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History of Philosophy|
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)
|Life. The story of Socrates' life, as far as it is known, is
soon told. He was born at Athens in the year 469 B.C. He was the son of
Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and of Phaenarete, a midwife. Of his early
years little is recorded. We are told that he was trained in the
profession of his father. For education, we must suppose that he
received merely the usual course of instruction in music, geometry, and
gymnastics, so that, when he calls himself a pupil of Prodicus and
Aspasia, he is to be understood as speaking of friends from whom he
learned by personal intercourse rather than of teachers in the stricter
sense of the word. Indeed, in Xenophon's Symposium he styles
himself a self-taught philosopher, autourgos tÍs
philosophias. It is, therefore, impossible to say from what source
he derived his knowledge of the doctrines of Parmenides, Heraclitus,
Anaxagoras, and the Atomists.|
The gods  had revealed to Socrates that Athens was to be the scene of
his labors and that his special mission in life was the moral and
intellectual improvement of himself and others. Accordingly, after some
years spent in his father's workshop, he devoted himself to this
mission with all the enthusiasm of an unusually ardent nature: from a
sculptor of statues he became a teacher who strove to shape the souls
of men. So devoted was he to this task of teaching the Athenians that
he never became a candidate for public office,  and, with the exception
of the military campaigns, which led him as far as Potidaea and Delium,
and a public festival which required his presence outside the city,
nothing could induce him to go beyond the walls of Athens.
 Cf. Plato, Apologia, 33 C.
In fulfilling his task as teacher, he did not imitate the Sophists, who
were at that time the recognized public teachers in Greece. He would
neither accept remuneration for his lessons nor would he give a
systematic course of instruction, preferring to hold familiar converse
with his pupils and professing a willingness to learn as well as to
teach. He taught in the market place, in the gymnasium, in the
workshop, -- wherever he found men willing to listen, -- and once he
had secured an audience, he held it with that extraordinary eloquence
which is so graphically described in the Symposium of Plato.  He
discarded all the arts and airs of the Sophists; in appearance,
manners, and dress, as well as in the studied plainness of his
language, he stood in sharp contrast to the elegance and foppishness of
his rivals. Yet, by what seems to us a singular instance of vindictive
misrepresentation, he was held up to scorn by Aristophanes in the
Clouds as a Sophist, a teacher of what was merely a semblance of
wisdom, and as a vain, pompous, and overbearing man. Socrates' private
means must have been scanty, and the mere mention of his wife,
Xanthippe, recalls the misery and degradation which must have been his
lot in domestic life.
 Cf. Zeller, Socrates and the Socratic School, p. 67.
 Symposium, 215.
The narrative of his trial, condemnation, and death is one of the most
dramatic in all literature. The closing scene as described in the
Phaedo is unequaled for pathos and sublimity by any other page
that even Plato wrote. His death occurred in the year 399 B.C.
Character. The personality of Socrates has impressed itself more
deeply on the history of philosophy than has that of any other
philosopher. The picture which Xenophon draws of him is almost ideally
perfect. "No one ever heard or saw anything wrong in Socrates; so pious
was he that he never did anything without first consulting the gods; so
just that he never injured any one in the least; so master of himself
that he never preferred pleasure to goodness; so sensible that he never
erred in his choice between what was better and what was worse. In a
word, he was of all men the best and the happiest."  Plato's account
agrees with this. Socrates, however, -- "Saint" Socrates as he is
sometimes called, -- was not without his traducers. There was in his
character a certain incongruity (an atopia his admirers called
it), an inconsistency between the external and the internal man,
together with a certain uncouthness of speech and manner, which was
entirely un-Greek. These peculiarities, while they endeared him to his
friends, made him many enemies, and established a tradition that in
later times developed into a tissue of accusations, of which
coarseness, arrogance, profligacy, and impiety are but a few. Although
it is true that these charges are devoid of even the slightest
foundation, we must remember that in the age of Pericles the Athenians
were by no means a race of superior beings, and even Socrates despite
his higher moral ideals did not rise far above his contemporaries in
point of moral conduct.
 Mem., I, 1.
The Socratic Divinity. Socrates, as is well known, often spoke
of a divine sign, or a heavenly voice, which in the great crises of his
life communicated to him advice and guidance from above. Many are the
suggestions as to what he meant by such allusions. Lewes  reminds us
that while Socrates, Plato, and Xenophon never speak of a genius or a
frequently make mention of a demonic something, -- daimonion
ti, which Cicero translates divinum quoddam.  Socrates was
a profoundly religious man, and it is quite natural that he should
designate as "divine" the voice of conscience, or, as Hermann 
suggests, the inner voice of individual tact, which restrained him not
merely from what was morally wrong, but also (as in the case of his
refusal to defend himself) from whatever was unwise or imprudent. This
voice was probably nothing more than a vague feeling for which he
himself could not account, a warning coming from the unexplored depths
of his own inner consciousness.
