Dr William Large


bust of Socrates




469 – 399 BCE


The topic of the last lecture was the sophists. We touched upon their philosophical scepticism, but what was most important for us was to understand the political context of philosophy as such and its intimate connection with democracy. Today our topic is the philosophy of Socrates, but in investigating Socrates, by a process of opposition, the fundamental world picture of the Sophists will become even clearer to us.

Unlike the Presocratics before them, the Sophists showed little interest in speculative cosmology. Their interest was in the area of what we call the sphere of values or as the Greek would say the sphere of nomos, human laws and conventions.  The Sophists argued for an absolute split between the laws of nature, physis, and the laws of convention, nomos. Although there might be disagreement, even among the Sophists, as to whether there was any necessity even in the laws of nature (Protagoras' remark that man is the 'measure of all things' can be taken to apply to natural laws as well), they were all agreed that they could be no necessity in the area of values. What one person, or better one city, valued over another, is no truer than what another person or city believed. It is not that the Sophists did not think that values existed, as they were not ethical nihilists in this sense, but that values were human inventions that could have no immutable truth nor divine sanction.

I have tried to show that this kind of view about values is intimately linked to the birth of democracy in Ancient Greece, in which the competition between different values spheres would be an everyday occurrence in the ekklasia. Because the Sophists, believed that there could be no absolute measure of what is right or wrong in the sphere of values, they taught that it was the art of persuasion that is the most important skill for any Greek citizen to learn. What is the connection between an ethical relativism and the importance given to persuasion? Since there can be no question of absolute truth, but only social agreement in the sphere of values, then the most important thing is to be able convince another of the correctness of one's opinions. No one needs to be able to persuade another that 2 + 2 = 4, since this is immediately self-evident, but in the sphere of values, my judgements are not self evident and therefore I need to be able to put forward different kinds of arguments so as to obtain agreement from others. In addition, the nature of Athenian democracy, which was radically open, meant that to speak well was to be able to gain political power, for the more citizens that one could convince to follow one's own values, the more influence one would have.

Socrates’ thought is diametrically opposed to the scepticism of the Sophists. He wants to search for what they deny, moral certainty that would be as hard fast as the certainty of mathematics. Before we look in more detail at Socrates views, I want to say something about two other matters: Socrates’ own method of doing philosophy and how he saw himself, and how Plato and Socrates relate to one another.

Socrates has a particular method of doing philosophy that did not exist before his time. He certainly was not a professional philosopher, but wandered the streets of Athens asking anyone who was interested, as he was, in the common pursuit of truth, questions such as ‘What is Justice’ or ‘What is the Good’. But he asked these questions in a particular manner. Every investigation into a question was performed in the style of dialogue. Socrates did not teach students what he believed, rather he tried to bring out of his interlocutor the knowledge they already had inside of them, but which they did not know they had. We can see this most clearly in the dialogue called the Meno, where Socrates brings out certain mathematical truths (Pythagoras’ theorem) out of a slave simply by a process of question and answer, even though the slave boy himself had no mathematical training. He did this by trying to show that their answers to his questions did not make sense in the initial form in which they presented them so that they would have to present others which would have to be equally tested. This method is called elenchus. Although philosophy books are no longer written in the style of dialogues, but are more like pronouncements given ex cathedra, this style is still the oral form of philosophy today, quite different for example from the enigmatic sayings of Heraclitus. What is important above all in this style of philosophy is the commitment to questioning and the importance of testing all our beliefs, no matter how cherished they are, for the sake of truth. This might be the most important legacy of Greek thought.

Socrates wrote nothing, and again with most of our material concerning Greek philosophy, our major source is Plato. However there is an added complication in the relation between Socrates and Plato. In all of Plato's dialogues the main speaker is Socrates. But we know that Plato is an original thinker in his own right. So whose philosophy is Socrates speaking, his own or Plato’s?

