Jacques Maritain Center

Moral Philosophy

Part One
The Adventures of Reason

The Discovery of Ethics


Orient and Occident
1. It is fitting for everyone to try to put his own house in order. Thus it is the great moral systems elaborated in the course of the history of Western culture that a western philosopher will have to discuss if he intends to see clearly into his own tradition and to seek the materials for a doctrinal renewal of ethics through a critical study of the past. In examining the Occidental systems which seem to us -- given our purpose -- the most significant, we will however not forget the treasures of Oriental thought, nor the fact that Christianity, without which neither western civilization nor western thought would be what they are, was born in Israel, and transcends by its universality both Orient and Occident.

Moreover, if we had undertaken a history of moral philosophy, we would obviously have begun with the philosophical heritage of the Orient: notably Indian thought (although India does not seem to have succeeded in according to ethics a domain really distinct from that of metaphysics or of religion),{1} and above all Chinese thought, which, on the contrary -- especially in the Confucian tradition -- is turned chiefly toward matters relating to human conduct, and offers us the most ancient and venerable forms of moral systematization. It would be most profitable to study the ways by which China thus established a body of natural ethics. As Mr. John C. H. Wu{2} has noted, in particular: "Confucianism had attained to a vision of the natural law which comes even nearer to that of the Christian" than what is said on this subject by the Greek and Latin philosophers. "Let one quotation from the Confucian classic The Golden Mean suffice: 'What is ordained by Heaven is called essential nature. Conformity to the essential nature is called the natural law. The refinement of the natural law is called culture.'"

The fact remains that what we have undertaken is not at all a history of moral philosophy, but a critical examination of certain characteristic systems. It is enough for our purpose, as we have explained, to keep in mind the lessons offered by the development of moral ideas in Western culture. Though we regret the possibility of seeming -- much against our will -- to accept the overly narrow perspective of traditional accounts, we will begin by examining the principal testimonies of Greek thought.

Greek Sophism
2. The Sophists were far from being all charlatans of wisdom. Their role in the history of culture was that of a potent revulsive. Many of them were men of superior intelligence, but intoxicated with the appearances and probabilities with which reason plays when it is disputing about common notions (not yet philosophically elaborated) and is not yet trained to the disciplines of scientific conceptualization. Taken as a whole, their enterprise displays the following traits.

They engaged in a critique of traditional morality, accepted ideas and sacred norms, of authentic principles grown into prejudices and taboos of the social group, a critique which invoked nature and reason against the conservatism of the Greek city, against the authority of custom and the apparently inviolable prestige of human laws and institutions. The appearance of Sophism in the 5th century before the Christian era, in that period of philosophical crisis and of scepticism which followed the effort of the great pre-Socratic "physicists", and the domination it exercised over general education, thus marked the advent of a free and daring rationalism, but a rationalism which made a primarily negative use of reason and whose perspective remained naively empirical. And who would be surprised at that? When reason is not drawn back into its own depths by the intuition of being or by experience of the interior world, it frolics with the senses, among phantasms, without even noticing that it is their prisoner.

Thus the Sophists were able to discourse, criticize and argue while making use of an authentically rational equipment (whose own exigencies however escaped them) and while giving value to the true as well as to the false (but without being in a position to tell the one from the other); they remained -- it is at this spot that Socrates would aim, and thrust home his blade -- ignorant men bearing the arms of knowledge. Thus they were able at times to put forward accurate and profound ideas, and even, like Hippias, to bring to light the notion of natural law and of a human community superior to the particularism of the city, in spite of the fact that these notions challenged the distinction between Greeks and barbarians, as well as an economic regime based on slavery. The unwritten laws, eternal and unalterable, said Hippias, derive from a higher source than the decrees of men; and all men are naturally fellow-citizens.{1} God made all men equally free, said Alcidamas;{2} nature made no man a slave. But these truths remained the chance discoveries of an essentially arbitrary mental process. And Callicles also spoke of natural law, but only to see it as the law that force succeeds.

