Confucius and Socrates Contents
BECK index


Content and Topics

Traditional Subjects
Desires and Self-control
Knowledge and Wisdom
Friendship and Love
The Philosopher
The Good
Immortality of the Soul

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Socrates often discussed the topic of justice. Xenophon recollected a long conversation he had with Hippias on justice in which Hippias commented that Socrates was still talking about the same old things. Hippias boasted that he could say something new about justice, and Socrates was eager to hear. However, Hippias complained that Socrates was always questioning others, and he challenged him to give his own account. Socrates began by mentioning that his own deeds are just, but Hippias pinned him down to a definition. Socrates declared, "What is lawful is just."130 The discussion showed that this means the laws made by the citizens as covenants or agreements with each other, even though some break them. The just person who obeys these laws and keeps one's agreements is the most trustworthy. However, Socrates did not limit justice to public laws, but he included also "unwritten laws," which must not have been made by people because they are shared by various cultures which speak different languages. Hippias suggested that God made these laws for people, for the first one is to reverence the gods. Socrates added the duty of honoring one's parents and the prohibition against incest. Hippias disagreed with the latter because he found that some transgress it. However, Socrates pointed out that those who did could not escape punishment. Another duty, that of returning benefits, was also broken, but such people suffer the gradual loss of friends. In conclusion, Socrates suggested that the gods ordained what is just, and therefore even the gods "accept the identification of the just and the lawful."131 Apparently Socrates taught the universal principle of law based on divine will as the best system for justice.

In going over Socrates' definitions, Xenophon again indicated that Socrates held that the just are those who know what is lawful and do it.132 As with wisdom, we see here the unification of knowledge and action.

Defending himself before the jury in Plato's Defense of Socrates, Socrates declared that justice is more important than death, and he cited the case of Achilles. Socrates had a deep conviction in the ultimate justice of life as indicated by his statement: "I believe it is not God's will that a better person be injured by a worse."133 Socrates referred here to a substantial injury to one's soul, not mere loss of civil rights, banishment, or even death. Rather he warned his accusers that the law of justice would bring punishment upon them for condemning an innocent man.

Socrates also refused to bring in his family to make an emotional plea because it would be an attempt to sway the judges to grant favors. This is not the duty of a good judge; instead he exhorted them to judge according to the laws.134 In the Crito he maintained his conviction that it is just and best to obey the law even though it meant his own extinction.135 Socrates discussed justice in situations where others, such as Crito, might have thought other considerations were more important, because for Socrates justice was apparently most important.

In the Gorgias Socrates discussed justice in relation to rhetoric, which only attempts to make things appear just. Socrates took the martyr's position that it is better to suffer injustice than to do it; for doing injustice injures the soul, while suffering injustice purifies it. Socrates believed that all happiness consists of education and justice. He showed that it is actually worse for the wrong-doer not to be punished, because punishment is the justice which cures the soul. The soul is more valuable than the body; therefore keeping it in balance through justice is more important than physical pain and will lead to true happiness. Justice prevents wrong-doing from becoming a chronic cancer of the soul. The best use of rhetoric, then, is to reveal to a person one's own injustice so that it may be quickly corrected.136

If virtue is happiness, and vice is misery, then the greatest evil that can happen to someone is to do wrong and not be corrected for it by punishment. Thus it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Ultimately this love of goodness can transcend even the fear of death.137 Socrates concluded the discussion with an account of the judgment which occurs after death when the soul has departed from the body. The judges in the other world pay no attention to what the body had been like or the social status, but they look only at the quality of the soul and its actions. The wicked are sent to be punished in Tartarus, and the virtuous go to the Islands of the Blessed.138 This was Socrates' way of explaining that ultimately the gods are just, and every soul gets its due.

The Republic began as an investigation of what justice is. The definitions of Simonides that justice is paying one's debts and being truthful were refuted by Socrates by means of exceptional cases, though a better dialectician might have been able to make the distinctions necessary to rescue these definitions. Socrates, however, was clearing the way for a more comprehensive search. He also refuted the common idea that justice is to benefit one's friends and harm one's enemies by showing it is unjust to injure anyone.139

Socrates refuted Thrasymachus' notion that injustice is better than justice by describing how complete injustice arouses hatred and is totally incompetent; even a gang of thieves has to be somewhat fair and cooperative among themselves in order to be successful. On the other hand, "justice brings oneness of mind and love." The just are wiser, better, and more capable of action.140 Socrates made it clear that justice is better than injustice, but he was not yet satisfied that he knew what justice is.

Next Glaucon asked Socrates to show that justice is not only good for its consequences such as rewards and reputation but is good for itself alone even without these other things. Socrates was pleased to accept the challenge, as he was delighted to discuss justice over and over.141 The extended discussions in the Republic have been presented in other places. Let us note here his description of the good judge and the conclusions Socrates drew about justice. The training of the judge is not exactly analogous to the training of the physician. The physician benefits from having experience oneself with diseases, but it is better for the judge to keep his soul pure of moral corruption. The judge should not know evil from practice but from long observation of the evil nature in others.142 For Socrates it was fundamental that a judge be a good person.

Finally when Socrates had shown that the soul as akin to the eternal and divine is in its best condition by itself when it is virtuous and just, the challenge had been answered. Then the rewards could be added also. The gods love those who are just; in the long run the just fare better, and the unjust end up suffering. Again Socrates capped his discussion of justice with a tale of the other world and the rewards and purgations which follow the judgment after death.143 From the perspective of the soul, to be just is to be blessed, and to be unjust is to suffer.


