Socrates (470-400 BCE) is a very famous yet controversial and obscure figure. Like many great thinkers of the ancient world, he did not write his own thoughts down but taught others. It was Plato (430-350 BCE) and another philosopher and historian named Xenophon (not Xenophanes, the philosopher) who wrote about Socrates and his teachings after his death. The third major source of ancient Athenian literature that speaks about Socrates is Aristophanes who wrote plays mocking Socrates and portraying him as an idealistic fool. Recall that Aristophanes also mocked Euripides, friend of Anaxagoras, for over-employing the deus-ex-machina by lowering him into one of his own plays, and that Plato, in his dialogue The Symposium, has Aristophanes argue for Empedocles’ theory of proto-human paired beings to explain love and sexuality.
It is generally accepted by scholars today that Plato’s early dialogues are one of the best sources for understanding Socrates and his ideas, but in Plato’s later dialogues Socrates is a mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas, including those he borrowed from Pythagoras and Parmenides. We will consider Socrates and his thought first, then turn to Plato’s dialogues for the next few weeks. Plato and his student Aristotle were revered by Muslims and Christians alike and their texts survived because they were important to the Abrahamic religions.
It was believed and still is by many that Plato and Xenophon were Socrates’ students, but new scholarship has shown that this may well not have been the case. Plato was a playwright who wrote several unpopular plays before writing the dialogues between Socrates and his students that became celebrated as some of the first and central works of ancient Greek philosophy. While Plato never appears in his plays himself, he does put his own family members in roles. He has characters mention him as a young devoted follower of Socrates. Remember that Diogenes ridiculed Plato, saw his own teacher Antisthenes as the true devoted student of Socrates and saw Plato as a foolish and ignorant hijacker of Socrates’ lineage.
Originally, Socrates questioned everyone to show that we know very little and it is the job of the philosopher to show this to people. He would argue with others, including famous thinkers and sages, who believed that they possessed certain truth and point out the contradictions in their reasoning. This is much like Heraclitus telling us to beware of experts and being seduced into thinking that one school of thought or perspective is simply correct but instead continue to investigate the self and world as both have no limit to their depth or the things we can learn. While Socrates did not put forward views of his own but rather attacked others to show that human beliefs are imperfect and incomplete, he believed like Xenophanes and Heraclitus that there is a true good we should strive for through investigation even if we never come to have a complete understanding of it. This is also like Zeno, who saw all human judgements as involving contradiction.
In Plato’s later dialogues Socrates argues for a view much more like that of Pythagoras and Parmenides, that there is one unchanging reality above the temporary perceivable world and it is the job of the philosopher to seek and understand this eternal reality. Plato uses Socrates to teach his own increasingly Pythagorean and Parmenidean view that there are unchanging and eternal form of things in the heavens and only the educated and the persistent come to see and understand these forms. This later Platonic Socrates agrees with Parmenides that there is knowledge above and separate from opinion, and that the truth is eternal and unchanging. However, unlike Parmenides and Zeno but like Pythagoras, Plato’s later Socrates believes that we can know the eternal truth as having a proportional form, such that time and difference are not mere illusions. The ‘form of the good’ is eternal, so it does not change with time, but it does have a distinct shape much as Pythagoras discovered via mathematics.
We know very little about Socrates’ early life other than the details supplied in Plato’s works. He mentions several influences, including two women. He says that the witch/shaman Diotima taught him about love and how it is central to life and the cosmos. Socrates also gives credit to Aspasia, the mistress of the general Pericles, who he says taught him rhetoric. Socrates was, like almost everyone else in Plato’s dialogues, an aristocrat who knew politicians and the wealthy. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle lived at a time when the glory days of Athens were in decline.
Socrates’ career as a philosopher began when his friend Chaerephon went to the Oracle of Delphi to ask if anyone was wiser than his friend Socrates. Socrates, with characteristic modesty, protests that this was a very crass question to ask of the great oracle. The oracle replied to Chaerephon that no one was wiser than Socrates. Upon hearing this, Socrates says, with either genuine or false modesty, he was very troubled by this because he did not believe that he was very wise at all and this would mean that humanity is quite ignorant. He decided that he needed to determine if what the oracle said was in fact true, and so he began to wander and debate others, seeking someone wiser than himself.
