Here is the first summary from my current projects of learning about the major contributors to Western Philosophy. My previous post explains more in depth the reasons why I’m doing this, but right now I’ll just explain what is in this post.
1- The Quick Primer
The first section is a quick summary of the main ideas of the current topic, where I try to do quick elevator-pitch-like summary so you at least understand the premise of what I’m going to talk about and give you the mental parameter of what you should be paying attention to. Because most of the time I’ll read textbooks and see a lot of good notes, but I don’t really understand what it is I’m actually reading. So my hope is this primer will help set that context from the beginning.
This is main portion of the post as I go in depth and try to balance layman’s terms with academic investigation. I try to carry a casual, conversational tone, but my hope is to lay that framework so I can take you deeper into thoughts and ideas without completely losing you. So I will try to stating an idea from multiple angles or use forms of contrast to help amplify what it is that I’m talking about.
There has to be an applicable reason for all of this, right? I’m not content with reading something just for its own sake, why should we bother to even learn any of this? So here I’ll lay out at least a couple notes about how this can be carried out into everyday life.
Have you ever listened to a lecture or a sermon, or a TED talk, and kept nodding your head and saying “wow that’s really cool!” Then next day you don’t remember anything about it? Well this review is designed to put you in that scenario of actually recalling what you read and see if the main points actually stick with you. This should help you to see if you understood what you read and to see what parts you needed to go back over (or I need to explain better). But I give my own answers to these questions to not only help you to compare answers, but again this is also for me to test to see how much I actually learned as well!
You probably don’t need to read any of this, but these are just all the highlighted notes I took from various sources that helped me to learn what I wrote about. It’s like the references page in academic essays, but it’s not just the link, but the actual quotes that I’m using to build my thoughts. This can also be helpful for you if I didn’t explain something well enough, since you can scan through these notes to see what other authors said about a given topic and can help you better understand where I failed.
With that, here’s Socrates!
The Quick Primer:
Who is Socrates?
Socrates was a philosopher in Ancient Athens, who lived from 470 B.C. To 399 B.C. While there were other philosophers before Socrates, he is considered the original philosopher that started the form of Western Philosophy.
What’s his big idea?
The core of Socrates is a three part logical progression that is this:
- The supreme form of living is a virtuous life (virtues include: Courage, Justice, Prudence, and Temperance).
- A virtuous life is the source of happiness and a fulfilled life.
- To be able to live virtuously, you must possess knowledge of what truly these virtues entail (how can you be courageous if you don’t know exactly what it is even with all the varying circumstances?).
(Additional clarification: Socrates believes in a form of pure knowledge, so you can’t say you know what courage is unless you can prove it no matter the circumstance, otherwise if you can’t, does that not mean you don’t really know what it is that you’re talking about? Therefore he always claims that he doesn’t know anything)
The Socratic Method:
Socrates used what is called the Elenchus, which we now primarily call the Socratic Method, and it is something we see in court rooms, debates, and classrooms. It is a form of inquiry that tries to strip away all of the deception and get to the core idea that the person being examined possesses. To conduct the elenchus, you ask someone to make a generalized statement, then ask them to give examples of it being displayed. You keep proposing multiple scenarios to see if they accept or reject the given scenario as being aligned with their claim. This process of elimination primarily results in the one being questioned making contradictory statements to their original claim.
Other notable facts:
- Socrates did not write any of his work down, but his most famous follower, Plato is regarded as Socrates’ most reliable biographer and it is from his that most of our understanding of Socrates comes from.
- Socrates’ pursuit for knowledge makes him realize that he doesn’t yet possess the level of knowledge that he seeks, so he claims he doesn’t know anything. But the Oracle of Delphi claims he is the wisest man, so the only way Socrates can accept it is by concluding he’s only wise since he is aware of his own ignorance.
