The Historical Socrates
Socrates is the best known figure in all of philosophy, but very little is known about him.
Probably what is clearest about Socrates is that he claimed supreme importance for something he called the love of wisdom. In his pursuit of wisdom, he neglected virtually all the affairs that figure prominently in the lives of most people, both in the ancient world and today. Moreover, late in his life, in an event that made him known to posterity, he faced a death sentence from the city of Athens rather than abandon his love of wisdom. He was tried and executed in 399 BC. Socrates was convicted, in part, because he was thought to have corrupted the youth and so to have been partly responsible for Athen's downfall.
The Problem Socrates Presents
Socrates' devotion to the love of wisdom in the face of death is not easy to understand. The reason is straightforward: it is not at all clear what the love of wisdom is. Further, since he himself wrote nothing, the only way to solve this problem is to look at what others wrote about him.
Several contemporaries wrote about Socrates, but Plato is the greatest philosopher in this tradition. In his Apology, which purports to be a record of Socrates' trial for impiety and corrupting the youth, the love of wisdom has something to do with the soul, rationality, and happiness and the good life for human beings. The characters considers the question of why he insists on his pursuit of wisdom, even though this pursuit had gotten him into trouble and now is about to cost him his life. In response, he utters some of the most famous words in philosophy:
"While I have breath and am able I shall not cease to pursue the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφία) or to exhort you, charging any of you I happen to meet in my accustomed manner: 'You are the best of men, being an Athenian, citizen of a city honored for wisdom and power beyond all others. Are you then not ashamed to care for money, and reputation, and public honor, while yet having no thought or concern for wisdom and truth and the greatest possible excellence of your soul?' If some one of you disputes this, and says he does care, I shall not immediately dismiss him and go away. I shall question and examine and test him, and if he does not seem to me to possess virtue, and yet says he does, I shall rebuke him for counting of more importance things which by comparison are worthless." (Apology 29d-30b.)
Plato, the Character Socrates, and the Historical Socrates
Plato's written works are not academic treatises of the kind produced by contemporary philosophers who primarily write journal articles for other specialists in the field. Instead, Plato's works take the form of dialogues. In many of these dialogues, Plato features a character named 'Socrates.' The character has conversations about various matters, and the dialogues in which he has these conversations (especially the dialogues from the early period) are the primary evidence for what the historical Socrates thought.
This distinction between the historical figure and the character makes it difficult to know with any certainty what the historical Socrates thought. It is necessary to work backwards from what Plato wrote. The matter continues to be a subject of intense scholarly debate, but a general picture of the historical Socrates and his thought does emerge from the dialogues and the character Socrates. First of all, although many of the characters are named after historical figures, Plato's dialogues are not transcriptions of historical conversations. Nor are they simply imitations of historical conversations Plato remembers. Instead, it seems pretty clear Plato writes to understand Socrates. Socrates was a perplexing figure. Plato thinks that the Athenians were wrong about Socrates, and he writes his dialogues to vindicate Socrates and the love of wisdom.
To do this, Plato needs to explain what the love of wisdom is and why it is important.
The Search for Definitions
The Euthyphro is the first in a tetralogy of dialogues that purport to show important events in Socrates' life.
(The Euthyphro takes place before his trial. It is followed in the tetraology by the Apology, which shows Socrates defending himself at his trial. The Apology, in turn, is followed by the Crito, which shows Socrates in jail awaiting execution. The Crito is followed by the Phaedo, which shows Socrates on the day of his execution. The Phaedo is a middle dialogue. The others are early dialogues.)
In the Euthyphro, Socrates chances to meet Euthyphro at an official building. Socrates is there to acknowledge the suit against him (that he will answer in the Apology). Euthyphro is there to register a suit against his father. Socrates is surprised, given the details of Euthyphro's case. He says to Euthyphro that he must be "far advanced in wisdom." Euthyphro acknowledges the point and suggests that in fact he is an expert on matters of piety. Socrates doesn't let this boast pass untested. He asks Euthyphro what piety is. Euthyphro is only too happy to answer, but he is unable to defend his answers against Socrates' pointed questioning. This is typical in the early dialogues: they end in perplexity.
Why Socrates so relentlessly searches for definitions is not immediately clear. The search itself is presumably the "testing" the character mentions in the Apology, but its point is unclear. Socrates does not explain his "testing," beyond the brief remarks in the Apology, but he seems to have a view about the good life for a human being and about the expertise for living this life. The suggestion seems to be that
- the good life for a human being is a life of ethical virtue
- expertise in living a life of ethical virtue is practical wisdom about ethical matters
- practical wisdom about ethical matters consists in knowledge of what the ethical virtues are
- knowledge of what the ethical virtues are is a matter of reason, not experience
The suggestion is that Euthyphro and others are confused about what the virtues are. To rid them of their confusion, Socrates forces them into contradiction. This is supposed to help them eliminate their false beliefs and hence their confusion. In the absence of the confusion produced by false beliefs, the suggestion is that Euthyphro and the other interlocutors would be left with the knowledge they claimed or otherwise seemed to possess at the outset.
