Greek Discovery of Mind, Socrates, notes


The intrusion of the systematic exigence into the realm of common sense is beautifully illustrated by Plato’s early dialogues. Socrates would ask for the definition of this or that virtue. No one could afford to admit that he had no idea of what was meant by courage or temperance or justice. No one could deny that such common names must possess some common meaning found in each instance of courage, or temperance, or justice. And no one, not even Socrates, was able to pin down just what that common meaning was.1

Socrates (470-399 BC), age 70 at the time of his death (as recorded by Plato) had a father who was a mason; his mother, a midwife. He was known to be extremely ugly: potbellied, with bulging eyes, and a snub nose although the inside was said to be “perfectly delightful.”2 “You can seek him in the present, you can seek him in the past, but you will never find his equal.” He never wrote anything. He lived in Athens during her bloom around 450 BC and at the time of her decline toward the end of the century. He was a strong enigmatic figure who spent most of his time talking with people in the marketplaces and squares of Athens and who was subject at times to fits of abstraction lasting for hours on end: on the value of understanding the world of physical nature, “the trees in the countryside can teach me nothing.”3 As a young man in his 20’s, he turned away from cosmological speculation to an interest in the problem of man since he felt that what Anaxagoras had to say about mind or nous did not go far enough. Citing Cicero on Socrates: he “called philosophy down from the sky and established her in the towns and introduced her into homes and forced her to investigate life, ethics, good and evil.”4 While initially he was thought to be a sophist, in fact, he became or was their bitterest opponent in his belief that , indeed, “there really was such a thing as justice and injustice, right and wrong, truth and falsity” and that “they were supremely important” and “could be known.”5 For Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”6

Calling himself a “philo-sopher” as “someone who loves wisdom,” he began to go his own way, noting to himself: “One thing only I know, and that is that I do not know anything.” The Oracle at Delphi had said to him: “None is wiser than Socrates” which he, in turn, interpreted as meaning that he is wisest who realizes that, like Socrates, he has little wisdom. He would try to make his fellow men aware of his own ignorance by asking questions and meeting objections. For instance, Socrates said that, if there was an afterlife, he would pose the same question to the shades in Hades. He wanted to base all argumentation on objectively valid definitions which focused on knowing who man is. Since he was a man who would listen to his own inspiration and who in turn inspired others, he had more followers than students. Hence, he was a danger to the establishment. He claimed to have a “divine voice” inside him. He refused to be involved in condemning people to death and to inform on political enemies. A parallelism exists between Socrates and Christ:7 both were enigmatic; neither wrote anything forcing us to rely on accounts written by their followers; both were masters at the art of discourse; both had a personal sense of authority; both believed that they spoke on behalf of something greater than themselves; both challenged the power of the community; and both died as martyrs after trial (in both cases, with the possibility of evasion).

Our knowledge of Socrates is beset by the Socratic problem of sources that differ much on him. Hence, where do we go for an accurate portrait of Socrates’s character and ideas since he wrote nothing himself? There are four main sources given as follows.

(1) Plato was the most important source since he was a student of Socrates when Socrates was in his 50’s. Through his dialogues, the early and middle dialogues supply much of the information that we have on Socrates. But, there is a problem: according to Aristotle, Plato uses Socrates in conversation as an instrument for presenting his own ideas, employing a literary technique that was often used at that time (a technique that was also employed by the students of Pythagoras). It is difficult to distinguish between Socrates and Plato. Two schools of thought exist on who was the real Socrates. On the one hand, Copleston argues that the Platonic Socrates was not the real Socrates since we must trust what Aristotle says. Since Aristotle had been first trained in Plato’s school where the doctrine of ideas as taught occupied a central place, he must have known what was actually Plato’s teaching. But, on the other hand, Burnet and Taylor argue that neither Xenophon nor Aristotle sufficiently understood Plato since Xenophon was too simple in his journalism and Aristotle erred in his views of Plato. While Plato could have been somewhat poetical in his expression, this is no argument in favor of inauthenticity. Only in his later dialogues does Plato develop his own ideas. The metaphysical doctrine of the forms was Socratic essentially although it received a Platonic development. In conclusion, while Copleston prefers the Aristotelian Socrates, most historians argue for some sort of compromise between these two positions. Mlle De Vogel argues that Plato tried to give a realistic portrait of Socrates but that Plato was less of an historian and more of a poet. Aristotle should not be neglected.

