Notebook, 1993-


Ancient Greek Philosophy

The personality of Socrates [470-399 B.C.] was altogether unique, enigmatic and uncommon. Because he did not write a single work, we are forced to rely for information of the historical figure from the works of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle, and even the comic poet Aristophanes. He was an Athenian, son of a sculptor named Sophroniscus and the midwife Phaenarete. In early life he followed in the profession of his father, but later turned to philosophy. He must have received the customary education given to the Athenian citizen of the time, and had become acquainted through personal interest with the works of the pre-Socratics. Known incidents in his life are his participation in the Peloponnesian War in the expedition of Potidaea and in the battles of Delium and Amphipolis. At no other time had Socrates abandoned Athens, nor did he visit other cities. In 401 B.C. when he held the office as president of the Assembly [for which he was elected by secret ballot] he was the only one to cast a vote exonerating the generals held responsible for the defeat at Arginousae.

As for his part in the history of philosophy, it seems clear he regarded the most useful science that which contributes to the knowledge of virtue, that which makes a good citizen, a moral science in a wide sense. This is verified by Aristotle who had the necessary historical distance form Socrates to be able to evaluate his contribution more correctly. Socrates was and is deemed to be the founder of the concepts of moral philosophy. He was the first [the Sophists were in another sense, that of being negative or nihilistic] to treat systematically with the great questions of what virtue was justice, and so on. Since, however, he was confronted by the logical problem of methodology, he also dealt with logic. Thus ethics and logic were united in his teaching. We suspect that he began his philosophical questioning when he saw the collapse and decay of the ancient laws and traditions on which the city of Athens was based. He then felt the need to contribute to the elevation of the moral and intellectual level of his fellow citizens. This he believed deeply to be his primary duty and indeed an instruction from the divine power as Plato relates in the 'Apology'. Thus he adopted the motto uttered by the oracle of Delphi of 'Knowing Thyself' which meant, examine oneself, seek the truth within oneself, and persuade the others to follow the same path. Socrates had directed his views of philosophy to the inner world of man and taught that the object of life of the man is to acquire self-knowledge. This self-knowledge was the crux and the aim of his moral precepts. He does not deny the happiness of the individual, but identifies it with his moral perfection. But if it were necessary that one had to sacrifice something, he should sacrifice happiness, for no other reason than that happiness cannot exist, according to Socrates, without morality. The best good is not life itself, but the correct way of life, for which reason it is preferable that one be unfairly treated than to do an injustice to another. For the most important thing in life is not gain and happiness but agreement with the moral and the just. The manner of Socrates' death was a fitting epitaph to his moral precepts.

Beginning with the ascertainment that the practice of any trade presupposes a certain degree of knowledge, he reaches the conclusion that moral behavior of man and his political activity presupposes a much higher degree of knowledge. This led Socrates to correlate virtue with knowledge and to reach the conclusion that 'No one is willingly evil', that is, that ignorance and error are the root causes of evil. Man is not led to perform a bad act by an evil desire, but because of the inability to distinguish in his mind what good is and what the bad is. He who has acquired the true knowledge can select and act to the good or he [p. 165] who recognizes the bad, can avoid it in any case. So virtue presupposes knowledge, and without knowledge there is no moral good. But knowledge in the Socratic sense is not simply logic, and intellectual recognition of a certain thing, but it is at the same time the consciousness or awareness of the value of things, the belief that its value maintains life and helps it. A knowledge of virtue, for example, does not mean simply the logical definition of the term, but an acceptance of this within oneself, once having understood logically that it has great value in itself, and that if it were applied to one's life, would advance it or make it happy. So it is the consciousness or awareness of the value of the object of knowledge which impels man to bring it to reality.

The vehicle by which Socrates conveyed his concepts and urged his fellow citizens to follow them was the dialogue. He analyzed the definitions of such things as virtue by particular cases and examples. This analysis was carried on by a system of question and answer, each point in succession being accepted or rejected by the interlocutor, who was gradually led to the conclusion at which Socrates wished to arrive. He began dialogue with any one and on any subject. Socrates never in fact taught, nor did he receive any payment. He defined his particular brand of questioning as 'midwifery', for he drew out whatever was hidden in the soul of his company or companion. But his midwifery accompanied by cross-examination, that is, he would examine those things which his companions had claimed he himself knew or had heard from others. With cross-examination is directly connected the famous 'Socratic irony'. Socrates pretended to know nothing himself, but to elicit from his friends for his own and their edification the truth which was latent in their minds, making much use of the most trivial and simple examples, of irony, and occasionally of myths to illustrate the doctrine. The object of the irony was to deflate the haughtiness of his friend who believed he understood knowledge and virtue, and to lead him to the conclusion that in fact he was ignorant of this knowledge. Thus in the course of the dialogue, Socrates emerges superior in knowledge, for at least he had the knowledge of his ignorance. This Socratic awareness of ignorance or in the words of the great teacher himself, 'I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing', was the reputed reason why the Delphic Oracle had described him as the wisest of the Greeks.

There was yet another element in this personality which made him even more uncommon, the so-called 'Daemon'. This daemon or divine voice, as he himself confessed, would warn him against a certain action, but would never exhort or excite him to do something.

Melitus and Anytus brought the following charges Against Socrates in court: Socrates was guilty of not believing in the gods of the city, and introducing other new divinities. He was guilty of corrupting and misleading the young men of the city. The penalty asked for was death. Socrates rejected the accusations. He also rejected the suggestion of Crito, when he was already in prison, to escape, and thus he took the hemlock, in the presence of his pupils and friends, and died gracefully and peacefully. [pp. 164-166]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].