- Socrates made a lot of enemies (when you make smart people look dumb publicly, you tend to make powerful enemies), and get hauled into trial on false charges. His abrasive demeanor doesn’t win over the jury as he doesn’t try to appeal to the jury and loses the case and is sentenced to death.
My favorite philosopher has been Rene Descartes ever since I heard about his thought experiments in his Meditations of First Philosophy, but while his more detailed process brought about the modern form of philosophy and shaped our understanding of knowledge, we can trace this pursuit for true knowledge to Socrates. Socrates lived approximately 470BC – 399BC in Athens Greece. He even served in the losing side of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, in which Athens was then placed under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants.
One frustrating note about Socrates was that he did not ever write anything down and thus all that we know about him comes second hand from three authors who share different perspectives of him, and really only two of them are taken seriously. The first and most credible is Plato’s writings of Socrates, but it is difficult to know how much of it the is historical recordings of his teacher and how much is it Plato using the mouth of his teacher to voice his own philosophy. Next is Xenophon, who was a military general with connections to both Sparta and Athens and also studied under Socrates. The third is Aristophanes, who was a comic poet and isn’t regarded as much as a historian since his depiction of Socrates in his play “The Clouds,” he characterizes Socrates as a bumbling Sophist who gets into arguments constantly.
It appears that Socrates’ decision to not write down his ideas and thoughts fits with his belief that he does not hold the truest knowledge of any subject that would permit him to make conclusive statements to the static pages of history. You see, one of the foundational premises about Socrates was his pursuit for knowledge that defied conventional beliefs about knowledge. In The Apology, Socrates states that he was told by a friend, that he had gone to the oracle at Delphi (a priestess who speaks on the behalf of Apollo) and asked if anyone was wiser than Socrates, and the oracle replied that no one was. This statement perplexed Socrates because he was aware of his limitations and knew of many highly acclaimed sages in the land, so he sought out to find someone who actually knew something.
This is where that Cartesian origin of knowledge first emerges as Socrates conducts a form of inquiry called the Elenchus, which is a form of diving deeper into a thought to uncover if it has internal validity.
The elenchus involves:
- Encouraging the interlocutor (the individual being examined) to express some belief, usually concerning the definition of some moral concept (e.g. Holiness, justice, courage, etc.);
- Getting the interlocutor to express some other beliefs;
- Showing that these last beliefs negate the original belief.
The elenchus is now more known as the Socratic Method. But what is important about this method and why Socrates uses it is that he is dissatisfied with the mere image of knowledge and seeks the infallible form of knowledge. In one such recorded discussion, he asks two generals about the definition of courage. Socrates suggests that what he is looking for in asking these questions is something that is:
- Is possessed by all courageous actions and/or people;
- Is possessed by only courageous actions and/or people;
- And makes those actions and/or people courageous.
He’s seeking a universal truth that he can have full confidence in that his subjective biases do not cloud out and distort, but whenever he puts a self-proclaimed expert to the test, they fail miserably. Socrates is left with the conclusion that the reason for the oracle’s claim of Socrates’ wisdom is that it claims that we all are without knowledge and he is wisest just because he is the one who is aware of it.
Why knowledge is so important to Socrates is not only because of the impact that lack of awareness brings, but also because knowledge is associated with virtue. Virtue is deemed the ultimate good in Ancient Greece but there are multiple virtues to acquire, with most notably being: Courage, Justice, Prudence, and Temperance. Socrates realizes that there’s a difference between the universal term and it’s individual application. We can acknowledge these as virtues, but what really are these virtues? How do we identify it in reality? For that, Socrates determines that it is knowledge that is the key to virtue, for if we can know what a virtue is in reality, then we can pursue it fully.
To take a quick deviation, there’s an assumption made in that previous sentence that highlights a belief of Socrates, and that it is that we all strive for goodness. To use a bit of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand narrative a bit, Socrates believes that our own self interest is to do what is good, because what is good is good for ourselves individually. Even when someone conducts evil acts, it must be their ignorance that causes them to act out in what they believe is for their own good. These people are not defying their being but lack the appropriate understanding of their actions and thus are not in need of punishment but of corrective instruction. All people will act virtuously if they know that doing so is in their own good.