Notice that while Socrates, like Anaxagoras, was charged with impiety, he did believe in the oracle and in the gods. His last wish in the Apology before drinking hemlock was that a rooster should be sacrificed to Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing and mystical insight who is associated with Thoth the Egyptian god of knowledge. Socrates seems to have viewed his death as a cure of a condition. It is from Asclepius that we get the image of snakes wound around a staff as a symbol for medicine and healing.
Socrates felt that he knew nothing, but as he questioned the experts of Athens he came upon a horrible discovery and paradox. The experts believed themselves to be wise and possess great knowledge, but when questioned it turned out they knew very little. Socrates knew that he himself knew nothing. Therefore, Socrates discovered that he was wiser than the experts because he knew that he knew nothing, while the experts knew nothing but thought that they knew a great deal. Humble and modest Socrates was aware that mortal humans know nothing, but the philosophers, politicians, artists and warriors were unaware of this great equality they shared with Socrates. The ignorance of Socrates was thus the greatest wisdom in all of Athens. It is certainly true that the more one knows, the more one knows there is an endless amount to know and that we are all quite equal in knowing very little even when we know a great deal. There is another paradox here: the more one surpasses others in wisdom, becoming different, one identifies with them more, seeing the common similarity. Love and wisdom are complimentary.
Notice the similarity between Socrates and Heraclitus, who argued that the experts believe themselves to know a great deal but do not understand that their knowledge and perspectives are mortal and we are all mere apes to the gods. Socrates argued, like Heraclitus, that the greatest wisdom is found in questioning oneself and others. Remember that great city-states and empires had risen and fallen along with increasingly specialized experts. Philosophy questions experts and the basis of our knowledge, which humans find useful particularly in times of crisis when hard questions must be asked. Socrates does not argue that we are hopelessly ignorant, but like Heraclitus that we should continue to examine ourselves, seek the truth and strive for the good.
Socrates argued that one should accept one’s own ignorance and the guidance of the world through intuition. He believed that he had a spirit, a ‘daemon’ in the Greek, a word which became “demon” as Christianity replaced the polytheism and spirits with monotheism and angels. This spirit was much like what we would call a conscience, a word which means “co-seeing” or seeing along with, an intuition that one should or should not do a particular thing, something Christians identified with angels sitting on shoulders just as ancient Greeks did with spirits.
Socrates says that his daemon told him to stay out of politics. Good advice, seeing as how his death was quite political. Not only did politics get Socrates killed in spite of this, but Plato has Socrates get increasingly political in his later dialogues, particularly in the Republic where Socrates debates the best form of the city. This is another piece of evidence that Plato may not have known Socrates and is using him as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. Socrates also praised the divinity of poetry, mysticism, love and drinking with friends as he does at the Symposium, a dialogue about a drinking party that turns into a philosophical discussion about the nature of love.
Plato & His Dialogues
Plato was long assumed to be a student of Socrates simply because Plato writes as much in many of his dialogues and he is the best source for knowing Socrates’ thought, though if he turned him into a mere mouthpiece for very different ideas in the later dialogues he may also be the worst. At the trial of Plato’s Apology, Socrates twice mentions Plato as one of those present in the assembly. As Socrates is about to die in Plato’s Crito, Socrates asks where young Plato is, and another student says that Plato was sick and could not be there. Of course, in both of these dialogues Socrates is a character and his words are actually those of Plato himself. Scholars now are critical and wonder if Plato merely had a habit of writing himself and his family into Socrates’ circle. It is difficult to tell whether or not Plato’s older cousin Critias or Plato himself were actual students of Socrates or whether they were simply influenced by this figure who became quite famous following his trial and death.
Plato’s actual name was Aristocles, but according to the story his wrestling instructor named him Platon or ‘Broad’ because he had a wide figure and wrestling stance. Plato was known to have a wide and thus ‘broad’ breadth of knowledge covering all subjects of ancient thought and might have acquired the nickname in this way. Plato’s father died when he was young, and his stepfather became the Athenian ambassador to the Persian royal court. Remember that Persia was a great source of ancient world cosmology at the time, and Zoroastrianism, Persia’s solar monotheism, would be a major influence on the Abrahamic religions just as Plato himself would.
