Notes on Socrates

Sandra LaFave

Quiz 2 will cover the reading in Palmer on Socrates (p. 28-38). You might also want to view this online video about Socrates.

For general information about quizzes for this class, see here.

If you do not know anything about ancient history, you should read up on the Golden Age of Athens (c. 480-430 BCE, though some writers say 500-400 and others 500-338 — this is not important for our purposes). Note that Socrates was born during the Golden Age. He and men his age remembered a glorious Athens. Plato was younger, born after Athens was in trouble (because of the Peloponnesian War).

Platoís generation was a disappointment to their fathers. The young men didnít seem as smart, or brave, or clever, or artistic, etc. They were fighting the war and losing. Their fathers — the men of Socratesí generation, the high achievers of the Golden Age — wondered where they had failed their sons. Why were the fathers so excellent — so full of aretÍ — and the sons so mediocre?

A group of men thus saw a market opportunity and set themselves up as teachers of aretÍ. Some were more sincere than others, but most were simply con men who made fortunes from the Athenian parents by promising to make their sons excellent. These "teachers of virtue" were called Sophists. They included Protagoras, Gorgias (both mentioned in the Meno), Thrasymachus (an important character in Plato's Republic), and many others. The Sophists taught their students techniques for becoming successful in politics; they were the ancient counterparts of today's "spin doctors" and professional image consultants. They taught the young men to appear virtuous and win arguments by any means necessary, including the use of superficially persuasive but fallacious arguments ("sophisms"). (Another related word for such arguments is "sophistry".)

Socrates was not a Sophist; he never took money for his teaching, and rejected sophistical arguments. Socrates was genuinely worried about why the young men were so disappointing. Socrates' young student and lover Alcibiades had been a particular disappointment to him. If Socrates could figure out exactly how the fathers had failed to properly educate their sons (and how he had failed Alcibiades), he could save the city and restore Athens to its former glory.

Socratesí interesting idea was that human excellence was really a kind of knowledge. Socrates thinks no one does wrong knowingly; this view is called the Socratic paradox. According to Socrates, when people fail to hit the mark, itís because they donít know enough. And if lack of knowledge is the problem, you can solve it by giving people the knowledge they lack. All you have to do is pin down the appropriate knowledge in words and convey those words to people.

Thatís why Socrates asks questions such as: what is courage? what is beauty? etc. He asks the people he thinks ought to know (the famous military commanders, the famous artists, etc.) to say in words what all the instances of courage or beauty, etc., have in common: whatís the essence of courage or beauty. The idea is that youíll surely know everything you need to know about courage if you can say in words what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for membership in the class of things we call courageous. So just work on that problem first. Then when you have the answer, convey this knowledge to the young men. Because Socrates thinks the right sort of knowledge is sufficient for virtue, any young man who learns the essence of courage will automatically be courageous; any young man who learns the essence of beauty will be beautiful and create beautiful things; and in general, any young man who learns the essence of aretÍ will be excellent. Because Socrates thinks the right sort of education in excellence is sufficient for creating that excellence in people, the newly-educated young men will automatically become newly-excellent. Their new excellence will save the city.

However, the military commanders and artists and other respondents of Socrates were simply unable to give Socrates the sort of accounts he was looking for. The military commander would give examples of courage, the artist would give examples of beauty, Meno gives examples of aretÍ. Socrates doesnít want examples: he wants what all the examples have in common.

Socrates was asking questions no one had asked before. He was treating notions like courage and beauty as closed concepts. Is there anything fundamentally wrong with Socratesí approach? Most recent philosophers think so.

I am a big fan of all of Alan White's funny philosophy tunes. You might want to listen to the hilarious (IMHO)song "The Gadfly Athenaios" — "Athenaios" is Greek for "of Athens" — by philosopher Alan White.

The Gadfly Athenaios

(Sung to "The Girl from Ipanema")

Short and bald, snub-nosed and ugly,
the Gad-fly Athenaios comes talking,
and when he questions,
each one he questions goes "huh?"

Though he sounds much like a Sophist
he cares for truth, he cares for justice,
but when he questions,
each one he questions goes "huh?"

How can I know universals?
What is the nature of virtue?
How could the soul be immortal?
Is there something you think that you know?
You might want to ask Euthyphro!

Short and bald, snub-nosed and ugly,
the Gad-fly Athenaios comes talking,
and though he questions,
it's just inquiry. . .

"Huh?" "huh-huh?" "huh?" "Hah-huh-huh?" "Huh?"
"Huh-huh-huh?" "Huh?" "Hah-huh-huh?" Huh?"
"Huh-huh-huh-hhhhhuuuhhhh, hhaaahhh huh-huh-huh?"
it's inquiry. . . inquiry. . .


Sample Essay Questions

  1. Why is Socrates important in the history of philosophy? HINT: To answer this question well, you need to talk about open and closed concepts.

  2. What is Socratic irony?

  3. When Socrates says he is ignorant, what does he mean?

  4. Why did the Oracle say Socrates was the wisest man in Athens?

  5. Who were the Sophists?

  6. What is the Socratic paradox?

  7. In logic, a paradox is a self-contradictory claim, or, more broadly, a claim that on first glance you see as obviously false but after further reflection, you come to realize it may be true. Many philosophers love paradoxes. For more info and examples, see Mark Gribben's Paradox Page.

    Now that you know what a paradox is, I'd like you to think about why the Socratic paradox is called a paradox. What is it about the Socratic paradox that seems obviously false, but on reflection might be true? (HUGE HINT: Do you think wrong-doing is primarily a matter of ignorance? Many people would say wrong-doing is a matter of weakness of the will: they would say you can know perfectly well that something is bad, and will to do it anyway.)

  8. Why was Socrates so interested in finding definitions of concepts like beauty, courage, and aretÍ?


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