Beck Index
Confucius and Socrates Contents


Content and Topics

by Sanderson Beck

Traditional Topics
Desires, Self-control
Knowledge, Wisdom
Friendship, Love
The Philosopher
The Good
Immortality, Soul

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Socrates was not only an innovator in the method which he developed, but also in the topics of conversation which he emphasized. Aristotle summarizes the original contributions of various philosophers before him, including those of Socrates and his own teacher, Plato. In his Metaphysics he indicates that when Plato was young he "first became familiar with Cratylus and with the Heraclitean doctrines that all sensible things are ever in a state of flux; these views he held even in later years."1 In the dialogue named Cratylus Plato has Socrates express the idea that all things move, flow, and change.2 The inspiration which Socrates felt during this dialogue (mentioned in the previous chapter, note 10) of which he was unsure, is probably of the Heraclitean philosophy. Socrates declares that the ideas he is expressing here are not his own.3 However, it was not unusual for Socrates to discuss whatever ideas were current and of interest to his listeners. In the Theaetetus there is a discussion of Heraclitus' notion that everything is in motion as compared to Parmenides' view that everything is at rest. If things were always changing in every way, then we would not be able to use names with any accuracy.4 Some sort of a balance of these two theories apparently seemed necessary to Socrates and Plato, as the Cratylus is itself a discussion of the origin of names, and Socrates mentions Anaxagoras' idea that notions like justice are mental.5

After mentioning Cratylus, Aristotle gives his understanding of what Socrates and Plato taught.

Socrates, however, was occupying himself with ethical matters and neglecting the world of nature as a whole, but seeking the universal in these ethical matters, and concentrated thought for the first time on definitions; Plato accepted his teaching, but held that the problem applied not to sensible things but to entities of another kind - for this reason, that the common definition could not be a definition of any sensible thing, as they were always changing. Things of this sort, then, he called Ideas, and sensible things, he said, were all named after these, and in virtue of a relation to these; for the many existed by participation in the Ideas that have the same name as they. Only the name "participation" was new; for the Pythagoreans say that things exist by "imitation" of numbers, and Plato says they exist by participation, changing the name.6

Toward the end of the same work, Aristotle repeats the same view that the idea theory was developed in response to the Heraclitean philosophy of change; ideas were differentiated from sensible things. He repeats that Socrates was concerned with the virtues of character and was the first to search for universal definitions, although Democritus had defined the hot and the cold, and the Pythagoreans had studied such things as opportunity, justice, and marriage in terms of numbers (numerology). Aristotle also credits Socrates with using inductive arguments (based on cases or examples). "But Socrates did not make the universals or the definitions exist apart: they, however, gave them separate existence, and this was the kind of thing they called Ideas."7 Certainly Socrates used definitions and was aware of universal concepts, but there is a fine line between this and Plato's Ideas as formalized entities. It is possible that Socrates could understand the difference between the visible world and the intellectual world and hold that mind is the cause of all things, as he had learned from Anaxagoras, just as he also believed that to truly know what is good is to do it, without separating ideas and knowledge from the lives and actions of people. Socrates seems to have been less theoretical and speculative than Plato and Aristotle, as he focused his energy on the practical questions of how to live the good life.

Xenophon emphasizes this point rather strongly. He states that Socrates was not concerned with "the nature of the universe" or "the laws that govern the phenomena of the heavens." He would ask those who studied these things if "their knowledge of human affairs was so complete that they must seek these new fields for the exercise of their brains; or whether it was their duty to neglect human affairs and consider only spiritual things?" Furthermore, he noticed that they never seemed to agree. "Some hold that Being is one, others that it is infinite in number; some that all things are in perpetual motion, others that nothing can ever be moved at any time; some that all life is birth and decay, others that nothing can ever be born or ever die." He also pointed out that those who study human nature can apply their knowledge for their own good and for anyone else they choose, and asked of what use was the knowledge of natural phenomena.8 It is important to note here that he was not against scientific research which might have some use, but was merely skeptical of the value of idle speculation.

Then Xenophon lists very specifically the type of questions which Socrates did discuss.

His own conversation was always considering human things, such as: What is holy, what is unholy; what is beautiful, what is shameful; what is just, what is unjust; what is prudence, what is madness; what is courage, what is cowardice; what is a state, what is a statesman; what is government, what is a governor; other such questions the knowledge of which made "gentlemen" (good and noble men), while ignorance should involve the reproach of "slavishness."9

Before we examine Socrates' views on each of these topics, let us first consider his attitude toward the more customary educational pursuits of his time.

Traditional Topics

The usual education for the young Greek citizen consisted of gymnastics, music, and grammar. Gymnastics refers to the various aspects of physical training including preparation for fighting in battle. Music to the Greeks meant the various arts of the Muses such as playing the harp and flute, singing, dancing, poetry, and perhaps painting and sculpture. Grammar involved learning to read and write. Socrates supported the idea of studying these basic subjects, although he was not a teacher of them.

Socrates exercised his own body and recommended that others do so also. Xenophon records how he counseled Epigenes, who was out of shape, on the value of physical training. Epigenes rationalizes that he is not an athlete, but Socrates points out that in case of war it is those in bad condition who are killed or disgrace themselves, while the physically fit fight valiantly and can help their friends. Even though military training is not required by the state, he ought to consider the advantages of good health due to physical conditioning. Bad conditioning and bad health can even lead to loss of memory, depression, discontent, and insanity.10 In another passage Xenophon tells us that Socrates very seriously urged his companions to take care of their health. His advice centered around the idea that each person should understand his own unique characteristics.

You should learn all you can from those who know. Everyone should watch himself throughout his life, and notice what sort of meat and drink and what form of exercise suit his constitution, and he should regulate them in order to enjoy good health. For by such attention to yourselves you can discover better than any doctor what suits your constitution.11

In Xenophon's Symposium Socrates praises the dancing of a boy at the banquet, because he used all parts of his body actively. Then he requested to learn the steps from the dancing master. The others laughed when he said he wanted to dance, but Socrates asks in a series of rhetorical questions whether they were laughing because he wished to improve his health, or get more pleasure from food and sleep, or so that unlike long-distance runners and boxers he can give his body a symmetrical development by exercising his arms and legs, or because he will not need a partner for exercise, or because he can do it in any convenient place, or are they laughing because he has a large paunch and wants to reduce it. In fact Charmides had caught him dancing just the other day, and after he had heard the reasons he went home and practiced shadow-boxing.12

In Plato's Republic we have Socrates' polished view of gymnastics and its relation to music. He suggests that training begin in early years and continue through life. Socrates reminds his listeners that it is the soul which improves the body, and not the reverse. Discipline of bodily habits is especially important for the guardians of the state. This would prohibit excessive sleep, fancy dinners, courtesans, and other luxuries. They should have no need of lawyers and doctors who invent names for diseases and prolong illnesses by pampering them. In Plato's view the healthy should live and the diseased should be left to die.12 Whether Socrates' attitude was this harsh is hard to say.

The traditional view was that gymnastics was for the body and music for the soul. However, Socrates here indicates that the purpose of exercise was not just to build muscles, but to stimulate the courageous spirit. Socrates describes the danger of too much gymnastics without music as a harsh and ferocious temper, while the opposite extreme leads to softness and effeminacy. By balancing the two together the philosopher will be gentle yet strong.

When a man allows music to play upon one
and to pour into his soul through the funnel of his ears
those sweet and soft and melancholy airs,
his whole life being spent in the delights of song
in the first stage of the process the spirit within one
is tempered like iron and made useful,
instead of brittle and useless.
But if he carries on the softening and soothing process
in the next stage he begins to melt and dissipate,
until he has wasted away his spirit
and cut out the muscles of one' soul;
he becomes a feeble warrior.

If the spirit is naturally weak, onereaches this result quickly,
but if he is high-spirited the weakening makes one excitable,
easily irritated by the slightest provocation,
and as quickly burnt out.
Instead of being spirited
he becomes irritable, peevish, and discontented.

In gymnastics, if a man takes hard exercise
and is a great eater, not engaging in music and philosophy,
at first the fitness of his body fills him with pride and spirit;
he becomes braver and bolder than he was.
Then what happens
If he does nothing else and has no contact with the Muses,
does not even that love of learning in one's soul,
having no taste of study or inquiry or discussion or the arts,
become feeble, deaf, and blind,
since his mind never wakes up or receives nourishment,
nor are his senses purified?
He ends up becoming a hater of reasoning, unmusical,
and never using persuasion by words,
one achieves all one' ends
like a beast by violence and savagery;
in his ignorance and ineptitude
he lives without propriety and grace.

