Monthly Archives: March 2019

Summary of Socrates’ Teachings

A marble head of Socrates

A marble head of Socrates in the Louvre

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Excerpt reprinted with permission.)

Socrates’ biography

Socrates was of humble roots. In Nietzsche’s eyes: He was born of the rabble. His father was a stonemason, his mother was a midwife. As a young man, he is thought to have studied Greek natural philosophy. But he found the views of the natural philosophers too obscure and unsubstantiated. He thus, like the sophists, turned against natural philosophy to questions of morality and justice.

In Athens, he lived a life of simple means, married Xanthippe, with whom he had three children. He fought, evidently heroically, in the Peloponnesian war against Sparta. He was known in Athens for gathering and speaking in the Agora, the market place. He was known as unkempt, often unwashed, and for being quite homely … Yet many were attracted to him. He … gathered support from some Athenians who had been members and associates of the Thirty Tyrants, who had early led a bloody coup against the government in Athens and who were bitterly opposed to its democratic government.

According to Plato’s account, he … was motivated to his public discourse by an early Oracle of Delphi, which had indicated that no one in Greece was wiser than Socrates. In what we may take to be an ironic court defense, he maintains that he found this unbelievable so set out questioning the learned in Athens to find someone wiser than himself. In Plato’s account, Socrates’ questioning was unsettling to authorities in Athens, who thought that he was undermining the civic religion of Athens and corrupting the youth. Socrates was thus brought to court, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Socrates’ thus became a celebrated martyr for philosophy.

The examined life

Among the views for which Socrates is most famous is that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The ability to think, in Socrates’s view, is our unique human capacity. To live a life devoid of thinking — where we simply accepted what tradition and authority told us — was thus to live a less than fully human life. But what does an examined life, the fully human life, entail? For Socrates, it entailed questioning especially the moral and religious views of his tradition. In Socrates’ view, this examination is to be done as a form of moral or spiritual development — it is done with the intention of moral improvement both to oneself and ultimately to one’s community.

While it was traditionally thought that the existing laws of a polis were identified with the will of the gods, Socrates questions this. There were hints already in Heraclitus and others of a view like this — that there is another law a law above the city’s laws to which one had a greater alliance. Socrates’ life and death is a testimony to a belief in such a law and to a sensibility that adherence to that other law is imperative.

The clarification of concepts

Socrates is invested in the clarification of concepts, even if he does not always finish the job (or hardly ever does) and provides us with a clearly satisfying definition or description, even if often we need to look to what he does — as a character in Plato’s dialogues — if we want to answer some of the questions he poses.

Socrates engaged in his own self-examination with the clear conviction that he could come to understand truth, and that the means to do so was through the clarification of concepts, achieved not through individual self-reflection but through dialogue. This indeed is so marked in him that Aristotle thought it fundamental to the shift in ancient philosophy from the Presocratics to a new era in Greek thought. We see hints of it in thinkers previous to Socrates who are thinking of metaphysics — Parmenides being the main case in point. But it becomes full-blown and receives a new focus on questions of justice in Socrates. What is justice? What is piety? As individuals, living in a society, we have internalized views about what these things are. [But] Socrates thinks that self-examination involves us in a process of thinking through our own beliefs on these questions …

The Socratic method

Socrates maintained that he did not teach anyone. What he did was facilitate their own self-reflection through public dialogues. The disputational method Socrates used in the public forum led to his reputation as a gadfly, for his logic was often stinging. Taking some proposed general definition to a question like what is justice, he was merciless in criticizing its weaknesses, often indirectly and with irony. And he did not hesitate to embarrass the most recognized of the citizens of Athens.

This dialogical approach, [today] described as the Socratic method, was used not to propose his own views. Socrates was not a guru who answered the most obscure of metaphysical questions and sought adherents to the system he constructs. Rather his method was to engage in an exploration and to get those involved to reflect on their own views, on the culturally accepted views they had largely adopted. It focused on clarifying what the concepts under discussion meant, what presuppositions they entailed. It typically started with a definition of a concept, which would then be analyzed, broke into discrete parts; then on the basis of the analysis, the ideas were synthesized.

In his public dialogues, Socrates appears to be motivated by a faith that the analysis of concepts should lead to positive results. Yet curiously perhaps, Socrates did not develop a set of clear ideas about what justice is, what piety is or the other things that he discussed so enthusiastically. He deconstructs much more than he constructs.

