Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


In this second period of its history Greek philosophy reaches its highest development. It is a comparatively short period, being comprised within the life spans of the three men who so dominated the philosophic thought of their age that their names, rather than the names of schools or cities, are used to mark off the three subdivisions into which the study of the period naturally falls. We shall, therefore, consider

The problem with which this period had to deal had already been formulated by the Sophists, -- how to save the intellectual and moral life of the nation, which was threatened by materialism and scepticism. Socrates answered by determining the conditions of intellectual knowledge, and by laying deep the scientific foundation of ethics. Plato, with keener insight and more comprehensive understanding, developed the Socratic doctrine of concepts into a system of metaphysics, gigantic in its proportions, but lacking in that solidity of foundation which characterized the Aristotelian structure. Aristotle carried the Socratic idea to its highest perfection, and, by prosecuting a vigorous and systematic study of nature, supplied what was defective in Plato's metaphysical scheme. The central problem was always the same; the answer was also the same, though in different degrees of organic development, -- concept, Idea, essence. The view adopted was neither entirely subjective nor entirely objective, -- the concept doctrine, which was the first and simplest answer, being the typical formula for the union of subject and object, of self and not-self.


Life. The story of Socrates' life, as far as it is known, is soon told. He was born at Athens in the year 469 B.C. He was the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and of Phaenarete, a midwife. Of his early years little is recorded. We are told that he was trained in the profession of his father. For education, we must suppose that he received merely the usual course of instruction in music, geometry, and gymnastics, so that, when he calls himself a pupil of Prodicus and Aspasia, he is to be understood as speaking of friends from whom he learned by personal intercourse rather than of teachers in the stricter sense of the word. Indeed, in Xenophon's Symposium he styles himself a self-taught philosopher, autourgos tês philosophias. It is, therefore, impossible to say from what source he derived his knowledge of the doctrines of Parmenides, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, and the Atomists.

The gods{1} had revealed to Socrates that Athens was to be the scene of his labors and that his special mission in life was the moral and intellectual improvement of himself and others. Accordingly, after some years spent in his father's workshop, he devoted himself to this mission with all the enthusiasm of an unusually ardent nature: from a sculptor of statues he became a teacher who strove to shape the souls of men. So devoted was he to this task of teaching the Athenians that he never became a candidate for public office,{2} and, with the exception of the military campaigns, which led him as far as Potidaea and Delium, and a public festival which required his presence outside the city, nothing could induce him to go beyond the walls of Athens.

In fulfilling his task as teacher, he did not imitate the Sophists, who were at that time the recognized public teachers in Greece. He would neither accept remuneration for his lessons nor would he give a systematic course of instruction, preferring to hold familiar converse with his pupils and professing a willingness to learn as well as to teach. He taught in the market place, in the gymnasium, in the workshop, -- wherever he found men willing to listen, -- and once he had secured an audience, he held it with that extraordinary eloquence which is so graphically described in the Symposium of Plato.{3} He discarded all the arts and airs of the Sophists; in appearance, manners, and dress, as well as in the studied plainness of his language, he stood in sharp contrast to the elegance and foppishness of his rivals. Yet, by what seems to us a singular instance of vindictive misrepresentation, he was held up to scorn by Aristophanes in the Clouds as a Sophist, a teacher of what was merely a semblance of wisdom, and as a vain, pompous, and overbearing man. Socrates' private means must have been scanty, and the mere mention of his wife, Xanthippe, recalls the misery and degradation which must have been his lot in domestic life.

The narrative of his trial, condemnation, and death is one of the most dramatic in all literature. The closing scene as described in the Phaedo is unequaled for pathos and sublimity by any other page that even Plato wrote. His death occurred in the year 399 B.C.

Character. The personality of Socrates has impressed itself more deeply on the history of philosophy than has that of any other philosopher. The picture which Xenophon draws of him is almost ideally perfect. "No one ever heard or saw anything wrong in Socrates; so pious was he that he never did anything without first consulting the gods; so just that he never injured any one in the least; so master of himself that he never preferred pleasure to goodness; so sensible that he never erred in his choice between what was better and what was worse. In a word, he was of all men the best and the happiest."{4} Plato's account agrees with this. Socrates, however, -- "Saint" Socrates as he is sometimes called, -- was not without his traducers. There was in his character a certain incongruity (an atopia his admirers called it), an inconsistency between the external and the internal man, together with a certain uncouthness of speech and manner, which was entirely un-Greek. These peculiarities, while they endeared him to his friends, made him many enemies, and established a tradition that in later times developed into a tissue of accusations, of which coarseness, arrogance, profligacy, and impiety are but a few. Although it is true that these charges are devoid of even the slightest foundation, we must remember that in the age of Pericles the Athenians were by no means a race of superior beings, and even Socrates despite his higher moral ideals did not rise far above his contemporaries in point of moral conduct.