(2) Xenophon as a journalist (and also as a general) reported conversations with Socrates in his Memoirs of Socrates although perhaps he did not understand Socrates correctly.

(3) Aristophanes as a playwright of comedies who caricatured Socrates in The Clouds as a comic figure of the late 5th Century. He presented Socrates pejoratively as a sophisticated sophist.

(4) Aristotle knew Plato (d. 348 BC) but did not know Socrates and thus the question arises if he truly understood the witnesses of Socrates. He made a few remarks that are important since they help us determine what Socrates’s actual teaching was: he claimed that Socrates did not separate the forms which make the doctrine of separate forms a distinctly Platonic contribution.

On the character of Socrates, Plato knew him best as a person. As noted, physically Socrates was an ugly little man. As a former soldier, he was physically fit and was known for courage in battle. He was somewhat ascetical in his way of living although he could drink. He was shabbily dressed and always barefoot. He loved to spend his time arguing in the market-place and streets of Athens. He possessed a strong moral character and was fearless about what he said. Since he said what he believed to be true, he got into trouble as a non-conformist. He was deeply concerned with asking ethical and moral questions and he looked for universal definitions with respect to the just, the true, and the good. Philosophy was a way of life for him and not simply a profession.

At his trial, he comes across as the victim of an anti-intellectual spirit in Athens where he was charged with teaching false doctrines, impiety, and corrupting the youth at the end of the 5th Century BC. He was brought to trial by a number of powerful figures in Athens who had hoped to humiliate him by forcing him to grovel and beg for mercy. But, instead, he humbled his persecutors and angered the unruly jury of 500 by lecturing them about the extent of their ignorance and selfishness. Also, when asked to suggest his own punishment, he recommended that the Athenians build a statue in his honor and place it in the main square. The enraged jury, by a slim margin, condemned him to death by a vote of 280 to 220. While the jury soon was ashamed of their act and embarrassed that they were about to execute their most eminent citizen and while they were prepared to look the other way when Socrates’s prison guard was bribed to allow him to escape, he did not flee when he could have done so since he had always insisted on obedience in his life and therefore he would not flee despite the pleas of his friends. He claimed that if he were to break the law by escaping, he would be declaring himself an enemy of all laws. Therefore, he drank the hemlock and he philosophized with his friends until the last moment, talking with them about the immortality of the human soul and the blessings of death when now a philosophic soul is able to enter into a realm of being where wisdom is found in all its clarity and fullness.8 In death, he became the universal symbol of martyrdom for the sake of Truth.

On the elements or the tenets of Socrates’s thought that we are sure about (the conclusions or the beliefs that are to be associated with his life and work), the following four points should be mentioned:

(1) Man is to be equated with his soul since man is his soul (it is the source of all truth). In describing the soul as the intellectual and moral personality of man, Socrates became the first philosopher to give a clear and coherent conception of the soul, the word he used being “psyche,” a term previously used by poets before the Pre-socratic philosophers but referring to a general live force which is needed for life that, as a substance, penetrates everything. Socrates transformed it from that which had existed as a shadowy reality to become a personality where thus man’s first task is to care for his soul. To harm the soul through an unjust act of evil deed is far worse (we inflict a greater injury on ourselves) than to harm or hurt our bodies.

For Plato, the soul and its care was the only important part in man. In the context of his own thought, Plato later gave a metaphysical explanation of the soul in terms of its pre-existence and so education serves to remind us of what we have seen in a previous life.

