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History of Philosophy
The Imperfectly Socratic Schools
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)

Among those who felt the influence of Socratic teaching, there were some who failed to appreciate the full meaning of the doctrine of the master, and merely applied his moral precepts to practical questions; of these, the best known is Xenophon. There were two, Plato and Aristotle, who penetrated the speculative depths of Socrates' thought and developed his teaching into a broader and more comprehensive Socratic philosophy. There were still others who, addressing themselves to one or other point of the teaching of Socrates, developed that point in conjunction with some elements borrowed from the pre-Socratic schools. These latter are known as the imperfectly Socratic philosophers. The following is a conspectus of the imperfectly Socratic schools, showing their derivation:

Socratic dialectics
  • Megarian or Eristic School (Euclid) -- Eleatic element.
  • Elean School (Phaedo) -- Eleatic element.
Socratic ethics
  • Cynics (Antisthenes) -- borrowed from Gorgias.
  • Hedonists (Aristippus) -- borrowed from Protagoras.
Megarian School. The Megarian school, to which Euclid and Stilpo belonged, made Eleatic metaphysics the basis of a development of Socratic ethics.


Life. Euclid of Megara, the founder of this school, was a disciple of Socrates, and if the story told by Gellius [1] be true, was so devoted to his teacher that, at a time when all Megarians were forbidden under pain of death to enter Athens, he would often steal into that city in the obscurity of evening in order to sit for an hour and listen to "the old man eloquent."
[1] Noctes Atticae, VI, 10.
Sources. We have no primary sources of information concerning the Megaric school, and our secondary sources are few and unsatisfactory. Schleiermacher, however, has shown [2] that the philosophers alluded to in Plato's Sophistes [3] are the Megarians. If we make use of this passage of Plato, we have the following points of doctrine.
[2] Cf. Zeller, Socrates, p. 257.

[3] 242 B.

The Starting Point. The Megarians started with the Socratic doctrine of concepts. If intellectual knowledge is knowledge through concepts, then the concept represents that part of a thing which never changes.

The Development. Granted now that, as Parmenides taught, change and Becoming are inconceivable, it follows that the unchangeable essences which concepts represent, the bodiless forms (asomata eidê), are the only reality, and that the world of sense-forms is an illusion. Connected with this denial of Becoming is the assertion that the actual alone is possible. For this we have the express testimony of Aristotle. [4]
[4] Met., IX, 3, 1046b, 29.
The Doctrine of the Good. The union of Socratic and Eleatic elements is further apparent in the Megaric doctrine of the good. The good, according to Socrates, is the highest object of knowledge. Being, too, as the Eleatics taught, is the highest object of knowledge. Euclid, therefore, considered himself justified in transferring to the good all that Parmenides had said about Being: the good is one, knowledge of the good is the only virtue, though called by various names, -- prudence, justice, etc. The good is immutable; it is insight, reason, God. It alone exists. [5]
[5] Diog. Laer., II, 106.
Eristic Method. In order to defend their views the Megarians availed themselves of the indirect method of proof following in this the example of Zeno. This method consists in refuting the arguments or hypotheses of one's opponent and thus, indirectly, establishing one's own thesis. Later, however, the followers of Euclid exceeded all precedent in their use of this method of strife, and vied with the worst of the Sophists in captious quibbling.

Historical Position. This one-sided Socraticism takes for its starting point the Socratic dialectic of concepts, which it develops in union with Eleatic doctrines by means of the method introduced by Zeno of Elea.

The Elean School. This school, founded by Phaedo, the disciple of Socrates so often mentioned in the Platonic dialogues, is virtually a branch of the Megarian school. It was removed from Elis to Eretria by Menedemus (died about 270 B.C.) and was henceforth known as the Eretrian school. Its doctrines are practically identical with those of Euclid.

The Cynics. The doctrines of the Cynics were developed from Socratic ethics which were combined with certain dialectical and rhetorical elements derived from the Eleatics and from Gorgias the Sophist.


Life. Antisthenes, the first of the Cynics, was born at Athens about the year 436 B.C. Early in life he associated himself with the Sophists, becoming, according to Diogenes Laertius,[6] a disciple of Gorgias. When, therefore, after the death of Socrates, for whose teaching he had abandoned the company of the Sophists, Antisthenes set up a school of his own, he was merely returning to his old profession. The school which he established met in the gymnasium of Cynosarges, whence, according to some writers, comes the name of the school, although it is not less probable that the name was originally a nickname (Kunes) given to. the Cynics because of their well-known disregard for social conventionalities. Indeed, it is said that Antisthenes, who happened to resemble Socrates in personal appearance, imagined that he heightened the resemblance by perverting the Socratic doctrine of moderation and abstemiousness into something bordering on a savage indifference to everything decent. He must not, however, be held accountable for the extravagances of the later Cynics. Of these the best known are Diogenes of Sinope, Crates, Menedemus, and Menippus.
[6] Diog. Laer., VI, 1.
Sources. Our knowledge of the doctrines of the Cynics is derived entirely from secondary sources. Chief among these are Diogenes Laertius, Stobaeus, Sextus Empiricus, and some of the Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria.