The Socratic Divinity. Socrates, as is well known, often spoke of a divine sign, or a heavenly voice, which in the great crises of his life communicated to him advice and guidance from above. Many are the suggestions as to what he meant by such allusions. Lewes{5} reminds us that while Socrates, Plato, and Xenophon never speak of a genius or a demon, they frequently make mention of a demonic something, -- daimonion ti, which Cicero translates divinum quoddam.{6} Socrates was a profoundly religious man, and it is quite natural that he should designate as "divine" the voice of conscience, or, as Hermann {7} suggests, the inner voice of individual tact, which restrained him not merely from what was morally wrong, but also (as in the case of his refusal to defend himself) from whatever was unwise or imprudent. This voice was probably nothing more than a vague feeling for which he himself could not account, a warning coming from the unexplored depths of his own inner consciousness.

Sources. Socrates, so far as we know, never wrote anything; it is certain that he committed none of his doctrines to writing. We are obliged, therefore, to rely for our knowledge of his teaching on the accounts given by Plato and Xenophon. Aristotle, also, speaks of the doctrines of Socrates; but he tells us nothing which may not be found in the writings of the two disciples who stood in so close personal relation with their master. It has been said that Plato and Xenophon present different views of Socrates, and to a certain extent the statement is correct; but the views which they present are pictures which supplement rather than contradict each other. Xenophon wrote his Memorabilia as a defense of Socrates. Being of a practical turn of mind, and wholly unable to appreciate the speculative side of Socrates' teaching, he attached undue importance to the ethical doctrines of his master. Plato, with deeper insight into the philosophical phase of Socrates' mind, draws a picture of the sage which fills in and perfects the sketch left us by Xenophon. It is well to remember, moreover, that the doctrines of Socrates were, of necessity, difficult to describe. The teaching of one who never wrote even an essay on philosophy must necessarily be lacking in the compactness and conciseness which are possible only in the written word.{8}


General Character of Socrates' Teaching. The Ionians and the Eleatics had shown, by their failure to account for things as they are, that no value is. to be attached either to sense-perception or to metaphysical knowledge arising from the notions of Being, Becoming, the One, the Many, etc. This was as clear to Socrates as it had been to the Sophists. But, whereas the Sophists had forthwith given up the search after truth, Socrates insisted that by reflecting on our own mental constitution we may learn to determine the conditions of knowledge, to form concepts as they ought to be formed, and by this means place the principles of conduct as well as the principles of knowledge on a solid scientific foundation. Know thyself (gnôthi seauton): this is the sum of all philosophy. From the consideration of the objective world (nature) we must turn to the study of the subjective (self). Thus, philosophy "from heaven descended to the low-roofed house" of man.

Socratic Method. The first lesson which self-knowledge teaches is our own ignorance. If, therefore, we are to arrive at a knowledge through concepts, that is, at a knowledge of things, not in their surface qualities, but in their unalterable natures, we must have recourse to the dialogue; in other words, we must converse in order to learn. Thus, love of knowledge and the impulse to friendship are the same, and the blending of these two is what constitutes the peculiarity of the Socratic Eros.{9}

The Socratic dialogue involves two processes, the one negative and the other positive.

1. The negative stage. Socrates approached his interlocutor as if seeking for knowledge. Assuming a humble attitude, he asked a question about some commonplace thing; from the answer he drew material for another question, until at last by dint of questioning he extorted from his victim a confession of ignorance. By reason of the pretended deference which, during the process of interrogation, Socrates paid to the superior intelligence of his pupil, the process came to be known as Socratic irony.

2. The positive stage. Socrates now proceeded, by another series of questions, to add together, as we say, particular instances, until finally the pupil was made to arrive inductively at a concept, that is, at an idea of the unalterable nature of the subject discussed. In the Memorabilia{10} we find examples of the use of this inductive process, which Socrates himself named maieutic -- in reference to the profession of his mother -- because its object was to bring into life the truth already existing in the mind of the pupil.{11}

The whole method is heuristic, or a method of finding. It is an inductive process resulting in a definition. "Two things," says Aristotle,{12} "are justly ascribed to Socrates, induction and definition," and the importance of the introduction of these processes cannot be overestimated.{13} For the knowledge of things in their changeable qualities Socrates would have us substitute the knowledge of things in their unalterable natures, or essences. Pre-Socratic philosophers had, indeed, hinted at a distinction between sense-knowledge and rational knowledge, or had even gone so far as to insist that such a distinction must be recognized as the beginning of philosophy. Nevertheless, men continued to appeal to the senses, to rely on sense-impressions, or, at most, to group sense-impressions in composite images such as the poet and the rhetorician employ. It was Socrates who, by his heuristic method, first showed that sense-impressions and all uncritical generalizations need to be tested and controlled by criticism, because they are incomplete and exhibit merely what is accidental in the object. It was he too who, by the same method, first showed that, if our sense-impressions are grouped, not according to the exigencies of poetry and rhetoric, but according to the requirements of logic, if they are articulated into a concept representing the unalterable nature of the object, human knowledge will be built on a lasting foundation.

Contents of Socratic Teaching. Socrates applied his heuristic method to the questions of man's dignity and destiny.