In Xenophon, Socrates defined piety or holiness as knowing how to worship the gods lawfully.144 Thus piety is closely analogous to justice, which relates to what is lawful concerning people.

Xenophon also recorded extensive conversations Socrates had to increase his companions' awareness of God's blessings in order to encourage them to be pious. In one Socrates asked Euthydemus about the care the gods have taken to provide people with everything they need. They have given light to see by, night for a time of rest, stars to mark the night, and the moon also to define the month. The earth yields food in appropriate seasons; water nourishes our bodies; and because so much is needed, it is plentiful. Fire is useful against cold and darkness. The sun gradually gets warmer and colder, but neither extreme is too great. Euthydemus was able to see the divine design and the loving kindness of the gods, but he wondered also that the lower animals also enjoy these blessings. Socrates then pointed out how goats, sheep, horses, oxen, asses, and other animals are valuable to people for food and commerce and work. They considered how the gods have endowed people with senses adapted for various perceptions; also they have granted the faculty of reasoning and memory so that we can enjoy the good and eliminate the bad. We can express and communicate and share with each other, enacting laws and administering states. Although humans cannot see the future, the gods reveal issues through divination to those who inquire. At this point Euthydemus noted Socrates' particular divine sign as a special blessing.145 Then Socrates explained the invisibility and the omnipresence of God.

That I tell the truth you will know if,
instead of waiting to see the physical forms of the gods,
you are satisfied to praise and worship them
by seeing their works.
Notice that the gods themselves demonstrate this,
for when they give good things to us,
none of them ever appears before us gift in hand;
and especially the one who coordinates
and holds together the universe
in which all things are beautiful and good,
and who always presents them fresh
and sound and ageless to be used,
and quicker than thought serves unerringly,
that one is seen in the greatest works,
and yet is unseen by us in the managing of them.
Notice that even the sun, who seems to reveal himself to all,
does not allow man to see him closely,
but if anyone attempts to look recklessly at him,
one's eyes are blinded.
Also the servants of the gods you will find are invisible;
for it is evident that the thunderbolt is hurled from above
and that it conquers all wherever it falls,
but is not seen either coming or striking or going;
and the winds themselves are not seen;
yet what they do is clear to us, and we perceive their approach.
In addition the soul of man,
which more than anything else human partakes of God,
reigns manifestly within us, and yet is itself unseen.

Understanding this, we should not disdain the unseen;
but since by close examination we know their power,
we ought to honor the spiritual.146

Euthydemus questioned how he could ever benefit God, but Socrates advised him to follow the counsel of the Delphic god to obey the laws of the state. He encouraged Euthydemus to honor the gods in this way as strictly as he could so that he could receive the greatest benefits.147 In such a comprehensive explanation Socrates indicated to his listener how many blessings he had for which he should be grateful.

In another conversation with Aristodemus, Socrates showed that the design of creation indicates the purpose of a creative God. When Socrates noticed that Aristodemus the dwarf, as he was called, did not use prayer or divination and mocked those who did, Socrates asked him if he admired any human beings for their wisdom. Aristodemus named Homer, Sophocles, and the outstanding sculptor and painter of his time. Socrates asked him to compare the phantoms they created to living, intelligent, and active beings. Although he admired living beings more by far, he assumed that they were created by chance. Socrates asked if the creatures that serve a useful purpose were more likely to be the result of chance or design. He then pointed out how various aspects of man are useful in specific ways. We have senses to perceive-eyes to see visible objects, ears to hear sounds. What value would odors have if we could not smell with our nostrils? Similarly with tastes, what if we had no tongue to discriminate sweet from bitter and others? The eyeballs, being soft, are protected behind eyelids which open and close like doors, so we can see or sleep. Eyelashes filter the winds, and eyebrows keep forehead perspiration from falling in the eyes. The ears catch all sounds, but they are not choked with them. The front teeth are adapted to biting off, while the molars can do the grinding and chewing. The mouth is conveniently placed next to the nostrils and eyes, but the ducts of elimination which release the unpleasant matter are placed far away from the senses. Aristodemus was beginning to see the handiwork of a wise and loving creator.148

Also there is the natural desire to beget children, the mother's spontaneous care of the baby, and the child's will to live and fear of death. Yet how much wisdom can a person have in a mere speck of all the earth and a mere drop of all the water that one's body contains? As for one's mind which is weightless, by what lucky accident did one snap it up, and are the orderly ranks of all the huge masses that are infinite in number caused by some kind of an absurdity? Aristodemus was still in doubt because he did not see the master hand. Socrates reminded him that he did not see his own soul either; but it masters his body. Certainly his own life is guided by design and not chance.149

At this point Aristodemus complained that spirit is too great to need his service; but Socrates declared that because it serves him, it is worthy of honor. To show that man has special favor from the gods, Socrates delineated how man is the only creature to stand upright with a wide range of vision; we are endowed with hands, which are particularly useful, and with a tongue, which can articulate the voice and express our wishes to each other. Sex is not limited by a certain season but only by old age. Man has the noblest soul, which can understand the gods who set in order the universe; only humans worship the gods. Man provides against hunger and thirst, cold and heat, relieves sickness and promotes health, acquires knowledge by work, and remembers accurately all that is heard, seen, or learned. Compared to other animals, people live like gods, by nature without equal in body or soul. The gods have given man the two most precious gifts; reason for the soul and hands for the body.150

Next Aristodemus wanted the gods to send counselors with specific advice so that he could believe. Socrates mentioned how the Athenians used divination and how portents were sent to all the world. Would God have put the belief in man that they can help or harm if they did not have the power? Would not man throughout all the ages have detected the fraud?