As there are these two principles of human nature,
I would say some god gave to mankind
these two arts, music and gymnastics,
for the service of the spirited and philosophical in them
(only indirectly for the soul and body)
in order that they may be harmoniously adjusted
by the proper degree of tension and relaxation in each.
Then he who blends gymnastics with music
and applies them most appropriately to the sou
is the one we may most correctly call the perfect musician
and harmonist, much more than the tuner of strings.13

In the Republic Socrates and his friends agree that music and poetry are useful in the important early education, although they felt there should be censorship for the protection of the children. The false and ignominious stories about the gods which the poets have invented should be eliminated, for the young are not able to understand the allegorical meanings. God is good and should be portrayed as such. God would not represent himself falsely; the lies of the poets are not useful to the gods or to men; therefore the false tales are to be rejected.14 Discouraging and erroneous myths about the underworld and the nature of the soul also must be cast out in order to remove the fear of death. Weakening and pitiful lamentations should be avoided as should excessive laughter at the expense of the gods. The poets should not show the heroes behaving oppositely to the virtues and qualities of good character. The purpose of poetry is to reveal the truth, not what is false.15 Socrates would have poetry show people admirable examples so that there would be positive patterns for the masses to follow.

In terms of style, Socrates, saw tragedy and comedy as imitative, some poetry as simply narrative, and epic poetry as a combination of the two. The guardians should not imitate bad qualities. The musical harmonies and rhythms can be simple or complex, but the simple ones are to be preferred since the others may be confusing. The harmonies which are soft and indolent are not considered to be beneficial to the education for strong character; rather the military strains which lead to self-control and courage are to be selected. Musical instruments are to be reduced to the lyre and harp for the city and the pipe for the country shepherds. Harmony is an important quality, but it is chiefly to be found in the life of virtue where the beauty of the soul harmonizes with the beauty of the body. Love should be true, temperate, and free of sensual indulgence and crudeness.16

Such a radical proposal does not appear in the works of Xenophon or any other Socratic except Plato, and it is therefore likely that he has taken some ideas of his teacher and gone beyond them. Although we may not agree on all the reasoning or the conclusions because many important values may not have been examined (such as Aristotle's purgation of the emotions theory), still it is useful to note the search for the ideal development of character always keeping the good in mind. In this sense the discussion is Socratic, as Socrates was always investigating what is beneficial for man.

In Book X Plato again represents poetry as inferior, because it is imitative. Here is perhaps Plato's most definitive statements of the ideas as separate entities (except perhaps the Seventh Letter) which Aristotle has told us was Plato's unique contribution. Here three levels are presented. There is the single idea of the bed as created by God, physical beds made by carpenters, and representation of a bed as imitated by a poet or painter. This last is only an imitation of the appearance of the physical bed which is based on the idea of a bed. Therefore the poetic and artistic imitator is the farthest from truth and real knowledge. There are three arts related here. The user of a things knows it best from actual experience. The maker is instructed by the user and has belief but not knowledge. The imitator has neither belief nor knowledge.

Poetry is also seen here as being deceptive and as dragging people down into negative emotions such as pity, sorrow, fear, buffoonery, etc. Although they admit that they love poetry, according to these arguments they must expel it from the ideal state.17 It is also useful to keep in mind that the purpose of this discussion is to delineate the perfectly just state, and that poetry is being examined here in relation to that according to certain definite criteria. This author feels that these criticisms of poetry are certainly open to criticism themselves, but this is not the place to explore those areas.

Even disregarding the radical ideas of Plato, Socrates could certainly be critical of poets and rhapsodes. In Xenophon's Symposium he agrees with Antisthenes' comment that these reciters who have memorized Homer are not really wise. "No," said Socrates, "and the reason is clear: they do not know the inner meaning of the poems."18 Here we can perhaps infer that Socrates places some value on understanding the inner meaning of poetry.

In Plato's Apology Socrates tells how he discovered that the poets are not wise but rather inspired as are prophets and oracles.19 At the end of Plato's Symposium we find Socrates arguing with the drowsy Agathon and Aristophanes that the genius (spirit which does the inspiring) of tragedy and comedy are the same.20 Because of his own genius, or divine sign, it is possible that Socrates placed more value on inspiration than the rationalistic Plato, even though Socrates recognized that inspiration did not necessarily give true wisdom.

The Ion shows Socrates questioning a Homeric rhapsode to see if he possessed the wisdom concerning what is portrayed in the poems. Socrates discovers that this reciter is not able to answer questions about the material to demonstrate that he is wise. Using the analogy of the magnet Socrates concludes that God inspires the poet who inspires the rhapsode who inspires the listeners.21 Since he was primarily searching for wisdom, Socrates discovered that poetry was not the answer.

In discussing the ideal state in the Republic Socrates argues that women should receive the same education as men since their nature is not essentially different for learning. Here again we have a very theoretical discussion, considering that there were no women disciples of Socrates. Another radical idea which was not practiced as far as we know was the plan that the guardians should have their wives and children in common. This revolutionary challenge to the family system has not been adopted by any major culture. The reasoning here is to substitute a wider expansion of love and brotherhood among the whole community rather than limiting it to the family. However, results so far have shown that blood is still thicker than water. Matrimony was still to be held sacred while licentiousness was discouraged, but the plan to do so was to reward heroism and excellence with conjugal freedoms - a kind of aristocratic eugenics. The others were to be deceived by telling them the pairings were due to a lottery. Women were to bear children from the age of twenty to forty, while men could beget from twenty-five to fifty-five. Children were not to know who their physical parents were, but the entire state was to be as one family. Children would have special nurses and be trained for war.22

It is hard to imagine the practical side of Socrates suggesting such a contrived and artificial system except merely as an interesting topic of discussion. In fact the ideal state for Socrates did not require an army, because all the citizens would live moderate and self-controlled lives. It is only when Glaucon, Plato's brother, objects to the simplicity of this life-style and requests that they have the modern conveniences of sofas, dining tables, sauces, sweets, etc. that Socrates realizes that they wish to examine not the best state but a luxurious state. He agrees to this as an exercise to see what the origins of justice and injustice are.23 Therefore the breakdown of the family and private lives of the citizens in this greedy and feverish state is more a result of the dialectical proposal of his listeners than it is his own personal recommendation. The result from this point of view represents more of a compromise with the reality of people's greed and lusts than a portrayal of the true and practical ideal of Socrates' personal life-style.

Socrates occasionally discussed women, children, family, and education. He often recommended the famous lady, Aspasia, as a teacher. As the mistress of Pericles, she was believed by some to be the "power behind the throne." A few fragments and references to the dialogue of Aeschines called Aspasia indicate that Socrates recommended her to Callias for the education of his children. He is surprised that men could be educated by a woman, but Socrates describes the achievements of some of the famous women in history. Aspasia not only influenced Pericles, but raised Lysicles after Pericles' death from obscurity to a prominent position in Athens. He then describes a counseling session she did for Xenophon and his wife. She Socratically asks them if they prefer the more valuable possessions of their neighbors to their own lesser ones, and they do. Then she asks if they would prefer to have their neighbor's husband or wife if they were better, and they are each silent. Her conclusion is that they ought to improve themselves so that they each will have the best husband and the most excellent wife.24 Socrates apparently had great respect for women who were truly wise.

In Xenophon's Oeconomicus there is a long description of how Ischomachus educated his wife to cooperate with him in household management. Socrates appears to be very eager to learn these things and pass them on to the inquiring Critobulus.25 Diogenes Laertius records a clever quip of Socrates when someone asked him whether he should marry or not. He replied, "Whichever you do you will regret it."26 This comment really struck a chord in the indecisive Kierkegaard.

Xenophon narrates an extended lesson given by Socrates to his son Lamprocles when he observed the young man's attitude toward his mother was negative. He reminded him of the gratitude he ought to have towards her for all the benefits she had given him. He explains how a man chooses a wife to bear his own children, how she labors for the child, giving her own food, and after birth raises and cares for it, how she guesses the needs and likes of the child and supplies all these things over many years without knowing what she will get in return. He asks if Xanthippe's brutality is worse than a wild beast's or her words any more harmful than an actor's threats in a tragedy. Does not she do everything she can for his own good? Parents are more deserving than anyone of gratitude, and if he is ungrateful to them, what will other people or the gods think of him?27 According to Xenophon, Socrates' feelings of family loyalty were very strong.