Long after his attempts to become an established playwright, after his dialogues about Socrates had gathered some fame, Plato founded his Academy in 385 BCE, an open area near a sacred tree grove where he, his students and other lecturers would teach and debate matters of philosophy and cosmology. Academy in fact means ‘porch’ or ‘step’, an open area in front of a building, a fact it took scholars long to understand as they believed that the Academy must have been a building itself. Scholars made a similar error looking for the famed Library of Alexandria (an Egyptian center of ancient world cosmology, Platonism and Christianity), when in fact the library was a shelf that ran along a hall that connected two buildings, just as one would say a collection of books is a personal library.
We will first look at three of Plato’s early dialogues, the Apology, Crito, and Meno. Next week we will look at some of Plato’s later dialogues, the Symposium, Republic, Timaeus, and Parmenides. The early dialogues will give us the best picture we have of the original Socrates and his thought, and the later dialogues will show us Plato’s ideas.
The Apology is Plato’s account of Socrates’ speech he gave in his own defense at his trial for impiety. Xenophon and many others had written their own accounts of Socrates’ defense, though little of these other accounts have survived. While our word ‘apology’ means an admission of guilt and wrong, originally the word applied to any argument or explanation of one’s actions, regardless of how right or wrong one believed these actions to be. Socrates’ apology is not an “apology” the way we use the term today, as he explains to the Athenian assembly why he was not wrong but was doing a great service to Athens by forcing them to examine their lives and beliefs critically.
After Athens had become the rich center of the Delian League, infighting between Athens and Sparta had led to numerous indecisive wars, leading to the Peloponnesian War. Sparta, with the aid of Persia, defeated the Athenians and their allies. Athens never recovered, losing its empire of colonies and status as the most wealthy and powerful Greek city-state.
Many began to question Athenian democracy, which had clearly been defeated by the more aristocratic and dictatorial Sparta. Athenian democracy was quite oligarchical itself, with very few Athenians qualifying as citizens. In modern times, European cultures have often identified ‘the West’ with Athens and only rarely, such as in Germany under the Nazis and recently in the movie The 300, have identified ‘the West’ with Sparta. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is critical of Athenian society and praises Sparta, who like Egypt he says the Athenians should imitate in placing the excellent above others as leaders. Egypt was known for its scholar priests, and Sparta its warriors. Whether Socrates was an admirer of Sparta or merely critical of Athens is difficult to tell, but it seems Plato did admire Sparta and many Athenians would have seen Socrates’ criticism as dangerous given Athen’s decline.
In his rounds of Athens, searching like Diogenes for wisdom among the Athenians and not finding much of it, Socrates had acquired followers, many of whom were young and critical of Athenian society. These students began, like Socrates, to question their elders as well as the traditions and institutions in which the elders were involved. These included both the Homeric culture and the political organization of the state. After this had increasingly annoyed the traditional and the powerful for a good length of time, riots broke out that may or may not have included some of Socrates’ students. These riots destroyed temples and statues of the Homeric gods. Blaming Socrates, the Athenian assembly accused him of impiousness towards the gods, believing in new gods, and leading the youth astray. These “new gods” were likely the abstract ‘good’ that Socrates believed should be pursued, as well as the daemon, spirit or conscience Socrates conversed with to seek the true and the good.
As the Apology begins, Socrates begins by saying that he knows nothing for certain, and knows that he knows nothing. Note that this is a good defense against the charges of holding heretical views and leading others to heretical views different from the traditional views, as Socrates does not have particular views, nor does he know the traditional views are false. Socrates says he is not a good speaker, unlike the great orators of Athens who are good at swaying others to their own opinions, and asks the assembly to judge him not by his skill with words but by the truth. This is, of course, a rhetorical tactic similar to the infamous “Now, I’m just a simple country lawyer” approach used on the TV show Matlock and in the Saturday Night Live skit Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, in which Phil Hartman says, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m just a caveman…Your world frightens and confuses me…but what I DO know, is my client is entitled to a large cash settlement”. Apparently, Socrates’ knowing that he doesn’t know makes a decent defense in court.
