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Archetypes of Wisdom Douglas J. Soccio Chapter 4 The Wise Man: Socrates
Learning Objectives On completion of this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions: What is the “Socratic problem”? Why did some Athenians think that Socrates was a Sophist?
The Socratic Problem According to W. K.C. Guthrie, any account of Socrates (c.470-399 B.C.E.) must begin by acknowledging the “Socratic problem.,” the fact that we have no first hand accounts of his thought. Socrates wrote no philosophy Almost everything we know about him comes from his student, Plato, and from Xenophon Socrates’ philosophy is inseparable from the way he lived his life Guthrie says that in the end, “we must all have to some extent our own Socrates” – meaning that each of us has to decide for ourselves just what Socrates actually thought.
The General Character of Socrates Plato presents Socrates as an integrated individual who stood clearly for some values, such as goodness and beauty, and clearly against others, such as money and prestige. He taught that beauty and goodness should be determined by usefulness and fitness of function, rather than by mere appearance or personal feelings of delight. Socrates was reputed to be “less than attractive.” Perhaps for this reason, Socrates taught that the true self is not the body but the psyche – a combination of what we think of as the mind and the soul.
Barefoot in Athens Socrates was usually barefoot and apparently had only one tattered coat, about which his friends joked. His enemies accused him of being “unwashed.” One of Socrates’ most noted characteristics was his hardiness, reflected in remarkable self-control, or temperance. Temperance is indifference to the presence and absence of material pleasures (not total abstinence or extreme asceticism).
Socrates’ Self-Control In his Memorabilia, Xenophon emphasizes Socrates’ self- control. Indeed, Socrates claimed that “to have no wants is divine.” Xenophon’s Socrates uses the term incontinence to talk about the lack of self-control and self-discipline. Paradoxically, a life of self-control – rather than the self- indulgence of satisfying all desire – leads to more pleasure. That’s because someone with self-control can manage his own life and be useful to his friends and society
Socrates as Father and Husband We know little about Socrates’ personal life, except that: He was married to Xanthippe, with whom he had three sons. Although he was probably apprenticed as a stonecutter or sculptor by his father, Socrates worked only now and then. He lived off a modest inheritance. He never took money for teaching (as the Sophists did), he occasionally accepted gift s from his wealthy friends and admirers.
An Archetypal (or Paradigmatic) Individual Socrates is a genuine archetypal (or paradigmatic) individual. The philosopher and psychologist Karl Jaspers coined the term paradigmatic individual to refer to a special class of teachers, philosophers, and religious figures whose nature becomes a standard by which a culture judges the “ideal” human being. Socrates was one of those rare human beings whose very nature represents something elemental about the human condition.
An Archetypal Individual Although different cultures and eras produce different archetypes (Jaspers used as his examples Socrates, Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus), the archetypal individual’s very nature demands a response: What is it to be a human being? What is most important? What is good? How should I live? Because their very natures “demand response,” paradigmatic individuals shock and provoke extreme community reactions.
The Teacher and His Teachings Socrates’ “electric shock” effect on Athens resulted in his indictment, conviction, and execution as a traitorous blasphemer. Speaking for the last time as a public figure, on trial for his life, the seventy-year-old philosopher repeated what he had always insisted: “I neither know nor think that I know.” In Plato’s dialogues, we often find Socrates engaged in conversations with others. One outstanding feature of such conversations is Socratic irony; another is Socratic method, also known as Socratic dialectic.,
Socratic Irony Socrates often made use of irony. An ironic utterance communicates on two levels of meaning: a literal, or obvious, level and the hidden, or real, level. In his conversations with others, Socrates used irony to suggest that there was something they could teach him, when he was actually showing them that they did not clearly understand themselves the things they claimed to have knowledge about. One example is in the Apology, where Socrates uses irony to refer to the persuasive abilities of his accusers – when really they had not persuaded him of anything.
Socrates’ Method The Socratic method begins with the assumption that the function of education is to draw the truth out of the student. So rather than “filling the empty vessel” of the student’s mind, Socrates sought instead o draw wisdom and clarity out of a disordered and confused soul. Socrates functions as a kind of midwife, aiding others in giving birth to their own insights by drawing out what was already there.
