Cicero said that Socrates bought philosophy down from the skies and into the city streets. What a different view he had from Aristophanes in The Clouds. Aristophanes depicted Socrates as a natural philosopher, challenging the customs and ideals traditional in Greece but disconnected from practical affairs. It was this latter image that played into Socrates’ eventual execution by the polis.
Who was Socrates’ really? Perhaps that is a naive question, or not the most stimulating one. Throughout history Socrates is again and again reimagined for diverse purposes. From his own pen, we have nothing, as he famously did not write. He lived in an era where the written traditions are replacing oral ones, but he was only indirectly involved in the replacement. His students and theirs write about him. In particular, our sources for his views are Xenophon, Aristophanes, Plato, and Aristotle. It is especially Plato who has shaped the understanding of who Socrates was, as his is the richest treatment. But Plato’s portrait of his teacher is part hagiography, part fiction. Socrates in fact figures as a character in all Platonic writing except The Laws. Plato uses him to convey his own ideas — including those of his later years where he clearly takes Socrates from the streets and transports him back to the heavens, to the clouds. Quite generally, we take Plato’s early dialogues to express Socrates’ real views. We understand middle and late dialogues to embody teachings of Plato, most often quite antithetical to Socrates’ own views. Socrates is thus a man and a character. Plato found him to be a literary vehicle for expressing much of what he thought wise but that Socrate’s himself would have undoubtedly found questionable. We might well imagine the real Socrates, the one approximated in the early dialogues, in debate with Plato’s later construct. That would indeed be a conversation worth hearing.
Socrates has served especially as archetype of the lover of wisdom. The quintessential philosopher, he mercilessly questioned the prevailing views of his day, attempting to follow the reasoned argument wherever it led. More than anything, he has perhaps embodied the philosophers’ imagined vision of themselves, as truth seekers, conscientious and uncompromising in their search for truth. He is unique though — for we all know that few if any philosophers have lived up to the conscientious and uncompromising ideal he embodies.
Socrates was of humble roots. In Nietzsche’s eyes: He was born of the rabble. His father was a stonemason, his mother was a midwife. As a young man he is thought to have studied Greek natural philosophy. But he found the views of the natural philosophers too obscure and unsubstantiated. He thus, like the sophists, turned against natural philosophy to questions of morality and justice. In Athens, he lived a life of simple means, married Xanthippe, with whom he had three children. He fought, evidently heroically, in the Peloponnesian war against Sparta. He was known in Athens for gathering and speaking in the Agora, the market place. He was known as unkept, often unwashed, and for being quite homely. In outward appearance he was everything most Greeks would have rejected. Yet many were attracted to him. He especially gathered support from some Athenians who had been members and associates of the Thirty Tyrants, who had early led a bloody coup against the government in Athens and who were bitterly opposed to its democratic government. According to Plato’s account, he especially was motivated to his public discourse by an early Oracle of Delphi, which had indicated that no one in Greece was wiser than Socrates. In what we may take to be an ironic court defense, he maintains that he found this unbelievable so set out questioning the learned in Athens to find someone wiser than himself. In Plato’s account, Socrates’ questioning was unsettling to authorities in Athens, who thought that he was undermining the civic religion of Athens and corrupting the youth. Socrates was thus brought to court, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Socrates’ thus became a celebrated martyr for philosophy.
The examined life
Among the views for which Socrates is most famous is that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The ability to think, in Socrates’s view, is our unique human capacity. To live a life devoid of thinking — where we simply accepted what tradition and authority told us — was thus to live a less than fully human life. But what does an examined life, the fully human life, entail? For Socrates it entailed questioning especially the moral and religious views of his tradition. In Socrates’ view this examination is to be done as a form of moral or spiritual development — it is done with the intention of moral improvement both to oneself and ultimately to one’s community.
While it was traditionally thought that the existing laws of a polis were identified with the will of the gods, Socrates questions this. There were hints already in Heraclitus and others of a view like this — that there is another law a law above the city’s laws to which one had a greater alliance. Socrates’ life and death is a testimony to a belief in such a law and to a sensibility that adherence to that other law is imperative.
