Socrates is one of the most important individuals in Western civilization, but who was he? We know some facts about him: he was born about 469 BCE, he was a citizen of Athens who lived during her “Golden Age” and her defeat in the Peloponnesian War, he served in the Athenian army, he was put on trial in 399 on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, he was convicted and put to death. He is regarded by many people as a martyr to free speech and unfettered intellectual inquiry. His ancient followers, especially Plato and Xenophon, saw him as a man of exceptional virtue. Alcibiades says in Plato’s Symposium that there has never been anyone like him.
When it comes to Socrates’ philosophy,
however, we face a problem. Socrates wrote nothing. What we know about Socrates
comes from the writings of three people who knew him: Plato, Xenophon and
Aristophanes, and a fourth person, Aristotle, who was born some fifteen years
after Socrates’ death. In this book I focus on Plato’s portrait of Socrates, not
as necessarily the most historically accurate one but as the most
philosophically intriguing. I concentrate on several dialogues that
interpreters have regarded as “early” or as “Socratic.” What unites these
dialogues, I claim, is not necessarily an early date but the use of a
distinctive method, which is called the Socratic elenchus. “Elenchus” means
“examination,” but it has come to mean “refutation,” because Socrates refutes
nearly everyone he talks to. As one of Socrates’ interlocutors, the general Nicias,
says in Plato’s Laches, when you get
into a conversation with Socrates, however innocent it may seem to be, you end
up defending the principles by which you live.
The elenchus is mainly a negative method.
Socrates uses it to show that the people he talks to, most of whom think of
themselves as wise, are in fact ignorant of the most important questions, those
concerning the first principles of ethics. Socrates frequently says that he is
ignorant of these also. In the Theaetetus he describes himself as “barren of wisdom.” In the Apology he says that only the god is wise, that human wisdom is
worthless. In the Meno he says that
he perplexes others because he is perplexed himself. One might conclude from
this that Socrates had no constructive thoughts about the first principles of morality, or at least none
that he is willing to share.
That is not quite right. Alongside this
barren Socrates, we find a Socrates who is “fertile,” who has views of his own
that he is willing to share with others. He doesn’t claim to know that these views are true, but he
is willing to present and defend them. In the Meno he claims that people can “recollect” true beliefs, including
those about ethics. He has a moral theory, which has been called
“intellectualism,” which defines virtue as knowledge, vice as
ignorance, and declares that moral weakness is impossible. He also holds that
virtue is the proper organization of parts of the soul, which leads to
happiness, understood as psychological health. These two theories appear to be
somewhat at odds with each other.
These two portraits of Socrates: that of a
“barren,” ignorant inquirer and that of a “fertile” philosopher with views of
his own, exist together in Plato’s elenctic dialogues. Can they be reconciled?
Can Socrates be both barren and fertile? I see only one way to reconcile them:
two of Socrates’ interlocutors, Thrasymachus and Alcibiades, suggest that
Socrates’ professions of ignorance are ironic.
In this book I cover many aspects of Socrates’ life and thought. I talk about his trial, his method, his professions of ignorance, his accounts of virtue and happiness, his views on politics, and his relation to Plato. The book has a concluding chapter that traces the influence of Socrates on the subsequent history of philosophy, down to the twentieth century.
William J. Prior is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Santa Clara University. His new book Socrates is now available from Polity.