Part 2 of 2
The following text is a transcript by V. S. of the conclusion of the introductory lecture of an eight-lecture course called The Trial of Socrates. As usual, I have edited this transcript to remove excessive wordiness and filled in the gap between the two sides of the tape.
What I would like to talk about now is Socrates as a moral philosopher: how he is a moral philosopher, what his teachings are, and also the relation of Plato to Socrates. Because a lot of people raise this question: How do we what’s Socrates and what’s Plato?
First of all, Socrates is a moral philosopher because he’s concerned about how to live and how to die.
I think one of the reasons modern people are so frustrated and perplexed over the death of Socrates is that we don’t have any conception of the appropriate time to die. We cling to life as long as possible, whereas the ancient Greeks were more concerned to have a good death, a noble death.
Socrates, after he is condemned to die, connects what he is doing to the heroes of Homer. There’s some big talk at the end of The Apology, when makes himself out to be dying a heroic death. He died well, and when we read the end of the Phaedo we’ll see exactly what happened. How, according to Plato, Socrates took the poison without grumbling, without weeping, and without getting all undignified at the very end, and in fact his last words were a joke.
First of all, when they brought the poison to Socrates and handed him the cup he said to the executioner, “Now, is it permissible to pour some of this out as a libation to the god?” And the executioner said, “No, you must drink the whole thing.” And he said, “Very well.” So, he downed it. Here’s the whole passage:
Hearing this, Crito nodded to the slave who was standing near him. The slave went out and after a time came back with the man who was to administer the poison, carrying it made ready in a cup. When Socrates saw him he said, “Well, my good man, you are an expert in this. What must one do?” “Just drink it and walk around until your legs feel heavy and then lie down and it will act of itself.” And he offered the cup to Socrates, who took it quite cheerfully without a tremor or any change of feature or color but looked at the man from under his eyebrows as was his wont and asked, “What do you say about pouring a libation from this drink? Is it allowed?” “We only mix as much as we believe will suffice,” said the man [who apparently didn’t think there was anything funny there].
“I understand,” Socrates said, “but one is allowed, indeed one must, utter a prayer to the gods that the journey from here to yonder may be fortunate. This is my prayer and may it be so.” And while he was saying this he was holding the cup and then drained it calmly and easily. Most of us had been holding back our tears reasonably well up until then, but when we saw him drinking it and after he drank it we could not hold them back any longer. My own tears came in floods against my will, so I covered my face. I was weeping for myself, not for him, for my misfortune in being deprived of such a comrade. Even before me, Crito was unable to restrain his tears and got up. Apollodorus had not ceased from weeping before and at this moment his noisy tears and anger made everybody present break down except Socrates.
“What is this,” he said, “you strange fellows? It is mainly for this reason that I sent the women away to avoid such unseemliness, for I am told one should die in good-omened silence, so keep quiet and control yourselves!’ His words made us ashamed and we checked our tears.
“His words made us ashamed.” This is said about Socrates in other texts too, specifically and most dramatically in the Symposium with Alcibiades. Alcibiades said, “The only person in the world who ever made me feel ashamed was Socrates.” And this is part of his concern with moral education and his capacity to evoke these feelings of shame, which is a very important dimension of moral education. You can’t feel shame for anything when you’re morally dead.
His words made us ashamed and we checked our tears. He walked around and when he said his legs were heavy he lay on his back as he was told to do, and the man who had given him the poison touched his body and after a while tested his feet and legs, pressing hard upon his foot and asked him if he felt this and Socrates said, “No.” Then he pressed his calves and he made his way up his body and showed us that it was cold and stiff. He felt it himself and he said that when the cold reached his heart he would be gone. As his belly was getting cold, Socrates then covered his head. He had covered it and said these were his last words, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Make this offering to him and do not forget it.” “It shall be done,” said Crito. “Tell us if there is anything else.” But there was no answer. Shortly afterwards, Socrates made a movement. The man uncovered him and his eyes were fixed. Seeing this, Crito closed his mouth and his eyes. Such was the end of our comrade, Socrates, a man who we would say was of all those we had known the best and also the wisest and the most upright.