 Biographical History of Philosophy, I, 166,
Sources. Socrates, so far as we know, never wrote anything; it
is certain that he committed none of his doctrines to writing. We are
obliged, therefore, to rely for our knowledge of his teaching on the
accounts given by Plato and Xenophon. Aristotle, also, speaks of the
doctrines of Socrates; but he tells us nothing which may not be found
in the writings of the two disciples who stood in so close personal
relation with their master. It has been said that Plato and Xenophon
present different views of Socrates, and to a certain extent the
statement is correct; but the views which they present are pictures
which supplement rather than contradict each other. Xenophon wrote his
Memorabilia as a defense of Socrates. Being of a practical turn
of mind, and wholly unable to appreciate the speculative side of
Socrates' teaching, he attached undue importance to the ethical
doctrines of his master. Plato, with deeper insight into the
philosophical phase of Socrates' mind, draws a picture of the sage
which fills in and perfects the sketch left us by Xenophon. It is well
to remember, moreover, that the doctrines of Socrates were, of
necessity, difficult to describe. The teaching of one who never wrote
even an essay on philosophy must necessarily be lacking in the
compactness and conciseness which are possible only in the written
 Cf. De Divinatione, I,
 Cf. Zeller, Socrates, p. 95.
 An excellent treatise on Socrates and his philosophy is M. Piat's
Socrate (Grands Philosophes series, Paris, 1900).
General Character of Socrates' Teaching. The Ionians and the
Eleatics had shown, by their failure to account for things as they are,
that no value is. to be attached either to sense-perception or to
metaphysical knowledge arising from the notions of Being, Becoming,
the One, the Many, etc. This was as clear
to Socrates as it had been to the Sophists. But, whereas the Sophists
had forthwith given up the search after truth, Socrates insisted that
by reflecting on our own mental constitution we may learn to determine
the conditions of knowledge, to form concepts as they ought to be
formed, and by this means place the principles of conduct as well as
the principles of knowledge on a solid scientific foundation. Know
thyself (gnŰthi seauton): this is the sum of all
philosophy. From the consideration of the objective world (nature) we
must turn to the study of the subjective (self). Thus, philosophy "from
heaven descended to the low-roofed house" of man.
Socratic Method. The first lesson which self-knowledge teaches
is our own ignorance. If, therefore, we are to arrive at a knowledge
through concepts, that is, at a knowledge of things, not in their
surface qualities, but in their unalterable natures, we must have
recourse to the dialogue; in other words, we must converse in order to
learn. Thus, love of knowledge and the impulse to friendship are the
same, and the blending of these two is what constitutes the peculiarity
of the Socratic Eros. 
 Cf. Zeller, op. cit., p. 127, note 2.
The Socratic dialogue involves two processes, the one negative and the
1. The negative stage. Socrates approached his interlocutor as
if seeking for knowledge. Assuming a humble attitude, he asked a
question about some commonplace thing; from the answer he drew material
for another question, until at last by dint of questioning he extorted
from his victim a confession of ignorance. By reason of the pretended
deference which, during the process of interrogation, Socrates paid to
the superior intelligence of his pupil, the process came to be known as
2. The positive stage. Socrates now proceeded, by another series
of questions, to add together, as we say, particular instances, until
finally the pupil was made to arrive inductively
at a concept, that is, at an idea of the unalterable nature of the
subject discussed. In the Memorabilia  we find examples of the
use of this inductive process, which Socrates himself named
maieutic -- in reference to the profession of his mother --
because its object was to bring into life the truth already existing in
the mind of the pupil. 
 III, 9, 10, and IV, 2, 11.
The whole method is heuristic, or a method of finding. It is an
inductive process resulting in a definition. "Two things," says
Aristotle,  "are justly ascribed to Socrates, induction and
definition," and the importance of the introduction of these processes
cannot be overestimated.  For the knowledge of things in their
changeable qualities Socrates would have us substitute the knowledge of
things in their unalterable natures, or essences. Pre-Socratic
philosophers had, indeed, hinted at a distinction between
sense-knowledge and rational knowledge, or had even gone so far as to
insist that such a distinction must be recognized as the beginning of
philosophy. Nevertheless, men continued to appeal to the senses, to
rely on sense-impressions, or, at most, to group sense-impressions in
composite images such as the poet and the rhetorician employ. It was
Socrates who, by his heuristic method, first showed that
sense-impressions and all uncritical generalizations need to be tested
and controlled by criticism, because they are incomplete and exhibit
merely what is accidental in the object. It was he too who, by the same
method, first showed that, if our sense-impressions are grouped, not
according to the exigencies of poetry and rhetoric, but according to
the requirements of logic, if they are articulated into a concept
representing the unalterable nature of the object, human knowledge will
be built on a lasting foundation.
