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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


SOCRATES

(c. 470 — 399 B.C.)

 

RATIONALISM

Born in Athens, the son of Sophroniscus and Phaenarete (a midwife), Socrates was a bold and courageous thinker. He grew up in comfortable circumstances which allowed him to serve in the Peloponnesian War as a 'hoplite' (armed infantryman). Having become dedicated to the study of philosophy he came to regard material goods as of no importance. Although he used some of the debating techniques of the Sophists, he rejected their relativism and sought for what he regarded as genuine truth and knowledge. (The priestesses of the Oracle at Delphi had said there was no one wiser, but Socrates took this to mean that he was wise only in so far as he recognised his own ignorance [a]) Paradoxically, Socrates was accused by the conservative authorities of having corrupted the youth of Athens, and was sentenced to death. True to his moral principles he accepted the verdict and drank the customary poison.

 

METHOD AND KNOWLEDGE

[1] [gen. 1] When a young man Socrates studied the cosmological ideas of the Milesians and also the philosophy of Anaxagoras n whose concept of Mind (nous) as a possible ultimate explanation of Nature particularly excited him. However, his hopes were soon dashed when he realized that Anaxagoras in fact made no use of Mind [a], gave it no "responsibility for the management of things", mentioning instead as cause "air and ether and water and many other strange things" [see Plato's Phaedo, 97b4-99d1]. He thereupon set out to follow his own path (having noted the advice of the Oracle). According to Aristotle [Metaphysics, 1078b 17-32; cf. also Plato, early dialogues], Socrates sought for universal definitions [b] by using special kinds of arguments. This can best be illustrated by an example. Meno (in Plato's dialogue of that name) was asked by Socrates what he thought virtue (arete) was. Meno gave a list of various instances of virtue — looking after the city properly, being a careful housewife, and so on. In reply Socrates said that he did not want examples but an account of what they all share. The process of finding out what the common property or group of properties is Socrates referred to as 'epactic' (epaktikoi logoi) [see Aristotle, ibid.] sometimes loosely translated as appertaining to 'inductive' or 'analogical' arguments) [c]; and it is this set of properties that constitutes the universal 'definition' or 'essence' of virtue. When engaging his pupils in conversation and rational analysis ('dialectic') about such matters Socrates would encourage them to put forward a definition, but would then lead them into contradiction and thus expose its weaknesses. This is his method of cross-examination or refutation (the elenchos) [d]. A new and more adequate definition would then be proposed. In this way a universal definition might be reached. Socrates compared his role to that of a midwife; his aim is to 'give birth' to true ideas and hence to knowledge.

 

ETHICS

[2] [gen. 2] [See Plato, early dialogues.] Although his approach seems to have much in common with that of the Sophists (with whom he had many discussions), Socrates was highly critical of their relativism — particularly in ethics [a]. The universal definitions he was primarily concerned with were therefore ethical — virtue, the good, happiness. Thus he argued in favour of the identification of an objective virtue with knowledge. By this he meant that if a person knows what is right he will do the right thing [b]. And the right thing is the one which will promote what is in that person's best interest, namely the achieving of genuine 'happiness', that is, 'well-being' (eudaimonia) regardless of worldly consequences [c]. Socrates thus genuinely believed that virtue can be taught [d] (though Plato makes Socrates question this towards the end of the Meno). Indeed this belief is implicit in Socrates' use of the word 'philosophy' (philosophia — love of wisdom, wisdom being regarded here as a kind of skill leading to insight).

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

What we know of Socrates comes to us almost entirely through the dialogues of his pupil Plato and the writings of the historian Xenophon; he wrote nothing himself. There has been much controversy as to how much of what is in Plato was really Socrates' philosophy. Was he just a popular teacher of ethics, or was he also the author of genuinely original views on metaphysics? A compromise view (Aristotle's) was that Socrates made important contributions to philosophical method but that he was not the originator of the Theory of Forms. It is probable that Socrates' own philosophy consisted in what was put into his mouth by Plato in his earliest dialogues.

The two fundamental claims of Socrates' thought, which undoubtedly justify the place he holds in the history of philosophy as a radical innovator, are (1) that there are universal definitions or essences which can be discovered by the dialectical method; and (2) that men knowing the good will inevitably do good actions. However, whether knowledge is objective in this sense — and what constitutes a universal definition or essence — are issues which many later philosophers (particularly in the twentieth century) have discussed at length. As to the second claim, it can be argued that Socrates failed to appreciate the problem of weakness of will (moral weakness) (akrasia) [a] — that many individuals do in fact often do what they know to be wrong.

 

READING

Plato's early dialogues [from his 'Socratic' period] such as Apology, Crito, Euthyphron, Laches, and also the later Meno and Phaedo. [For editions see under Plato.]

Studies

G. X. Santas, Socrates: Philosophy in Plato's Early Dialogues.

G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher.

Collections of Essays

G. Vlastos (ed.), Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays.

M. Burnyeat (ed.), Socratic Studies.

 

CONNECTIONS

Socrates

 

[intro. a] Wisdom and ignorance    Nicholas of Cusa [1b]

 

[secs 1 & 2] General attack on 'sophistry' Hamann [1a]
  Logic: influence via Megarians Chrysippus [1b]

 

[1a] Rejection of Anaxagoras's 'Nous'    Anaxagoras

Plato

   Aristotle

[2b]

[5a-c f]

[12e]

 

[1b] 'Universal definitions'

Plato

Aristotle

Nietzsche

[1a 3b 7e]

[5a c]

[1a]

 

[1c] Induction

Aristotle

   Mill

[6b 20b]

[1g]

 

[1d] Dialectic, rational analysis

Zeno

Plato

   Aristotle

   Chrysippus

   Hegel

Nietzsche

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[1c]

[2a]

[1a]

 

[2a] Rejection of relativism    Protagoras

Plato

Pyrrho

Nietzsche

[1b 3a]

[11e 12a]

[2a]

[1a b 2c]

 

[2b] Virtue and knowledge/ moral insight inseparable    Protagoras

Chrysippus

Plato

Aristotle

Epictetus

Nietzsche

[1a]

[6a]

[11a]

[19a 21a]

[1a d]

[1a]

 

[2c] 'Happiness' ('well-being') consequent on virtue    Democritus

Plato

Aristotle

Epicurus

Chrysippus

Epictetus

Nietzsche

[3a]

[11f g]

[18c 22a]

[4a]

[6b 6c]

[1f]

[1a]

 

[2d] Virtue can be taught

Plato

Aristotle

[11a]

[21a]

 

[CSa] Weakness of will Plato [9d 13a]