The Project is Incomplete

There is more to do to understand and evaluate what Socrates thought

 Orphic Gold Leaf, from the 4th century BCE. British Museum 3155
Orphic gold leaf, 4th century BCE. British Museum 3155.

      ΓΗΣΠΑΙΣΕΙΜΙΚΑΙΟΥΡΑΝΟΥΑΣΤΕΡΟΕΝΤΟΣΑΥΤΑΡΕΜ
ΟΙΓΕΝΟΣΟΥΡΑΝΙΟΝΤΟΔΕΔΙΣΤΕΚΑΙΑΥΤΟΙ

      Γῆς παῖς εἰμι καὶ Οὐρανοῦ ἀστερόεντος, αὐτὰρ ἐμοὶ γένος οὐράνιον· τόδε δ’ ἴστε καὶ αὐτοί

      "I am a son of Earth and of starry Heaven, and so I have a heavenly origin; this you yourselves also know" (B 1.6-7).
Socrates is a historical figure and a character in Plato's dialogues.

Plato uses the character to understand the historical figure. He tries to work out for himself and posterity what Socrates thought about human beings and the good life.

Socrates, as Plato understands him, is a φιλόσοφος or "lover of wisdom."

He castigates the Athenians for caring more about money and reputation than about "wisdom and truth and the best state of their souls." He says to them, if "some one of you disputes this, and says he does care, [I will] question him, examine well and test him, and if he does not seem to me to possess virtue, and yet says he does, I shall rebuke him for counting of more importance things which by comparison are worthless" (Apology 29d).

We saw this questioning in the search for definitions and have thought some about how to understand it, but there is more work to do to understand what Socrates was doing.

Socrates Asks Questions

Socrates questions his interlocutors about ethical matters (matters having to do with character). In the Euthyphro, the question is what piety is. In the Laches, it is what courage is.

 Aegeus consults the Pythia. Attic red-figure kylix. Berlin F 2538.⁣
Aegeus consults the Pythia. Attic red-figure kylix (c. 430 BCE), the Kodros painter. Berlin F 2538.⁣

A kylix is a drinking cup.


"You know Chaerephon, I fancy. He was my comrade from a youth and the comrade of your democratic party, and shared in the recent exile and came back with you. And you know the kind of man he was, how impetuous in whatever he undertook. Well, once he went to Delphi and made so bold as to ask the oracle this question; and, gentlemen, don't make a disturbance at what I say; for he asked if there were anyone wiser than I. Now the Pythia replied that there was no one wiser. And about these things his brother here will bear you witness, since Chaerephon is dead. But see why I say these things; for I am going to tell you whence the prejudice against me has arisen" (Apology 20e).

Delphi (about a hundred miles north west of Athens) was the home of the Temple of Apollo. The Pythia is the priestess who serves as oracle for Apollo.


"For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city [of Athens] as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I go about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long. Such another is not likely to come to you, gentlemen; but if you take my advice, you will spare me. But you, perhaps, might be angry, like people awakened from a nap, and might slap me, as Anytus advises, and easily kill me; then you would pass the rest of your lives in slumber, unless the god, in his care for you, should send someone else to sting you. And that I am, as I say, a kind of gift from the god, you might understand from this; for I have neglected all my own affairs and have been enduring the neglect of my concerns all these years, but I am always busy in your interest, coming to each one of you individually like a father or an elder brother and urging you to care for virtue" (Apology 30e).
In their answers to his questions, Socrates's interlocutors contradict themselves. He wants to continue, but they do not care as much about wisdom. They find some excuse to return to caring about money and the other things they have made the point of their lives.

Why does Socrates engage in this questioning again and again?

He explains that Chaerephon (one of his childhood friends and followers) asked the priestess at Delphi whether anyone was wiser than Socrates (Apology 20e). The priestess said the god's answer was that no one was wiser. Socrates had trouble understanding this. He did not regard himself as wise, but he also thought the god could not be wrong. So he investigated the meaning of the god's answer by examining those he met. None of them had the wisdom they thought they had, but Socrates continued because he believed that piety required him to continue to show there was no counterexample to what the priestess told Chaerephon.

Socrates' belief in the god is important for understanding subsequent developments in the Ancient philosophical tradition, but for now Socrates' second answer is more important.

In this, Socrates says he is a "gift" the god sent to the Athenians (Apology 30e). By engaging with the Athenians in dialectical questioning and thus helping them discover that their beliefs are contradictory, Socrates takes himself to help them eliminate the inconsistency in their beliefs that prevents them from living in accordance with the virtues of character.

This raises a question and possible problem Plato himself would have no doubt noticed.

Beliefs that Cannot be Abandoned

How does consistency in belief help someone live in accordance with the virtues of character?

The assumption, it seems, is that when Euthyphro, for example, abandons the answers he himself refutes, he will be left with the right answer to Socrates' what is piety question.

If this is right, then Euthyphro must have the right answer fixed in his mind in a way he cannot abandon. His problem is that he has acquired false beliefs about what piety is that threaten to cause him to do something he thinks is pious when in fact it is not.

What makes it true that Euthyphro has the right answer and cannot abandon it in questioning?

If, as we are assuming, Plato is trying to understand and evaluate what Socrates thought, then Plato will need to know whether this question has a plausible answer.

The Focus on Definitions

Since too it can seem easy enough to say what the definitions of the virtues of character are, Plato will also need to know why Socrates focuses his questioning on these definitions.

Socrates seems to try to get Euthyphro to see that piety is what is appropriate or fitting with respect the gods (12e) and that prosecuting his father may not have this property.