When we look at the entirety of Plato's dialogues we can divide them into three main groups that follow one another chronologically. This chronological development is determined by scholars through the shift in the content and style of Plato's thought. What interests us specifically is the early and middle dialogues and we can see that in them there is presented two very different ‘Socrateses’. The Socrates of middle dialogues presents Plato's own metaphysical theories that we shall look at next week, whereas the Socrates of the early dialogues shows no interest in metaphysical theories, but is above all a moral theorist. It would not be too presumptuous, as the eminent scholar Vlastos says, to argue that the first Socrates is the actual Socrates and Plato is simply, though in a stylised and re-staged manner, portraying the actual historical person, whereas the second Socrates is not the actual Socrates at all, but is the merely the mouthpiece of Plato's own thoughts and philosophical theories.[1]

The difference between Socrates and the Sophists is most visible in the early Platonic dialogue the Protagoras. What is at dispute in this lecture is whether virtue can be taught or not. For Protagoras, it obviously cannot be taught, since this would mean that virtue could be knowledge like any other skill, rather than being simply the values of a community. For Protagoras, as he argues in the form of a fable (and the difference between his way of speaking and Socrates is important to underline) the ground of virtue are basic human emotions, such as justice and respect for others, but not knowledge. And what sustains this basic human emotion are social and political institutions that instruct the young in the indispensable values of the city and punish those who would break its laws.

Now the first important thing to notice is Socrates’ reaction to this story. He first of all criticises the style of Protagoras response to his question. When he asked about virtue, he did not wish to have a fable, but a definition of what virtue is. To get to this definition requires elenchus.

Protagoras is saying that virtue is a plurality of social values that find their origin in the polis. These do not have an absolute meaning, but have a binding force in the polis itself, since if one does not follow these values one can expect to be punished. Socrates rips virtue out of its social context. He says that virtue is one thing and it is knowledge. Virtue is a combination of difference values, such as courage, honour respect, but is a skill that can be applied uniformly to all ethical questions to determine what the right cause of action in advance is. This skill is a kind of ethical calculating and measurement. The aim for Socrates is to reach the same kind of certainty in our ethical lives that we find in the art of calculation, where 2+2 always equals 4.

Why should the art of calculation be the ideal of certainty? Because it is easy to judge quantitatively than it is to judge qualitatively. It is easier to count apples, than it is determine which one tastes the better. This is because quantitative difference involves the principle of commensurability in which two different items can be treated as the same through the introduction of a third term. In the example of measurement, this third term is a scale that can be determined quantitatively through numerical units.

But how can ethics be thought of as being calculative? In another dialogue, Euthyphro, Socrates precisely expresses the benefits of the art of calculation in opposition to ethics, where one cannot come into agreement about anything, because there is no standard unit of measurement.

What sorts of disagreements, my good man, produce enmity and anger? Look at it this way. If you and I disagreed about which of two groups of items was more in number, would this disagreement make us enemies and cause us to be angry with one another? Or wouldn’t we count them up and quickly be released from our differences?

But what is it that, if we should disagree about it and prove unable to turn to a criterion, would give rise to enmity and anger with one another? Perhaps you don't have the answer ready, but see if you don't agree that it is the just and the unjust, the fine and the shameful, the good and the bad.[2]

What possibly could be the third term to help us to decide what was more or less just or unjust, more or less fine and shameful, more or less good and bad, in the way that we can see 5 apples is more than 2 oranges? Socrates believes he has found commensurable properties of human action that can be treated quantitatively and this is why he believes he is right to say that virtue is knowledge. What can be measured is pain and pleasure.

What is important about pain and pleasure is that it is a standard that is universal to all human actions, and therefore the specific qualitative difference between acts can be ignored. Secondly, it can be measured; we can talk of one act producing more pleasure and another less; or one act produces more pain and another less. The end of one’s action, what ever they would be in themselves, would be to maximise the quantity of pleasure and minimise the quantity of pain, and this is a principle that could be applied to one's life as a whole. Thus one would have the same certainty in ethics as one had in mathematics, and justice would be a matter of reason rather than emotion. For Plato and Socrates, such a calculative reason is the only possible solution to the tragedy of human life.

[1] Gregory Vlastos, ‘Socrates contra Socrates in Plato’, in, Socrates, (Cambridge: CUP, 1991) pp. 45-81.

[2] Euthyphro, 7b-d.

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