Dialectic Socrates’ “widwifery” amounts to a questioning process known as the dialectical method of inquiry. In the early Platonic dialogues, dialectical inquiry usually begins with Socrates’ interlocuters defending a muddled definition. Socrates then uses skillful questions to guide his “opponent” closer to the truth by allowing the opponent to experience the logical inconsistencies in his own stated position.
Clarity and Confusion Even if Socrates and his interlocuter did not succeed in arriving at a single answer to questions like “What is justice?” they were at least a bit clearer than before. This was Socrates’ experience, but others often seemed to be angered and frustrated, if not humiliated, as their confusion and ignorance were exposed.
Socrates at Work In a passage from The Republic, Plato provides a good example of Socratic dialectic when Socrates enters into a dialogue with the Sophist Thrasymachus (c.450 B.C.E.). The exchange begins when Thrasymachus bursts into a discussion Socrates is having about the nature of justice. Thrasymachus defends the Sophist contention that “might makes right,” and that justice is determined by “the interest of the strong.” He claims that the unjust man always profits more than the just man.
Socrates at Work Socrates replies by exposing a contradiction in Thrasmymachus’ position when he agrees that rulers can mistakenly give orders that will harm them and yet (so you say) it is right for their subjects to obey. In those circumstances it follows that it is ‘right’ to do the opposite of what you say is right, in that the weaker are ordered to do what is against the interest of the stronger.”
The Unexamined Life From the perspective of Socrates, Thrasymachus’ real mistake arises from his lack philosophical self-reflection. In the Apology, the Platonic dialogue about his trial, Socrates makes the famous claim “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates believed that the human psyche, the soul or mind and capacity for reflective thinking is what is most definitive about human nature. An unexamined life takes the psyche for granted, and is objectively incomplete and deficient in value.
The Story of the Oracle Socrates obviously tried himself to live an examined life. But how did he come to his vocation as a gadfly? Why did he embark on his mission to help others examine their lives? It all began when Socrates’ friend Chaerephon went to the Oracle of Delphi and asked, “Is anyone wiser than Socrates?” The Oracle’s answer was “No,” that is, “No man is wiser than Socrates.” To find out what the Oracle meant, and if what it had said was true, Socrates spent his life talking to others – hoping to find someone wiser. He engaged in conversation with politicians, poets and artisans.
Socratic Ignorance What Socrates learned was that nobody he questioned was wise, although they believed they were wise. Many had special skills in their field of expertise, but professed to know things beyond that field. In light of this, Socrates interpreted the Oracle’s pronouncement as meaning not that Socrates is the wisest man in Athens, as in having a more-than-human wisdom, but rather that anyone is wise who like Socrates knows he is not wise – thus demonstrating a human wisdom.
Physician of the Soul Even after coming to understand the meaning of the Oracle, Socrates continued his mission of engaging others in conversation about what matters most. In the Apology, he describes himself as a kind of physician of the soul. He believed that the “real person” is not the body, but the soul or psyche. So, seeking one’s welfare is a matter of seeking the welfare of one’s soul. Thus, Socrates was convinced that the god Apollo had commanded him to help others benefit and improve their souls through philosophical reflection.
No One Willingly Does Evil The imperative “Know thyself” takes on special significance in light of Socrates’ view that human beings always seek what they believe to be their own welfare and cannot deliberately do otherwise. In the Platonic dialogue Gorgias, Socrates points out that when people do what appear to be bad or distasteful things, it is always with some ultimate good in mind. For Socrates, the good or harm in question is always determined by what benefits or harms the soul. In order to seek my soul’s welfare I have to “know myself.” And in order to “know myself,” I have to know what kind of thing I am.
Arete and Techne In his mission as a kind of physician of the soul, Socrates sought to help people achieve virtue (arete) or excellence in functioning as a human. He believed that virtue is a special kind of knowledge that combines technical understanding with the skill and character to apply that knowledge. For this, he used the Greek term techne, meaning the practical knowledge of how to do things. The techne of baking a cake, for example, is not a merely cognitive knowledge of a cake recipe; it involves the skills needed to actually bake a good cake.
