I was amazed by Socrates the first time I came across him, sitting in the empty market-place before breakfast with people gathered round him, and drawing them out with his quizzing. He asked questions like: What is Courage? What is Virtue? What is Duty? and then asked his listeners one by one to speak up with their examples of each. Their examples were often contradictory to the definitions they had given, so the student then had to correct his definition of Courage or Virtue or Duty.
For example, one of them (as described here), was brave enough to put himself forward, and said he thought Courage meant ‘endurance of the soul’ (which seems to have meant ‘choosing to endure pain rather than give in’).
Then Socrates asked him, ‘Do you agree that courage is a fine thing’? ‘Yes’, the speaker replied.
Socrates: ‘Do you think ignorant endurance is a fine thing?’ ‘No’, the speaker replied.
So, says Socrates, you don’t actually think that courage is any kind of endurance of the soul, and the speaker agreed.
That kind of logical intelligence asked of the students never seemed to me to be important enough to amount to ‘Wisdom’. I always regarded it as simply a basic element of thinking and talking, and surely couldn’t amount to what is grandly called Philosophy. But it has gone down in history as Elenchus or Socratic Method (from here)!
I have always thought that Wisdom doesn’t consist of logicking about definitions and examples till you achieve consistency. It is about the darkness and mystery in the heart of man: his feelings, memories, musings, longings, dreams, nostalgias, imaginations, motivations, hatreds and loves, longings for a life of adventure and life, his ironies, deceptions and self-deceptions. And so on.
Elenchus was a negative method of drawing out the speaker to reveal a contradiction to his initial hypothesis. Socrates termed himself a ‘midwife’ in drawing a negative truth out of the speaker. By eliminating hypotheses that were contradictory, one gradually narrowed down to what one did mean (from here).
[Here is another example of Socrates’ questioning: In Plato’s Dialogue, Euthyphro, he asks ‘What is Piety?’ ‘Is an action right because a god approves of it, or does the god approve of it because it is right, in which case we too can make a judgment on whether [it] is right or not?’ (from here). (‘Piety’ seemed to have meant acting as a god would wish it.)]
Perhaps I was amazed too by Socrates’ ‘intellectual moralism’ in thinking that if we work out by Reason what it is ethically right to do in a certain situation, then we just naturally go ahead and do it! (from here.) He had the purely intellectual attitude to morality, that no man acts deliberately in a cause he knows to be wrong. Wrong action was based on faulty knowledge.
He said that: ‘No man sins wittingly, and therefore only knowledge is needed to make all men perfectly virtuous’ (from Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy. Chapter ‘Socrates’. Allen and Unwin. 1946. p111). This means that if a man knows the facts of a situation, he will work out by simple Reason what is the ethically right thing to do and just naturally go ahead and do it (from here). “Ignorance is the only evil”, Socrates is quoted as saying.
That’s really terrible stuff. Socrates hadn’t got to first base of Wisdom — that we are salty old sinners who follow our self-interest and then conjure up respectable reasons for what we have done. This latter is called ‘rationalizing’ — the finding of reasons. Socrates blithely omitted it — it just wasn’t part of his knowledge of himself or of the world. But I think it’s the most basic truth of all: it has always made man’s world as it is and not Paradise. Christianity does at least recognize this major constituent of human nature which is at the root of the comedy of Man — although it’s own story of how Sin started with Adam taking the apple, and ended with God giving some of us Faith in Jesus to save us from eternal burning, has a cruel pottiness all its own.
I find it difficult now to recapture my sense of let-down at good old Socrates. His whole message was that the important thing in life is rational thought – being logical – and also that it automatically leads to ethical behaviour. He even thought that it transports the philosopher to heaven.
This is an enormity of rationalistic narrow-mindedness. It has only to do with the rationalistic thought element of human consciousness. It neglects what else is in man and in his life.
He said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. His idea of the examined life is logical consistency, see here. He saw it as a self-revelation and self-knowledge (from here) . Achieving logical consistency in matters like ‘What is Courage?’ or ‘What is Piety?’ amounts to self-revelation and self-knowledge! That’s the kind of minds philosophers have.
He had the rationalistic view of the self and of self-knowledge as being to do with logic and with the cognitive rightness or wrongness of what one thinks. That, I think, is not Wisdom, except for the nerds of this world.
So, again, in trying to re-capture my sense of let-down when I first came across Socrates, I think it was firstly because his Socratic Method seemed a matter of quizzing by a schoolmasterly Bertrand-Russell type of character with a simplistic rationalistic idea of man. It was a fostering of ‘clear thinking’, of winkling out how one defines terms — which is important enough but doesn’t deserve the lofty title of Philosophy or Wisdom.
Sorting out one’s contradictory thoughts on important concepts is an improvement and a liberation, and makes one a less infuriating person to have to listen to. To me, this kind of logical intelligence is simply a basic element of thinking and talking. Yet….
Philosophy, I thought (to repeat yet again), should be about the darkness and mystery in the heart of man, his feelings, memories, musings, longings, dreams, nostalgias, imaginations, motivations, hatreds and fondnesses, longings for a life of living and of adventure; his subtlety, complexity, concealment, falsity, tragedy and comedy, his ironies, deceptions and self-deceptions, which is what human beings are made of and get up to.