These last words, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Make this offering to him and do not forget it.” Nietzsche interprets this as follows. He says that to give a cock to Asclepius is to sacrifice a rooster to the god of healing. People who were sick would sacrifice a rooster to recover. Nietzsche says this is just Socrates’ poisonous pessimism and hatred of life. Life is a disease, and now he’s being cured of it, and so he wants to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius for the cure to life which is death.
I think that is just a lot of nonsense. I think this is another Socratic joke. He’s about to die and he says what is equivalent to, “Quick, call 911!” It’s a little bit of lightheartedness. His last words were a joke. So, he was enormously continent, enormously self-controlled and brave, and at the same time had some gallows humor. It reminds me of St. Lawrence, who was being grilled alive by the Romans, and at one point he called out, “Turn me over! I’m done on this side!” You admire people like that. There’s a certain bravado about that, that’s quite impressive.
So, Socrates died well, and up to that point he lived pretty well, too. One of the wonderful things about Plato and Xenophon is they don’t just report what Socrates said, they also narrate some of the things he did. He was courageous in battle. He was good to his friends. We don’t know much about his home life, but we do have one record of him explaining to his elder son why he should be better to his mother, Xanthippe. There are many acts of decency, courage, self-control, and so forth that you find narrated about Socrates’ life. So, he lived well, too, and that’s really what his primary concern was: to live and to die well. This is what moral philosophy is all about.
Now, there are some theses or positions in moral philosophy that Socrates defended that are quite famous.
The first one is his claim that all human beings are pursuing the good. What does this mean precisely? It means this: human action, if it is rational, always shows a certain pattern. When we have a choice of different options, we always choose the option that appears to us the best of the options available. Human beings are always pursuing the good in the sense that in every choice they have, they will choose the best option as they see it.
Now, there are things that need to be said about this that make it more precise. First of all, he’s not saying that we’re actually choosing what’s really the best thing but what just seems to be the best. We are as often as not mistaken, maybe more often than not, about what the good is. But we choose what we see as the good, and if we see it differently then we’ll choose differently. But there’s a deep concern for human beings in all of their actions to choose the better option. They can be mistaken, but that’s beside the point. There’s an orientation towards the good that’s part of all human action.
If that’s the case, Socrates argues, we have to be very serious about life, because first of all we’re already pursuing the good life, so we need to know exactly what’s required of us to do this. The main thing that is going to be required is practical wisdom. Moral wisdom, if you will. The virtues.
In the dialogue Euthydemus, Socrates goes through a little exchange with a young man Clinias, who is somewhat confused about life. The argument is basically this: he asks him, “What do you want in life? What are the good things in life?” And he gives a list of the things that are good in life.
Then Socrates said, “Well, what about good fortune? Don’t you need good fortune to make all of these things real? Because even if you have good looks and a good family and money and so forth, if you don’t have good luck none of these things are actually going to lead to having a good life.”
What’s happening here is that at the beginning Socrates is identifying two things that are really different: wisdom and good fortune. Most people depend on luck to make all the components that they have of a good life actually coalesce into a good life. But depending on luck to have a good life is really foolish, because you might not luck out. Fortune is quite fickle.
So, if you’re going to make your own luck, what’s the wise person’s substitute for luck? It’s wisdom. And what is wisdom? Wisdom for Plato and Socrates is the capacity to make right use of all things. It’s the capacity to take all of the advantages that life has dealt you, and all the disadvantages for that matter, and manage them in such a way that the net result is a good life or a happy life, a flourishing life in the Greek sense, well-being. This is a deeply practical and deeply moral sense of wisdom.
How did the virtues—things like courage and temperance and justice—relate to being morally wise? For Plato and Socrates, and for Aristotle too, virtue is a kind of moral perceptiveness about the right thing to do at the right time and the right place and the right circumstances.
So, if you have the virtue of courage, what that means is you know when it’s good to fight and when it’s good to run away, and you have the capacity to see that in the particular emerging situation, not in hindsight. Most of us figure out the right thing to do six months later or the next day. Hindsight is 20/20. But virtue is the ability to discern the right thing to do in the moment.
Another Socratic moral claim is that virtue is a kind of knowledge, so if one knows what the good is, one does it. And if someone doesn’t do the virtuous thing, then it’s a sign that they don’t really know it.