(2) Man takes care of his soul when he knows what is good. “Knowledge is virtue and ignorance, vice.”9 In attempting to try to define what is good by asking questions that elicit universal definitions, Socrates emerged as the father of moral philosophy. “The crown of all philosophy, of all wisdom, is a philosophy of morals.”10 Knowledge enjoys a kind of prior necessity since to have a good personality requires a prior knowledge of that which is good.

(3) When you know the good, you will act well and do good (ignorance or lack of knowledge being the overriding cause of Evil): “He who knows what good is will do good.” Here we have the Socratic paradox in a statement that sounds contradictory: the wise man is virtuous since no one is voluntarily evil but, to do good, one has to know the good. Knowledge of the good is both the necessary and the sufficient cause for doing the good although, since Socrates was not stupid, such a claim causes us to ask about what Socrates could have meant when speaking about “knowing the good.”

To explain a bit more here: apparently, in terms of his own personality, for Socrates, knowledge does not exist as a purely intellectual thing since another form of knowledge exists which is charismatic or inspirational. In deference to the teaching of Bergson, it is claimed that Socrates had an intuitional contact with virtue that attracted people to him. Since he was in contact with virtue, he stressed the value of education through virtue which, for him, consisted of words and a certain inspiration that united the intellectual aspects with an intuitive dimension. Hence, virtue is knowledge which cannot simply be taught by a teacher unless the teacher also inspires his pupils toward virtue, a life of virtue. Socrates’s theory of knowledge existed as a kind of midwifery where the teacher seeks to awaken something which is inside a student since truth is something that sleeps in our souls from the time of birth until later teaching makes it conscious and then the student begins to learn. Real understanding must come from within a person and, by using our innate reasoning, we can begin to grasp the being of philosophical truths. In general, in the kind of education that we have in Socrates, in education we have both an implanting and an awakening. Knowledge of good and evil lies within an individual and not within a society.

(4) In Socrates one finds belief in immortality, Socrates being the first Greek philosopher to believe in immortality as can be seen in Plato’s Apology of Socrates which recounts the story of his trial where he declares his hope of seeing his friends again in another life though he also voices an agnostic touch when he says “I hope” and “maybe.” For the first time in Greek philosophy, the final good is related to the being of another, other life.

On the significance of Socrates’s methodological achievements as this refers to the development of a form of scientific inquiry as this applies to a possible understanding of who or what we are as human beings, in the structure or the form of Socrates’s Socratic dialogue, a species of method or technique is employed within the practice of philosophy (and thus within science) where “knowledge was to be sought [from] within the [dynamics or the life of the individual human] mind.”11 Distinguish a “way of thinking” as one form or mode of human cognition from a “way of observing” external data as this is given to us through our different acts of human sensing (a second form or mode of human cognition).12 With respect to the way of thinking that is to be associated with the kind of analysis which exists in Socrates, a positive relation or a connatural relation can be admitted if we admit that, in the concerns and interests of mathematics, in the ingress and development of mathematical speculation as we find this among the Pythagoreans and their work in mathematics, a degree of distance or a distancing is assumed or it is undertaken from the mere givens of sense and perception when mathematicians work with imagined numbers and figures in order to raise questions and solve problems that are not immediately applicable or which are not immediately relevant to any function or purpose which exists for us within the context of our concrete human living. In the kind of adaptation that we find in the structure of Socrates’s method (in his characteristic mode of inquiry), a dialectical form of argumentation that distinguishes between the truthfulness of a particular thesis and the probable error or wrongness of another teaching or thesis is joined to displays of irony within the structure of this form of argumentation. An ironical form of argumentation exists within the general form of the dialectics of Socrates’s argumentation. Throughout, thus the ultimate aim or purpose is (1) to expose fallacies which exist in all false claims to wisdom and knowledge and then, from there, (2) to encourage or move a person towards a new way of thinking which could possibly lead or internally engender a knowledge of man’s human nature in a way that would be undoubtedly true and not false (although, for Socrates and perhaps also for ourselves, apprehensions and realizations of truth are only possible for us after much hard work in the context of a life that is given to an ongoing, lifetime quest that is geared toward a possible discovery of universal definitions that can articulate the meanings of terms or concepts whose meaning or intelligibility is desired or sought by us within the context of our own inquiries). As Socrates had noted toward the end of his life at the time of his trial in 399 BC, “Athens is like a sluggish horse and I am the gadfly trying to sting it into life.”