 Cf. Plato, Theaet., 149 A.
 Met., XIII, 4, 1078 b, 27.
Contents of Socratic Teaching. Socrates applied his heuristic
method to the questions of man's dignity and destiny.
 Cf. Grote, Hist. of Greece, VIII, 578.
1. Physical questions were not discussed by Socrates. For this
statement we have the explicit testimony of Xenophon and Aristotle. And
yet, as we shall see, Socrates studied adaptation in nature. The truth
seems to be that he was opposed not so much to physical studies as to
the way in which physical questions were being and had been discussed.
It must, however, be added that whatever interest Socrates took in such
matters was always subservient to his interest in man.
2. Theology. As far as we can gather from our authorities,
Socrates seems to have adopted from Anaxagoras the notion of an
Intelligent Cause (Nous), but, going farther than Anaxagoras had
gone, he proved the existence of God from the fact that there is
adaptation in living organisms. In the course of his argument he
formulated a principle which has served as major premise in every
teleological argument since his time: "Whatever exists for a
useful purpose must be the work of an intelligence."  We find,
moreover, traces of the argument from efficient cause. If man possesses
intelligence, He from whom the universe proceeds must also possess
intelligence.  Nevertheless, Socrates accepted the current mythology,
at least so far as external worship is concerned, advising in a
well-known passage  that in this matter each one should conform to
the custom of his own city.
 Mem., I, 4, 2.
3. Immortality. Although Plato represents Socrates as
considering dilemmatically "either death ends all things, or it does
not,"  there can be no doubt as to Socrates' belief in the
immortality of the human soul. It may be that he thought the
dialectical proof of the doctrine to be beyond the power of the human
mind; but the depth of his personal conviction cannot for a moment be
 Mem., ibid.
 Mem., I, 4, 3.
 Apol., 40.
4. Ethics. If Socrates taught men how to think, it was with the
ultimate intention of teaching them how to live. All his philosophy
culminates in his ethical doctrine. In fact, he was
the first not only to establish a scientific connection between
speculation and ethical philosophy, but also to give an analysis
of happiness and virtue which was capable of further systematic
The supreme good of man is happiness, and by happiness Socrates
meant not a mere eutuchia, which depends on external conditions
and accidents of fortune, but an eupraxia, a well-being which is
conditioned by good action. To attain this, man must become godlike in
his independence of all external needs: he must become abstemious, for
moderation is the corner stone of all virtue.  Yet Socrates, as is
evident from the dialogues of Plato, did not carry this doctrine of
moderation to the degree of asceticism. More important even than
moderation is the cultivation of the mind. To be happy, one must build
his happiness not on the perishable things of the external world, but
on the enduring goods which are within us, on a mind free from care and
devoted to the acquisition of knowledge.
 Mem., 1, 5, 4.
For knowledge is virtue. This is, perhaps, the most
characteristic of all Socrates' ethical doctrines, -- the
identification of speculative insight with moral excellence. (ho
SŰkratÍs) epistÍmas Űet einai pasas tas
aretas.  No man intentionally does wrong, he says, for that would
be intentionally to make himself unhappy. Knowledge is, therefore, the
only virtue and ignorance is the only vice. Yet when Socrates comes to
speak of particular instances of virtue, he leaves the high level of
virtue-knowledge and descends to commonplace utilitarianism or customary
morality. In the dialogues of Xenophon he almost always bases his moral
precepts on the motive of utility: we should endure privations because
the hardy man is more healthy; we should be modest because the
punishment of the boastful is swift and sure; and so with the other
virtues. This inconsistency is a defect which mars all the beauty of
the Socratic system of ethics.
 Eudemian Ethics, I, 5, 1216 b, 6.
Historical Position. The philosophy of Socrates is best judged
in the light of the influence which it exercised on the Platonic and
Aristotelian systems of thought. His pupils, Plato and Aristotle, are
the best proofs of Socrates' title to a place among the world's
greatest teachers. Looking at his philosophy as a body of doctrine, we
find that it contains (1) a reform in philosophic method -- the
foundation of induction; (2) the first systematic inquiry the
conditions of knowledge -- the foundation of epistemology; (3)
the first system of ethics -- the foundation of moral science.
Important as were these contributions to philosophy, more important was
the influence which Socrates exerted by his life and character. He
appeared in an age that was tired of vain speculation and pretended
wisdom, among a people then as always more apt to be impressed with
concrete presentation than with abstract reasoning, and, by his many
virtues, as well as by his whole-souled devotion to truth, he convinced
his contemporaries that knowledge is attainable, and that a higher and
nobler life may be reached through a systematic study of the human
mind. By living the life of an ideal philosopher he taught his
countrymen to respect philosophy and to devote themselves to the
pursuit of wisdom.