This is further demonstrated in his counseling of Chaerecrates, the brother of Chaerophon, when Socrates discovered they had been quarreling with each other. He points out to Chaerecrates that he only has one brother, even if they do have to share the family's possessions. Is not community better than solitude? Why cannot there be friendship between brothers? "Common parentage and common upbringing are strong ties of affection."28 However, Chaerecrates says that Chaerophon treats him worse than everyone else. Socrates asks if he can manage a horse without knowing the right way. Although Chaerecrates is willing to return kindness for kindness, his brother only annoys him. Socrates suggests that he can tame a growling dog by kindness rather than by getting angry. Chaerecrates feels the need for some wisdom, and Socrates asks him if he wanted an invitation to dinner, what would he do? He replies that he would first extend an invitation. A similar process would work in doing a favor for the other person. Socrates suggests that Chaerecrates, even though he is the younger, is the most worthy to begin this process of kindness. "Worthless people, it is true, yield most readily to gifts, but kindness is used to be most successful with a gentleman."29 Socrates offers the analogy of the hands which are given by God to help each other? Hands cannot stretch more than six feet apart, but brothers can help each other at long range.30 Again Xenophon shows us the practical Socrates, offering good advice in personal situations as they arise.

Xenophon gives us a pragmatic Socrates also in terms of the extent the study of any given subject should go, the criterion being usefulness. In geometry that meant being able to measure and divide land and compute the yield. Xenophon writes that Socrates was not unfamiliar with the more complicated problems; but he felt that they could take up a lifetime, and there were more useful studies.31

Astronomy was similarly held to be valuable as far as it was useful, which was to tell the time of day, month or year, and for navigation. Socrates attended lectures on the revolutions of the planets and such things, but Xenophon deprecates the investigations of Anaxagoras regarding the heavenly machinery and that the sun is fire and points out some of the differences - notably that sunlight is essential to vegetation while fire withers things. Arithmetic likewise was to be studied as far as it was useful.32 Here Xenophon seems to be giving his own experience with Socrates and also defending him against the charges which were leveled at Anaxagoras and other innovative thinkers. He does hint that Socrates had curiosity and knowledge in these areas. It is likely that Socrates was probably somewhere in between Xenophon and Plato on these points, or perhaps he comprehended them both. Plato's views will be discussed when we examine the education of the philosopher.

In his treatise, the Oeconomicus, Xenophon gives us a Socratic definition on estate management. Socrates begins by showing the young Critobulus that it is valuable to be able to manage one's property and possessions well, and that true wealth is what is useful and beneficial. Therefore the correct use of money and possessions is very important. Next he aids Critobulus in becoming aware that he needs to learn how to manage his money better. Then Socrates delineates the elements of household management. For studying the relationship between the husband and the wife, he offers to introduce the young man to Aspasia. Socrates discourses for a while on the values which farming teaches. When Critobulus asks what makes some farmers so much more successful than others, Socrates recounts a long interview he had with the gentleman Ischomachus. Socrates draws the successful gentleman out on how he educated his wife to cooperate with him in managing the household in a well-ordered and industrious manner, and how he taught his wife to change from using cosmetics to the natural beauty of good character. Socrates who only considers himself to be an idle chatterer and not a true gentleman, asks Ischomachus to explain the occupations of a gentleman. Then Ischomachus describes his piety toward the gods and his pursuit of wealth so that he can benefit his friends and the city. He describes his daily routine as a country gentleman in taking care of his farm and servants. He explains to Socrates how he educates his stewards to good will, diligence, as supervisors, and to be just. Ischomachus teaches Socrates the art of agriculture by Socratic discussion from the nature of the land and soil to sowing, reaping, threshing, and winnowing to planting; he gives a summation of the art of farming as taking loving care of everything, and gives a description of the kingly man.33

This dialogue has often been ignored by Socratic scholars as merely the views of Xenophon, but a careful examination shows not only the use of Socratic questioning, but also his helpfulness in counseling Critobulus, his defining of the subject, his step-by-step reasoning, and even the pedagogy used by Ischomachus on his wife and servants, and the ideals towards which he educated them. Naturally Xenophon was more interested in estate management and agriculture than Socrates was, but continuously Socrates demonstrates the desire and ability to discourse intelligently with people on any subject of concern to them. Apparently Xenophon's personal philosophy was much influenced by his contact with Socrates when he was a young man. Again Xenophon portrays for us a pragmatic Socrates who by his conversation becomes extraordinarily useful to his friends.

Xenophon also described some of Socrates' visits to the artisans for which he was well-known. In conversing with an armorer whose breastplates were more expensive than others, Socrates discovers that they are better due to his making them with better proportions so that they fit and are easier to wear. Socrates points out that some people's bodies are not well-proportioned. How then can he make it well-proportioned? The answer is that he makes it to fit, and a good fit is well-proportioned in this case.34 Here the ideal is not a pre-conceived pattern of beauty, but rather what is going to be practical for the individual.

Xenophon gives a Socrates with a different point of view on art than is found in Plato. When he visited the house of a painter, he asked him if painting is a representation of things seen. It is. Then he asks if artists in copying types of beauty have difficulty finding a perfect model, and therefore combine the beautiful details of several to make the whole figure look beautiful. They do. He inquires whether they can reproduce the character of the soul. The painter asks in response how they could imitate what is not visible. Now Socrates begins to probe for the subtle and real level of experience.

"Do people commonly express the feelings of sympathy and aversion by their looks?"

"I think so."

"Then cannot this much be imitated in the eyes?"


"Does it seem to you that the joys and sorrows of their friends produce the same expression on men's faces, whether they really care or not?"

"Oh no, of course not; they look radiant at their joys, and downcast at their sorrows."

"Then is it possible to represent these looks too?"


"Moreover, nobility and dignity, self-abasement and servility, prudence and understanding, insolence and vulgarity, are reflected in the face and in the attitudes of the body whether still or in motion."

"What you say is true."

"Then these, too, can be imitated, can't they?"


"Now which do you think the more pleasant sight, people who reflect a beautiful and good and lovable character, or those who are shameful and worthless and hateful?"

"By God, there is a great difference, Socrates."35

Socrates has a similar conversation with a sculptor about "faithfully representing the form of living beings" by careful and accurate attention to details such as "the flesh wrinkled or tense, the limbs compressed or outstretched, the muscles taut or loose." These make it more convincing. Socrates further points out, "Does not the exact imitation of the feelings that affect bodies in action also produce a sense of satisfaction in the spectator?" If these feelings are accurately portrayed, "It follows, then, that the sculptor must represent in his figures the activities of the soul."36

It is clear that Socrates understood art as an imitation, but in these cases he does not make a judgment about it being farthest removed from reality. Rather he focuses the attention of the artists on the soul and the human expression, perhaps so that they could improve the quality of their work to the benefit of them and the spectators.

Since just about all he ever did was talk with people, the study of language was important for Socrates. Prodicus was the reigning expert on grammar and semantics, but Socrates admits that he was too poor to take his fifty-drachma course.37 However, in the Cratylus Plato shows Socrates in long discussion on the meaning of names and the origins of words. A unique characteristic of language is that it can be true or false. Things and actions have their own reality and nature. Is this true of speaking? Teachers use names and words as instruments, and therefore must depend on the lawgiver, or inventor of names. The sound and the form of the syllables ought to fit the thing named. Since the user of something knows it best, the dialectician, who uses words in question and answer, ought to guide the lawgivers or name-makers. Then Socrates analyzes many names from Homer to show how the name matches the nature of the man. Assuming that the first inventors of names must have been philosophers, Socrates indicates the hidden meaning or origin of various concepts and names of gods. These are often somewhat contrived or fanciful explanations in order to make certain points. Most names are derived from other words, and some have foreign origins. However, the earliest roots of words were invented according to the sounds of the letters and the rhythm of speaking. Socrates then analyzes the basic meanings of the different letters.38

Socrates asks Cratylus if he agrees with the discussion he has just had with Hermogenes, but Cratylus denies that names can be false at all. For Socrates language is an imitation like pictures and therefore may be an imperfect or false portrayal of the reality. Socrates points out that although the ideal is for the sounds to reflect the meaning, many words are merely based on customary usage. The result is that the meanings of many words are contradictory to their expression. Cratylus has held that knowledge of words gives knowledge of the reality, but Socrates asks about the very first name-makers and the distinctions we can make between the true and false use of language. Therefore we must be able to know things without words. Is it not better to know the things themselves rather than their names? However, if everything is always changing, then we could never really know anything. "But if that which knows and that which is known exist forever, and the beautiful and the good and every other thing also exist, then I do not think that they can resemble a process of flux, as we were just now supposing." Therefore Socrates cautions Cratylus concerning the doctrines of Heraclitus and warns him not to be led astray from reality simply by the power of names.39 Socrates loved to play with words and their meanings as his tools in the dialectic, but he was also aware of their danger in being able to be true or false, and of their limitations as being only a representation of reality.