1. Physical questions were not discussed by Socrates. For this statement we have the explicit testimony of Xenophon and Aristotle. And yet, as we shall see, Socrates studied adaptation in nature. The truth seems to be that he was opposed not so much to physical studies as to the way in which physical questions were being and had been discussed. It must, however, be added that whatever interest Socrates took in such matters was always subservient to his interest in man.

2. Theology. As far as we can gather from our authorities, Socrates seems to have adopted from Anaxagoras the notion of an Intelligent Cause (Nous), but, going farther than Anaxagoras had gone, he proved the existence of God from the fact that there is adaptation in living organisms. In the course of his argument he formulated a principle which has served as major premise in every teleological argument since his time: "Whatever exists for a useful purpose must be the work of an intelligence."{14} We find, moreover, traces of the argument from efficient cause. If man possesses intelligence, He from whom the universe proceeds must also possess intelligence.{15} Nevertheless, Socrates accepted the current mythology, at least so far as external worship is concerned, advising in a well-known passage{16} that in this matter each one should conform to the custom of his own city.

3. Immortality. Although Plato represents Socrates as considering dilemmatically "either death ends all things, or it does not,"{17} there can be no doubt as to Socrates' belief in the immortality of the human soul. It may be that he thought the dialectical proof of the doctrine to be beyond the power of the human mind; but the depth of his personal conviction cannot for a moment be questioned.

4. Ethics. If Socrates taught men how to think, it was with the ultimate intention of teaching them how to live. All his philosophy culminates in his ethical doctrine. In fact, he was the first not only to establish a scientific connection between speculation and ethical philosophy, but also to give an analysis of happiness and virtue which was capable of further systematic development.

The supreme good of man is happiness, and by happiness Socrates meant not a mere eutuchia, which depends on external conditions and accidents of fortune, but an eupraxia, a well-being which is conditioned by good action. To attain this, man must become godlike in his independence of all external needs: he must become abstemious, for moderation is the corner stone of all virtue.{18} Yet Socrates, as is evident from the dialogues of Plato, did not carry this doctrine of moderation to the degree of asceticism. More important even than moderation is the cultivation of the mind. To be happy, one must build his happiness not on the perishable things of the external world, but on the enduring goods which are within us, on a mind free from care and devoted to the acquisition of knowledge.

For knowledge is virtue. This is, perhaps, the most characteristic of all Socrates' ethical doctrines, -- the identification of speculative insight with moral excellence. (ho Sôkratês) epistêmas ôet einai pasas tas aretas.{19} No man intentionally does wrong, he says, for that would be intentionally to make himself unhappy. Knowledge is, therefore, the only virtue and ignorance is the only vice. Yet when Socrates comes to speak of particular instances of virtue, he leaves the high level of virtue-knowledge and descends to commonplace utilitarianism or customary morality. In the dialogues of Xenophon he almost always bases his moral precepts on the motive of utility: we should endure privations because the hardy man is more healthy; we should be modest because the punishment of the boastful is swift and sure; and so with the other virtues. This inconsistency is a defect which mars all the beauty of the Socratic system of ethics.

Historical Position. The philosophy of Socrates is best judged in the light of the influence which it exercised on the Platonic and Aristotelian systems of thought. His pupils, Plato and Aristotle, are the best proofs of Socrates' title to a place among the world's greatest teachers. Looking at his philosophy as a body of doctrine, we find that it contains (1) a reform in philosophic method -- the foundation of induction; (2) the first systematic inquiry the conditions of knowledge -- the foundation of epistemology; (3) the first system of ethics -- the foundation of moral science.

Important as were these contributions to philosophy, more important was the influence which Socrates exerted by his life and character. He appeared in an age that was tired of vain speculation and pretended wisdom, among a people then as always more apt to be impressed with concrete presentation than with abstract reasoning, and, by his many virtues, as well as by his whole-souled devotion to truth, he convinced his contemporaries that knowledge is attainable, and that a higher and nobler life may be reached through a systematic study of the human mind. By living the life of an ideal philosopher he taught his countrymen to respect philosophy and to devote themselves to the pursuit of wisdom.

{1} Cf. Plato, Apologia, 33 C.

{2} Cf. Zeller, Socrates and the Socratic School, p. 67.

{3} Symposium, 215.

{4} Mem., I, 1.

{5} Biographical History of Philosophy, I, 166,

{6} Cf. De Divinatione, I, 54, 122.

{7} Cf. Zeller, Socrates, p. 95.

{8} An excellent treatise on Socrates and his philosophy is M. Piat's Socrate (Grands Philosophes series, Paris, 1900).

{9} Cf. Zeller, op. cit., p. 127, note 2.

{10} III, 9, 10, and IV, 2, 11.

{11} Cf. Plato, Theaet., 149 A.

{12} Met., XIII, 4, 1078 b, 27.

{13} Cf. Grote, Hist. of Greece, VIII, 578.

{14} Mem., I, 4, 2.

{15} Mem., ibid.

{16} Mem., I, 4, 3.

{17} Apol., 40.

{18} Mem., 1, 5, 4.

{19} Eudemian Ethics, I, 5, 1216 b, 6.

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