The Lack of Techne In matters concerning how to live, techne is knowledge of what to do and how to do it. It is knowledge of both means and ultimate ends. According to Socrates, the Sophists’ lack of techne was evident because their teachings made people worse. Plato accused the Sophists of developing persuasive skills (rhetoric) without acquiring a corresponding knowledge of what ought to be done or avoided—that is without knowledge of ultimate ends.
Socratic Intellectualism Socrates is often labeled as an intellectualist because he believed both that actions arise from beliefs, whether true or false, and that wisdom or knowledge of how to live well was a matter of having the right beliefs. Socrates’ intellectualism helps explain his unusual claim that no one knowingly does wrong. For example, even if a suicide bomber may do evil, he believes what he doing is good. One implication of this is that there is no weakness of the will (i.e., knowing what is good but not doing it).
Virtue is Wisdom In Plato’s dialogue the Meno, Socrates makes the following argument that virtue is wisdom: 1. Virtue is profitable or beneficial 2. Things of the soul are not profitable or hurtful in themselves, but they are all made profitable or hurtful by the addition of wisdom or folly. 3. Therefore, virtue must be a sort of wisdom.
The Trial of Socrates Socrates’ intellectualism, and conviction that his mission was a divine one, led to his questioning many important Athenian values, and occasionally annoying important and powerful people in the process. He acquired a mixed reputation, being viewed on the one hand as a harmless eccentric and on the other as a dangerous social critic and “free-thinker”—in short, a Sophist. Finally, resentment, distrust, and hostility against Socrates grew to such proportions that he was brought to trial for “not worshiping the gods of the state” and “corrupting the young.”
The Trial of Socrates Athenian trials consisted of two parts. First, the jury (consisting in 501 members) determined whether or not the accused was guilty as charged. Second, if found guilty, the second stage of the trial determined the most appropriate punishment. Socrates defended himself and was judged guilty by a rather close vote. His prosecutors then argued that he should be put to death.
A Death Sentence Although the custom for those convicted was to show some contrition, and offer a serious proposal for an alternative sentence, Socrates chose to act unconventionally, and not to grovel at the jury’s feet. He argued that since he had given up opportunities to make money because he was trying to help others, he should perhaps be given free meals for the rest of his life! The jury was not convinced, so the end result was that the jury voted for him to be put to death.
The Death of Socrates Socrates waited a month for his execution, during which he continued to pursue his philosophical inquiries. A number of Socrates’ friends visited him in prison on the last day of his life. He discussed the nature of the soul with them and told a mythical story about the souls immortality. When his friend Crito asked how they should bury him, Socrates jokingly replied, “In any way you like; but you must get hold of me, and take care that I do not run away from you.” He instructed his friend Crito to do with his body whatever he thought best, bid everyone farewell, drank the hemlock he was given, and died.
Socrates the Optimist In his conviction that knowledge would make us good, Socrates was an optimist. Although Socrates was probably correct in his belief that no normally reasonable person willingly does himself harm, he was surely wrong in his rejection of the possibility of weakness of will. On the other hand, the common counterexamples used to show that we often know what is good but choose what we know is bad (smoking, acts of malice, dishonesty) are only counterexamples when we separate knowledge from wisdom.
Know Thyself Socrates’ concern to be a good person is admirable. But continuing to philosophize even in the face of death makes sense if we recall that psyche means both soul and mind. Because Socrates thought of himself as his psyche, gaining knowledge became the same thing as getting better at being a person, or becoming a better person. His motto “Know Thyself” amounts to the claim that gaining knowledge or understanding – knowing oneself – is an integral part of becoming a better person. His concern for the welfare of his soul is then inextricably linked to his desire for knowledge and his love of wisdom.
Post-Reading Reflections What do you see as the philosophical relevance of Socrates’ life to his teachings? Do you think it is possible to separate a philosopher’s life and character from his or her philosophy? That is, does the value of a philosophy of life suffer when its advocate fails to live up to it? Explain. Socrates claims that an unexamined life is not worth living. What do you think it means to live an examined life? Do you agree that a life without self-examination is not worth living?