Rhetoric was a subject introduced by the sophists which became quite popular in the time of Socrates. Those who wished to be successful in the political assembly or the law courts would pay money to learn how to be a good speaker. The best of the rhetoric teachers was said to be Gorgias, and Plato portrayed him in a discussion with Socrates. Socrates asks him what rhetoric is, and discovers that it is the art of persuasion using words. However, when Gorgias adds that it is used in the courts and assemblies concerning the just and unjust, Socrates labors to show him that since it can be used for right or wrong it cannot of itself be just. Socrates in fact defines rhetoric as a kind of flattery rather than a true art, which is always concerned with what is good.40 Its relationship to other arts and flatteries has been discussed in the previous chapter. (Note 163)

Another well-known rhetorician was Lysias, and in the Phaedrus Socrates gives a critique of what is said to be a speech written by Lysias. To do this Socrates ignores the content and examines the rhetorical manner which he found repetitive.41 After giving a couple of speeches himself, Socrates discusses with Phaedrus the principles of good and bad speaking. First the speaker should know the truth, but this is not enough to persuade, just as the art of speaking cannot be divorced from the truth. Even the deceiver has to know the truth and how to disguise things in its likeness. In further criticizing Lysias' speech Socrates indicates the features it lacked. The speech ought to be organized like a body with head and feet. The subject should be defined to show its unity and then classified into its various divisions. A speech should begin with an introduction, followed by a presentation of facts, third comes the proofs, fourth the future probabilities, then confirmation and refutation, and finally the summation. Ultimately oratory is the art of enchanting the soul, and the orator therefore should learn the differences of human nature by experience and reflection so that his speech can be perfectly suited to his listeners. But the highest form of rhetoric is to speak what is acceptable to God.42 Here Socrates has described the various levels of rhetoric from the art of clever lying to the textbook outline of the speech to the human psychology of communication and ultimately to the ethical and mystical oneness with God.

The dialogue concludes with Socrates' critique of the written word as being artificial rather than alive in that one cannot ask it questions. Books serve though for recreation and amusement and as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of age. However, dialectic is a far more serious and useful art.43


Another traditional subject related to politics was the science of warfare. Xenophon records how one of Socrates' companions desired to become a general. Socrates points out to him that if the state is to trust him he had better learn the art of the general. The man returned after studying tactics, whereupon Socrates indicates various other aspects of generalship such as providing equipment and supplies, and he must be "resourceful, active, careful, hardy, and quick-witted." If he is to arrange the men properly, he must be able to tell the good men from the bad. Finally Socrates sends the man back to his tutor for more instruction.44 Understanding the personal goal of the man, Socrates was able to guide him and test him so that he could move closer to it.

On another occasion Socrates questioned a man who had been chosen as a cavalry commander. Since he has never been selected as the commander of the horses and their riders, he ought to know how to improve the horses. This being understood, Socrates suggests that he look to improving the men by training them to mount and fight in the kind of terrain occupied by the enemy. He must also raise their spirits and give them courage by his speaking ability.45 The result was that the man became more aware of his duties as a cavalry officer.

Nicomachides, a scarred veteran of battle, complained once to Socrates that the Athenians had elected a business-man as general. Socrates points out to him that the man has demonstrated his skill at handling men and supplies in that his choruses have always won the prize in the theater. A good businessman knows how to: make subordinates willing and obedient, put the right man in the right place, punish the bad and reward the good, win the goodwill of those under him, gain allies, keep what he has, and be strenuous and industrious in his work; all of these abilities are required by a good general. The only difference is the fighting, and yet the businessman knows the economic advantages of victory and the heavy losses of defeat. Success in public affairs is very similar to success in private life.46 Thus Socrates helped the man gain a wider perspective of the situation and perhaps to become more accepting of the choice.

Xenophon also recorded a conversation between Socrates and Pericles' son prior to a war with Boeotia in which he gives the young Pericles numerous suggestions for raising the Athenians' morale and even some strategic ideas for defending Athens. In drawing upon the past experience of the Athenians, Socrates continually looks at how it could be of positive advantage to them. Their heroic pride should be a heritage of inspiration, and their recent defeats should sober them up to take these challenges seriously. Even though their military discipline and training is slack compared to the Spartans, yet they do maintain their ships, excel in athletics, and obediently follow the chorus-trainers.47 Socrates knew when and how to meet discouragement with intelligent reasoning and even a pep talk to encourage a positive attitude.

Whereas Xenophon shows Socrates giving practical suggestions in real, historical situations, Plato describes some of Socrates' ideal plans in the Republic. Children were to be trained and prepared for war by having the opportunity to observe battles from a safe distance. Cowards were to be demoted and heroes rewarded with honor and favors from their beloveds. No Greeks were to be enslaved, and the soldiers were to exercise self-control by not despoiling the enemy's dead. In fact fighting between Greeks is especially discordant and should be replaced by friendship among all Greeks.48 The purpose here, which may be more Platonic than Socratic, is to provide incentives for courageous deeds.

Most of the Republic is an attempt to formulate a just state, and even though they recognize it does not exist anywhere on earth, Socrates indicates there is a divine pattern in heaven for whoever wishes to contemplate it.49 The state they are imagining begins with a simple life based on a division of labor. Once luxuries are requested, expansion of territory and war become necessary.50 Specialization leads to a division of classes also. The guardians, however, will have no money or private property; therefore the soldiers will be disciplined and self- controlled. The state must remain small enough to remain unified and well-ordered. The statesmen should exemplify wisdom, the guardians courage, and the whole state must be temperate and self-controlled. Justice will result when each person does his own proper business.51 This form of government is called aristocracy, originally meaning rule by the virtuous or most excellent. Although this type of government had never been found, Socrates had made a careful study of political systems and apparently was the first not only to propose an ideal but also to delineate the major patterns of government he had observed.

In Book VIII he describes the four principal political systems and how each tends to degenerate from the one immediately above. He shows also how the larger state reflects the individual psychology which is prevalent in the community. "States," he said, "are as men are, because they grow out of human characters."52 Timocracy which is government based on honor and ambition, develops out of aristocracy due to negligent eugenics and the rise of the military character over the philosophical nature. The timocratic man loses interest in culture and becomes ambitious. He treats slaves with contempt but is respectful to free men, is obedient to authority and a lover of honor and power. He despises riches when young but becomes avaricious when older, forgetting virtue. This character is formed when his mother is always complaining that her husband and her have lost their prestige because he is not eager to struggle for power or money as he lets his thoughts center within himself. The servants also encourage the boy to strive for honor and position while his father attempts to give him wisdom. The result is: "He being not originally of a bad nature, but having kept bad company, is finally brought by their mutual influence to a middle point, and gives up the kingdom which is within him to the middle principle of aggression and passion, and becomes arrogant and ambitious."53

Oligarchy or plutocracy, which is the rule of the wealthy, occurs due to an increase in the private accumulation and expenditure of money. As the citizens grow richer, they think less of virtue, and soon rich men are honored above all others. They become lovers of money, and possession of property becomes a qualification for citizenship. Now neither the wise nor the honorable are ruling, but merely the rich. Another result is that as the rich get richer and the poor are excluded, there develops two states in conflict with each other. The rulers are few and have no courage for battle; but if they arm the masses, they become more afraid of them than the enemy. Also their love of money makes them unwilling to pay taxes. Those who are driven out of business or lose their jobs become the unemployed and useless drones who drain the state and often turn criminal. How does the plutocratic man arise? When he sees his father pursuing honor and ambition but floundering on the sinking ship of state as his position of prestige and his property are taken from him, the son humbled by poverty looks down on ambition and strives only to become wealthy. To do so he becomes frugal and stingy, even cheating if the opportunity presents itself.54

