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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:|
- Megarian or Eristic School (Euclid) -- Eleatic element.
- Elean School (Phaedo) -- Eleatic element.
Megarian School. The Megarian school, to which Euclid and Stilpo
belonged, made Eleatic metaphysics the basis of a development of
- Cynics (Antisthenes) -- borrowed from Gorgias.
- Hedonists (Aristippus) -- borrowed from Protagoras.
Life. Euclid of Megara, the founder of this school, was a
disciple of Socrates, and if the story told by Gellius  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."
 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  that the
philosophers alluded to in Plato's Sophistes  are the
Megarians. If we make use of this passage of Plato, we have the
following points of doctrine.
 Cf. Zeller, Socrates, p. 257.
 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
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. 
 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. 
 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
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
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, 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.
 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.  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."  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  and
Plato  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.
 Diog. Laer., VI, 3.
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."  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.
 Cf. Simplicius, quoted by Zeller, Socrates, p. 300.
 Met., V, 29, 1024b, 32.
 Cratyl., 37.
 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
 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. 
 Cicero, Academica, II, 46, and Sext., Mathem., VII,
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.  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.
 Cicero, De Officiis, III, 33 and Diog. Laer., II, 91.
Diogenes Laertius  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.
 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