"[W]hen [someone] does what is fitting (τὰ προσήκοντα πράττοι) as regards men, his actions will be just, and as regards the gods, his actions will be pious (Gorgias 507a).
This suggests Socrates thinks that the reference class is all that differs in the definitions of the virtues of character. In the case of piety, the reference class is the gods. In the case of justice, it is human beings. Justice is what is fitting with respect to human beings, courage is what is fitting in situations that can inspire fear in those who lack wisdom, and so on.

If this is right, the definitions provide no real guidance for what to do in particular situations. It is not enough for Euthyphro to know that piety is what is appropriate with respect to the gods. He needs to know what it is appropriate to do in the situation involving his father.

Because the real challenge seems to be to know what is and is not appropriate, Plato needs to understand why Socrates decides instead to make his questioning about the definitions.

The Beginning of an Understanding

In the Meno and the Phaedo, Plato makes Socrates give an explanation for why human beings have beliefs they cannot abandon. I set out this explanation in a subsequent lecture when I discuss the view traditionally referred to as Plato's Theory of Recollection.

It is possible now, though, to get a clearer understanding of Socrates' focus on definitions.

In the Laches, Nicias tells Socrates that Laches has not been taking the right approach in "defining courage" (Laches 194c). He has been looking to examples to say what it is, that courage is staying at one's post to face the enemy (Laches 190e). Nicias suggests instead that courage is a kind of "wisdom" (Laches 194d). Socrates encourages this suggestion and seems further to suggest that wisdom consists in knowledge of what is good and what is bad in the circumstances one faces.   "Now do you think, Nicias, there could be anything wanting to the virtue of a man who knew all good things, and all about their production in the present, the future, and the past, and all about bad things likewise? Do you suppose that such a man could be lacking in temperance, or justice, and holiness, when he alone has the gift of taking due precaution, in his dealings with gods and men, as regards what is to be dreaded and what is not, and of procuring good things, owing to his knowledge of the right behaviour towards them?
  I think, Socrates, there is something in what you say" (Laches 199d).

  "Well now, the cause of cowards being cowardly, do you call this cowardice or courage?
  Cowardice, I call it.
  And were they not found to be cowards through ignorance of what is dreadful?
  Certainly.
  And so they are cowards because of that ignorance?
  Yes.
  And the cause of their being cowards is admitted by you to be cowardice?
  Yes.
  Then ignorance of what is dreadful and not dreadful will be cowardice?
  Yes.
  But surely courage, is the opposite of cowardice.
  Yes.
  Then the wisdom that knows what is and what is not dreadful is opposed to the ignorance of these things?
  Yes.
  And the ignorance of them is cowardice?
  Yes.
  So the wisdom (σοφία) that knows what is and what is not dreadful is courage, being opposed to the ignorance of these things? Why is it, Protagoras, that you neither affirm nor deny what I ask you?
  Finish it by yourself, Socrates" (Protagoras 360c ).

"The good craftsmen also seemed to me to have the same failing as the poets; because of practicing his art well, each one thought he was very wise in the other, the greatest things" (Apology 22d).
The idea, in this case, is that someone who knows what courage is knows what is good and what is bad in circumstances that can inspire fear.

This shows that our prior list of what Socrates thought was incomplete. In part, it was that

• the soul has virtue just in case it has wisdom
• this wisdom is knowledge about ethical matters

To this characterization, it is necessary to add that

• knowledge about ethical matters is knowledge of what is good and bad

When Socrates "tests" his interlocutors for virtue in their souls by questioning them about what the virtues of character are, what he ultimately wants to help them know is what is good and what is bad in the various circumstances a human being faces as he lives his life.

Socrates' interlocutors are confused about what is good and what is bad because they are confused about the virtues of character. Because examples play such a large role in learning about these virtues, they think such things as that staying at one's post to face the enemy is good and running is bad because they think this is what courage and cowardice are.

Socrates' interlocutors must abandon these false beliefs about what the virtues of character are if they are going to live their lives in accordance with them. Otherwise, they are inadvertently going to do what is bad because they wrongly believe that they are doing what is good.

To the list in our understanding of Socrates, if we also add that

• Socratic Intellectualism is true

then it follows that

• The virtues of character are necessary and sufficient for wisdom

Since, according to Intellectualism, desires stem from beliefs about what is good and what is bad, having the virtues of character is knowing what is good and what is bad.

If this is the understanding of Socrates Plato reaches, then we should expect subsequent dialogues to focus less on definitions and more on what is good and what is bad.

This in fact is what happens.

Much More Explanation is Necessary

None of this shows that what Socrates thought is true. To do this, Plato needs to show that

• Socratic Intellectualism is true

He also needs to explain

• how we know what is good and what is bad

He also needs to explain

• how the virtues of character bring happiness

It is easy, after all, to think that the virtues of character are inconsistent with happiness because they require us to endure painful experiences and avoid pleasurable ones.

Socrates in the Middle Dialogues

Plato, as we will see, continues to use the character Socrates in the middle dialogues, but he does not always use him in a way the early dialogues might lead us to expect.

In the Republic, for example, in the discussion of what is called Plato's Tripartite Theory of the Soul, the issue is the very one Socrates tries to solve: how the soul functions and what its virtue is. Now, however, Plato uses the character Socrates to give a nonSocratic solution. The tripartite theory of the soul the character argues for in the Republic is inconsistent with the intellectualism about desire the character assumes in the Protagoras.

Why does Plato use the character Socrates this way in the middle dialogues?

Plato does not explain himself, but maybe he thinks that if the city of Athens had not cut Socrates' life short, Socrates would have realized that he had been wrong.

This, if it is what Plato thought, is something about which he could have been mistaken.






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