Democracy develops as the powerful wealthy buy up the estates of the spendthrift youth. The poor are becoming eager for revolution, but the rich mollify the drones by giving them hand-outs. The rich meanwhile live in luxury and idleness, caring only for pleasure as they ignore virtue and the poor. Finally on some pilgrimage or march the lean poor men notice the weakness of the fat rich. Realizing their natural strength and the weakness of the divided state, the poor classes either by revolution or some other means take over the government. Then everyone has an equal share of freedom and power, and governmental officials are elected. Due to the freedom this spangled state will have a variety of characters and constitutions. There is a great tolerance even in forgiving condemned criminals, but in this wild liberty many principles of order and good taste are trampled under foot by the mob. The democratic man originates as his miserly father tries to train him in his middle-class ways, but the son becomes enamored of pleasures and desires which are tacitly valued. He associates with the drones and eventually his desires and pleasures overcome his miserly upbringing, often after a fierce battle within himself. He calls insolence breeding, anarchy liberty, waste generosity, and impudence courage; the young man trained in necessity becomes a libertine of useless pleasures. He cares not who is in the government as they are all the same to him, and he spends his life going from one fad to the next.55

Tyranny results from the insatiable desire for freedom in democracy. The democrats wish the rulers to be like the subjects and to give in to their every whim. The family situation is parallel as the sons no longer respect or obey their parents, since all are equal. The teachers fear and flatter their students, and the old condescend to adopt the gay and frivolous manners of the young, not wishing to be thought unpopular or authoritative. All classes and both sexes are considered equal and free. Even the dogs and other animals run around free and undisciplined. No one cares for laws or any kind of authority. As excessive love for money brought the economic downfall of the plutocracy, excessive freedom in democracy leads to the slavery of a tyranny. In democracy the idle drones increase and feed off of the wealthy class and the working class. When the well-to-do and workers begin to defend themselves against these infringements, the people find a protector who once he has tasted blood, requests a body-guard, and eventually becomes a dictator, liberating debtors and distributing land to his followers. He is always stirring up wars and taxing his people. Any resistance to his authority is considered as traitorously aiding the enemy and is ruthlessly destroyed. To maintain his rule he must rid the state of the wise, wealthy, and valiant who might challenge his supremacy. This inverted purgation removes the best and leaves the worst. Those willing to be enslaved by him become his supporters. The tyrant seizes the public treasuries and when these are exhausted, lives off the people. If they rebel, he punishes them cruelly.56

This understanding of the types of political systems and human characters was probably elaborated and embellished a great deal by Plato, but it is undoubtedly true that Socrates studied and discussed these questions with a depth and clarity never before approached. Xenophon gives us only Socrates' brief definitions of the forms of government.

Kingship and tyranny in his judgment were both forms of government, but he believed that they differed. For government of the people with their consent and in accordance with the laws of the state was kingship; while government of unwilling subjects not controlled by laws, but imposed by the will of the ruler, was tyranny. And where the officials are chosen among those who fulfill the requirements of the laws, the constitution is an aristocracy; where ratable property is the qualification for office, it is a plutocracy; where all are eligible, a democracy.57

Socrates considered it his duty to educate capable men for politics even though he did not participate in government himself. When he was criticized by Antiphon for avoiding politics, Socrates replied, "How, Antiphon, should I play a more important part in politics, by engaging in it alone, or by taking care to turn out as many competent politicians as possible?"58 Socrates often counseled his companions on how to prepare oneself to be a good ruler. Even though Aristippus turned out not to be interested in government, Socrates indicated in conversation with him the need for self-control as a training for rulership.59

Xenophon also records a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon reminiscent of those with Euthydemus and Alcibiades. Glaucon is anxious to become an orator and was striving to rise in politics even though he was still a teenager. He was being dragged from platforms and was a laughing-stock, and so Socrates took an interest in him for the sake of his brother Plato and uncle Charmides. Socrates gets his attention by appealing to his ambition, and then proceeds to question him on questions of government. Would he benefit the city by making it richer? Yes, but Glaucon has no knowledge of the city's revenues nor of its expenditures. Glaucon suggests he would get wealth from the enemies, but he has no knowledge of the relative strength of the city and its enemies, nor of its defenses, which are already weak. He does not know why the silver mines are no longer producing as much, or even how much wheat is available to feed the population. One must know the needs even of one household in order to manage it successfully, yet Glaucon cannot even help his uncle. Glaucon's excuse is that his uncle will not listen to him, but if he cannot persuade one man, how could he ever get all the Athenians to listen to him? Socrates points out the dangers of acting out of ignorance and suggests that Glaucon gain the needed knowledge if he wishes to enter public life.60 On the other hand Socrates advised Glaucon's uncle, Charmides, to use his ability and knowledge to serve the state, since he had something valuable to offer.61 In Xenophon, Socrates' lessons on politics were personal and practical for the individual.

In Plato's Republic Socrates also discusses politics with Glaucon, but here they are attempting to formulate universal principles. They give special attention to the qualities of character needed for their ideal rulers. The elders should rule, and the younger should serve. The candidates for rulership should be tested in every stage of their life to make sure that they always do what is for the good of the country regardless of the temptations of pleasure or fear. Only those who have the inner golden quality of a virtuous character are to be selected as leaders.62

Finally Socrates proposes that the ideal is for philosophers to be kings, and until the political leaders become wise the human race will have no rest from evils. The correct use of knowledge, not mere belief or opinion which can err, is the sure guide in all action. The true philosopher loves truth and wisdom and the joys of the soul above all else; consequently he will be temperate, gentle, sociable, very intelligent, and harmonious. However, the name of philosophy has been corrupted by sophistry and the failure of society to recognize and make use of the true philosophers. The true philosopher is rare, because it is easy for one's philosophical nature to deteriorate, for many reasons. There are few from the beginning. One strong virtue may overshadow the others and prevent the development of a well-rounded character. Beauty, wealth, strength, rank, and other prizes of life may distract and corrupt. The finer and more subtle natures are often more susceptible to negative influences. The public opinion of the masses and the force of the crowd may sway them. They may even be tried or put to death. The only consolation for the philosopher is that he may come to good and be saved by the power of God. When the society is not receptive to the wisdom of the real philosopher, then he can only live his own life in goodwill, keeping himself pure from injustice. Unfortunately Socrates felt that there was no state in existence at that time capable of adapting to the philosopher king.63 Nevertheless Socrates must have believed that it was worthwhile to strive toward the ideal, and they must know what it is in order to do it.


Usually the discussions of Socrates would focus around how to become virtuous or attain excellence. Virtue was discussed in this general sense and also more specifically in terms of self-control, courage, wisdom, justice, and holiness. In the Alcibiades I Socrates convinces the young man that what people really need in order to be happy is virtue. Therefore, if he is to help the state, Alcibiades must first become virtuous himself, and this is done by looking at what is divine and bright, and acting accordingly. Only the virtuous can govern correctly; virtue makes a man free, while vice enslaves.64

In the Laches Socrates is consulted by two gentlemen to see how their sons' souls may be improved and made virtuous or excellent.65 A frequently mentioned assumption is that each human faculty has its natural function, and virtue is what enables it to function at its best. Socrates gives the example of the eyes; their proper excellence or virtue is seeing. Accomplishing anything in the world depends on the soul, and consequently happiness or success depends on the virtue or excellent functioning of the soul.66

We have described in the previous chapter Socrates' attempts in the Meno to define virtue and discover whether it can be taught. Many ideas were examined, but the results were not conclusive. The main definition they consider is that virtue is the ability to attain what is good. However, Meno is not able to defend this when Socrates introduces a case where someone attains what he thinks is good by unjust means.67 However, this refutation could be easily challenged by showing that one cannot attain true goodness by unjust means. If injustice is bad for someone, how can this be "attaining what is good?"

Meno is more concerned with whether virtue can be taught. They agree that virtue is wisdom, and since wisdom is the right use of knowledge, and knowledge can be taught; then virtue can be taught. However, they are not able to verify this by finding any teachers of virtue.68 There is some confusion here also, because often wisdom is considered only to be a part of virtue. Even if wisdom can be taught, that does not mean that all of virtue can be taught.

Since they agree that there are some virtuous people, Socrates suggests that virtue may be merely due to right belief gained by divine inspiration.69 This idea is not refuted, and it is an explanation of the phenomena.