Now back to virtue: Socrates believes that knowledge is the key to virtue and thus that is why he interrogates those who claim to have such knowledge, and only to find that they do not; which like in Socrates’ rationale for punishment, Socrates sees that they are ignorant of their lack of knowledge and provides corrective measures for them to now properly seek knowledge so that they do not incur harm on themselves or others due to their ignorance. But if only Socrates can find the knowledge of such virtues, he can achieve happiness in virtue.
If you feel confused, don’t worry, I even had to retrace some steps while writing this out. So let’s try explaining virtue again more straightforward now that you have at least been primed with Socrates’ rationale:
The most holiest form of living is virtue, and if you are virtuous, then you will also find happiness. This rationale comes from the belief that living virtuous is in your own best interest, and thus the result of doing something that is ultimately good for you will bring you happiness. But the question arises in how do we achieve virtue in this complex world, so that is where knowledge comes in. Knowledge is the key to illuminating virtue to our awareness. It is like we’re stumbling around in a dark room, trying to find the clear path, but we have no way of discerning what is the right direction and if the thing we hit with our knee was a coffee table on the wrong side of the room as our objective, or if that in fact is the refrigerator where our ice cold Dr. Pepper (because in my personal philosophy, Dr.Pepper = happiness). Knowledge then is the light switch that illuminates the room so we can see our path and how to reach our objective. The problem is that we’re all in the dark and some people claim they have the knowledge to finding that happiness; they come up with all sorts of weird theories like that if the surface you feel is softer than the previous surface was, then you’re heading in the right direction, but Socrates says no, they have no idea what they’re talking about. Knowledge is the light switch and even though he still doesn’t know how to turn it on, he’s at least letting us know that is the source of obtaining virtue.
So again, Virtue is good living, and good living brings you happiness, and you can know how to be virtuous (and thus become virtuous) when you’ve obtained the true knowledge of what it means to be virtuous.
Now let’s add some more thoughts from Socrates.
One of the things that Socrates does when he conducts the elenchus on a self-proclaimed wise man, is to denounce that he knows nothing. He confesses that he has no knowledge on the given subject and inquires for the wise man to educate him. There are a few angles to this approach, and some see it as manipulation as he’s saying it tongue-in-cheek, as he baits the wise man into his trap. While I don’t think it is quite that manipulative, there definitely is a psychological approach that this takes on a mode that is very disarming that allows the setting to remain a discussion rather than a debate. Because during this time, the predominant class of people who considered themselves philosophers were called the Sophists, and they would conduct these organized debates. Socrates isn’t looking for a debate of who can craft the best sounding argument, no, he wants to cut through the fluff and get answers.
There’s another element to this approach in why he confesses his ignorance and that is because he sees the circular pattern when it comes to knowledge. You’re not going to look for something unless you already think you don’t know something. On the other hand, you must know something or else you’re not going to know where to look. Socrates is claiming that before you can go looking, the first thing you have to do is confess ignorance, which by and large most people are not willing to do, but he is, and he’s going to knock you off your high horse and throw you into that circular flow along with him since you will now become aware that you in fact do not know.
Next is Socrates’ famous maxim: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Well why not? What is wrong with constantly being intoxicated and enjoying the impaired ecstatic experience that it brings? What would be wrong if science was able to put us into a room that provided vital fluids to keep us alive and electric shocks would stimulate our brains as we enter a utopian Matrix virtual reality that allows us to live in a constant state of pleasure? We could even imagine being anyone we wanted to be and live out their life. Socrates says this is wrong because it is not a lived life, it is something that is projected onto us, but we do engage with it. Socrates’ claim that the unexamined life isn’t worth living can be depicted with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, but that is primarily Plato’s version of that issue.