Do you not see that the wisest and most enduring
of human institutions, cities, and nations, are most god-fearing,
and that the most thoughtful period of life is the most religious?
Be well assured, my good friend, that the mind within you
directs your body according to its will;
and equally you must think that Thought
indwelling in the Universal disposes all things
according to its pleasure.
For think not that your eye can travel over several miles
and yet God's eye cannot see the whole world at once;
that your soul can ponder on things in Egypt and in Sicily,
and God's thought is not sufficient
to take care of the whole world at once.
But just as by serving people you find out
who is willing to serve you in return,
by being kind who will be kind to you in return,
and by taking counsel, discover the masters of thought,
so test the gods by serving them,
and see whether they intend to counsel you
in matters hidden from man.
Then you will know that this is the greatness
and this is the nature of the deity
that it sees all things and hears all things,
and is present everywhere and takes care of everything.151

Such explanations by Socrates enabled some skeptics to see a larger and more coherent picture of man's place in the universe and our relationship to the Creator.

When someone needed help that was beyond the ability of human wisdom, then Socrates recommended that the person consult the gods through divination as a means of divine guidance and counsel.152

Plato's Euthyphro was an unsuccessful attempt to define holiness or piety. Here we see Socrates at work refuting a man who claimed to be pious, but whose action of prosecuting his father for murder because he allowed a murdering servant to die (while he consulted a diviner what to do), leaves us with serious doubts as to Euthyphro's piety. It turned out that none of his definitions of piety held up.153 Perhaps in this case the man's actions spoke louder than his words.

Friendship and Love

Socrates used the term philos to mean love in the sense of a friend and Eros as the god of Love and Desire. Xenophon recorded several conversations on friendship. Socrates believed that the best of all possessions was a sincere and good friend. Yet most people are more careless with their friends than they are with their servants or their physical possessions. If a servant is ill, they take better care of him than they would a friend; and people are usually much better at listing their possessions than the names of their friends. Even so, a good friend is more loyal and helpful in watching one's private fortune and public career, in contributing, rescuing from trouble, sharing expenses, defending one's position, celebrating success, and helping up after a fall.154

Socrates was not afraid to put someone on the spot so that he might fulfill the obligation of his friendship. Once when Antisthenes had been neglecting his poverty-stricken friend, Socrates asked him in the presence of his friend, how much value in money Antisthenes placed on his different friendships.155 Such a conversation was obviously designed to stir the man into action on behalf of his friend.

In a discussion with Critobulus, Socrates indicated how to test for the qualities of friendship. The slave of eating and drinking, lust, sleep, or idleness cannot do what he should for himself or his friend. Also the spendthrift or the stingy and selfish business person offers little in friendship. The quarrelsome person makes too many enemies, and the one who receives favors without giving anything in return does not win friendship either. Socrates suggested,

We shall look for one who controls his indulgence
in the pleasures of the body,
who is truly hospitable and fair in his dealings
and eager to do as much for his benefactors
as he receives from them, so that he is worth knowing.156

To test these qualities, Socrates recommended that they look at the person's works to see if they were good and beautiful, just as they would look at the works of a sculptor or examine how an owner of horses treated his animals.157

At this point Critobulus asked Socrates how he could go about winning a friend. As usual Socrates first suggested that they ask for the guidance of the gods in choosing the prospective friend. Rather than hunting the person like an enemy or slave, Socrates mentioned that there are charms that can be sung, as the Sirens put a spell on Odysseus. This charm consisted of praising the person on one's good points. Of course to make good friends, one must be a good and helpful person. However, many people and states also attempt to do good and avoid evil, but they quarrel and treat others harshly as they do so. When such rogues fight with each other for the leadership of states, the friendly elements in people work together in parties; but the hostile elements become angry, fight jealously, and take sides. Some, then, seek friends in politics so that they can win honor, exercise power over others, and live in luxury; these are bound to be unjust, unscrupulous, and incapable of unity. The true gentleman, however, seeks to help his friends in a just cause so that they will not be the victims of injustice; he will be most able to benefit his country. It is preferable to show kindness to the best. Therefore, Critobulus ought to strive to be good and go after his gentleman. Socrates offered to assist him by telling the gentleman honestly about Critobulus and how he feels toward the man and the importance he places on friendship. However, Critobulus must study and practice virtue so that he will be thought good.158 Thus a discussion of friendship became an exhortation to become a better person.

Xenophon recorded how Socrates and his friends went to see the beautiful woman of pleasure, Theodote. After pointing out how they benefit her by looking at her beauty and becoming her admirers, Socrates gave her advice how she could be successful in obtaining friends. What she needed was an agent, who like a hound, would track down and find rich men who would desire her company. Then she could trap them by the net of her body maneuvered sensitively by the soul. However, she must not grant her favors too readily, but only when the man's desire was peaked. She asked Socrates to become her partner, and he agreed, provided that she came to him as did the others such as Apollodorus, Antisthenes, Cebes, and Simmias.159 Leave it to Socrates to get the courtesan running after him!

Plato dealt with the theme of friendship in the Lysis. First Socrates showed Hippothales how he should humble his friend Lysis by demonstrating that he needed to learn. In this dialog Socrates declared that he had always wanted a good friend, but he had never been able to find one. They argued about whether the lover or the beloved or both were the friends. Friendship appears to require that love is given and returned, but through examples of a love-hate relationship Socrates confused his listeners into believing that neither the lover nor the beloved nor both were really friends. Similar confusion surrounded the discussion of the like and unlike and whether the good or the evil loves the good. That good is loved for the sake of evil is only a relative answer and not an ultimate solution. Congeniality appeared to be a factor in the attraction of friendship, but this appeared to contradict the idea that the like is useless to the like.160 The discussion had no solid conclusion at all and seemed to have the main purpose of stimulating the young men to think about these issues without giving them the final answers.