In the Protagoras Socrates questions the master sophist on what he proposes to teach young men - virtue. Socrates asks whether justice and temperance and holiness are parts of virtue which is one whole. Protagoras agrees, saying they are like the parts of the face. Socrates reveals a contradiction in his argument in that some of these parts of virtue can have the same opposite.70 However, Socrates ends up showing that the virtues depend on knowledge and therefore are teachable.71 The assumption again is that virtue is inseparable from wisdom. This position is also maintained by Socrates in the Phaedo where he further states that the virtues without wisdom are only a shadow of virtue and have no freedom or health or truth in themselves alone.72

A fundamental belief or axiomatic truth for Socrates was the idea that no one desires what they know is evil. Or, in the positive, everyone desires what they believe is good. This is a basic psychological principle of motivation. However, this does not mean that everyone knows what is good, nor does it deny that a person may think something is bad and still do it. Actually it is a pragmatic principle which verifies people's values on the basis of their actions. In other words, everyone is doing the best they can with what they know. In the Meno Socrates clarifies, "They desire what they suppose to be goods, although they are really evils."73

Socrates expresses the same idea in the Protagoras. "For no wise man, as I believe, will admit that any person errs willingly, or willingly does evil and dishonorable actions; but they are well aware that all who do evil and dishonorable things do them against their will."74 Xenophon has Socrates saying the same belief, "that all naturally love whatever they think will benefit them."75

This premise leads to another important belief of Socrates, and that is that the remedy for bad action is to educate the person so he will know what is good. Both Xenophon and Plato indicate that Socrates recommended instruction rather than punishment for those who are in ignorance. Xenophon has him make a distinction between those who do evil out of ignorance or due to madness; madmen need to be kept in prison.76 In Plato's Apology Socrates says that if he has harmed anyone, he has done so out of ignorance. Therefore he asks Meletus to instruct him how to improve his ways rather than punish him, since his errors are unintentional.77

In the Euthyphro Socrates gets the righteous gentleman to agree that most people do not argue whether a wrong should be punished, but usually debate whether an action is right or wrong.78 This leads to the question of values. Socrates also discussed the relations of values and the principles of good and evil in the Lysis, although no conclusion was reached.79

In the Theaetetus Socrates declares that the concept of evil is a necessary relative to good, but goodness itself is divine and heavenly. Evil therefore is only found in earthly things. Also those who become most virtuous become most like God. Seeing the value of the good life, Theodorus expresses the hope that evils among mankind will be lessened. He stimulates this response from Socrates:

But it is impossible for evils to be eliminated, Theodorus, for there must always be something opposed to the good. They cannot have their place among the gods, but of necessity they hover around the mortal nature and this earth. Therefore we ought to fly away from earth to heaven as quickly as we can; to fly away is to become like God, as far as this is possible; to become like God is to become just and holy with wisdom. But my good friend, it is not very easy to convince people that they should pursue virtue or avoid vice, not merely that one may seem to be good, which is the reason given by the world, and in my opinion is only the repetition of an old wives' tale. Let us tell the truth, God is never in any way unjust, but is perfectly just, and he among us who is the most just is most like him. Herein is the true cleverness of a man, and also his nothingness and cowardice; for knowing this is wisdom and true virtue, and ignorance of it is folly and manifest vice. All other kinds of seeming cleverness and wisdom, such as in politics and the arts, are coarse and vulgar in comparison.80

Such cleverness is only vanity, for they do not understand the pain of injustice. There are two patterns: the divine which is most blessed, and the godless which is most wretched. Evil men associate with evil, and think these discussions are foolish; but if they are willing to stay in such a conversation, they can be brought to the realization that their arguments are unsatisfactory.81 Discussions on virtue, then, were an important part of Socrates' work. Let us look at the main virtues he examined.

Desire and Self-control

Xenophon describes how Socrates pointed out that desires could lead to slavery if a man allows them to rule him. Gluttony, lechery, drinking, gambling, foolish and costly ambitions, any of these can get hold of a man and force him to give over all his profits to these habits until he becomes old and miserable.82

Socrates also counseled Xenophon and Critobulus against falling into sensual passion. Kissing a pretty face can lead to the end of liberty as one begins to spend his money and time pursuing these pleasures. A kiss can be like a scorpion's sting which injects a poison that is painful and maddening.83 Here Socrates couches his warning in a humorous analogy.

He described envy as having pain at a friend's success, which is clearly irrational, and can only occur in a fool.84 Such an explanation could help a person to see this pattern, and perhaps change it.

In the Phaedrus Socrates distinguishes two principles within man: the natural desire for pleasure, and rational thinking which strives after what is best. When desire irrationally drags one into pleasure, this misrule is called excess. There are many types, such as gluttony which is excessive desire for food.85 In the Republic Socrates explains the difference between necessary and unnecessary desires. Using the same example, the desire to eat is essential to the continuance of life, but it is the luxuries or large amounts which are unnecessary or excessive.86

Uncontrolled desires lead to slavery and are also a characteristic of the tyrannical man. The passionate lusts of the appetites become tyrannical if they are allowed to rule. The person is driven to attempt to fulfill the desires by any means, even vicious ones. Power then can increase the corruption, because circumstances are not as restraining. Ultimately it is the political dictator who can cause the most misery for others and himself.87 Here Socrates portrays the extreme case of vice.

Socrates must have discussed pleasure often, since it is such a strong force for most people. The Philebus is an extensive discussion of the topic. The debate is whether pleasure or wisdom is the good. There are various kinds of pleasure. Pleasure without awareness of it is not really valuable, and a life of wisdom devoid of pleasure is not desirable. Therefore neither alone is sufficient, and it is likely we shall have to mingle them to find the good life. To understand pleasure we must also recognize pain. Pleasure is the restoration of harmony which often occurs after the dissolution of a pain. The soul can also experience pleasure and pain due to expectation in the mind. Desire is the wish to restore the harmony as anticipated by the mind. Since the mind can have true or false opinions in it, desires or pleasures can be true or false. It is possible also to live without pain, which is not necessarily the pleasantest life, since it could be neutral. The greatest pleasures, or the most extreme ones, are the grossest or most physical, such as scratching an itch. Mixed pleasures are of the body and mind, and usually include hope. Then there are pleasures of the mind and emotions such as anger, fear, desire, sorrow, love, emulation, envy, etc. Although these are not physical, they still mix pleasure with pain. The pure pleasures are aesthetic and intellectual, relating to beauty and knowledge. Although they are lesser and more subtle, these are better than the impure pleasures which include some pain. Pleasure and pain are generated out of each other, and are not absolute essences, like the good. Therefore it is absurd to equate the pleasant with the virtuous and the painful with the vicious. Certainly a good man may be experiencing pain without becoming bad due to it!88

A similar but shorter discussion occurs in the Republic. The lover of wisdom (philosopher) has greater experience than either the lover of honor or the lover of wealth, and therefore can get a better perspective on pleasure. Pleasure and pain are relative to each other. Again the lack of pain is not necessarily pleasant. Intellectual things are longer lasting and more true than bodily things; therefore intellectual pleasures are more real than sensual pleasures. Again the sensual pleasures are mixed with more pain. However, both kinds of pleasures are attained to the highest extent when reason and knowledge are guiding. While the tyrant suffers the worst pain, the true philosopher achieves the highest pleasures.89 Such an analysis can be helpful even to those who seek a life of pleasure.

The virtues which restrain and govern the desires for the sake of excellence are self-control and temperance. Xenophon gives us samples of Socrates' discourses on self-control (enkrateia). Socrates asks his friends who they would trust to govern the state, or to educate their children, or to take care of their possessions: a slave of the belly or wine or lust or sleep? If they would not choose such a slave, then they as masters ought to watch to be sure they do not become vicious and harm themselves by stealing or mischief.

Should not every man hold self-control to be the foundation of all virtue, and first establish this firmly in his soul? For can anyone without this learn anything good or practice it in a worthy way? Or what man that is the slave of his pleasures is not in bad shape body and soul alike?9

Xenophon recalls a conversation with Euthydemus typical of the ones Socrates held to continually remind his friends of self-control as an aid to virtue. Socrates asks him if he values freedom, and then asks if he considers the man free who is ruled by his bodily pleasures. They agree the uncontrolled are the worst slaves since they are ruled by the worst things. Wisdom and prudence are dulled and lost, and the uncontrolled makes bad choices which turn out to be harmful. The uncontrolled do not even experience as much pleasure as those who are able to discipline themselves; they attempt to fulfill their desires so fast that there is no pleasure at all, while those who can wait enjoy greater satisfaction in eating, drinking, sex, and sleeping. The self-controlled also take delight in learning many things useful to their friends and the city. The uncontrolled are like a beast, not caring at all for virtue, but the self-controlled can see what is best and most pleasant, choosing the good and rejecting the bad.91 Here Socrates shows the consequences of the two types of life.