The Cynics were opposed to all culture except in so far as culture may be made to foster virtue. They were likewise opposed to logical and physical inquiries, though they themselves could not wholly avoid such questions. They strove, however, to make their logic and physics subservient to the investigation concerning virtue, which they considered to be the paramount problem of philosophy.

Logic. According to Antisthenes, definition is the expression of the essence of a thing. The only definition, however, which Antisthenes admits, is the setting forth of the component parts of a thing. The simple cannot be defined. [7] He opposed the Platonic theory of ideas, using, it is said, the following argument: ô Platôn, hippon men hopô, hippotêta de ouch horô; to which Plato is said to have answered, "What you say is true, for you possess the eye of the body with which you see the horse, but you lack the mental eye by which the concept of horse is perceived." [8] Antisthenes, then, believed that the individual alone is real. From which it follows that identical judgments alone are valid: everything should receive its own name and no other: we may say man is human, or the good is good; but we may not say that man is good, whence, as Aristotle [9] and Plato [10] expressly tell us, the Cynics concluded that contradiction is impossible, and that all propositions are equally true. The practical import of this nominalism is seen in the use which the Cynics made of the dialectical method of the Sophists.
[7] Diog. Laer., VI, 3.

[8] Cf. Simplicius, quoted by Zeller, Socrates, p. 300.

[9] Met., V, 29, 1024b, 32.

[10] Cratyl., 37.
Ethics. According to Socrates, virtue is the highest good: according to Antisthenes, virtue is the only good, and vice is the only evil. Everything else -- riches, honors, freedom, health, life, poverty, shame, slavery, sickness, and death -- is indifferent. The greatest of all errors is to suppose that pleasure is good: "I had rather be mad," Antisthenes said, "than be glad." [11] Now, the essence of virtue is self-control, that is, independence of all material and accidental needs. Against all the needs of body and mind the Cynics strove to harden themselves by renouncing not only pleasure and comfort, but also family, society, and religion. The virtuous man is truly wise. He alone is godlike. Wisdom is an armor which no temptation can pierce, a fortress that cannot be assailed. Consequently, he who has once attained wisdom can never cease to be virtuous.
[11] Diog. Laer., VI, 104.
Historical Position. The philosophy of the Cynics is a one-sided development of Socratic teaching. The direction which this development took was due less to the logical exigencies of the Socratic premises from which it was deduced than to the peculiar character of the founder of the school. Antisthenes was by temperament narrow-minded and obstinate, impervious to culture, a man of strong will but of mediocre intellectual ability. He was, we are told, rebuked by Plato for his lack of polish. The ostentatious asceticism which he introduced degenerated, as time went on, into positive indecency, and it was not until Stoicism appeared and absorbed what was left of the Cynic school that mental culture was restored to its place in practical philosophy.

Cyrenaic School. This school is called Hedonistic, from the prominence which it gave to the doctrine that pleasure is the only good; it is also called Cyrenaic, from the city of Cyrene where it first appeared.


Life. Aristippus, to whom the fundamental doctrines of the school are traced, was born at Cyrene about the year 435 B.C. This date, however, is by no means certain. Attracted by the personal character of Socrates, he went to Athens in order to become a member of the Socratic school; he had previously made acquaintance with the doctrines of the Sophists through the writings of Protagoras. After the death of Socrates, he taught in several cities; indeed, he seems to have spent a great part of his life wandering about without any fixed abode, although it is probable that in his old age he returned to his native city and there established his school. Among the disciples of Aristippus, the best known are his daughter Arete and his grandson Aristippus the Younger, or the mother-taught.

Sources. The history of the Cyrenaic philosophy, like that of the teaching of the Cynics, is based on secondary authorities, chiefly on the works of Diogenes, Cicero, Sextus Empiricus, and Clement of Alexandria. We possess none of the writings of the earlier Cyrenaics. Indeed, it is sometimes even questioned whether it was Aristippus, the founder of the school, or his grandson, the mother-taught, who first reduced the Cyrenaic doctrines to a system. [12]
[12] Cf. Zeller, Socrates, p. 345, n.

The attitude of the Cyrenaics towards the study of logic and physics was one of hostility. They agreed with the Cynics in regarding all speculation as idle, unless it had reference to the study of ethics, by which the happiness of man is secured, but they differed from them in their attempt to define the nature of happiness. For the Cynic, virtue is the only happiness; for the Cyrenaic, pleasure is a good in itself, and virtue is good only as a means to enjoyment.