Now, this is a very strange claim, and it’s quite controversial, because of course there is an obvious objection. This is something that Euripides says in Hippolytus: we know the good, but do not practice it. Isn’t that true of all of us? We know what’s good, but often times we don’t do what’s good.
This phenomenon is called by the Greeks “weakness of will,” akrasia. It is sometimes translated as “incontinence,” which unfortunately also has the air of bed-wetting about it. So, let’s just say “weakness of will.”
You know it’s good, but you don’t do it.
Audience member: But you’re not even getting to that point. It’s second nature. It’s almost a reflex, actually. You’re not even saying to yourself, “This is good, but I’m choosing not to do it.” Being virtuous is being able to do it by second nature, right?
Yes, but you’re bringing in Aristotle’s terms, and Aristotle is right. A virtuous person does what is right by second nature, and they don’t need to dither about it. But that represents in some ways an advance on Socrates.
Socrates really had the view that the moral faculty is knowledge, and if there really is moral knowledge then action just follows as a matter of course. Aristotle disputes this, and he’s correct to dispute it.
But Socrates did believe that if you know, you do. There’s no hiatus between knowing what’s right and doing it. So, any example of weakness of will he would say really boils down to an example of not really knowing.
Aristotle actually criticizes Socrates on this point, but Aristotle’s solution to the problem boils down to saying that weakness of the will is ultimately not knowing, too.
So, it’s a hard position to shake off. We’ll get into this in more detail as we go along, but again we’re just sort of hitting some themes.
For Socrates, what is of primary importance is practical wisdom or moral wisdom, which, again, is the ability to see the right thing to do in the particular circumstances of one’s life and to do it.
Wisdom in the older sense, which you could call theoretical wisdom, natural science, or metaphysics is of secondary importance to Socrates.
To put this in context, let’s look at a passage from Cicero that talks about the theoretical model of wisdom that was held by the pre-Socratic philosophers.
And though we see that philosophy is a fact of great antiquity yet its name is of recent origin, for who can deny that wisdom itself is at any rate not only ancient in fact but in name as well. And by its discovery of things sacred and human as well as of the beginnings and causes of every phenomenon.
This is natural science.
It gained its glorious name with the ancients and so the famous seven, who are called sophoi by the Greeks, were both held and named wise men by our countrymen. Thus many generations previously, Lycurgus, in whose day according to tradition Homer also lived before the foundation of this city and back in the heroic age Ulysses and Nestor were, as history relates, wise men and accounted wise.
It’s pretty verbose. Just bear with us. Cicero was a lawyer and reads like Supreme Court decisions.
And surely tradition would not have told of Atlas upholding the heavens or Prometheus nailed to the Caucasus or Cepheus placed among the stars with his wife and son-in-law and daughter unless their marvelous discovery of things heavenly had caused their name to be transferred to the fairy tales of myth.
So, he’s saying that all of the origins of these mythic names are early natural philosophers who learned the nature of things and whose names were transferred into the realm of myth.
And with these began the succession of all those who devoted themselves to the contemplation of nature and were both held to be and named wise men and this title of theirs penetrated to the time of Pythagoras, who according to Heraclides of Pontus, the pupil of Plato and a learned man of the first rank, came the story, goes to Phlius and with a wealth of learning discussed certain subjects with Leon, the ruler of the Phliasians, and Leon after wondering at his talent and eloquence asked him to name the art in which he put the most reliance, but Pythagoras said that for his part he had no acquaintance with any art, but was a philosopher. Leon was astonished at the novelty of the term and asked who philosophers were and in what they differed from the rest of the world. Pythagoras, the story continues, replied that the life of man seemed to him to resemble the festival which was celebrated with the most magnificent games before a concourse collected from the whole of Greece.
These were things like the Olympic Games and the Corinthian Games and so forth.
For at this festival some men whose bodies had been trained sought to win the glorious distinction of a crown. Others were attracted by the prospect of making gain by buying or selling whilst there was on the other hand a certain class and that quite the best type of freeborn men who looked neither for applause nor gain, but came for the sake of the spectacle and closely watched what was done and how it was done. So also we, as though we had come from some city to a kind of crowded festival, leaving in like fashion another life and nature of being, entered upon this life and some were slaves of ambition, some of money, and there were a special few, who, counting all else as nothing, closely scanned the nature of things. These men gave themselves the name lovers of wisdom, for that is the meaning of the word philosopher, and just as at the games the men of truest breeding looked on without any self-seeking, so in life the contemplation and discovery of nature far surpassed all other pursuits.