Temperance or self-restraint (sophrosune) is explained by Socrates in the Cratylus as being derived from "salvation" (so) and "wisdom" or "prudence" (phronesis).92 Unfortunately there is no exact English equivalent; it can mean moderation in desires, self-control, temperance, chastity, sobriety, etc. Plato's Charmides is an attempt to define it, but it is far from conclusive. It is certainly not quietness and modesty as Charmides suggests. Neither is it merely doing one's business. It is more than doing good actions, because it requires self-knowledge. In testing self-knowledge as a definition, they decide it must be a science of something, but it cannot be knowledge merely of knowledge. The knowledge needed for happiness is the knowledge of good and evil. Now we are examining wisdom as the science of sciences, but this too fails if it has no practical application as does, for example, medicine, the science of health.93 This is another example of Socrates getting people to think about something and to realize they do not know what it is, as they had thought.

In the Phaedo Socrates explains that many people become temperate and control their passions and appetites in order to get more pleasure out of them. They abstain from some pleasures, because they are overcome by others; in other words, they are temperate for the sake of intemperance. However, true philosophers are temperate in every way for the sake of wisdom and virtue.94 In this case Socrates transcends temperance to move into wisdom which includes temperance.

In the Republic temperance or the control of pleasures and desires is described as a process of self-mastery. Mastery is when the better principle rules over the worse. This is reflected in the aristocratic state as rule by the better.95 Here Socrates describes this virtue on the individual and collective levels.

Again in the Gorgias Socrates suggests to Callicles that "a man should be temperate and master of himself, and ruler of his own pleasures and passions."96 However, Callicles believes that temperance and justice are only practiced out of fear, and that any man who has power would be foolish to be temperate. For Callicles pleasures are the real value of living. Socrates describes intemperance as the annoyance of always trying to fill a leaky vessel. Socrates shows that a man may not have good and evil at the same time, although he can experience pleasure and pain together; therefore good and evil is not the same as pleasure and pain. The good is prior to pleasure, because people seek pleasure and all things because they are good, but goodness is not sought for its pleasure. The assumption here again is that the essential purpose of all actions is for some good. The flatteries or sham arts such as beautification, cookery, sophistry and rhetoric are sought for the pleasures they give the body and soul, but the true arts of gymnastics, medicine, legislation, and justice are practiced for the good of the body and soul. Temperance and justice are aids in being lawful and orderly for the good of the body and soul. Thus the temperate soul is good, and the intemperate is bad.97 Thus Socrates delineates the difference between pleasure and goodness, and how they are expressed in different activities.


Courage, or literally "manliness," is considered one of the cardinal virtues. However, Socrates often pointed out that truly courageous action depends also on knowledge or wisdom so that the action will be right. In Xenophon Socrates demonstrates this point to Euthydemus and concludes that "those who know how to deal well with terrors and dangers are courageous, and those who are mistaken in this are cowards."98 It follows from this that to some extent courage can be learned. Socrates recognized that natural abilities varied, but he also believed that they could be greatly improved by application. "From this it is clear that all men, whatever their natural gifts, the talented and the dullards alike, must learn and practice that in which they wish to excell."99 Here Socrates is realistic and practical and encouraging.

Most of the Laches is an attempt to define the nature of courage with the help of two famous generals. When Socrates asks what it is, Laches begins with the common understanding that courage is fighting in battle without running away. However, Socrates points out that the Scythian cavalry are very skilled at fighting on the run; besides courage also shows up in perils at sea, in disease, in poverty, or in politics. What quality does courage give in all these cases? Laches then suggests endurance of the soul as its universal nature. Foolish endurance does not seem wise, so Laches qualifies it as wise endurance. However, Socrates suggests cases that indicate to Laches that wisdom usually makes it easier for one to endure, and it appears then as being less courageous than the one who endures without the knowledge. Then Nicias quotes a statement he once heard from Socrates that "every man is good in that in which he is wise, and bad in that in which he is unwise." Therefore he offers the idea that the brave man is wise. However, courage is certainly not all wisdom, such as knowing how to play a musical instrument. Nicias then qualifies it as "the knowledge of that which inspires fear or confidence in war, or in anything." Socrates asks if by defining courage as wisdom, that excludes all animals, even the lion, from being courageous. Laches ridicules such an idea, but Nicias having been educated by sophists makes a distinction between boldness and courageous actions, which are wise actions. Finally Socrates shows that this definition describes all of virtue whereas they had already agreed that courage was only a part of virtue.100 In fact Socrates often ran into this dilemma.

In the Protagoras Socrates holds that the courageous are those who are confident in their knowledge and wisdom.101 In the Phaedo Socrates makes the same point about courage as he did about temperance, that most men are only courageous out of fear of something worse. Only the true philosopher faces death courageously without fear of anything at all.102

In the Republic where the three aspects of the soul are described as the appetites, the passion or spirited, and reason, the virtues corresponding to each of the three are held to be temperance for the appetites, courage for the aggressive spirit, and wisdom for the reason. "He is considered courageous whose spirit retains in pleasure and in pain the commands of reason about what he should or should not fear.... He is temperate who has these same elements in friendly harmony, in whom the one ruling principle of reason and its two subjects are in agreement that reason ought to rule, and do not rebel.... And we call him wise who has in him that small part which rules and proclaims these commands, that part having a knowledge of what is for the interest of each of the three parts and of the whole."103 We see here the interrelation of these virtues and the indispensable role of wisdom.

Knowledge and Wisdom

According to Xenophon, Socrates believed in using human knowledge in those areas which could be reasonably studied and inquired into, such as crafts and arts and sciences. However, in regard to questions which man does not understand, such as future events, he advised his friends to consult the gods through an oracle. "If any man thinks that these matters are wholly within the grasp of the human mind and nothing in them is beyond our reason, that man, he said, is irrational."104 He considered it just as irrational to inquire of an oracle when human reasoning and study could solve the problem.

In fact, in human affairs it is knowledge of how to do something which leads to success in that activity. Socrates explains this to the young Pericles in terms of being a good general, that if he does not have the knowledge needed he seeks out someone with good advice from whom he can learn.105 Experience shows us that any given activity is governed by the one who knows how to do it, while others who do not know will gladly take orders from the knowledgeable one. This is true in government, on a ship, in farming, even in spinning wool where the women govern the men.106 It is interesting to note that in Xenophon's examples it is not abstract knowledge he is talking about but the practical knowledge of how to do something. Plato demonstrates the same point as Socrates shows the young Lysis how even his slaves are trusted by his parents above him in matters which they know better, while he is free and useful in those subjects he had learned, such as reading and writing and music.107

In the Laches Socrates points out that questions ought to be decided by those who know, not be mere majority vote. The opinion of one knowledgeable person may be of more value than the opinions of all the rest.108 Socrates was always ready to take advice from someone who knew.

In the Euthydemus Socrates asks what knowledge we ought to acquire. He answers his own question with the obvious - knowledge which will do us good. Even if we know how to find gold, we would still need to know how to use the gold. Any knowledge, whether of money-making or medicine or any other art which can make something, is not sufficient unless we can use the thing made as well. Even the kingly or political art, although it does use certain things, does not grant every wisdom which is useful to man. Thus the knowledge which benefits by use was not found.109 Yet for Socrates we can see that usefulness was an important criterion for beneficial knowledge.

The Theaetetus is an extended discussion in search of an understanding of what knowledge is. Theaetetus gives examples of the arts, but Socrates wants a definition. Theaetetus suggests that knowledge is perception, the notion of Protagoras that man is the measure of all things. However, Socrates points out the limitations of this subjective relativity, and by using memory shows that knowledge is more than sense perception. Also everyone cannot know, because many people disagree.110 Experts are able to know better, as the wise can measure things more accurately. The soul may perceive through the eyes and ears, but it is also able to think about and combine these perceptions and also grasp ideas directly, such as being, identity, beauty, and the good. Learning occurs through education, and truth is found by reasoning, not by mere sense.

When sense perception was shown not to be knowledge, Theaetetus suggests that knowledge is true opinion. What then is false opinion? This problem they are not able to solve. It cannot be simply confusing perceptions with knowledge, because it is also possible to be wrong in abstract thoughts. It is not possible to know something and not know it at the same time. Since this did not work, they return to examine what it means to know. Using the aviary metaphor they consider it as having and holding knowledge. However, false opinion still confuses the issue, for how can possession of even the wrong knowledge be ignorance? Putting aside false opinion, they go back in search of knowledge. Perhaps it could be true opinion with reasoning. As with letters and syllables, maybe the elements are unknowable, but the combinations are knowable. However, if the letters are unknown, then the syllables become the unknown elements, and if the syllables can be known, then the letters can be known. This gets nowhere. Rational explanation in speech or the enumeration of the parts may indicate knowledge, except these may be done without really knowing. Again this is merely right opinion, even with the recognition of certain differences. The conclusion is that none of their definitions is adequate, but perhaps they are now humbler and better off since they realize they do not consciously know.111 Such a discussion acquaints one with the difficulties which still plague philosophers today.