Whether or not Socrates is using false modesty like these others, he argues that modesty and the truth is the best and most convincing rhetoric. He is also subtly insulting the assembly, a questionable move if he hopes to be acquitted, as he has said the assembly knows nothing like himself and they are easily convinced by orators who also know nothing but believe themselves to know and sway the assembly to agree with them without possessing truth. Socrates says that he has been accused of being a mere sophist, a rhetorician who is skilled at making the false appear true through argument (much as people today accuse lawyers of doing), but this is not the case as the sophists are highly paid and claim to know things and he is broke and knows nothing. He notes that Aristophanes, who is not his enemy but has disagreed with him and mocked him with his plays, has unfortunately led many to this view. Socrates says that he has been accused by several prominent Athenians who speak for the politicians, craftspeople, poets, and orators, all of whom have been angered by Socrates arguing that no one knows much of anything. He argues with one accuser, Meletus (not Miletus, the city-state), who Socrates says is simultaneously accusing him of atheism, of believing in no gods, and believing in new gods, which can not both be the case.
Socrates relates to the assembly the story of his friend Chaerephon going to the Delphic Oracle and hearing that no one is wiser than Socrates, and that this troubled him and drove him to question those who were said to be wise. Notice that Socrates says the traditional oracle of Apollo is what sent him on his mission, and that he later confirmed what the oracle said was true, a good thing to do if one is accused of impiety toward the traditional gods including Apollo. Socrates distances himself from the views of Anaxagoras, who argued that the sun was a flaming rock, and affirms the divinity of Apollo. He did initially doubt the oracle, but later confirmed that it spoke the truth by going on a divine mission to figure out what the oracle must have meant, assuming it knew more than he did.
After seeking out philosophers, politicians, poets and craftspeople, Socrates came to the understanding that while each of these experts claimed to know a great deal, questioning them showed that experts are much like the Pythias of the Delphic Oracle in saying things that they do not entirely understand themselves. Socrates decided that he should continue to question others as a spokesperson for the oracle, showing others that the gods have the wisdom to know that human beings do not know, but human beings themselves most often do not.
On one hand, Socrates is putting himself in the company of the gods and above others, possessing the wisdom that humans know nothing, but on the other he puts himself in the company of humanity, saying that he himself knows nothing. In terms of knowledge, Socrates is a mere mortal. In terms of wisdom, Socrates argues for the view of the gods. This is quite similar to Heraclitus, who said that our language sounds like baby-talk to the cosmic powers, and the wisdom of the wisest man sounds like the grunts and cries of an ape. Socrates, like Heraclitus, suggests that even as a mortal ape, far beneath the cosmic powers, we are indeed of striving for and achieving wisdom, even if this wisdom will never rival that of the cosmos.
Socrates tells the assembly that he does not fear death, only not living in accord with the good. Mortals like himself do not know what death is, and so there is no known reason to fear it. In the next dialogue we will examine, the Crito, Socrates accepts his death and does not escape his punishment like Anaxagoras who fled with the help of Pericles. He argues that one should obey the law, just as one should obey the gods. However, in the Apology, he tells the assembly that one should obey one’s superiors, which means that one must follow the will of the gods over the will of humanity, and so the assembly will have to convict him if they wish to stop him from showing others that they do not know. He says that as long as he draws breath, he will not stop practicing philosophy. Aristotle wrote that one should never kill one’s father, but among the Triballi tribal people the gods sometimes demand it, and so the Triballi are right to kill their fathers. This is like Antigone in reverse, who obeys the lower order of her family in defiance of the law of the state.
