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Socrates Helping People Think Since 469 BC

Updated on January 26, 2017


Socrates is regarded as having brought philosophy down from the heavens and into the cities of man. Previous philosophers dealt with huge, grand principles: the creation of the universe, the first cause, the ultimate principle, etc., but Socrates was primarily interested in what makes a person excellent. How does Socrates try to teach what makes a person excellent, and what does he reveal about the path of wisdom to us in the process of his dialogs. Socrates claimed that he was God's gift to Athens because through him their lives were bettered. He helped people understand virtue, piety, and justice. He never claimed he knew what these were, but that through his special gifts, they could seek an answer together. This cooperative effort towards these ideals is slow and methodical, each step being carefully examined and analyzed before taking the next. Only statements that conform to logical scrutiny will be entertained. The process by which Socrates analyzes these statements and from them builds an argument using his interlocutor as a catalyst called the elenchus. Often people have no idea what they are talking about, and the elenchus reveals this.

Socrates begins his quest for truth by asking a question. This in turn elicits a response which is again evaluated through further questions. Eventually, the interlocutor is found to contradict himself and, thus, discovers his own ignorance.

For example, in the Euthyphro Socrates addresses the nature of piety. What is it? His interlocutor Euthyphro claims to know its true nature and says that piety is, "that which is dear to the gods." In the end Socrates discovers Euthyphro really knew nothing at all.

Socrates immediately sees that this is not a definition but merely an attribute.

Is it not true that the gods often have great conflicts? - Yes.

Then different gods hold different things dear? - Yes.

Then something can be both pious and impious? - Yes.

This therefore is not the definition of piety because some actions that fall under it can be considered impious.

In the Meno, Socrates engages in a discussion concerning Virtue. Meno asks him how virtue is acquired, but first Socrates insists on a definition. One of the many definitions Meno submits is, "To desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them." Through the elenchus, this definition is shown to be contradictory.

To this definition Socrates asks,

Is the beautiful good? - Yes.

So to desire the good and have the power to acquire the good is virtue? - Yes.

Does any man desire the bad knowing full well that it is not good? - No

Then all men desire the good? - Yes

So it is common to all men to desire good. This cannot be part of the definition. Your original definition is now phrased as the power of acquiring the good? - Yes.

But not just acquiring the good in any way? The good must not be acquired unjustly, but virtuously? - Yes

The conclusion drawn is that, "the power of acquiring the good" cannot be the essence of virtue because this definition of virtue must be qualified with "in a virtuous way." This definition uses the word it is trying to define in the very definition. Meno's definition is therefore incorrect.

In the Republic, Socrates is engaged in the argument about the nature of justice with Thraymachus.. He asks for a definition to which Thraymachus replies that justice is benefiting one's friends and harming one's enemies.

Socrates makes quick work of this argument.

He asks if justice is a virtue? - Yes

Virtues are advantages? - Yes.

Therefore justice is advantages? - Yes

It is the nature of the advantages that it only helps, never harms man? - Yes.

Therefore the definition that justice is harming one's enemies is contradictory because justice, being a virtue, cannot harm any man.

The elenchus is really the perfect tool for accomplishing Socrates' goals. He wished to better his fellow Athenians by helping them realize the truth. It is not by accident that Socrates' wisdom exists now only in the pages of Plato's dialogs. Socrates himself never wrote; his goals were to change people, not history. Socrates used philosophy as a path for spiritual enlightenment which requires conventions not available in written form. Philosophy, more than any other discipline, is the most personal. Indeed to actually do philosophy is a very personal thing. Plato wrote in dialogue form to preserve this personal aspect of philosophy embodied in the dynamics of the elenchus. The Socratic Method demands that one interact with the interlocutor, again insuring the personal aspect of philosophy. "Personal" denotes a discipline which can be applicable to everyday life, the way we see the world, and even the very way we think. It was Socrates' goal to snap the people of Athens out of their narrow frame of mind. It is the elenchus which puts one in the proper frame of mind to learn philosophy, namely it will reveal one's ignorance by questioning one's beliefs; the elenchus destroys the arrogance of the ignorant. Meno, Euthyphro, and Thrasymachus are numbed like a torpedo fish numbs its prey. Their confidence in false, half-thought propositions are ripped asunder, and they are left with no knowledge at all. It is better that one knows he knows nothing than to be confident in false beliefs. Knowing your own ignorance is the first step towards becoming a better person, and that is Socrates' ultimate goal.

Hopefully, Meno and the other interlocutors are able to recognize their own ignorance, their own limitations in knowledge, but there are other lessons they could learn as well. Hopefully they can realize that the answers are already within them. The only thing preventing a person from extracting true knowledge from his own head is his own illogical method of inquiry. As we learn from Socrates, one must pursue the issue, think about the problem fully, and consider the alternative views to test its validity. According to the Doctrine of Recollection, the answers are already known. All one has to do is think hard enough. The interlocutors might have learned that to achieve truth one must live a questioning existence, and never take a statement as true on face value. Question everything and then the answers received. Just as the elenchus is a series of questions, so should be the life of a person who seeks the truth.