The Love of Wisdom
An expert in living well does not easily get confused in the situations he encounters. He typically makes the best choice in the circumstances, the choice that is best for him. It is clear, then, that this expertise in living well, if it is possible, would have immense practical value. So it is natural to wonder about the knowledge that constitutes this expertise. Further, it is natural to wonder about how one acquires the wisdom connected with this knowledge.
Socrates has some answers. He supposes that that the expertise involved in living the good life is practical wisdom about ethical matters and that practical wisdom about ethical matters consists in knowledge of what the ethical virtues are. Eliminating inconsistency in belief results in this practical wisdom, and the question and answer method in which he engages his interlocutors is the way to eliminate inconsistency. In summary, he holds that
- False belief about what the ethical virtues are stands in the way of practical wisdom about ethical matters
- The elimination of inconsistency eliminates false belief
- The question-and-answer method eliminates inconsistency in belief
- The love of wisdom consists in the question-and-answer method
This way of thinking about the good life was uncommon.
The expertise in living well is ordinarily thought to be a matter of long, and often hard experience, in the sorts of situations human beings typically encounter as they live out their lives. (Old people, not young people, are thought to be wise.) Socrates, however, is part of the enlightenment tradition that prizes thinking clearly for oneself. He champions reason and abandons or downplays the importance of experience. The dialogues suggest that he thought that the problem is always false belief, never the lack of knowledge, and that a human being can purge himself of false beliefs by engaging in the conversations of the kind Plato portrays.
The Good Life and Happiness
The quest for a good life and for happiness has presumably always been central to human activity. Further, in thinking about how to make one's life good, it would not be unusual to think that living in the traditional ways, given the habits human beings form in becoming adults, is not necessarily the best way to live and that if one were to think deliberately and consciously about the problem, a better way might become clear.
It is not essential to the pursuit of happiness that the traditional ways must be abandoned. Further, even if the traditional ways should be abandoned, it does not follow that they should be abandoned for the love of wisdom.
Socrates embodies the enlightenment attitude. This was the attitude among the inquirers into nature. They championed reason over experience, and they were optimistic that they can move beyond the traditional understanding of the world. Socrates has this same attitude about the good life. He believes that the good life is the life of ethical virtue and that living this life involves the exercise of a certain expertise or wisdom about ethical matters.
The more usual opinion would have been that the good life and the life of ethical virtue are different lives, that the life of ethical virtue sometimes and maybe even often stands in the way of happiness and the good life. Further, it would not have been obvious that the practical wisdom about ethical matters consists in knowledge of what the virtues are. Nor would it have been obvious that this knowledge is a matter of eliminating inconsistency in belief in respect to what the virtues are. Socrates' intellectual approach to the good life departed from the more common reliance on experience to acquire the expertise involved in living a good life and finding happiness.
An Example from the Laches
The Laches illustrates the Athenian interest in the good life. It also provides an example of Socrates' approach to this matter in terms of definitions.
Lysimachus and Melesias seek advice in the education of their sons. They are ashamed they have not done as well in life as their famous fathers, Aristides and Thucydides, and so they seek advice from Socrates about the proper education of their sons. It is apparent in the exchange that Lysimachus and Melesias seek advice about the education for their sons becaue they want to equip their sons with the "means" to live good lives and to be happy. This of course seems to be what every good parent should want to do for their children, but Lysimachus and Melesias do not know how to proceed. Hence, they turn to Socrates for advice.
Socrates understands their request in terms of the soul and ethical virtue. He asks Laches, an Athenian general, whether Lysimachus and Melesias are "asking our advice as to the manner in which virtue might be added to the souls of their sons to make them better." Socrates goes onto say that "it is by knowledge that one ought to make decisions, if one is to make them well," and in in the ensuing investigation of the virtue the children need, he takes up the question of whether they have a "sufficient knowledge of a part," courage, the virtue Laches and Nicias--the other Athenian general in the conversation--should understand. (184e, 190b-c.)
The Historical Socrates, his Significance, and the Platonic Dialogues
It is far from clear that Socrates is correct about the good life and the expertise for living this life. His view is obviously paradoxical in certain ways. Moreover, there can be no doubt that Plato is clearly aware of this fact. Yet, at the same time, is equally clear that Plato thought that Socrates had glimpsed something important. Plato thought it was a tragedy that the Athenians had not recognized this fact and instead had put Socrates to death.
Plato thus works in the dialogues to understand and to vindicate Socrates and the love of wisdom. This project culminates initially in the Republic, a dialogue from the middle period, and one of Plato's greatest dialogues. Socrates thus stands near the beginning of what has turned out to be a long and influential philosophical tradition. Plato's Academy continues to exist for about a thousand years.