The clarification of concepts
Socrates is invested in the clarification of concepts, even if he does not always finish the job (or hardly ever does) and provides us with a clearly satisfying definition or description, even if often we need to look to what he does — as a character in Plato’s dialogues — if we want to answer some of the questions he poses.
Socrates engaged in his own self-examination with the clear conviction that he could come to understand truth, and that the means to do so was through the clarification of concepts, achieved not through individual self-reflection but through dialogue. This indeed is so marked in him that Aristotle thought it fundamental to the shift in ancient philosophy from the Presocratics to a new era in Greek thought. We see hints of it in thinkers previous to Socrates who are thinking of metaphysics — Parmenides being the main case in point. But it becomes full-blown and receives a new focus on questions of justice in Socrates. What is justice? What is piety? As individuals, living in a society, we have internalized views about what these things are. Socrates thinks that self-examination involves us in a process of thinking through our own beliefs on these questions. Questioning our own views on these things, our own beliefs about them, for its part involves us in questioning the social perspectives we have initially nonreflectively internalized. This is part of what he will characterize as caring for the soul.
The Socratic method
Socrates maintained that he did not teach anyone. What he did was facilitate their own self-reflection through public dialogues. The disputational method Socrates used in the public forum led to his reputation as a gadfly, for his logic was often stinging. Taking some proposed general definition to a question like what is justice, he was merciless in criticizing its weaknesses, often indirectly and with irony. And he did not hesitate to embarrass the most recognized of the citizens of Athens.
This dialogical approach, to this day described as the Socratic method, was used not to propose his own views. Socrates was not a guru who answered the most obscure of metaphysical questions and sought adherents to the system he constructs. Rather his method was to engage in an exploration, and to get those involved to reflect on their own views, on the culturally accepted views they had largely adopted. It focused on clarifying what the concepts under discussion meant, what presuppositions they entailed. It typically started with a definition of a concept, which would then be analyzed, broke into discrete parts; then on the basis of the analysis, the ideas were synthesized.
In his public dialogues Socrates appears to be motivated by a faith that the analysis of concepts should lead to positive results. Yet curiously perhaps, Socrates did not develop a set of clear ideas about what justice is, what piety is or the other things that that he discussed so enthusiastically. He deconstructs much more than he constructs.
Indeed, this even fundamental to what becomes known as Socratic wisdom. In Plato’s rendering of Socrates’ story in The Apology, when Socrates is told that the Oracle of Delphi had provided a judgment that none was wiser than him, Socrates set out skeptically. He claims it inspired him to begin to discuss ideas in public. Not feeling wise at all, he was sure — he says with some irony — there must have been others wiser than himself. In the court case where he discusses this, he notes however that after years of such questioning and public conversation he did come to recognize that there was some truth to the Oracle. He had a kind of wisdom. His wisdom, which others lacked, was simply in knowing the limitations of his own knowledge. Socrates’s wisdom consisted in knowledge of his own ignorance.
It is an interesting paradox perhaps that one of the individuals most celebrated for his wisdom in world history in fact baldly claimed that this wisdom consisted in so little. The fact is that those who have viewed Socrates as wise have never really taken this explicit statement of what his wisdom was to be the complete story. Socrates was trying to clarify concepts, but as a statement even of what his own wisdom was, this is quite incomplete — a negative definition only.
If that is all there were to Socratic wisdom, then we might have imagined this serving as a footnote in Ancient philosophy. But of course, much of what we have taken to be Socratic wisdom has consisted not in what was said, but in what was unsaid. It comes from an examination of how Socrates lived his life. And here there is much more indeed than is summarized in the negative description of wisdom.
Is his statement that he is wise because he recognizes what he does not know simply a case of irony? Is it likely not offered as a definition at all? In any case, if we want to know what Socrates wisdom consists in then an examination of his life offers us something much richer to work with than his negative definition. In his life we can Socrates as someone deeply curious, conscientious about self-examination, which he engaged in as a practice of self-improvement. Socrates is wise because of his care for the soul, because of his questioning whether his own priorities in life were rightly ordered and whether his own life was just and good. Like so often in Socrates, when it comes to understanding what he thinks, we have to do more than examine what he says. We must see how he lives.