The central doctrine of Hedonism is, therefore, that pleasure and pleasure alone constitutes the happiness of man. For, the Cyrenaic argued, after the manner of Protagoras, "that is true which seems to be true: we can know only the feelings or impressions which things produce upon us; of things in themselves we can know nothing." The production, therefore, of certain feelings is all that we can accomplish by action. Consequently, that is good which can produce in us the most pleasant feelings. [13]
[13] Cicero, Academica, II, 46, and Sext., Mathem., VII, 191.
Pleasure was defined by the Cyrenaics as gentle motion. It is, however, at least an inaccuracy on Cicero's part when he says that by pleasure the Cyrenaics understood mere bodily pleasure. Aristippus explained his pleasure doctrine in terms which are descriptive of mental emotion as well as of bodily enjoyment. It is true that the Cyrenaics spoke of pleasure as consisting in gentle motion. Our word emotion would, perhaps, convey their meaning much better than the word commonly employed. On the other hand, it must be admitted that, according to Cyrenaic principles, all pleasure is conditioned by bodily pleasure, or at least by organic states. This is implied in the theory of knowledge which the Cyrenaics derived from the teaching of Protagoras. We must be careful, moreover, to distinguish between the Hedonism of Aristippus, who by "pleasure" denoted a passing emotion, and the Hedonism of his later followers, who understood by "pleasure" something akin to the Epicurean notion of a state, or permanent condition, of painlessness.

Pleasure, then, is the only good. Knowledge, culture, and even virtue are desirable only as means by which pleasure is attained. Virtue restrains us from that excess of emotion which is passion: passion, being violent, is painful and, on that account, to be avoided. [14] We should possess our pleasures without being possessed by them: echô ouk echomai as Aristippus said. So, too, a man of sense will obey the laws of the country and conform to the usages of society because he judges that his failure to do so would result in a preponderance of pain over pleasure.
[14] Cicero, De Officiis, III, 33 and Diog. Laer., II, 91.
Diogenes Laertius [15] gives an account of the later Cyrenaics who, like Theodorus and Hegesias, deemed it necessary to tone down the crudities of Hedonism as taught by Aristippus. Theodorus maintained that man's highest happiness is a state of cheerfulness (chara), while Hegesias, called the Death-Persuader, taught that the aim of man's actions should be to attain a state of indifference to all external things. In this final form it was easy for Hedonism to pass over into the Stoic school.
[15] II, 93 and 98.
Historical Position. The development of the Cyrenaic philosophy, like that of the Cynic doctrine, was due more to the personal character of the founder of the school and to the social atmosphere of the city where the school was founded than to the requirements of the Socratic system from which it arose. Socrates, it is true, taught that happiness is the aim of action (eudaemonism), but the doctrine that happiness consists in momentary pleasure is Socraticism woefully perverted. "Know thyself" was the gist of Socratic teaching. "Yes, know thyself," taught Aristippus, "in order that thou mayest know to what extent thou canst indulge in the pleasures of life without exceeding the limit where pleasure becomes pain." The application is, surely, more in accord with the materialistic subjectivism of the Sophists than with the Socratic principles from which the Cyrenaic philosophy claimed to be derived.

Retrospect. The imperfectly Socratic schools grew up side by side, without any affiliation to one another. They are thus relatively independent, each carrying out along its own line of development some point of Socratic teaching. They are essentially incomplete, because they are based on an imperfect understanding of the spirit of Socratic philosophy. Still, their influence, immediate and mediate, on subsequent thought must not be underestimated. The Megarians, in their doctrine of bodiless forms, foreshadowed the Platonic theory of Ideas, and both Antisthenes and Aristippus influenced the Platonic doctrine of the highest good. But important as was their immediate influence, the mediate influence of these schools was still more important. The age of Socrates was one that called for great constructive efforts; it was an age that could appreciate Plato and Aristotle, rather than Aristippus and Antisthenes. Later, however, there came a time when the political condition of Greece was such that men could well be persuaded to withdraw from the world of sense, from the problems of Being and Becoming, in order to adopt a self-centralized culture as the only means of happiness. It was then that the influence of the imperfectly Socratic schools was felt. The Stoa adopted substantially the moral teachings of the Cynics, the Scepticism of Pyrrho and the Academies sprang from the doctrines of the Megarians, while the school of Epicurus renewed hedonistic ethics by teaching a system identical in its principal tenets with the philosophy of the Cyrenaics.

There is thus no continuity of development through these intercalary schools to Plato and Aristotle. Plato, entering into the spirit of Socratic philosophy more fully than the imperfect disciples had done, expanded the Socratic doctrine of concepts into the theory of Ideas, and gave to Socratic ethics a broader foundation and a more enduring consistency.


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