Love in the erotic sense was the only subject Socrates claimed to understand.161 In his Symposium, which shows a knowledge of Plato's Symposium, Xenophon included a speech by Socrates on why spiritual love and friendship are better than physical and sexual love. Socrates began by observing that Love is enthroned in the heart of man as a mighty god, and all of them are influenced by love. He made a distinction between the Aphrodite that is Heavenly, which represents spiritual love, friendship and the beauty of goodness, and the Vulgar Aphrodite of carnal love. Hermogenes who was seeking virtue commented how Socrates was educating Callias toward the ideal by praising his noble conduct.

Socrates explained why the spiritual love is better than the carnal. The lusts of the body care only that they are temporarily satisfied and fade away as youthful beauty passes with age, but the soul becomes increasingly lovable as it progresses toward wisdom. Physical love is the gratification of an appetite, but the spiritual is a more enduring goodness. Returning spiritual love is more reasonable because one is being recognized as a pattern of the gentleman (beautiful and good), which does not alter when the physical appearance changes. Spiritual love begets a mutual trust, happy friendship, and a sense of unity and sharing. However, there is little to lead a person to return the love which is based only on the flesh; the object of such love often does not share the same passion and may be ashamed of the relationship. Socrates used the analogy of a farm. Physical love is like renting a farm to get as much harvest as one can over a short period of time, while spiritual love is like owning the farm and really taking care of it and seeing that it is improved. Spiritual love also stimulates one to practice virtue oneself, so that one's beloved will become self-controlled and honorable. Socrates then cited examples from myth, legend, and recent history of gods and people who demonstrated the importance and value of friendship and spiritual love.162 Here Xenophon portrayed Socrates explaining the common sense differences of the two qualities of love.

In Plato's Symposium Socrates moved into a more philosophic explanation of cosmic love. Instead of defining Love as a thing in one place or another, Socrates described Love as a moving energy which serves as a mean, a kind of link or bridge, between opposites such as good and evil, spirit and matter, gods and people, etc. He did this by first examining Eros as a primordial or cosmic desire which implies a movement toward something rather than a possession of something. Love is not the beautiful and good, but what moves us toward them. Socrates confessed that he learned these things from the mysterious Diotima. Love is a spirit which moves between the gods and humans, the offspring of the opposites Plenty and Poverty. Love moves toward wisdom and beauty and goodness. The possession of these is happiness, and love is what motivates people to give birth in beauty to these ideals. Why does love seek generation? According to Diotima, it is so that the possession of the good will be lasting, the ultimate being eternal. Therefore love desires immortality. Love seeks immortality by means of physical procreation, fame, and virtuous actions. Ultimately love transcends the individual and particular and moves into universal truth and the ideals of beauty and goodness. By this process of spiritual loving, one moves from the earthly to the heavenly and divine. The truly virtuous person then becomes the friend of God and immortal.163 Here Socrates' description of love still leads to the spiritual, but he took his listeners through a process which could move and raise their consciousness.

Love is also described by Socrates in the Phaedrus as a divine madness. This metaphorical description of love was described in the previous chapter. Here again love is seen as a spiritual quality caused by divine inspiration.

The Philosopher

In addition to discussing in a philosophic manner various themes, Socrates occasionally turned his attention to the role of the philosopher, his nature and methods, and what education would be most appropriate for that. In Plato's Sophist the philosopher is called divine and is said by Socrates to appear in many disguises as they visit mankind "beholding from above the life of those below."164 How are philosophers able to get this divine perspective on life? In the Theaetetus Socrates compared his style of life to the lawyer who was always busy in the law courts trying to devise clever and crooked arguments to win his case. In contrast, the philosopher lives a simple life unconcerned with daily business or reputation. That one appears awkward and ignorant of the particular details and is usually laughed at by the general public. However, one uses his liberty and leisure to study the true essences of what is man and justice and government and happiness, and how they are attained.165 The philosophers are the initiated who understand the invisible essences, which are so important in the good life. Earlier in the same dialog Socrates commented, "The uninitiated are those who believe in nothing except what they can grasp in their hands, and who deny the existence of actions and generation and all that is invisible."166

One of the prime requisites of the philosopher, then, is to recognize and work with abstract ideas. Socrates was portrayed by Plato as being concerned with abstract ideas and their relation to concrete objects from the time of his youth when he debated with Zeno and Parmenides.167 In the Phaedo Socrates made extensive use of abstract ideas and the doctrine of recollection which supports the theory that the soul always has the ability to know what the ideas are. Socrates pointed out that the ideas are more perfect than the things we perceive through the senses. For example, we can have an idea of perfect equality in our mind, but we could not find two material objects, such as wood or stone, which are exactly equal. Objects change, but the idea of equality is always the same. Therefore, the ideas are enduring and may have been known to our souls before.168 The philosopher is concerned not only with the eternal ideas but also with the purity of the soul itself which knows those ideas. Although the soul is unseen and intangible, it is lasting, true being. Therefore the philosopher cares more for the soul which is unchanging than for the body which is corruptible and mortal. The philosopher keeps oneself as clear as one can from the pleasures and pains of the body; rather one works to liberate the soul from these chains to the body.169 Finally Socrates expounded upon the idea he discovered in Anaxagoras that mind is the cause of everything. Man's actions are purposeful focuses on the causes in life rather than on the effects and results.170 If we are to change the pattern of our life experience, then we must examine and improve the real causes and origins of our actions.