3. In short they did not possess an internal principle of wisdom. And what they believed to be wisdom (because they confused wisdom and power) was but an art of seducing and persuading minds. The intellectual life took for them the form of a competitive sport, it was a combat of eloquence in which the point was to triumph publicly over the thesis of the adversary (either by analyses and arguments that were truly convincing, or sometimes by foul blows), and in which the audience played the primary role. The verdict of the bystanders was the final judgment.

They were professors of conduct. They taught those virtues and accomplishments with which the individual must equip himself in order to operate in life. The "virtues" thus formed the principal subject of their oratorical tournaments. But these virtues were conceived as powers or talents enabling men to make known their value, to escape from their phobias and inferiority complexes, to succeed in public life and to take advantage of their opportunities -- however negligent in itself and however ill-governed in its interior universe the soul that used them might be. The great thing for those who listened to these masters was to become virtuosos or experts in the technique of a brilliant and prosperous life and in the recipes of success, above all political success.

It was thus an art of making one's way in the world which in the end emerged from a conception of life dominated by a general relativism and by a universal scepticism concerning that which can relate human conduct to ends and values superior to the advantage of the individual.

With the Sophists we do not yet have moral philosophy. They concerned themselves with the whole subject-matter of human morality, scrutinizing it with an intelligence and a penetration that were sometimes superior -- but they handled that subject-matter only with the instruments of empiricism. But we owe them thanks. They made Socrates possible. Socrates, in the act combating them, could even appear externally as one of them (witness that evil tongue of Aristophanes). It is not the only time in intellectual history that counterfeit money has preceded and prepared for the appearance of genuine money.

Socrates and the Sophists
1. How shall we characterize the effort of Socrates as distinguished from that of the Sophists ? -- The critical spirit (critical in the philosophical sense of the word) apprehends questions and tests ideas according to their intrinsic value, independently of the judgment of the crowd. If the intellect continues exercise itself in controversy, what matters is no longer the blows exchanged in the arena, but the work accomplished in that workshop of trial and proof which is within the mind. The passion for truth has taken the place of the passion for success.

In a sense Socrates presents himself as a conservative. He undertakes the defense of the traditional norms of the city, he holds human law in veneration and insists upon unconditional obedience to it -- even when it unjustly causes him to die. But this is because in his case an extremely powerful spiritual intuition and the attention of a purified intellect plunge deeply enough into things human to see how the moral foundations of the city are justified by reason. lrrational respect for social taboos is shaken by the same blow (and more effectively than by the arguments of the Sophists). They lose the power on which political conservatism depends most heavily, the power of authority blindly accepted. If they are not founded on reason they are nothing. Nothing keeps things in their place but truth.

The work of critical laying bare undertaken by the Sophists was done in the name of a universal relativism. But relativism, with its negative and destructive apparatus, is quite ready in fact to turn itself into servile submission to rules the spirit does not believe in; by virtue of its absolute attachment to truth, the manner in which Socrates defended the tradition was in reality much more revolutionary than the manner in which the Sophists attacked it.

The notion of authentically intellectual knowledge -- established on the level of the proper lights and proper exigencies of the intellect -- the notion of science, thus clearly emerged. That is why Socrates took pains to render us conscious of our ignorance. That ignorance -- at least I am aware of it. If the idea of science were not there, would I have the idea of my ignorance? Socratic ignorance is an artifice which one must not be taken in by. Aristotle assures us that Socrates "treats of the moral virtues and strives in this regard to discover universal definitions. He is in search of what things are: because he applied himself to doing syllogisms, and the principle of syllogisms is what things are. . . ."{1} This assertion of Aristotle has been contested by certain scholars who remark that instead of defining the virtues Socrates busied himself rather with emphasizing the failure of all our attempts to define them (so for courage in the Laches, piety in the Euthyphro, temperance in the Charmides). But is this failure definitive? Inevitable of itself? Or due to a wrong way of going about it? Aristotle does not say that Socrates put his finger on definitions of the virtues; he says that he sought for them. The whole Socratic enterprise bears witness to the fact that it must in the end be possible to define the virtues. And thus what matters above all is that the ideal of a knowledge which is firm and incontestable in itself, a science of moral matters, is now brought out.