I’ll talk more about this when I write about Plato, but the Allegory of the Cave is basically what the Matrix was based on. In this story, you have people chained up against the wall in a deep cave, and behind them is a huge fire which other people show signs and stories from the shadows of the fire’s illuminating light. The people against the wall only see these shadowed images against the wall in front of them and have built a whole belief on what all the shapes mean and even turn it into a game to see who can understand the images the fastest. But one person breaks free and crawls out of the cave and sees the sun and the open land and realizes how limited the life he had lived in the cave, but when he goes back into the cave, nobody believes him and he becomes further discredited since he can’t catch the signs like they can anymore.
Socrates is saying that behind every experience, there room for interpretation of the meaning of that experience. And it is in the interpretation; the examination of what our life is amounting to that in fact life becomes worth living. It is not the sequence of passive experiences, it is the integration of those experiences into some intelligible whole that constitutes a variable form of life, and one subject to refinement through self criticism; through reflection. But again these experiences need to have some form of external validity to them; they have interact with life as a whole and with other people.
Another maxim that is attached to Socrates that fits in his examined life stance is “Know Thyself” which is the source of why he focuses so much on the universal and internal state. Maybe I won’t yet have knowledge of what courage truly is, but can I start to gain knowledge of myself? If I can at least understand myself and what is my life, then I can have a stronger basis to obtain universal knowledge. This is where it becomes more like what Descartes sought, in that he’s left with a point of origin to knowledge. But also he needs to combat a prevailing notion of his time and that is the belief of the Skeptics. The Skeptics believed that there was no truth or true knowledge, but this leaves Socrates with one not being able to examine their life, so he pushes on to build a basis that philosophy can build from and that is the possibility to know something. I don’t currently see if Socrates concludes the answer like how Descartes will do later on in which Descartes concludes that since he thinks, he must exist and that to him is one fact that is indisputable. But Socrates at least lays the groundwork to pursue this kind of absolute knowledge.
There is one downside to this emphasis of introspection in that some argue this took the focus off the sciences and more on individual wisdom held the world back form making productive discoveries, but I think the centuries of asking the more core questions allowed us to walk with more certainty into the sciences later on.
The last major element about Socrates was his political thoughts. Athens Greece were the originators of the political form of democracy and wasn’t built upon the traditional oligarchy. As the modern society has adopted democracy as the more right form of governance, but Socrates was actually very critical of it. He didn’t necessarily mind the idea that a majority of voters dictated the course of action, but he was concerned with the giving power to those who were not in a position to make an appropriate diagnosis of the situation. For example, if you were on a ship at sea, who would you prefer to give power to: all passengers on board or to those on board who have expertise in navigation? So Socrates wasn’t pushing for oligarchy, but concluded that those in charge of governance should be comprised of those who are skilled in the ways of governance.
He even highlighted the potential consequences of simple majority rule in that since there are many who lack understanding, they could be easily swayed by those who emphasized easy talking and simple rhetoric. Democracy is prone to giving power to demagogues who manipulate those who do not understand. If you had to vote for support between a sweet shop owner and a doctor, the sweet shop will talk about how they provide substance that is pleasurable and tasty. You can easily experience it for yourself and the benefit is immediate. The sweet shop owner then accuses the doctor for inflicting pain and sometimes ends up killing people, when you leave a doctor’s office you have to recover. This is evidence to why the sweet shop owner is better for the community. The doctor’s rebuttal falls on deaf ears when they emphasize their long-term benefits and those who come in for treatment are better off than when they came in the long-term perspective. The sweet shop owner would win over the simple majority of the community even though educated individuals would vote for the doctor.
This becomes a very sobering prophesy when he is later accused of bogus charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and is facing a death penalty. Socrates conducts in his most usual self that is full of imposing more questions than answers and with a jury of 500 men, Socrates loses narrowly 220 to 280. Thus what was plainly obvious to those who understand was not obvious to those who didn’t understand and thus 280 men were convinced to condemn Socrates to death on unjustifiably baseless terms.