Now, the word theory comes from the word theorein, a Greek word which means to be a spectator, to look upon, and the word speculation comes from the same term, to be a spectator, to look on. Early pre-Socratic philosophy was primarily theoretical or speculative philosophy, looking on at nature, trying to know the nature of things as they are. It was unconnected with practical activity at all, and, in fact, it regarded itself as noble precisely to the extent that it was divorced from any sort of practical necessity or activity.
This was very much a part of the Greek aristocratic ethos where leisure was a sign of good breeding. The best people didn’t have to work. They could just hang around and collect beautiful and useless things. Commission statues and commission plays and so forth. Most of what we call “high culture” is a result of aristocratic patrons going all the way back to the ancients.
So, the philosophers emulated this model of nobility. In fact, they did far better at it, beat the aristocrats at their own game, because the aristocrats, although they were liberated from material necessity, were still caught up with material things, material forms of beauty, whereas the philosophers were completely divorced from any concern with material interests and practical concerns and were entirely interested in the most sublimely useless thing of all, which is knowing how the cosmos works. Not for any technological purpose, not for any cash value or any benefit, which is what makes science move today, but simply for the sake of knowing as an end in itself.
This is the original aim of philosophy. It’s amoral in its concern, because it’s concerned with nature and doesn’t see any moral law in nature, and it’s impractical because it measures its nobility by the extent to which it liberates itself from any concern with practical activity. So, this is pre-Socratic philosophy.
Nor was Pythagoras by any means simply the discoverer of the name but he extended the actual content of philosophy as well. After his arrival in Italy, subsequently to this conversation in Phlius, he enriched the private and public life of the district known as Magna Graecia with the most excellent institutions and arts–of his doctrines we can perhaps speak another time. But from the ancient days down to the time of Socrates, who had listened to Archelaus, the pupil of Anaxagoras, who were both natural philosophers too, philosophy dealt with numbers and movements, but the problem whence all things came or whither they return and zealously inquired into the size of the stars, the spaces that divided them, their courses, and all celestial phenomena. Socrates, on the other hand, was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens and set her in the cities of men and bring her also into their homes and compel her to ask questions about life, morality, and things good and evil. And his many-sided method of discussion and the varied nature of its subjects and the greatness of his genius, which has been immortalized in Plato’s literary masterpieces, have produced many warring philosophic sects of which I have chosen particularly to follow that one which I think agreeable to the practice of Socrates, in trying to conceal my own private opinion, to relieve others from deception and in every discussion to look for the most probable solution; and as this was the custom observed by Carneades with all the resources of a keen intelligence, I have endeavored on many other occasions as well as recently in the Tusculan villa to conform in the same fashion in our discussions.
Cicero was a kind of Socratic. You could call him an academic sceptic. Now, there’s another passage from Cicero, from a work on the orator, about Socratic irony. He says, “Urbane is this dissimulation when what you say is quite other than what you understand. In his irony and dissimulation, Socrates in life far excelled all others in charm and humanity. Most elegant in this form and seasoned in seriousness.” He says, “Irony is where the whole tenor of your speech shows that you are gravely jesting.” A kind of serious playfulness in speaking differently than you think.
Cicero is a very important source. He gives us the tableau of pre-Socratic and post-Socratic philosophy. Socrates is the one that called philosophy down from the heavens and put it to work on the problems of morals, on the problems of life and death.
I want to deal briefly now with the relationship of Plato to Socrates. To do that, we need to talk about the relationship of what you could call metaphysics—the study of the whole including nature and the cosmos, number and motion and these things that are discussed here—to moral philosophy.
Pre-Socratic philosophers did not see any connection between giving an account of the whole and guiding one’s character and conduct, developing one’s character and guiding one’s conduct. Again, they were amoral. The same with the sophists.