At the same time an essential change in the direction of the attention is taking place. The attention is now turned inward, toward the discovery of that interior world which we carry within us and which answers to the Socratic concept of the soul the word "soul", which insofar as it expresses a common or pre-philosophical notion has a past as ancient as human thought, and whose contrasting meanings evoke at times life in the biological sense, at times life in the spiritual sense, and at times both at once, -- this word has for Socrates and will keep for Plato a meaning which is above all, moral. It is a matter of making the interior world good, of so acting that the soul will be healthy, good and beautiful.

The Socratic Enigma
5. When all this is said, is it not possible to go a little further, and to try to get a more searching idea of this inward movement which Socrates forced upon Greek thought, and of this ignorance which he professed, and of his irony?

On the latter point let us say at once that Kierkegaard is no doubt right to make the irony of Socrates one of the major points of his condemnation. This irony questioned too many things for Socrates' fellow-citizens, and appeared to them a refusal to become involved which was dangerous for public order. The city and public opinion naturally detest irony. But for the rest, and as concerns what relates to the very nature of Socratic irony, Kierkegaard's systematization in his Essay on the Concept of Irony{1} gives a manifestly false picture of Socrates.

Socrates was by no means an ironist in the sense in which Kierkegaard understood the term, that is an ironist whose great triumph was to make all things problematical{2} -- "like Samson, Socrates shakes the pillars which support the temple of knowledge and hurls the whole edifice into the nothingness of ignorance"{3} -- and whose essential purpose is to enjoy his irony itself as an "absolute negativity",{4} and as "a naught which consumes all, a foundation on which one may not even set foot, which at once is and is not".{5} When Kierkegaard declares that although the enjoyment of the ironist is of all enjoyments "the most empty of content"{6} it is nevertheless this subjective enjoyment which counts above all,{7} one may wonder if the attitude thus defined ever really characterized Kierkegaard himself; at any rate it is certain that in attributing it to Socrates he completely misrepresented him. Socrates did not shelter -- by means of irony's disconcerting approach and perpetual denials -- a joy of the subjectivity conscious of the vanity of the world of objective knowledge and freed of all hope of conquering rationally the being of things -- in other words a victory chalked up against Hegel with the help of Hegelian negativity itself. His irony did indeed shelter something, but something totally different, the fruit of a profound and incommunicable spiritual experience.

6. We know that Socrates "habitually practised spiritual introversion, and achieved from time to time -- whether spontaneously or methodically it is impossible to say -- uncommon states of concentration".{1} The famous episode of the campaign of Potidaea, related by Plato, demonstrates this astonishing faculty of total self-absorption. "He stood in meditation on the spot where he had been since daybreak, pondering some question, and, when he made no headway with it, he did not give up, but stood and sought. It was already midday, and people noticed, and, wondering, were telling one another that, since early in the morning, Socrates had stood thinking about something. Finally, when evening came, some of the observers after dinner (and it was summer then) brought their pallets out, at once to sleep where it was cool and to watch and see if he would also stand all night. There he stood till daylight came and sunrise. Then, when he had prayed to the Sun, he went away."{2}

"From the beginning, of the Symposium," Olivier Lacombe remarks,{3} "Plato had prepared us for such a scene, almost banal in India, extraordinary in Greece." "And another of the servants came with the announcement: 'Your Socrates has withdrawn into the neighbors' vestibule, is standing there, and won't come in when I call,' 'Incredible talk' said Agathon. 'Go straight and call him, and don't let him off.' And then (said Aristodemus) I spoke up: 'No, No! Just let him be. This is a habit he has. At times he turns aside, and takes his stand wherever he happens to be. He will be coming soon, I think. Don't disturb him; let him be.'"{4}