Socrates tells the Athenians that they are far more concerned with acquiring wealth than wisdom, and that there is nothing better for Athens then his taking up the role of the horsefly, the annoying pest that stings the horse and forces it into action. The assembly votes, and Socrates is found guilty by a slight majority. The assembly was said to be composed of about five hundred, and Socrates says in response that only thirty votes would have changed the verdict, making the tally about 280 voting guilty, 220 voting not guilty. Instead of pleading for mercy before he is sentenced, Socrates suggests to the assembly that he should be given free meals for life in the main council building, an honor reserved for military heroes and champion athletes. Diogenes Laertius claims that this angered the assembly, and that more chose to vote for a death sentence than had initially voted for Socrates’ guilt. Socrates tells both those who voted against him and those who voted in his favor that he did the right thing even in the face of death, which is the best that can be done. Socrates speculates that death may very well bring freedom from all desires and discomforts, and that he may be able to meet great souls such as Hesiod and Homer, with whom he may continue to question and practice philosophy.
In the Crito, which follows the Apology, Socrates is in prison awaiting his execution, and he argues with his friend and follower Crito who offers to bribe the guards and finance his escape. Unlike Anaxagoras, who fled with the help of Pericles, Socrates refuses Crito’s help, and argues that it is wrong to commit injustice even if it is for the purpose of saving one’s life. As in the Apology, Socrates places the good above avoiding death, being in accord with the cosmos above clinging to mortal life. Socrates seems to believe that we participate in a greater life other than our own, although he admits he does not know this, and so slighting the greater life for the sake of the lesser life is ignorance of the situation.
Crito admires Socrates, engaging in dialogue with him. While the Apology is almost entirely a monologue of Socrates’, the Crito is a genuine dialogue. Interestingly, as can be seen in the text of the Apology, the original texts do not contain breaks between speakers or identify the speakers in the margin. Thankfully, scholars have worked to put Plato’s dialogues in the format of a play with clear indicators of who is speaking when. Crito tells Socrates that he is impressed by the peace and calmness Socrates displays in the face of death, and Socrates replies that it is not death which is to be feared, but rather committing injustice. After discussing a dream Socrates has, which he interprets as saying he will die in three days, Crito tells Socrates that he can pay off the guards and anyone who would get him in trouble for doing so, allowing Socrates to escape his execution and join supporters in another city-state.
As this line of argument does not sway Socrates, Crito asks how Socrates can comply with the assembly, when they are clearly committing injustice against him. If Socrates believes, as he argued in the Apology, that he has been unjustly accused and should continue to do philosophy as the Delphic Oracle desired, why does he refuse to escape? Is this not committing injustice, to allow injustice to happen? Crito asks Socrates to think of his children and of his friends, such that he realizes greater justice can be done by preserving his life.
Socrates replies that if he escaped, he would be violating the law, and that it is the law that supports the city. By staying in Athens, he must follow the law even as he disagrees with the verdict of the assembly. Because he grew up in Athens and chose to raise his children there, it would be an attack on the city that supported his life to disregard the law. Ironically, this means that the city which gave him life is not wrong but merely ignorant in condemning him to death. This “social contract theory” of politics and the law is very similar to that of the British philosopher Hobbes, who argued that the sovereign king has the right to commit any injustice because he is the one who provides all justice.
Crito suggests that the city would not mind if Socrates simply disappeared, as long as he is out of Athens, whether by death or escape. Socrates refuses to go, which suggests he wanted his death to be symbolic of the ignorance of Athens and the wisdom that escapes him. Socrates has faith that doing the right thing will have the best impact in the long term, in response to Crito who argues that preserving his life would have a greater effect. Socrates seems to have confidence that he has already communicated his message, has shown the Athenians wisdom even if they have rejected it, and so his execution would be more valuable than continuing to teach and question others.
It was lucky for Socrates that he had friends in high places. While the Athenian assembly ordered Socrates’ death, they did not demand that he drink hemlock, which was only for those who could afford it. Those who could not were killed by exposure, similar to crucifixion, bound and left to die in public as a lesson or others. Not only did Socrates have friends who could bribe guards, but could afford to buy expensive, imported hemlock to spare Socrates the humiliation and pain of a terrible, public death.
Plato wrote the Apology and the Crito very early, and later wrote many dialogues between Socrates and prominent thinkers and figures of Athens. Anachronistically, this means that the rest of Plato’s dialogues we will study are supposed to have happened before Socrates’ trial and death, accounts of the questioning of others which condemned him.