Now, when Socrates turns away from natural philosophy towards the middle realm of human things, towards moral concerns, it seems like he pretty much leaves metaphysics behind, leaves speculations about the whole behind. There’s some reason to think that much of the more refined speculative philosophy that you find in Plato’s dialogues is not Socrates’ philosophy but Plato extrapolating from certain Socratic ideas and moving forward. Socrates seems somewhat reticent to speculate about metaphysical topics. He’s been there, done that. And he said it made him blind to how men grow and develop, the care of the soul, and he wasn’t going to go back to that.
Plato goes beyond Socrates in this way: he accepts Socrates’ starting point, which is to start out with the human condition and with the care of the soul, and then he tries again to move out beyond the realm of the human and look at the cosmos, but this time he wants to make sure that there’s a harmony between metaphysical speculation and moral philosophy.
How he brings that about is very interesting. It’s quite complex. Really the whole class is needed to make it clear. It is important to get clear about this because the distinction between pre-Socratic and post-Socratic or Socratic philosophizing is not just a historical distinction. They represent two possible ways of thinking that are live options today. There are quite a few pre-Socratics running around today. There are many people who think that reason cannot discern any rational guide to morals and character. There are many people who think that the scientific investigation of nature can only lead to the collapse of moral conduct, and, well, so be it.
Another characteristic of pre-Socratic philosophy is its attempt to step outside the human world and the human perspective on things and see the world from a non-human point of view, somewhere far above or far below the human. The ordinary perspective of human actors is left behind, whereas with Socrates what you find is a resolution never to forget that we are human beings, that we are human spectators in the world, and never to forget that whatever we see in nature we see from the human point of view. We’re never going to be able to step outside of the human condition and see the world as it would look if we didn’t exist, which is the model of pre-Socratics ancient and modern. This debate, if you will, or this struggle exists today.
For instance, if you look around this city, especially this neighborhood, you can see a nice jumble of what you might call pre-Socratic and Socratic forms of architecture. This building I would call pre-Socratic in the sense that it steps out from the human point of view, the human perspective, and human scale. It’s large, dwarfing, somewhat alienating, and not particularly homey. But if you go across the street into Ansley Park, you find buildings that were built much more to the human scale. They’re much more homey and comfortable. What’s the difference?
With modern architecture the perspective of the human actor and agent has simply disappeared, and what you have is just people with mathematical models multiplying floors, maximizing value, getting the most bang for their buck. And that’s a whole set of incentives that’s completely divorced from the human agent’s perspective on things, which is why it’s so hard to feel at home in the Bauhaus or any post-Bauhaus architecture.
There are many other dimensions of this as well, but the difference between what you can call a theory-centered philosophy that tries to look at the world from a non-human point of view and what you could call a humanistic philosophy that always begins with the human condition as a starting point and never forgets that no matter how much we learn about the cosmos it’s not going to make any sense unless we can fit ourselves into that picture. That is a deep struggle to this day. So, it’s important not just historically but also because these are permanent patterns of thought that recur, and we’re in the midst of these debates in other forms to this day.
There are a few passages that I want to read.
Another point that’s extremely important from Socrates’ moral philosophy is his claim that it’s always better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. This is widely puzzled over, and the question is, Why would it be better to suffer wrong than to do wrong?
Isocrates was a sophist who was a contemporary of Plato, and in one of his writings he says that “our forefathers given the choice between suffering wrong and doing wrong naturally chose to do it,” and indeed given the choice most people probably would choose to do wrong than to suffer it, but Socrates says, “No, absolutely not.”
That’s an extraordinary claim, and it all goes back to his primary concern with the health of the soul or character, because what Socrates argues ultimately is that good character, virtue, is intrinsically good. It’s its own reward in some sense. Now, many good things will come from being virtuous. However, given the choice between those good things and your virtue you’d always choose virtue. So, virtue is choiceworthy whether or not any additional rewards accrue to it. If that’s the case, then when you’re given the choice between doing injustice and suffering it, you have to think about your soul.
The reason why he chooses to suffer injustice is simple. If you suffer injustice, it doesn’t harm your soul. To be a victim doesn’t destroy your character. It could destroy you physically, but it can’t destroy your moral nature. It can’t make you into a monster.
However, to do evil, to do injustice corrupts one’s soul, corrupts one’s character, and therefore to do evil is to harm oneself morally speaking, whereas to suffer evil might be terribly inconvenient, might even be fatal, but the fact of the matter is that it can’t make you a monster.