In a method of inquiry that consists of questions and answers, a dialectic of questions and answers (where, like a midwife, Socrates attempts to draw truth from within a person – from within their individual minds – incrementally, through a logical ordering of a series of questions which are posed),13 three constitutive divisions or three constitutive elements are to be distinguished within the range or the compass of the kind of procedure which Socrates applies and employs.14 (1) A problem or question is first posed. For instance, what is justice? What is virtue? What is truth? What is beauty? What is piety? What is democracy? Feigning ignorance in a use or a display of Socratic irony, Socrates would become excited and enthusiastic whenever, apparently, he would find someone who claimed to know something which was allegedly true. (2) He begins then to find “minor flaws” in his companion’s proffered definition and slowly he would begin to unravel it, forcing his dialogue partner to admit his own ignorance. In one dialogue, for instance, Socrates’s partner dissolves into tears. (3) An agreement is reached by the two conversationalists who admit, to each other, their mutual ignorance and who agree to pursue the truth in a serious manner, wherever it leads. The object is a species of universal definition for a given concept, term, or reality which always applies or which always holds whenever a given concept or term is invoked or employed within a given context – whenever the reality in question is being referred to. Instead of a meaning which is somehow added to an understanding which we already have or which enlarges or augments a meaning which is in some way already known, the object is another kind of meaning which has yet to be discovered. A difference in quality is to be adverted to as we move from pragmatic conceptions of meaning and understanding toward a technical formulation of meaning and a species of theoretical understanding which can withstand any possible criticisms that could be launched against its truth or validity.15 A scientific type of knowledge is to be entertained. It is to be desired and worked towards.

In the employment of this methodology, however, almost all of the Socratic dialogues end in an inconclusive manner since Socrates himself cannot give to anybody any definitions or truths that have been conceptualized into definitions since he does not know these truths himself although, as a consequence of the discussions which have occurred, we should all begin to realize and know that certain laws exist on a higher plane, laws that we might not directly know about through our own acts of understanding but, yet, laws which point to the being or the existence of natures, intelligibilities, or truths which, in their own way, always hold. They are always true and at no time can they ever be false. In this context thus we can understand why, in the context of his day, the Oracle of Delphi referred to Socrates as the “wisest man in Athens because [among Athenians] he was the only one who knew that he did not know anything.”16 As we have already noted, inI our search for truth, we must each try and find this from within ourselves, within our minds. We cannot be simply told or informed of this truth by other persons as good and as necessary is the help of other persons. We cannot attend

On the influence of Socrates, besides a pervasive influence in the rise of western philosophy since his death, he also exerted some direct influence within the inner dialectic of Greek philosophy not only with reference to Plato but also in a number of small schools that appealed to Socrates’s direct influence even if Socrates’s views were often combined with other elements to suggest, at times, a superficial connection with Socrates’s thought. There are three schools to be distinguished:

(1) the School of Megara (near Corinth) where Euclid, its head, seems to have been an early disciple of Socrates and was apparently present at his death. Though little traditional friendship existed between Athens and Megara, it seems that Plato and other disciples of Socrates fled to Megara to seek refuge after Socrates’s death. Euclid combined certain insights from Socrates and Parmenides (of the Eleatic school) that accepted one universal principle now called “the moral good.” A speciality of the school was dialectical controversy which involved games of reasoning for the reasoner which reminds one Zeno of Elea.