How can one not be struck by the analogy between this behavior and that of the Indian holy men known as the "living delivered ones"?{5} In the study quoted above, where the whole matter is thoroughly analyzed, with perfect rightness, Olivier Lacombe underlined this analogy and showed at the same time the irreducible differences which exist between Socrates and the Yogis. Without doubt, "this man who never feels the cold, and who never feels the heat; who is the only one who knows how to fast, and the only one who knows how to drink; the only one who knows how to love youth and the only one who knows how to remain chaste in this love . . . this man is no longer a man, and, if he is not a god either, he is at least . . . a truly exceptional being, a god among men, and a man who participates in the life of the gods."{1} Yet, although "Indianity . . . tends toward a spiritual state of pure, absolute and simple self-transparency",{2} "contemplation (of the soul), in Socrates, is not accomplished, as far as we know, by a doctrine of the void";{3} whereas "the self of the Indian sage is placed beyond the opposition of self and other, beyond all dialogue and all relation even spiritual"{4} "the Socratic Self is profoundly engaged in the network of social relations."{5} "Socrates is a townsman."{6} This man, who is capable of being immobilized for hours by finer concentration, spends his time gossiping, dawdling, asking questions, nettling and teasing people to convince them of their ignorance but also to try to learn something from them;{7} he is the master of conversation; and finds his joy in dialogue and dialectics.

7. It seems that we now might attempt however hypothetically -- to draw up an interpretation of the Socratic enigma along the following general lines (subject of course to all kinds of retouching).

More Greek than ever, though possessing a secret which the Greeks did not know, Socrates appears to have experienced states of natural mysticism analogous to those of the Indian sages,{8} but he put them to quite a different use than that assigned to them by Indian wisdom. As we noted above, he has no doctrine of the void; apropos of the scene which so impressed the soldiers during the siege of Potidaea, Plato tells us that Socrates applied himself all that day, from dawn onwards, to "pondering some question, and, when he made no headway with it, he did not give up, but stood and sought". What this description suggests is that, in reality, the idea which he sought did not come to him because, once engaged in intellectual concentration, he passed from that moment further on, and entered a night where without concepts or images or any specific representation he was seized by an experience of the profound being of the Self, in itself inexpressible. Yes, but in this experience, similar to that of the sages of India, it was neither isolation in the seizure nor the void which produced it which captivated above all Socrates' mind; it was rather the concrete certainty unshakeable, though essentially negative, which he held there: certainty peculiar to a wisdom which transcended the fluctuating opinions of men.

And, unlike the sages of India, Socrates emerged from his states of concentration incomparably strengthened in his conviction of the essential value, and prime importance for human life, of discursive reason and conceptual knowledge. He ascended from the deep springs of spiritual unconsciousness toward the wisdom of reason, toward human discourse and toward the social and political life of men, possessing his own secret, the idea of full certainty which he had experienced -- and which, in a different way assuredly, and according to the communicable pattern proper to rational discourse, was also to characterize science as a work of reason. It follows that, if our interpretation is correct, the idea which Greece elaborated -- and which played such a fundamental role in the whole history of Western culture -- of science, with its absolutely firm characteristic certitude, as the summit of knowledge depended in fact, to take with Socrates definite form in human reason, on the activating effect exerted on the rational sphere by a mystic plunge into the experience of self.

Now we can understand better the nature of Socratic irony. The incommunicable spiritual experience which we have spoken of, and the indisputable certainty it comprised (and which required as an after-effect a certitude on the level of discursive reason which though doubtless not identical was analogous, being founded unshakeably on reason) here is the secret treasure which this irony carefully sheltered.

We can also understand better the nature of the ignorance which Socrates professed. This ignorance, we said above, was a feint; doubtless it was but in a sense it was more than a feint. To tell the truth, was this not perhaps the only thing that Socrates was aware of really knowing: that which he attained by an ineffable mode in a spiritual concentration superior to distinct notions? On the other hand he possessed, with great firmness, the idea of rational science, rather than the science itself. He sought the definition of virtues, he chased essences -- he did not yet possess them. However profound his intuitions in ethical matters, and however clearly stressed (though still open to many ambiguities) the main lines of his moral doctrine -- this was not yet science. But he knew that this science which he did not possess had to be attained, and that he was clearing the way to it. If his search was without respite, it was also without anguish, because of that great hidden certainty which fed his strength and his strange power.