How Socrates conducts himself in his final days leading to his execution depict where he stands on an ethical premise in that he would fall under the Deontological perspective that is duty-based ethics. He sees himself as a subject to the order that law brings to society. He doesn’t focus on his personal wellbeing if it comes at the expense of breaching the contract with society, because like what Kant will describe later in his Categorical Imperative, if Socrates breaks the law for his own personal convenience, what good is the order of law anyway? What if everyone broke the law when it was inconvenient? So even though harm is done to him through the law, it would be greater damage to society if he breaks the law to escape even though his friends paid off the guards and made escaping to exile almost effortless.
When Socrates finally drinks the lethal poison, his last words were: “I owe a cock to Asclepius, would you remember to pay the debt?” His final words have to do with a sacrifice he owed to the god of healing. There is rich symbolism here for Socrates himself was sacrificed for the healing power of philosophy, and ironically Socrates remains entirely faithful to custom, while the charges against him were that he violated custom.
While there are many ways to apply Socrates to thinking, but for me, I focus on the pursuit of knowledge by embracing our own limitations. If we are confident that we know something, then there is little incentive to push further in understanding, and I try to hold knowledge with an open hand and to allow reasonable doubt to reevaluate my stances and beliefs.
Socrates uses his method of inquiry to dive beneath the surface and see what is the hidden driver of the nicely polished rhetoric that we use. We may believe we have a fool-proof belief, but if you just keep asking why and throwing different scenarios at your claims, you see how shaky the foundation of your beliefs are built upon.
It is a form of virtue ethics, but I do like using Socrates’ belief about virtue in that we all are pursuing virtue and even those who do evil acts are not because they themselves are evil, but are ill informed of the course to virtue. Thus they need to be treated with patience and with understanding as we provide instruction towards virtue.
Life is worth living and living intentionally because of its impact on others. I can be lazy and only focus on pleasures, but that ultimately isn’t going to leave me with contentment and satisfaction when I die because my life was meant to be used in connection with others and to be of value in assisting others to examine their own lives. Life is valuable because of its interconnectedness with others.
Quickly challenge yourself to see if you really understood what you read in this post. Do you really understand who Socrates is and what his ideas were all about? I guess that’s also a critique of my explanations, but let’s pretend that you’re in a group discussion and one friend ends up bringing up Socrates and everyone is talking about him, except there is one friend who has never heard of Socrates.
Question 1: “Wait, who is Socrates? Where is he from?”
Question 2: “So what? What is he all about? Isn’t he just a debater?”
Question 3: “Why doesn’t Socrates say he doesn’t know anything?
Question 4: “Why is the unexamined life not worth living?”
- Just in case your stuck, this is how I would answer these questions.
Socrates was a philosopher who lived over 400 years before Jesus in Athens Greece. He is where we get the concept of the Socratic Method of inquiry and is credited as the first major philosopher in Western Philosophy, and taught the next pillar of philosophy, Plato.
- Why he is relevant is because he is the first to systematically challenge personal belief by seeking a form of external validity. Prior to this, there was no scientific method, there wasn’t any experiments, so all they had were passed down beliefs. Socrates changed the mindset to start asking what truths are stable in fact and not influenced by one’s beliefs.
- Socrates is famous for claiming that he is wisest only because he is aware of his own lack of knowledge. What he is claiming is that there must be a solid truth that exists, a perfect definition for a particular thing that can be used in any circumstance, but he hasn’t found it and works to help others to see how little they actually know so they’ll be dissatisfied with where they are and become more knowledgeable themselves.
- Because to be absent-minded means that you are not moving closer to knowledge, and if you have knowledge, then you can act out in virtuous behavior which serves you well since that is where you’ll actually find the most fulfilling and happiest life.