In the Republic Socrates discussed the activities and education of the philosopher. He complained that philosophy had been misunderstood because of the superficial ways it was being practiced haphazardly. Some learned a little bit about argument and entered into controversies to display their skill at refutation without having any true understanding of the issues. Philosophy also got a bad name from those who compared and criticized persons instead of examining the immutable principles and the divine order for the best human society.171

To educate the philosopher kings, Socrates recommended much more than music and gymnastics. The candidates for the highest responsibility must study arithmetic, as numbers and mathematical concepts are the origin of the intelligible things. This is to be followed by geometry and its practical application, astronomy, and solid geometry of the three dimensions. As these are visual, the auditory is to be studied through harmonics. Then these subjects are to be correlated with each other, and the process of dialectic begins. Dialectic is pure reasoning and is concerned with first principles, inquiry, and the relationships of concepts. Ultimately everything is to be related to the good, for it is the central sun of the intelligible world; in other words, all thought and actions are to be good. The characteristics needed for this education are intelligence, memory, physical and intellectual discipline, industriousness, love of truth, and the virtues of self-control, courage, greatness, and others. None of these studies should be forced on the youth, but they should learn them by play. At age twenty the best will be selected to study for ten years the relationships between the various sciences. Again at thirty the most promising will be selected to study philosophy for five years. Their education is not complete until they spend fifteen more years in practical experience handling offices of the state. Finally after fifty they will spend their time focusing on the light of the absolute good as they advise the state according to the divine pattern.172 This may be a plan for an ideal state, but the suggestions Socrates made could still be pursued by an individual.

The relationship between the abstractions learned in arithmetic and the higher dialectic was also discussed by Socrates in the Philebus. Here the distinction was made between an impure science and a pure science pursued by philosophers for the sake of perfect accuracy and truth. The pure science of dialectic deals with the eternal and unchangeable realities which are the clearest truth. Wisdom, then, is the contemplation of true being.173 Thus dialectic leads one toward the higher realities. In the Phaedrus also Socrates stated that those who employ the dialectic of discerning the true nature of things based on the first principles of justice and goodness and beauty are worthy of being called lovers of wisdom, or philosophers.174 Thus Socrates described the high art of the philosopher.

The Good

The constant reference to the good is the cornerstone of the dialectical process. In the Philebus Socrates and his companions were seeking the good life. They decided they must mix some pleasures as are necessary with wisdom and practical knowledge. However, they eliminated the impure pleasures that are not needed in the experience of life. The ideals of beauty and truth were found to be indispensable to the good life, and balance and appropriateness the qualities which lead to these. Fitness and harmonious proportion were then followed by wisdom, the sciences and arts, and finally the pure pleasures as the essential characteristics of the good life.175 The good, along with the ideals of beauty and truth, served as the beacon light to qualify and evaluate all of the choices and guidelines of living.

The good was described in the Republic through the metaphor of the sun and the allegory of the cave as being the transcendent spiritual reality which illuminates all intelligence and knowing; it is beyond even the ideals and is the source of being. It is the center of the universe and the perfect guide as the giver of light to the enlightened soul who has traveled beyond the world of shadows. When the liberated soul returns to the reflected world of the prisoners, one must always keep one's vision focused on the good.176 Socrates used the good as the focus of spiritual reality; but by using this abstract term instead of God or Spirit, the continual emphasis and reminder is on its practical use, as in good thoughts, good actions, good whatever.

Xenophon had Socrates define both the good and the beautiful simply as what is useful.177 Also in the Greater Hippias attributed to Plato, the beautiful was looked at in terms of being appropriate, useful, and beneficial. Beauty is also considered as pleasing or enjoyable in sight or hearing; beauty then becomes a kind of beneficial pleasure.178 Here we see a similarity to the conclusions of the Philebus, and the close relation between the good and this ideal of beauty.

Socrates was wary of being led astray in an argument about the application of these concepts. Xenophon recorded how Aristippus attempted to trip him up by asking if he knew of anything good. Socrates carefully asked if he meant good for a certain purpose, for anything could be good for one thing and bad for something else. The same is true of whether something is considered beautiful or not; it depends on its function or purpose. Socrates concluded, "For all things are good and beautiful in relation to those purposes for which they are well adapted, bad and ugly in relation to these for which they are ill adapted."179 Discussion of abstractions is one thing; but when applying them to particular situations, one must be specific and qualifying.

Once when someone asked Socrates what was the best pursuit for a person, he replied, "Doing well." The person wondered whether he meant the pursuit of good luck. Socrates explained that luck and doing are at opposite extremes. Luck happens without effort, but doing something well follows from study and practice. "The best people and those who are beloved of God are those who do well; if it is farming, as good farmers; if medicine, as good doctors; if politics, as good politicians. Whoever does nothing well is neither useful in any way nor beloved of God."180 The highest principles are ultimately the most simple, and Xenophon gave it to us from Socrates as practical common sense.

Immortality of the Soul

Most of the discussions by Socrates on the immortality of the soul are found in the works of Plato. However, Xenophon did indicate that Socrates was aware that the soul leaves the body at death. "As soon as the soul, the only seat of intelligence, is gone out of a person, we carry out the body and hide it in the tomb."181 Xenophon seemed to be more concerned with the practicalities of this life, rather than with eternity.