Finally, we can see better what the inward conversion he preached consisted of, and how it differed from the Indian effort toward deliverance. Even if the doctrine set forth in the Phaedo has something in common (though greatly transposed) with the experience of Socrates, it is still much more Platonic than Socratic: "And this separation and release of the soul from the body is termed death? To be sure. . . . And the true philosophers, and they only, are ever seeking to release the soul. Is not the separation and release of the soul from the body their especial study?"{1} Socrates himself actually never taught such a "death". He kept to himself his mystic experience of the self. When he told his listeners to turn toward self-knowledge, he was not directing them to a metaphysical grasp of the esse of the soul through the discipline of the void; he was directing them toward a rational knowledge of the realities of the moral world and the essences it comprises, achieved by the consciousness and by introspection, and requiring for its perfection the definitions and demonstrations of discursive science. The separation of the soul from the body, which, according to the Phaedo, is the task of philosophers, and the kind of supra-morality into which they are led by Platonic deliverance, did not exempt Plato from working to establish a morality rationally. As for Socrates, he is totally dedicated to morality. He preaches no mystic deliverance, but true virtue and true happiness -- which are one. And he has not only the burden of calling upon reason to discover the practical science of human conduct; he has also the burden of acting upon others, of enlisting them in the quest which he himself pursues without respite, of awakening them to an authentic and upright moral life.

8. Thus it is true that the mission of Socrates was not a speculative or scientific mission, but a practical one. He was "attached to the Athenians by the will of the gods in order to needle them as a gad-fly stings a horse".{2} He had to put men to the test. Apollo had "assigned him a task, to live philosophizing, examining himself and examining others".{3} The only knowledge he claimed for himself was that of knowing that he knew nothing.{4} He forced people to become aware that they were ignorant of themselves, and that they did not know what they were saying. But at the same time he said to them: know thyself, and perhaps he believed that that knowledge, and the abyss of the "thyself", was too easily accessible to the glance of reason. It is true that his great care is to develop uneasiness and anxiety in those who listen to him. But it is precisely in that way that the awakening of philosophy begins.

It is true that his distinctive art is the one which his mother, the mid-wife Phaenarete, practised -- maieutics, the art of delivering minds. But it is obviously with a view to causing a fruit of knowledge to issue from them, not a simple admission of ignorance, that this obstetrics assists minds.

The commonplace to which Kierkegaard and Hegel subscribed, which makes of Socrates the founder of moral philosophy -- at least for Occidental thought -- is, then, justified. Certainly the intuitions of the great pre-Socratics had not excluded the ethical domain; one perceives a singularly rich moral experience in some of Heraclitus' fiery flashes; and Democritus appears to possess an already well-delineated moral vocabulary.{1} But there was no moral philosophy properly speaking before Socrates, and no philosophical wisdom with human conduct as its distinct object. He founded moral philosophy paradoxically, not by doctrinal teaching, but by dint of doubts, of questions and interrogations. And he even perceived so well the value of the practical reason that he seems sometimes too rationalist, sometimes too pragmatist. Like everything which bears within it an exceptional poetic grandeur, his personality involves a large measure of ambiguity: he is equivocal as genius is. His famous irony is the defense and the expression of his complexity, and above all, as we have seen, of the incommunicable spiritual experience which was his hidden treasure. He makes mysteries secular and he initiates us into humanism as a mystic and an inspired one; he is an enchanter, he has a mission which is in some sort religious, and he reveals reason to itself; he knows nothing and he discovers science; he dissembles ceaselessly for the love of truth; he invokes the most barefaced reasons of expediency and he is the master of the interior life, of asceticism and abnegation; he hurls discourse into the intoxication of distinctions, divisions, logic chopping and the manipulation of essences and he is the most "existential" of the Greek thinkers.

