During the times when Greece was facing moral and ethical decay, there appeared a great soul, Socrates, to restore purity of thought and action. Few men in history practiced what they preached, and he was one among those. Socrates was a staunch defender of the objectivity of truth’ ‘Know Thyself’ was his motto. To him virtue consists of being truthful to one’s own self, maintaining one’s integrity, enabling one to recognize truly useful acts which bring real happiness. He asserted that knowledge is virtue and virtue is happiness.
Before embarking on a discourse on his teachings, a brief review of his life is apposite here.
Socrates lived in Athens about 469 BC to 399 BC. Little is known about his childhood and his early education. He is believed to have done the stonework on the draped figures of the Graces on the Acropolis that was commissioned by Pericles. Socrates fought three battles bravely, once at Potidaea in 432 BC and handed over his prize for valour to Alcibiades. He later served again at Amphipolis and at Delium.
Socrates was not very pleasing in appearance; he was thickset and ugly one. But, he was dedicated to the noble profession of teaching, making philosophy the mission of his life. He didn’t teach to gain wealth, but to attain knowledge. Resultantly, he lived in abject poverty for most of his life. Charmides offered to give him some slaves for income, but he declined the offer. He even refused to accept gifts from tyrants in Macedon, Cranon, and Larissa, and did not visit their courts.
In 399 BC, Anytus, Lycon, and Meletus charged Socrates with corrupting the youth and with refusing to recognize the gods of the state while introducing new deities. Lysias wrote a speech for his defence, but Socrates rejected it. He was condemned with 281-220 vote. He refused to apologize, accepting himself at fault. This alienated even more jurors, and they condemned him to death.
His friend and neighbour Crito urged Socrates to escape and offered to make all the arrangements for him, assuring that he is willing to contribute the money and run the risk of punishment. However, Socrates asked if escaping will injure the laws of the state. The state had provided much for him, and he believed he should never do violence to his country. Finally, he rejected returning wrong for wrong and the breaking of agreements and covenants, so, he refused to injure his country and his friends.
After his execution by hemlock poison, it was said Athens felt such regret that they put Meletus to death and banished the other two accusers. Socrates was said to be the first philosopher (in Greece) to discourse on the conduct of life and was the first to be executed.
Philosophy of Socrates
Although Socrates himself left behind no writings, his disciples Aeschines, Antisthenes, Aritippus, Cebes, Crito, Euclides, Phaedo, Simmias, Xenophon, and Plato wrote Socratic dialogues portraying his teachings in literary form. Of these only the extensive works of Xenophon and Plato remain intact today.
As regards the philosophy of Socrates, he taught that all knowledge is knowledge through concepts. Being directly conscious of a particular thing is called perception, and its mental impression in known as image. Such mental images, like perceptions, are always ideas of particular individual objects. But ideas of closely-related things of the same categories or whole classes represent general ideas or concepts, like man, horse or tree, not a particular man or a horse or a certain tree. We form these general ideas by including in them all the qualities which the whole class of objects has in common, excluding the differences. Hence, we can say that a concept is formed by bringing together the ideas in which all the members of a class of objects agree with one another, and neglecting the ideas in which they differ.
So, concepts are formed inductively by comparing numerous examples of the class. In other words, we may say that inductive reasoning is concerned with the formation of concepts. Socrates, in placing all knowledge in concepts, was thus making reason; the organ of knowledge. Socrates would take common examples of actions which are universally admitted to be prudent, and would attempt to find the quality which they all have in common, by virtue of which they are classed together, forming the concept of prudence. Later, he would bring up fresh examples to see whether they agree with the concept so formed. The concept might need correction if new examples don’t support it.
Socrates’ Theory of Knowledge
Socratic theory of knowledge wasn’t a theory for its own sake; he put forward his theory for practical purposes; he wanted to know the virtue to practice virtue in life. He sought objectivity, valid principles which could be used to guide the actions of mankind. To him virtue is identical with knowledge and evil deeds originate from ignorance and self-deception.
He was of the view that every man should try to attain the power of wisdom. We should not follow others blindly rather we, ourselves, should think. There should be a reason for every action. And we should try to acquire this reasoning through knowledge. People must depend on their reason to guide their lives. He didn’t believe in the teaching method in which we are supposed to memorize the facts. He used the method in which he put questions before people and asked them to answer. In this way, he introduced the didactic method. His fame lies in making people think about everything happening around them.
Socrates and Sophists
He was a critic of the abuses of Sophism. The Sophists believed that it’s better to commit injustice than to suffer it. Socrates opined exactly opposite to it and said that it’s better to suffer a wrong than to commit it. The Sophists believed that human freedom can be achieved through free expression of passions, but the Socratic approach is altogether different. He is of the view that human freedom can be achieved only when humans enslave their passion. In this way, they will be able to attain self-control and self-sufficiency.
Socrates believed that knowledge doesn’t mean that we gain scientific knowledge about the external world. What is required is knowledge of one’s self, gained through self-examination. This knowledge is the secret of self-control and, thereby, of happiness. Know yourself and you will be virtuous in as much as virtue is identical with knowledge. If you know what is right, you will do it automatically, willingly and effortlessly with the spontaneity and motivation necessary for achieving what is good. Virtue is the same thing as knowledge of the good. Socrates taught that for an act to be good, it must first be useful that is useful in the sense that it helps you attain your goal.
How then does the soul know itself? Using the analogy of an eye seeing itself reflected in the pupil of another’s eye, Socrates analogizes that the soul must look at itself and especially its own virtue to find the divine part of itself, which will then bring the best knowledge of oneself. But those who do not know themselves cannot know their own affairs, let alone others’, and will make mistakes in private and public and so be wretched. Thus, it is not wealth and the virtue so that one will know how to impact virtue to the citizens.