In public Socrates spoke about death in such a way as not to offend the uninitiated. In Plato's Defense of Socrates he presented his audience with two alternatives. Either death is the end of consciousness, a nothingness, or dreamless sleep; or death begins the migration of the soul to the other world where one may visit old friends and the souls of past history. In either case, death is not bad, but a blessing.182 Because his trial was not the time or place to instruct people concerning the true nature of the soul, he simply presented two reasonable choices, reminding them that although he went to die and they to live, only God knows which is better.

In more intimate conversations Socrates presented many theories concerning the soul. In the Philebus Socrates declared that the soul which organizes and heals the body and contains the sum of all wisdom must be derived from the universal intelligence, which wisely and justly arranges all creation. Wisdom and intellect come from the soul, which is the cause of all things.183 This idea that soul and mind are the ordering principle of all things was also echoed in the Cratylus where the soul was also identified as the source of life and power of the breath in the body.184

In the Meno Socrates advocated that the soul is immortal and knows everything from eternity. It is born many times, and education is the process of awakening the knowledge inherent in the soul from before birth.185 The ability of the soul to recognize truth within itself when it sees it out in the world demonstrates this principle that the soul is the eternal knower.

Several characteristics of the soul were described by Socrates in the Philebus. Before going into a figure, Socrates used transcendental logic to prove that the soul as the self-moving principle must be immortal. The logic is transcendental because it deals with the eternal as that which has no beginning and yet is the beginning of all.

Every soul is immortal, for the ever-moving is immortal;
but what moves another or is moved by another,
ceasing to move ceases to have life.
Only the self-moving which never leaves itself,
never ceases to move, and this is also the source
and beginning of motion for all other things which move.
The beginning is unbegotten,
for everything which is begotten has a beginning,
but the beginning is not begotten from anything;
for if the beginning were begotten from anything,
then the begotten would not come from the beginning.
Since the beginning is unbegotten, it must also be indestructible;
for if the beginning were destroyed,
it could never be begotten from anything nor anything else from it,
since all things must come from the beginning.
Thus the self-moving is the beginning of motion.
This can be neither destroyed nor begotten,
or else the whole heaven and all of creation would collapse
and stop and never again have motion or birth.
But the self-moving has been shown to be immortal,
and one who says that this self-motion is the essence
and the very idea of the soul will not be disgraced.
For every body which is moved from without is soulless,
but that which is moved from within itself is the nature of the soul.
And if this is true, that nothing else but the soul moves itself,
then the soul must necessarily be unbegotten and immortal.186

Such an argument shows how the soul transcends the limitations of time and space.

In the figure of the chariot and the pair of winged horses, Socrates described the ability of the soul to transcend into the heavenly worlds provided the charioteer can correctly guide the horses. In the higher realms the soul can follow after various of the divine patterns as symbolized by the different gods and goddesses. It is in these higher realms where the soul perceives the eternal truths. The souls which lose their wings of transcendence fall down to earth and reincarnate in various types of human experience. The philosophers are the ones working to grow back their wings by studying universal truths. Many people seek out beauty in an attempt to re-capture the original beatific vision of the light experienced before the soul became imprisoned in a body. This is why people experience ecstasy when they find some earthly beauty which in some way approaches the divine; this experience is called love.187

The souls on earth still follow the pattern of their god. The good and bad horses represent the two aspects of character which can be virtuous and modest or emotionally unrestrained. If by the charioteer's efforts the passion can be moderated into friendship, then the lover and the beloved can share a beautiful interchange of love. If through order and philosophy they are able to master themselves, the love in their souls will continue to awaken, their wings will grow, and they will be prepared for their heavenly flight. If not, and they give into sensual indulgence; then they must continue their earthly sojourns. When they do attain their heavenly pilgrimage, the plumage in their wings will match because of their love for each other.188 Through this imaginative rendering, Socrates encouraged his listeners to pursue the heavenly way.

In the Republic Socrates described the tripartite nature of the soul as the appetites which can lead to moneymaking, the aggressive which can make one ambitious, and the learning or reasoning which leads to the love of wisdom. The philosophical is the most capable of ruling. The symbolic image of these is the combination of a many-headed beast, a lion, and a person. The respective virtues of each are self-control, courage, and wisdom. When wisdom, which is the most divine quality, is governing, then the energies are successfully employed, and the soul is in harmony.189 Socrates spoke to the intellect of his listeners and said in effect, "Take charge of your life!"

As Socrates described the rewards of justice and virtue, he noted that even the most evil and vicious person cannot destroy one's own soul. Therefore since the disease of the soul, which is vice, does not destroy it, then the soul must be immortal. Also if the souls died off, where would the new souls come from? To see the soul in its purity, we must not look at it when still marred by the appearance of the body, but contemplate the soul with the eye of reason. If we do, we will find that the love of wisdom and virtue are intimations of its divine and eternal quality.190

Finally in the tale of Er, Socrates recounted how the soul leaves the body at death and travels in the other worlds between lives, how it chooses its own life destiny before it returns to earth, and why philosophy is such a valuable guide not only in this world, but also in the next.191 The soul as our eternal beingness is always with us; therefore consider how important it is that we take care of ourselves!