"Reason has never been set so high," as Bergson wrote in a remarkable passage.{2} "At least that is what strikes us at first. But let us look closer. Socrates teaches because the oracle of Delphi has spoken. He has received a mission. He is poor, and poor he must remain. He must mix with the common folk, he must become one of them, his speech must get back to their speech. He will write nothing, so that his thought shall be communicated, a living thing, to minds who shall convey it to other minds. He is indifferent to cold and hunger, though in no way an ascetic; he is merely delivered from material needs, and emancipated from his body. 'daemon' accompanies him, which makes its voice heard when a warning is necessary. He so thoroughly believes in this 'clacmonic voice' that he dies rather than not follow it; if he refuses to defend himself before the popular tribunal, if he goes to meet his condemnation, it is because the 'daemon' has said nothing to dissuade him. In a word his mission is of a religious and mystic order, in the present-day meaning of the words; his teaching, so perfectly rational, hinges on something that seems to transcend pure reason."

There we have the founder of moral philosophy, which would do well not to forget its origins.

The Morality of Socrates
9. For him, as for all the Greeks, one supreme question dominated the whole field of ethics, that of the supreme good of human life, which is eudaemonia, happiness, but happiness is not simply being favored by the gods -- good fortune, eutukhia, which depends on external conditions and the propitious accidents of chance or on an empirical research; happiness is at the same time acting well and perfect success in action, eupraxis, a term which envelops in its fecund equivocity the great drama of moral speculations which were at play in Hellenic and Hellenistic thought, for ought not acting well, or good conduct, being the perfect fulfilment of our nature, in fact be or involve by the same token the perfect satisfaction of the desires of our nature, which is what we call happiness?

As our previous analyses have shown, Socrates' moral doctrine could not present itself as a system in which philosophical reflection had attained the state of science; it could be but a rough sketch, with strongly marked features, but whose potentialities were to develop in very different directions in the course of the history of Hellenic thought.

It seems to me that in order to characterize the ethical thought of Socrates insofar as we can know it through Plato and Xenophon, and Aristotle -- we must construct the following picture:

The Good
10. First of all comes the idea of the Good. This idea, which is natural to the human intelligence, like that of being, was not disengaged without difficulty -- a long history was necessary for this. At first it was just a hidden ferment, which was manifested to the consciousness and in notional language only through substitutes in which its intelligible value was concealed by the particularism of the senses and the imagination, and the prohibitions and myths of the social group. It took the intuitions of the first Sages and the reflection of the Tragedians on destiny, the passage from family law to the code of the city, then the action of the Mysteries and of Orphism stimulating in the constant hope of personal "salvation" which transcended the closed morality of the family and the city; and also the great effort, rational and mystical at the same time, of the Pythagorean Order, its undertaking of moral reform, its practices of purification, its recommendation of daily examination of the conscience; and finally, the critique of the Sophists and the summons served on reason by the apparently logical nihilism of their analysis of cases of conscience and of moral ideas -- all this was necessary in order that the idea of the Good should make its way in the depths of Hellenic thought and be disengaged for itself, -- as distinct front the particular goods, objects of the gregarious instinct or irrational opinion, which it encompasses in its universality, -- and finally, with Socrates, liberate and cause to surge up before the reason the intelligible value of an object proportioned to the amplitude and spirituality of the reason and to the freedom of the person -- a universal term as vast as the spirit and at the same time problematical in relation to desire. At the very moment when it thus appeared in full evidence, moreover, the idea of the Good dazzled the human mind. It seems that for Socrates the notion of metaphysical good and that of moral good were confused -- just as that of virtue and that of happiness. In the realm of human life, the good is to act well and not to miss out on one's life, it is to attain happiness.
The End
11. The second leading idea to be disengaged at the same time is that of the End.

It certainly seems that for Socrates that end -- happiness, for the sake of which we have to act as we ought -- is implied in our action itself, as a fruit which is immediately attached to it. In this respect the Epicureans and the Stoics will only be returning to a primitive Socratic position, outlining more sharply, transforming into formal theses, views which with Socrates remained as it were ethereal and undifferentiated. The art of morality is not the art of living morally with a view to attaining happiness; it is the art of being happy because one lives morally.