Wisdom for me comes from the seeing of a bit of life, the living of a bit of life, of the low life, of one’s experience of people and of oneself, of danger, of risk, of mortal danger, of things crashing about one’s head, strengthening one’s character and temperament and truthfulness with oneself. Where in Socrates or in later philosophy are the implicit, paradoxical, ironically playful subtleties and immoralities of language, intentional or otherwise, ill-understood by the speaker himself or herself? Self-knowledge, finding out about oneself, is much more than, in fact completely different from, sorting out what one means by ‘Truth’ or ‘Beauty’.
We are told here that the Socratic Method of questioning is today used in classroom and in law school, ‘to expose underlying issues’ in the subject-matter of debate and in what the speaker says.
Something else that Socrates did was to break a problem down into a series of his Socratic questions. This approach, according to here , is used today in scientific method, in which hypothesis is the first stage.
Socrates insisted he knew nothing, that he was ignorant, that he was just a midwife who helped people develop their knowledge by way of his Elenchus, his Socratic Method. This insistence on his ignorance is called Socratic Irony. (It sounds to me like false modesty.) Socrates believed that his awareness of his ignorance made him wiser than those who claimed knowledge; that it allowed him to discover his own errors (from here).
Socratic Method is cut down to size somewhat by Bertrand Russell saying that it arrives at a purely linguistic discovery of what one means by words like ‘just’ and ‘unjust’(in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Chapter ‘Socrates’. Allen and Unwin. 1946. pp 112-3). It doesn’t arrive at a discovery in ethics, which is presumably what later philosophers did do.
Here is some brilliant quasi-philosophical thinking of my own, which any first-year philosopher would easily deal with: Socrates couldn’t define ‘courage’ as ‘endurance of the soul’ because its meaning would thereby include endurance based on faulty knowledge. He was a rationalist in that he valued true knowledge. So he could only give the word ‘courage’ to endurance based on true knowledge i.e. to ‘wise endurance of the soul’. He was also a humanist in that he had a high opinion of humanity. He would therefore have considered, I think, that the Persian infantry in its Greek campaigns, or Hitler’s infantry in modern times, didn’t show courage because they were acting in a cause that was wrong. I think he would have been wrong in that, because they endured to the ultimate and were convinced they were acting rightly. (Socrates’ point of view would mean that you only allow the label ‘courage’ to go to people whose views you agree with.)
I don’t know why but I find getting into that kind of philosophical discussion to be really scraping the bottom of tedium.
A few general comments on Socrates to finish with:
Subsequent philosophers have said that he focused on human beings, ‘opening up new realms of self-knowledge….exposing….error, superstition, and dogmatic nonsense.’ Pre-Socratic philosophers on the contrary, they say, had focussed on materialistic and cosmic matters (from here and here).
“His willingness to call everything into question and his determination to accept nothing less than an adequate account of the nature of things make him the first clear exponent of critical philosophy” (from here). [‘Critical philosophy’ opens up another, more modern concept.]
Socrates used the same logical tricks developed by the Sophists, but in the pursuit of truth rather than just to win an argument as they did (from here).
To get back to Socrates’ Elenchus, here is another overarching view (from here) that I include for fear of leaving out something important; although on re-reading it now, I don’t fully understand what I have written! It firstly accepts Socrates’ or Plato’s rather mystical idea that the Ideal Forms of concepts such as ‘cat’ or ‘tree’ actually exist in some kind of heaven. It then goes on to say that people who participate in instances of Socratic Method/Elenchus get a perception of the Form of the Good. Popper describes the Method as “the art of intellectual intuition, of visualising the divine originals, the Forms or Ideas, of unveiling the Great Mystery behind the …. everyday world of appearances.” Pierre Hadot too seems to say (again from here) that Plato thought each Socratic question was a spiritual exercise, an exercise in Pure Thought, subject to the demands of the pure Logos, turning the soul away from the sensible world and converting itself towards the Good . Does the following remark refer to the same thing? — that Socrates thought that the chief goodness consisted in the caring of the soul concerned with moral truth and moral understanding (this remark edited from here).
This is heady stuff — to imagine that this newly invented entity Thought has the ability to lift the philosopher into the world of eternal perfection in heaven. I vaguely feel that this influenced Paul who founded Christianity, which I will look at when I write a post on Paul.
Finally, Socrates said that the State is a parent to us, its children. Therefore it is wrong to disobey it. Also, that living in a State constitutes an agreement to obey it, (from here, from Plato’s Crito: The Individual and the State.). I know he lived 2500 years ago but this seems a naivety to go with his rationalistic ones. I think even the benighted Hebrews thought that it is the Lord above who is our Father and whom we should obey.
Socrates was modest in his logicking, compared to what was to come in later philosophers. Except for his ‘Moral Intellectualism’ and his view that the State is a parent to us, he didn’t say anything positive, no grand theories; he just drew people out.
[After all of that, one has to say that there is The Socratic Problem — that Socrates wrote nothing down, and all that we ascribe to him was written down by Plato, so we’re never sure where S. ends and P. begins (from here).]