The classic text on the immortality of the soul is Plato's Phaedo which describes the last hours of Socrates' life on earth. While awaiting the time of his execution, Socrates made the somewhat surprising and humorous statement that the philosopher seeks death. They laughed, because many people might nod in agreement at this description of the philosopher. However, there is a secret doctrine against suicide as if man were a prisoner who had no right to open the door and run away. Socrates explained that this mystery is because the gods are our guardians, and we humans are a possession of theirs. We must wait until the gods call us. Socrates was not at all upset by death, because he believed he was going to the gods who are wise and good. The reason why even in life the philosopher is always dying is because death is the release of the soul from the body, and the philosopher is continually striving to free the soul from the desires, pleasures, and pains of the body. The philosopher is looking for the truth, and because the senses are imperfect guides, one turns one's attention to the ideals and the intelligence of the soul. The soul perceives best directly within itself. When God releases us from the "foolishness of the body, we shall be pure and know ourselves all that is pure." Ultimate purification then is the final release from the body at death. Thus the philosopher practices dying and rejoices at the ultimate liberation.192

Socrates obviously had no fear of death, but his friends still had many doubts. Therefore he took this time to reason with them about the immortality of the soul. Socrates began with the ancient doctrine of reincarnation to show that souls exist before birth and after death. Opposites are generated out of their opposites, and therefore the living come from the dead, and the dead come from the living, just like with sleeping and waking. Again the complete cycle is needed if all souls are not to end up dead. The theory of recollection that learning is the awakening of awareness known before birth implies also that the soul has a previous existence.193

To show that the soul continues to exist after death, Socrates combined the theory of opposites with the understanding of the absolute essences which transcend the physical. The soul exemplifies the principles of the invisible, unchanging, ruling, ordering. All of the qualities of the soul are better and longer lasting than the characteristics of the body. The soul which is kept pure through philosophy will more likely go to the gods, which it resembles, than the soul which has been dragged down through the visible world by attachments to bodily things. Socrates expressed confidence that the soul which is kept clear of the pleasures and pains of the body will not be scattered to the winds at death, but Simmias and Cebes still were not sure.194

Socrates mentioned that the swans are prophetic and sing in anticipation of their deaths, not from sorrow but for joy. The theory that the soul is like a harmony is proven fallacious by the theory of recollection as the harmony does not precede its elements, nor does it have knowledge, nor is it a ruling principle; a harmony admits of degrees of concord and dissonance, but the soul has no degrees as to its being. Finally Socrates explained how the absolute essences cannot admit their opposite. Because the soul is the essence of life, there is no way it could become death. Therefore, the soul is immortal. It is generally recognized that God and the essential form of life and the immortal will never perish. Thus when death attacks a person, the body may die; but the immortal soul retires at the approach of death and is preserved safe and sound, and it truly exists in another world.195

Having demonstrated the logical proof, Socrates moved right into a description of the other world, where the souls live after they have departed from the physical realm. These higher worlds are lighter, brighter, more beautiful and diverse. Socrates gave a detailed description of various rivers, or currents of energy. Although he did not claim that this is a precise picture, he gave his listeners enough information so that they could conceive of the nature and vastness of the other worlds.196 Socrates allayed many of their fears and shared extensive knowledge with his friends.

As we shall explore more fully in the next chapter, Socrates lived and died in harmony with his teachings. He calmly and peacefully took the poison which released him from his physical body.