Happiness is one with Virtue
12. And so there is produced an interiorization of the idea of happiness. Happiness becomes internal, and it is determined rationally according to what man is; it is by the essence of the human being that his happiness is known. Know thyself -- descend into the depths where your daemon lives and where you become conscious of the exigencies of your essence and of the value of your soul, which is a universe unto itself. To be happy is not to possess riches or good health, it is to have a good soul. Happiness is identical with good conduct. The more experience seems to give the lie to this axiom, the more heroically the sage affirms it -- it is discredited by experience only in the eyes of the fool. Happiness and the Good are identified, but with insistence primarily on the Good; it is the Good which constitutes Happiness. Happiness does not consist in the perishable things of the exterior world, it consists in the goods which are proper to the soul, and to the essence of man, the specific mark and distinctive force of which is the power of knowledge and rational discernment. Happiness consists in the lasting goods which are within us, it consists in having a mind free of agitation, dedicated to lofty knowledge and to truth, it consists in knowing how to think. It is within our grasp, we have only to look for it where it is.

Virtue is Knowledge
13. The history of the word virtue is itself full of significance. It meant first, in a very general way, the proper and characteristic power or excellence by which a certain nature exercised its fundamental activity: virtue of the magnet, virtues of herbs, virtue of music, virtue of the architect or of the artisan. But what is the virtue -- the power or excellence most characteristic of the human being if not the solidly established disposition which intrinsically perfects his rational activity in a given line, and above all in the line of the proper conduct of his life, and which, if we put it to work, causes us without fail to act well? [t is thus that the notion of virtue which was current in the time of the Sophists and of Socrates was finally delineated, although the philosophical definition and the theory of moral virtues date only from Aristotle.

Socrates' idea, the thesis which was to become celebrated under his name throughout the history of moral philosophy, is that virtue consists in knowing and in thinking well. The virtues are all sure and true knowledges, sciences: "He thought that all the virtues were sciences," says Aristotle.{1} All sinners are ignorant. One is not wicked because one wills evil, but because one does not know the good.

These aphorisms were to be interpreted in all kinds of ways. But for Socrates they carried their full force and must be understood literally. It seems that he did not make a clear distinction (that was to be the work of Aristotle) between speculative knowledge and practical knowledge. He was probably thinking of a practical knowledge, of a moral knowledge, primarily, but conceiving of it as a theoretical knowledge of the object of the virtues, in such a way that he identified moral excellence with the knowledge of morality.

We find here a remarkable example of an intuition of central importance wrongly conceptualized. What Socrates saw in a decisive fashion, the truth, then quite new, that everything revealed and recalled to him, was the rational dignity of the human being, and the essential rationality inherent in the good act. And he had also that insight -- which I express here in a thoroughly banal fashion but which in itself is capable of filling a heart and making a man give life to a missionary task -- that we all want to be happy, that we wish for true happiness, but that we do not know where it is. Stumbling against all the obstacles, we all seek the reality which delivers and the true meaning of our existence, and in our ignorance we grope blindly along, and in place of what we are seeking we grasp phantoms.

What he saw thus he saw for all time. But he concentualized it too hastily. What is reason, if not the power of knowing in all its excellence? What is rationality inherent in the good act, if not the mastery of knowledge over the action it lights and conducts? Therefore -- and it is here that Socrates makes a mistake, that he goes too fast -- therefore the immediate principle of the good act, the stable excellence which causes us to act well each time it is brought into play, in other words the virtue, is knowledge. It suffices to know well in order to do well. Is it not true that the soul is good when it knows how to make use of riches, health, power or pleasure as it should? Yes, no doubt; but Socrates does not distinguish between this knowing how to make use of which is entirely practical and derives from the prudence of the virtuous man, not from science, and knowing (through the science of the moralist) how one ought to make use of. Therein lies the paradox of Socratic thought: a general inspiration, a fundamental impulse, which is above all practical -- even pragmatist -- issues in systematic conclusions which reduce morality to knowledge, to knowing, to the vision of what is. Every moral fault comes from ignorance, is involuntary.