If the primary concern is the care of one’s soul, the health of one’s soul, then given the choice between doing injustice and suffering it you should choose to suffer it rather than do it.
Now, Socrates says, “Of course, I’d rather avoid the choice to begin with,” but the truth of the matter is that sometimes life presents us with these unpleasant, sticky situations where you do have to choose one or the other and Socrates in prison is in one of those situations. When his friend Crito comes to him and says, “Look, we can get you out. We can send you into exile.” He says, “Well, this is one of those points where you have to choose between the two, between suffering injustice and doing it.” And he does argue that it would be unjust for him to escape. Some people think the argument is quite spurious, but the fact is that if he’s rationally convinced that it’s better to suffer than to do injustice then he did the right thing by choosing to stay and suffer even an unjust execution, which is an extraordinary claim.
Socrates also makes the extraordinary claim that, in a sense, virtue makes one invulnerable, because virtue primarily resides in the soul. Think about Job. He loses his camel, he loses his wife, he’s covered with running sores, and so forth. But if Job were a virtuous man, if his soul were in harmony rather than corrupt, in a sense he would be invulnerable to the last measure of degradation. He would certainly be unhappy, but it wouldn’t make him into a monster. He wouldn’t become an evil man for suffering all these things. In that sense, virtue makes one invulnerable to the worst sorts of harm, because nobody can force you to be a monster. No one can do that. They can kill you. They can take your camel and wives and servants and cover you with running sores, but they can’t turn you into a bad person.
So, Socrates makes extraordinary claims in, for instance, the Crito and the Apology. I’ll read these and then we can be done for today. On page 78 at the bottom:
Perhaps then someone might say, “Are you not ashamed, Socrates, of having followed the sort of pursuits from which you now run the risk of dying? Aren’t you ashamed to be in this situation?” I would respond to him with a just speech. “What you say is ignoble, fellow, if you suppose that a man who will even a little benefit to take into account the danger of living or dying but not rather this alone whenever he acts: whether his actions are just or unjust.”
One’s consideration is always “Am I doing the right thing?” and not “Is this going to accrue to my long-term benefit?” It’s noble to do the right thing come what may. So, again, we have to be concerned whether our actions are just or unjust, the deeds of a good man or a bad man.
A little further on he says, “This is the way it is, men of Athens, in truth. Wherever someone stations himself upholding that it is best, or wherever he is stationed by a ruler, there he must stay and run the risk.” He’s talking about a soldier’s duty. “As it seems to me, and not take into account death or anything else compared to what is shameful or noble.”
And he says, “Just as I was stationed at Delium and Potidaea and Amphipolis,” battles where he went and did his duty, he’s got his duty to philosophize, and he’s going to do the right thing regardless of the consequences.
But he doesn’t think the consequences are so bad in this case, because they can’t fundamentally hurt him.
The very last page of the Apology on page 97 where it says d in the margin, “There is nothing bad that can happen to a good man whether living or dead, and the gods are not without care for his troubles.” That’s an extraordinary claim. A good man can’t suffer anything bad. Now, what this has to be read as is “a good man can’t suffer anything fundamentally bad.” You can suffer running sores and losing your wife and your camel, and these are bad things, but on the most fundamental level, on the level of the thing that we prize the most, namely our own character, there is nothing that can take that away. We have to be active in the corruption of our own souls. No one else can do it for us. And if you choose not to become a bad person, no one can do that to you.
In the Crito, on page 106 at the center, Socrates says, “But you wondrous man, Crito, the argument that we have gone through still seems to me at least like it did before. Consider again whether the following also stays so for us or not: not living but living well is to be regarded as the most important.”
Life is not unconditionally good. Only living a good life is unconditionally good, and a good life is a life of virtue, a life of moral and practical wisdom. Wisdom is the only unconditionally good thing there is for Plato, and a life with that is worth living, and a life without isn’t. This is what he means when he says that the unexamined life is not worth living.
The life of a fool is not worth living. They’re better off dead. This is an extreme claim. He’s not mealy-mouthed at all. But if you look at somebody who is a consistent fool, a prize fool—we might know one of them; we all know one of them—they create so much misery for themselves and others that you can say in some ways that they’d be better off dead. They’re better off being wise, but given that is not an option, maybe they’re better off dead. They’re even better off wise, but they’re better off dead if that’s not possible. And that’s an extraordinary claim, but he’s not going to back down from that, even if you tried to kill him.