1. Aristotle Metaphysics I, 6 (987).
2. Plato Cratylus 411-412.
3. Ibid. 413.
4. P. Theaetetus 179-184.
5. P. Cratylus 413.
6. Aristotle Metaphysics I, 6 (987).
7. Ibid. XIII, 4 (1078).
8. Xenophon Mem. I, i, 11-15.
9. X. Mem. I, i, 16.
10. X. Mem. III, xii, 1-8.
11. X. Mem. IV, vii, 9.
12. P. Republic III, 403-410.
13. Ibid. III, 410-412.
14. Ibid. II, 376-383.
15. Ibid. III, 386-392.
16. Ibid. III, 392-403.
17. Ibid. X, 595-608.
18. X. Symposium III, 6.
19. P. Defense of Socrates 22.
20. P. Symposium 223.
21. P. Ion 530-542.
22. P. Republic V, 449-468.
23. Ibid. II, 372-373.
24. Field, G. C. Plato and his Contemporaries, p. 150-151.
25. X. Oeconomicus VII-X.
26. Diogenes Laertius II, 33.
27. X. Mem. II, ii, 1-14.
28. X. Mem. II, iii, 1-4.
29. X. Mem. II, iii, 5-16.
30. X. Mem. II, iii, 17-19.
31. X. Mem. IV, vii, 1-3.
32. X. Mem. IV, vii, 4-8. 33. X. Oeconomicus I-XXI.
34. X. Mem. III, x, 9-15.
35. X. Mem. III, x, 1-5.
36. X. Mem. III, x, 6-8.
37. P. Cratylus 383.
38. Ibid. 384-428.
39. Ibid. 428-440.
40. P. Gorgias 448-468.
41. P. Phaedrus 234-235.
42. Ibid. 258-274.
43. Ibid. 274-277.
44. X. Mem. III, i, 1-11.
45. X. Mem. III, iii, 1-15.
46. X. Mem. III, iv, 1-12.
47. X. Mem. III, v, 1-28.
48. P. Republic V, 466-471.
49. Ibid. IX, 592.
50. Ibid. II, 369-376.
51. Ibid. IV, 419-434.
52. Ibid. VIII, 544.
53. Ibid. VIII, 545-550.
54. Ibid. VIII, 550-555.
55. Ibid. VIII, 555-562.
56. Ibid. VIII, 562-569.
57. X. Mem. IV, vi, 12.
58. X. Mem. I, vi, 15.
59. X. Mem. II, i, 1-7.
60. X. Mem. III, vi, 1-18.
61. X. Mem. III, vii, 1-9.
62. P. Republic III, 412-417.
63. Ibid. V, 473-480; VI, 484-497.
64. P. Alcibiades I 134-135.
65. P. Laches 189-190.
66. P. Republic I, 352-354.
67. P. Meno 78-79.
68. Ibid. 86-96.
69. Ibid. 96-100.
70. P. Protagoras 329-334.
71. Ibid. 349-361.
72. P. Phaedo 69.
73. P. Meno 77.
74. P. Protagoras 345.
75. X. Oeconomicus XX, 29.
76. X. Mem. I, ii, 50.
77. P. Defense of Socrates 26.
78. P. Euthyphro 8.
79. P. Lysis 219-221.
80. P. Theaetetus 176.
81. Ibid. 176-177.
82. X. Oeconomicus I, 18-23.
83. X. Mem. I, iii, 8-13.
84. X. Mem. III, ix, 8.
85. P. Phaedrus 237-238.
86. P. Republic VIII, 558-559.
87. Ibid. IX, 571-587.
88. P. Philebus 11-55.
89. P. Republic IX, 583-587.
90. X. Mem. I, vi, 1-5.
91. X. Mem. IV, v, 1-11.
92. P. Cratylus 412.
93. P. Charmides 158-175.
94. P. Phaedo 68-69.
95. P. Republic IV, 430-432.
96. P. Gorgias 491.
97. Ibid. 491-508.
98. X. Mem. IV, vi, 10-11.
99. X. Mem. III, ix, 1-3.
100. P. Laches 190-199.
101. P. Protagoras 350.
102. P. Phaedo 68.
103. P. Republic IV, 442.
104. X. Mem. I, i, 6-9.
105. X. Mem. III, v, 21-23.
106. X. Mem. III, ix, 10-11.
107. P. Lysis 207-210.
108. P. Laches 184-185.
109. P. Euthydemus 288-292.
110. P. Theaetetus 145-172.
111. Ibid. 177-210.
112. P. Phaedrus 229-230.
113. P. Alcibiades I 106-118.
114. Ibid. 124-134.
115. P. Philebus 48-49.
116. X. Mem. III, ix, 12-13.
117. Diogenes Laertius II, 33.
118. X. Mem. III, vii, 1-9.
119. X. Mem. I, vii, 1-5.
120. X. Mem. IV, vi, 7.
121. X. Mem. III, ix, 4.
122. X. Mem. III, ix, 5.
123. X. Mem. III, ix, 6-7.
124. P. Euthydemus 278-282.
125. P. Apology 23.
126. P. Crito 44-49.
127. P. Euthydemus 289.
128. P. Phaedo 107.
129. Ibid. 107-108.
130. X. Mem. IV, iv, 5-12.
131. X. Mem. IV, iv, 13-25.
132. X. Mem. IV, vi, 5-6.
133. P. Defense of Socrates 28-30.
134. Ibid. 34-35.
135. P. Crito 50-54.
136. P. Gorgias 469-480.
137. Ibid. 508-513.
138. Ibid. 523-526.
139. P. Republic I, 331-336.
140. Ibid. I, 351-352.
141. Ibid. II, 358.
142. Ibid. III, 408-409.
143. Ibid. X, 612-616.
144. X. Mem. IV, vi, 2-4.
145. X. Mem. IV, iii, 2-12.
146. X. Mem. IV, iii, 13-14.
147. X. Mem. IV, iii, 15-17.
148. X. Mem. I, iv, 2-7.
149. X. Mem. I, iv, 7-9.
150. X. Mem. I, iv, 10-14.
151. X. Mem. I, iv, 15-18.
152. X. Mem. IV, vii, 10.
153. P. Euthyphro 2-15.
154. X. Mem. II, iv, 1-7.
155. X. Mem. II, vi, 1-5.
156. X. Mem. II, vi 1-5.
157. X. Mem. II, vi, 6-7.
158. X. Mem. II, vi, 8-39.
159. X. Mem. III, xi, 1-18.
160. P. Lysis 205-223.
161. P. Symposium 177.
162. X. Symposium VIII, 1-41.
163. P. Symposium 199-212.
164. P. Sophist 216.
165. P. Theaetetus 172-175.
166. Ibid. 155.
167. P. Parmenides 129-135.
168. P. Phaedo 72-77.
169. Ibid. 80-84.
170. Ibid. 97-100.
171. P. Republic VI, 498-500.
172. Ibid. 521-541.
173. P. Philebus 55-59.
174. P. Phaedrus 276-278.
175. P. Philebus 61-66.
176. P. Republic VI-VII, 505-521.
177. X. Mem. IV, vi, 8-9.
178. P. Greater Hippias 290-300.
179. X. Mem. III, viii, 1-7.
180. X. Mem. III, ix, 14-15.
181. X. Mem. I, ii, 53.
182. P. Defense of Socrates 40-42.
183. P. Philebus 30.
184. P. Cratylus 399-400.
185. P. Meno 81-86.
186. P. Phaedrus 245-246.
187. Ibid. 246-252.
188. Ibid. 252-257.
189. P. Republic IX, 580-592.
190. Ibid. X, 608-621.
191. Ibid. X, 617-621.
192. P. Phaedo 61-68.
193. Ibid. 70-77.
194. Ibid. 77-84.
195. Ibid. 85-106.
196. Ibid. 107-114.

Copyright © 1996, 2006 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.


Life of Confucius
Attitudes of Confucius
How Confucius Taught
What Confucius Taught
Example of Confucius
Influence of Confucius


The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Example of Socrates
Influence of Socrates
Confucius and Socrates Compared

Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato

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