Usually Socrates was more concerned with self-knowledge than knowledge in the abstract. Once when Phaedrus asked him about a fable and myth, Socrates says that he could probably give a rational explanation for them, but he has no spare time for that. This is the reason:

I am not yet able, in accordance with the Delphic inscription, to know myself; so it seems ridiculous to me, while in this ignorance to consider irrelevant things. Therefore I say farewell to them and accept the customary belief about them, as I was just now saying, and investigate not these things, but myself, to know whether I am a monster more complicated and furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature to whom a divine and quiet destiny has been given by nature.112

Socrates began by examining himself.

He also assisted individuals in looking at themselves, as we have seen in the case of Alcibiades. Alcibiades claimed to have the knowledge he needed, but then Socrates showed him that he neither learned it from someone who knows nor did he discover it himself. His confusion in answering the questions indicates not only his ignorance but also his lack of awareness of his ignorance. This is the most dangerous kind of ignorance, because such a person tends to make mistakes by acting on what he thinks he knows. However, by realizing his ignorance he can quite simply avoid mistakes by not acting.113 This self-knowledge of one's own ignorance could save a person a lot of grief.

When they decide to study to know themselves better, Alcibiades is again shown that he is ignorantly making suggestions on how to improve the city. Socrates suggests that he learn to take care of himself first. Now they must discover what the self is. The one who takes care of things is the user of things, not what is used. Since man takes care not only of his possessions but also of his body, then the self must be the soul of man who uses the body. The soul is the ruling principle, and it is the soul which knows. How then can the soul know itself? Just as the eye must look into the pupil of the eye to see itself, so the soul must examine its virtue which resembles the divine wisdom. Those who are ignorant of themselves will not understand human affairs and will fail and be miserable. He who knows the virtue of the soul will act wisely and justly according to the will of God as he looks in the divine mirror to know himself and his own good.114 If this is true, and it certainly seems so to this writer, then is not this process of self-awareness the key to living well?

The opposite of self-knowledge is self-deception. In the Philebus Socrates lists three common areas in which ignorance of self appears - in regard to one's money, one's physical looks, and one's wisdom and virtue. Many people tend to be conceited and consider themselves richer, better looking, and wiser than they are. Of these those with little or no power are merely ridiculous, but the powerful can do great harm to others.115 Here Socrates points out the most common pitfalls for individuals and the dangers to mankind.

Xenophon tells how Socrates emphasized the importance for a tyrant to take good advice, because if he does not the resulting mistake will not go unpunished. Nor could a tyrant kill a loyal subject without suffering some loss.116 Here again the greater the power is, the greater is the need for self-knowledge and wisdom.

Diogenes Laertius tells how Socrates used to encourage people to study and improve themselves. He marveled that sculptors could work so hard to make a block of marble perfectly resemble a man, but would not care at all whether they themselves turned out to be blockheads. To the young he recommended the use of a mirror so that the handsome might acquire the corresponding conduct, and the ugly might conceal their defects by education.117

Among the many occasions Xenophon described of Socrates helping individuals to know themselves is the one where he advised Charmides to go into politics because his capabilities were needed. Socrates challenges him that it would be cowardly for him to shrink from serving the state when he had the ability. Socrates has observed Charmides giving good advice to politicians and also correct criticism. However, Charmides fears he will be timid and shy before a large audience, but Socrates assures him that they are far more ignorant than he is. Socrates concludes his talk with this exhortation:

My good man, don't be ignorant of yourself; don't fall into the common error. For many are in such a hurry to pry into other people's business that they never turn to examining themselves. Don't refuse to face this duty then; make more serious effort to pay attention to yourself, and don't neglect public affairs if you have the ability to improve them. If they go well, not only the citizens, but your friends and you yourself will benefit at least as much as they will.118

Many who are ambitious are better off held back from public life, but in this case Socrates felt the need to urge his friend into government.

Xenophon also explained how Socrates would discourage pretense to knowledge or ability among his friends by showing what happens to impostors. First they must try to gain the appearance of a musician or general or whatever, which is expensive, burdensome, unprofitable, and disgraceful. If the person is exposed he becomes ridiculous, and if he succeeds in gaining a position such as piloting a ship or commanding an army, the results can be disastrous, bringing ruin and disgrace. Therefore even a reputation for virtue which goes beyond one's abilities can disappoint expectations.119 Thus by self-knowledge and true humility a person could avoid many problems.

Xenophon shows Socrates making a connection between wisdom and knowledge. A man is only wise in what he knows. Since it is impossible for a man to know everything, there can be no all-wise man.120 This enables us to understand Socrates' humility in not claiming to be wise.

Wisdom requires knowledge, but knowledge of what? Xenophon states that Socrates made no distinction between wisdom and prudence (temperance), and that the wise and prudent man "knows and practices what is beautiful and good, knows and avoids what is shameful." Here wisdom implies the unification of knowledge and action. When Socrates is asked the obvious question about those who know what they ought to do and yet do the opposite, whether they are both wise and self-controlled, he replied, "No, rather, they are unwise and uncontrolled. For I think that all have a choice between various courses, and they do the things which they think are most advantageous to them. Therefore I believe that those who do not act correctly are neither wise nor prudent."121 The obvious solution then is to develop wisdom; but it must be practiced as well as understood, or it is not truly wisdom.

According to Xenophon, Socrates considered justice and all the other virtues to be wisdom, and again he relates it to action and knowledge of the ideals of beauty and goodness. "For just actions and all forms of virtuous activity are beautiful and good. He who knows the beautiful and good will never choose anything else."122 This is knowledge in its strongest sense, not thinking, nor thinking one knows, but knowledge verified by action. Socrates described madness as the opposite of wisdom, although ignorance was not considered exactly the same. Madness was held to be an extreme case, as love is a strong desire, where someone was mistaken in a matter of common knowledge. However, "not to know yourself, and to assume and think that you know what you do not, he put next to madness."123

Plato also portrays Socrates giving a pragmatic definition of wisdom. In the splendid exhortation Socrates demonstrates in the Euthydemus, Socrates shows how wisdom is the greatest good, because it causes success in every action. Any other thing which is considered good may be harmful if it is not used wisely, but wisdom gives us the right use of all things. To be able to use everything correctly and gain success leads to happiness. Socrates concludes, "Since everyone desires happiness, and we have shown that this comes from using things, and using them correctly, and the greatest correctness and good fortune is provided by knowledge, the inference is that everyone ought to prepare himself in every way to become as wise as he can."124 Since life consists of using things, Socrates has shown that wisdom is helpful in everything.

Plato in the Apology also shows Socrates admitting that human wisdom is worthy little or nothing compared to the true wisdom of God.125 Even so, human wisdom is still better than ignorance. In the Crito Socrates explains to his friend that he must follow the opinion of the wise rather than public opinion. Therefore Socrates uses his reasoning based on the good life as his chief value to discover the wisest and just action.126

Finally in the Phaedo the proposition that the soul is immortal implies that wisdom can be valuable even beyond this life. In the Euthydemus Socrates had said, "If there were a knowledge which was able to make men immortal without knowing how to use that immortality, there would be no advantage in it."127 Now Socrates shows that wisdom itself is the knowledge which benefits the soul not only in this life and in this world, but also in the next world and in future lives. In fact if the soul is eternal, then eventually everyone must attain wisdom and goodness!

My friends, it is right to understand that if the soul is immortal, we should care for it, not only in respect to this time which we call life, but in respect to all time; the danger now seems terrible, if we neglect it. For if death was an escape from everything, it would be a bargain to the wicked when they die and are released from the body and the wickedness with the soul. But now since being is shown to be immortal, there is no escape or salvation from evil except to become as good and wise as possible. For the soul takes nothing into the other world except its education and upbringing, which are said to greatly benefit or injure the departed from the very beginning of his journey there.128

The orderly and wise soul fares much better in following its guiding spirit and in understanding its circumstances, while the soul which desires the body wanders in the lower more visible realms until after much resistance it is forcefully led away by its guide.129 The choices of future lifetimes on earth are also determined by the wisdom of the soul. The value of developing wisdom in terms of all the future consequences can be great indeed!

What Socrates Taught (Continued)

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