Of all the dialogs, the Meno is unique. Socrates dialog with Meno is very interesting. It concerns a question that never gets fully answered. In fact, perhaps more can be learned from what is not said than what is. During the course of the dialogue Socrates takes the youth Meno on an exploration concerning the acquisition of virtue, and along the way he explains some of the basics of philosophical inquiry. In the first half of the dialogue Socrates argues that virtue is teachable. In the second half he argues that it is not. Indeed by the conclusion of the dialog no definition of virtue is even arrived at, and the entire argument concludes with the whole issue being dumped on the shoulders of the gods. This is not to say that the whole effort results in a stalemate, or a waste of time. Rather, it almost seems as though Socrates is offering an illustration through the dialogue about how man must understand the nature of virtue. Meno, however, never appreciates this hidden meaning in the words of Socrates.

In the first half of the dialogue, Socrates submits that virtue is teachable. This is logically realized after an analysis of what virtue is. At the beginning of their inquiry into the nature of virtue, Socrates and Meno agree that virtue is good. The good, by definition, is advantages. They then notice that other qualities of the soul are beneficial if directed by wisdom. For example, courage, patience and moderation, while beneficial if directed by wisdom, are harmful if directed by folly. Therefore, if something in the soul is beneficial, it is wisdom. Wisdom, by definition, is a form of Knowledge; therefore virtue is also a type of knowledge. Knowledge can be taught. Therefore virtue can be taught. The main flaw that is in this argument is the assertion that all knowledge can be taught. One of the main traits associated with old age is the acquisition of wisdom. Old people have wisdom because they have experienced the trials of life and now see the answers through hindsight. When one asks why wisdom is not associated with middle-age or adolescence, there appears two main answers to choose from. 1) Only experience brings wisdom, so the more experience one has, the wiser he will be. Old people having the most experiences thus have the most wisdom. 2) Young people just don't know how to learn wisdom. Only old people know how.

This reminds one of the scene in the Republic in which Cephalus praises his old body over his young body. Older bodies, he explains, do not cloud the soul with petty physical desires. Hence the soul can direct more energy on higher, spiritual pursuits such as the acquisition of wisdom. Either one or the other may be right, but in each case, these incidents show something interesting about wisdom. Wisdom is acquired in direct relation to one's condition to learn; not in how it is taught. It seems like wisdom is always available to everyone from the moment one begins to think, but no one picks up on it for some reason. Maybe wisdom can be taught. It is just that no one is qualified to learn. It requires a special frame of mind to actually apply philosophy to one's life, a frame of mind that continually challenges one's values and practices (which most of the time constitute a person’s very identity)! To engage in philosophy and (even more ambitious still) to acquire wisdom is a process riddled with the self-doubt and pain which accompany the loss of bogus confidence in false but comfortable beliefs. Indeed who is ready to make the leap to become a true wise man? A wise man knows that he knows nothing! Who enjoys being reduced to nothing? Socrates may enjoy being wise at the time of the dialog, but the process of attaining that wisdom was a difficult one. Never-the-less, the point is that the average man does not want to attain Truth. He cannot escape his physical existence to put himself in a spiritual frame of mind. He could care less about wisdom, for he does not have the strength of character to apprehend the Truth. He does not want to go through the painful process of learning it. However, if he did he would be able to at any age and at any place. Socrates knew this which is why he would philosophize at any time with anyone regardless of rank, social status or education. Wisdom is all around and available for all to see. All one has to do is learn how to see; see through the soul into Truth.

Later in the dialogue Socrates asserts that virtue cannot be taught. Rather it is acquired by divine dispensation. The logical form of this argument is basically a disjunctive syllogism: Virtue is either right opinion or knowledge. Virtue is not knowledge. Therefore virtue is right opinion. The only way one could speak properly of a subject yet claim no knowledge or understanding of what they speak is by a gift from the gods. Therefore, virtue is a gift from the gods. Unfortunately a disjunctive syllogism is only as comprehensive as the domain of its disjuncts. The disjuncts in this argument do not cover the entire sphere of possibility. Plato left out one other option - ironically too because he included it at the beginning of the dialogue: Virtue can be acquired by practice. This would account for why most people never attain wisdom. They are too lazy to practice. This would also account for the greater wisdom of older people. Old people are wise because they have had greater time to practice. This would also explain why there are no teachers of wisdom.

Technically one does not necessarily need a teacher, although, a teacher would most probably increase one's learning. All a teacher could do is teach one how to see into reality, but he could not teach the individual the content of what one will find there. Socrates is able to see, but he rarely describes what he sees. Probably because we, having never been there, would not be able to understand the meaning of his words. The only way we can achieve understanding of virtue is to apprehend True Reality, the Forms. Socrates' report would only be an image of the form. His words would not embody the perfection of what he saw. Listening to Socrates' report is, for the same reason, not the same as apprehending the form. This is why Socrates does not give dissertations. He wants to teach people to see for themselves. The only way one can achieve enlightenment is to apprehend the Forms oneself. This is why the dialogue is concluded in such an obviously forced manner.

Socrates knows how to acquire virtue, and the way is obvious to one who is paying attention and in the Philosophical frame of mind. However, Meno is not one such as this, and the answer to his question, although right under his nose, eludes him. It is by no accident that the actual character of Meno is the type of person who will never be able to acquire wisdom. He is rash, power hungry, tyrannical and uncontrolled. A person such as this will never find wisdom no matter how hard he may try. I feel that Socrates simply realizes that Meno is just a waste of his time by the end of the dialogue and simply ties off the dialogue into a convenient conclusion so that he may go on to do other things. Socrates cannot make one understand. Only the individual can show himself that.


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