(2) the Cynic School (founded around 400 B.C.) given the fact that, allegedly, one day Socrates stood gazing at a stall selling all kinds of wares and said: “What a lot of things that I do not need.”17 Its name perhaps came from the fact that its founder Antisthenes (445-365 BC) taught at Athens in a room called the “Kynosarges” or “Hall of the Dog” since Antithenes was not of pure Athenian blood. Antisthenes was a friend of Socrates who admired his independence of character in terms of money and riches although Socrates was as he was because he was concerned with the greater good of obtaining wisdom. Since Antithenes regarded such a freedom from wants and desires as an end in itself, he equated it with virtue and happiness in such a way that it led him to posit virtue as complete self-sufficiency for its own sake (which differs with Socrates’s view of self-sufficiency as a means to something else). Since Antithenes was interested only in the practical side of morality, he opposed the kind of knowledge that Plato looked for in terms of the reality of objectively existing ideas: “I see a horse, not horseness!” He wanted to be able to live independently and he argued that it was impossible to make significant statements. Diogenes (c.350 BC), a pupil of Antisthenes, succeeded as head of the Cynic School at a later date by exaggerating Antithenes’s position into a contempt for current morality which led him to repudiate all civilized customs. He lived a life as primitive as a dog: hence, the Greek kuvikos, meaning “dog-like” from which we derive the word “cynicism.”18 Legend has it that he lived in a tub, and reputedly owned nothing but a stick, a cloak, and a bread bag. To show contempt for public opinion, he masturbated in the marketplace. Allegedly once visited by Alexander the Great who asked him if he could do anything for him to which Diogenes replied: “Yes. Stand to one side. You are blocking the sun.”19

(3) the Cyrenaic School (of Cyrene in north Africa) where Aristippos, its head, advocated a hedonism of the moment despite having been in the Socratic school since he seems to have been more influenced by Protagoras’s claim that only sensations give us certain knowledge in life. Although Socrates had claimed that the good must be the goal of one’s life if one is to be happy, Aristippos defined the good only in terms of pleasure and in obtaining as many pleasures as possible: “the highest good is pleasure; the greatest evil is pain.”20 Since the aim of life is to attain the highest possible sensory enjoyment, one’s way of life should seek to avoid pain in all forms.

1Lonergan, MIT, p. 50.

2Gaarder, p. 63.

3Gaarder, p. 63.

4Gaarder, p. 67.

5Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 29.

6Osborne, p. 11.

7Gaarder, p. 66.

8Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 38.

9Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, p. 31.

10Socrates, as cited by Maluf, Philosophia Perennis, p. 98.

11Collingwood, Philosophical Method, p. 10; p. 17. Please note Collingwood’s argument to the effect that “Socrates…found in mathematics a model for dialectical reasoning.” Developments in mathematics with respect to how mathematics is done in its way of thinking and reasoning as one moves from principles that are postulated to conclusions that are reached leads to possible methodological developments within the practice of philosophy and science. The way of thinking in mathematics suggests a way of thinking that can also exist within the practice of philosophy and science even if it should be the case that the way of thinking which exists within philosophy and science is not to be identified with the way of thinking which exists within mathematics even if it is to be admitted that, at the hands of some philosophers, mathematical ways of thinking have been promoted as the best way to think and reason if, in other contexts, we are to engage in the work of thinking and reasoning. Within this context, we can think about the work of the French philosopher, René Descartes (d. 1650), who had advocated mathematical forms of reasoning within the practice of reasoning in philosophy and science.

12Collingwood, Philosophical Method, p. 12.

13Osborne, p. 12. James Joyce suggested that Socrates learned this method of useful discovery from his wife, Xanthippe. In his “Insight Revisited,” in A Second Collection: Papers by Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S. J., eds. William F. J. Ryan, S. J. and Bernard J. Tyrrell, S. J. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974), p. 258, Bernard Lonergan suggests that, with respect to this mode of inquiry which consists of questions and answers, we have evidence which points to the validity of an argument that would claim that Plato is to be regarded as a methodologist. As Lonergan attempts to speak about it, Plato’s “ideas were what the scientist seeks to discover” and “the scientific or philosophic process toward discovery was one of question and answer.”

14Palmer, p. 54.

15Collingwood, Philosophical Method, p. 11.

16Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, pp. 31-32.

17Gaarder, p. 130.

18Osborne, p. 22.

19Gaarder, p. 130.

20Gaarder, p. 132.