Socrates goes on, “And don’t we say that living well and nobly and justly are the same thing?” To live well is to be noble and just. So, if you’re not noble, if you’re not just, then your life isn’t worth living. Life without virtue isn’t worth living. Life without practical wisdom isn’t worth living.
And he goes on a little further, “Therefore, from the things agreed upon, it must be considered whether it is just for me to try to go out of here although the Athenians are not permitting me to go or not just. And if it appears just let us try, but if it’s not let’s leave it aside.” That’s the only consideration, not whether or not he’s going to live or die, which is an extraordinary thing.
What do you do with someone like that? The ordinary human being would want to shake him, “Snap out of it, Socrates! You’re about to die! All this fine talk means nothing! You’re about to die!” No, it’s not in the cards.
He goes on, “Since this is how the argument holds nothing else is to be considered by us except what we were saying just now, whether we will do the just things by paying money and gratitude to those who will lead me out of here or whether in truth we will be doing injustice by doing these things.” That’s the only consideration.
So, Socrates is not only the first moral philosopher, but he’s a real moralist in a very strict sense. But there’s more to him than just being a moral philosopher. Put it this way: there’s more to what’s essentially Socratic than being a moral philosopher. The turn that Socrates undergoes in his life is also a turn towards what you can call “humanistic philosophy” or humanism.
Now, humanism doesn’t necessarily mean secular humanism or something like that. Humanism in the broad sense simply means a form of philosophy that always starts out from the human condition and the human perspective and never forgets about it or tries to get outside of it.
The achievement of Plato in my view is to start out from Socrates’ humanistic turn, his humanistic standpoint, and his primary concern with moral philosophy understood as care of the soul—and then to resurrect metaphysical speculation, speculation about the whole, in a way that’s consistent with the humanistic point of view. That’s an important thing, because we really do need to have a sense of where we fit into the big picture, but the pursuit of that kind of knowledge can also uproot us from the world we live in, and so we might find ourselves a home in the cosmos but we don’t know where we are in this world, and that’s too big a price to pay. So, we really do need to do both, and in going beyond Socrates, Plato does both, but he does it on a Socratic foundation.
In the last session on Plato’s Phaedo we’ll see exactly how Plato uses the Socratic starting point to bring back metaphysics, myths, and an account of man’s place in the whole.
Remarks on the Readings for the Next Session
If you want to read more in A Presocratics Reader (ed. Patricia Curd), Heraclitus is a really quite wonderful author who we’re not going to deal with in the class. The Heraclitus fragments are really amazing. Some of them are quite memorable and interesting.
I also gave you the numbers of particular fragments that I want you to look at for some of these thinkers. The reason I am doing this is to give you a nice overview of the kinds of topics pre-Socratic philosophers deal with, and I’ve also selected thinkers and fragments that will resonate once you read the Clouds, because the Clouds is a grand parody of pre-Socratic philosophy. So, when you read the Clouds you’ll find all the elements of it resurrected and transmogrified and sent up in a quite hilarious way in Aristophanes.
So, our purpose of our readings of the pre-Socratics is just to get the background straight for going forward in looking at the Clouds and other texts. Some of these are obscure, and some of them are quite beautiful and fascinating utterances, so we’ll have a good time talking about them.
The theme that I am going to try to work through next time is the emergence of the idea of nature in ancient Greece, because it’s a rather extraordinary thing. There are many societies and many cultures that don’t have an idea of nature distinct from culture and convention. What happened in ancient Greece is the emergence of a very distinct differentiation between what happens by nature and what happens by custom or convention. This was an enormously powerful distinction, which is the foundation of Western science and technology and the whole Western scientific tradition.
The fact that this distinction was never made with such radical clarity in say the philosophical traditions of China or India is I think in part a cause for why the histories of China and India have been very different from those in the West, because Western science has been radically more powerful and influential on the world than the science and technologies developed elsewhere in the world by those cultures. And it goes back to the pre-Socratics.
So, we’re going to talk about the emergence of a distinction between nature and custom. That’s going to be the primary focus next time.