But the practical had to have its revenge. It is a question of knowing. But of knowing what? What is the content of this knowledge? In order to make us discern what our comportment ought or ought not to be in the concrete, what principle of determination does it grasp, what criterion of the good and proper and virtuous? At this stage of philosophical reflection, no other criterion than utility. Socrates aimed too high -- the world of essences. Coming back to earth he has nothing in his hands, as implement of his theoretical knowledge and his speculative judgment concerning the occurrences of conduct, but the calculation of utility. In the end it is utilitarianism which gets the upper hand. Socrates himself and the essential inspiration of his thought are nowise utilitarian. There was nothing of Bentham in him; he did not die like a utilitarian. The idea that happiness consists in having a good soul is as little utilitarian as possible. But in its application, or rather in its philosophical explication, he was caught in the trap of the "science" he was searching for. The only instrument of "science" at his disposal is the notion of that which serves expediently, of the means proportioned to its end. A transcendent utilitarianism no doubt, since that end is to have a good soul and goes beyond our moral existence. But how are we to know how or why this or that is conducive to making the soul good? When Socrates comes down to explications and reasons, to talking about various particular examples of virtue, he descends to the commonplaces of the immediate utilitarianism of popular morality.

No doubt Socrates himself had an experiential knowledge of the virtues he spoke of prior to any conceptualization or explanation -- a knowledge "by inclination" or "by connaturality", which had nothing to do with these commonplaces. From another point of view, his recourse to the platitudes of popular morality must have been in large part a sort of outer camouflage well designed to afford him secret amusement. I am well aware that Xenophon (whom I have no desire to defend against the sarcasms of Kierkegaard) was unable to discern the ironical intent hidden therein. The fact remains, however, that his report probably gives us the most exact image of the letter of the Socratic teachings. We must endure privations because the hardened man is more vigorously healthy; we must be modest because in provoking jealousies the arrogant man soon makes trouble for himself; we must be obliging because it is always useful to make friends; and so on. The Socratic insistence on science, intelligence and speculative truth in moral matters, the very theory of knowledge-virtue ends up in utilitarian criteria.

Popular Mores and Philosophical Morality
14. A fifth remark must be made, which has to do rather with a disparity, an internal weakness. This weakness, which is very noticeable in Socrates, is also to be found in the majority of those who were to come after him. In fact, it poses a critical problem prejudicial to the whole of moral philosophy. We have just observed that there exists a void, a discontinuity, a fault, between the general principles of Socratic morality and the justification it gives of the particular values and norms of the moral life. Socrates is not the only one in this situation. Let us add now that the norms and values in question are those of an already established morality, a morality already in existence which reigns and prevails in the common opinion of the historical and social milieu. For men did not await the coming of the moralists in order to have moral rules, and the moralists justify a given which ante-dates them and which has more practical consistency and more existential density than the theories by means of which they attempt to account for it. They are educators and reformers of customs, and they depend on customs. Fine reformers, who in the end justify what the baker and the candlestick-maker already firmly believed in (even if they did not act accordingly).

The fact is that here, as elsewhere (but in an entirely different way than in speculative philosophy), it is a question of discerning the necessary beneath the accidental and the contingent. The specifically Hellenic notion of "beauty-goodness" (kalo-kagathia) refers to a complex of qualities -- beauty of body and of character, nobility of stock, culture of mind, magnanimity, liberality, and rage -- a complex which formed the ideal of the popular conscience in a given period and in a given society; it is not however impossible to draw from universal content which is useful in reflection on the idea of value in moral Philosophy.

Socrates founded moral philosophy in the Occident. His inspiration awakened the intelligence to the supreme principles of human conduct, the subjects he dwelt on were to nourish the thought of moralists for centuries, and the contrasting virtualities of his doctrine were to be actualized in the opposing systems of the great schools of Greece. In the application to particular cases he simply defends against the Sophists the morality of common sense{2} prevalent in his age; the particular rules of conduct, the ethical values that he justifies, were those which guided the moral judgements of the good citizen of Athens in the second half of the fifth century.

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