Socrates, as shown in the Apology and Crito, is concerned with ‘the good’, also called virtue, or ‘arete’ in the Greek. Meno, a rich student of the sophist Gorgias, is visiting Athens and argues with Socrates about the nature of goodness, claiming to know a great deal about the subject. Of course, Socrates, true to form, shows Meno that he is quite unclear on the subject. Meno begins by asking Socrates if virtue can be taught. Socrates replies that they should clarify what they mean by ‘virtue’, and Meno says that his teacher, Gorgias, has argued that virtue is different for different people. For adult men, virtue is staying alive while helping friends and harming enemies. In Plato’s Republic, this position is again taken up by Thrasymachus. For women, children and slaves, it is virtuous to be obedient. Socrates disagrees, and argues that virtue must be one and the same for all, regardless of age, gender or position. Justice, which includes self-control, is virtuous for all people. Meno, who has brought many slaves with him to Athens, suggests to Socrates that virtue is the ability to teach and lead others, but Socrates disagrees, as slaves and children do not lead others and so this would not be a virtue common to all, and so could not be virtue itself.
While Socrates, in this early dialogue of Plato, does not say what virtue is, he says that it must be one and not many, common to all even if practiced in particular ways by particular people. Meno, befuddled, compares Socrates to a stingray, a fish that stuns its victims. Socrates replies that unlike a stingray, he is stunned himself. In the Republic, a later dialogue in which Plato begins putting forward his own ideas, Socrates proceeds to construct the form of the good with the help of others. In the Meno, Socrates suggests that while the definition of good may be beyond us, we can be lead to do good if we seek it out.
Meno argues that it is impossible to search for something if we do not know what we are searching for. Socrates tells Meno that according to some priests and poets, human souls are immortal and have been reincarnated again and again over the ages. While the souls forget what they know each time they are reborn, they in fact are merely ignorant of what they know, concealing it from themselves, and so what humans call ‘learning’ is in fact recollection, anamnesis in the Greek. This is how we can seek out the good without knowing what it is, because we are merely ignorant of the fact that we recognize it on seeing it, having known it from before. There is a story told by early Indian Buddhists of a king who sews his wealth into his coat and then gets drunk, forgetting he is a king and living as a beggar, not realizing that he still carries his riches with him.
Meno asks for a demonstration, and Socrates asks him to pick out one of his slaves. Meno picks a Greek slave boy, and calls him forward. Socrates, in the most famous part of the dialogue, leads the boy through a proof of geometry in spite of the boy’s having no formal mathematical education. Socrates draws a square on the floor in the sand, the way geometry was done in ancient Greece, and asks the boy how long a line would have to be to be the side of a square twice as large as the square on the floor. The boy guesses incorrectly, guessing that a line twice as long would work but this is far too much. At each point, while Socrates leads the boy through the proof, he asks the boy a question at every turn, showing that it is the boy himself who is making each judgement, not Socrates himself telling the boy what is true.
Socrates constructs a square of four squares, each the size of the original square, and leads the boy by questions to see that if the four squares are bisected with diagonal lines, one can construct a square in the center which is four halves of the original square, twice the area of the original, and so it is the length of the diagonal which gives us the length of the side we sought. Socrates believes that the ability of the slave boy to make each judgement correctly on his own is evidence that we do know all things and come to recognize what we have concealed from ourselves when we see it again.
In the Apology, Socrates argued that we think we know, but don’t know that we don’t know. Now, in the Meno, Socrates argues that we do know, but don’t know that we know. How are these two to be reconciled? Socrates is drawing a contrast between false human knowledge and the true knowledge of the cosmos which can lead us through intuition to the good just as Socrates leads the slave boy through geometric proofs. Our mortality, our limitation as human beings, conceals from us what we truly are, which we recognize even as it is beyond us.
Meno is convinced by Socrates’ demonstration that he is right, to which Socrates characteristically replies that he does not know whether he is wholly right about the matter or not, but that he will continue to believe that we can strive for what is good beyond ourselves. This is quite similar to Anaxagoras, who compared our human minds to beasts, who are lead in the right direction by the great cosmic mind, who was, like Socrates, charged with impiety by the Athenian assembly.