not only of inquiry, but of a systematic practice or regimen (Gk. – askesis – from which we get “ascetic”) of turning away from and devaluing or becoming indifferent to worldly things. Now, this amounts to a radical reversal of values for the world Socrates is dealing with, for the world of the polis. For example, the traditional Greek ethic of moderation (Gk. – sophrosyne) is not simply adopted by Socrates and incoporated into a newly grounded scheme of traditional values. The misfortune to be feared if someone departed from the path of moderation was a very worldly misfortune. The heroes of Athenian tragedy suffered quite worldly disasters. This is not what Socrates, however, is warning about. The care of the soul is not undertaken in order to simply avert worldly disaster. Or rather, spiritual disaster, psychic disaster is now separated from worldly disaster. The life of the spirit now follows a course quite distinct from the course of earthly success or failure. And it is the only thing that really counts: everything else is devalued or subordinated in favour of the one overriding value of the health of the soul. And the health of the soul is consists primarily in a self-control that follows from knowledge of what excellence is in itself.

Socrates is sometimes portrayed as attempting to leave the old values in place, in fact to give them a firmer foundation than mere traditional practice and acceptance could provide. This is, for example, the way in which Socrates’ acceptance of the laws of the city has been read, even when they condemn him to death. Yet Socrates, in spite of the appearance of being a truly law abiding and good citizen, is perhaps a subversive of the highest order. Socrates does not merely discover a higher law than the law of this or that city. The Greeks had notions of a higher and universal law before Socrates came along. Socrates’ teaching would have been subversive because that teaching separates and devalues the human community from the point of view of an immortal soul. It places true community somewhere else, as a possibility to be enacted not really on this earth, but only in the next.

Which brings us to the last item concerning the teachings of Socrates: the immortality of the soul. Scholars these days seem to agree that many of the detailed arguments (which you have not been asked to read) found in Plato’s Phaedo are later additions on the part of Plato and cannot be ascribed to the historical Socrates. But scholars also tend to agree that the historical Socrates did hold to the belief in an immortal soul. In fact, it is difficult to see how he could have held to the other parts of his doctrine, had he not believed in it. There are two things in particular --- the belief that “a good man cannot be harmed” and “that it is better to suffer evil than to return it” --- these two beliefs only seem to make sense if you see the soul leading an essentially separate existence that requires above all the subordination of the body, sensuality, worldliness and anything but the most refined, distant and disinterested “affection”. It would not be surprising that in the end Socrates prefers to converse with dead souls than appear to give up his mission. That is the only way his soul can retain control of the situation and therefore of itself.

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