Socratic wisdom

Indeed, this [is] even fundamental to what becomes known as Socratic wisdom. In Plato’s rendering of Socrates’ story in The Apology, when … Oracle of Delphi [told Socrates]  … that none was wiser than him, Socrates [was] skeptically. He claims it inspired him to begin to discuss ideas in public. Not feeling wise at all, he was sure — he says with some irony — there must have been others wiser than himself. In the court case where he discusses this, he notes however that after years of such questioning and public conversation he did come to recognize that there was some truth to the Oracle. He had a kind of wisdom. His wisdom, which others lacked, was simply in knowing the limitations of his own knowledge. Socrates’s wisdom consisted in knowledge of his own ignorance.

It is an interesting paradox perhaps that one of the individuals most celebrated for his wisdom in world history in fact baldly claimed that this wisdom consisted in so little. The fact is that those who have viewed Socrates as wise have never really taken this explicit statement of what his wisdom was to be the complete story. Socrates was trying to clarify concepts, but as a statement even of what his own wisdom was, this is quite incomplete — a negative definition only.

If that is all there were to Socratic wisdom, then we might have imagined this serving as a footnote in Ancient philosophy. But of course, much of what we have taken to be Socratic wisdom has consisted not in what was said, but in what was unsaid. It comes from an examination of how Socrates lived his life. And here there is much more indeed than is summarized in the negative description of wisdom.

Is his statement that he is wise because he recognizes what he does not know simply a case of irony? Is it likely not offered as a definition at all? In any case, if we want to know what Socrates wisdom consists in then an examination of his life offers us something much richer to work with than his negative definition. In his life, … Socrates is someone deeply curious, conscientious about self-examination, which he engaged in as a practice of self-improvement. Socrates is wise because of his care for the soul, because of his questioning whether his own priorities in life were rightly ordered and whether his own life was just and good … when it comes to understanding what he thinks, we have to do more than examine what he says. We must see how he lives.

Against Suicide: Coping with Reality

Painting of Sisyphus by TitianSisyphus by Titian, 1549

(This essay by Ms. Sara Jane Wojcik clarifies her previous guest post. These thoughtful ruminations remind me of E. D. Klemke’s profound essay, “Living Without Appeal.”)

The most basic form of integrity is to accept reality for what it is rather than how we would like it to be. I have always loved science fiction writer Phillip Dick on this when he says, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I am sympathetic to the sentiment that underlies Parfit’s viewpoint—I really am. The prospect of this grand panoply of life, with all its colors, characters, and challenges, amounting to nothing, either personally or ultimately, is sometimes almost more than I can bear.

But it’s hard not to conclude that his [Derek Parfit] efforts amount to an elaborate rationalization, a denial of the essential truth of life’s meaninglessness, by reading into reality something that is just not there. The continuity of universal process (physics yields chemistry yields biology to beget us) that he equates to a sort of immortality doesn’t ring true. Once I shed the “mortal coil” of my body through death, so, too, disappears the consciousness that constitutes the unique “me-ness” of my personal identity as Sylvia Jane.  I am more than the sum the physical elements and processes that constitute me. Even if these physical elements could be reconstituted exactly in Parfit’s thought experiment terms, it could never amount to the same “me” because I would necessarily have different experiences. It’s that old idea that you can never step into the same river twice.

I’m not happy about this pessimistic conclusion, but I would rather accept it than delude myself with false comfort. I maintain that the best we can do is to pursue what I have called the fulfillment offered by “pure experience.” We can only cope, not cure. (my emphasis.) Depending on our personal tastes, these can vary widely, but in their highest form, they are all participatory and first person in nature. This begins with the visceral pleasures of good food and drink, exercise, creating art or building things, discovery, and lending a helping hand.  Then there are joys of children and especially grandchildren, of course.

But at this point in my life, I think its highest form might be the opportunity to interact with and imbibe of the camaraderie with other thinkers about life’s Big Questions as I am here. (Would that it could be more of a face-to-face event over a good glass of wine!) I have this unquenchable thirst to simply know how it all hangs together. Isn’t that why we all visit this wonderful blog!  Beyond the practical advantages, it’s simply fascinating and, to me, an end in itself.

This might seem like so much fluff.  I imagine everyone mostly gets the point of my conception of the vitality that pure experience affords, but it might lack the impact or immediacy that it deserves because no matter how artful the words it is nearly impossible to convey.  It might be somewhat off the topic of the post in question, but I’d like to offer the following piece called “Success” to make what I mean by pure experience more tangible. It has been apocryphally, though not undeservedly, attributed to Emerson, but was actually written by Bessie Stanley in 1904.  I grant it might be a tad overly sentimental but I think it still works and remains relevant. Here is my amalgam of its several variants:

To laugh often, love much, and appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others
and win the respect of intelligent people
as well as the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To fill your niche and accomplish your task
by leaving the world a bit better than you found it,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch,
a perfect poem, a rescued soul,
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
To live a life that inspires,
and whose memory becomes a benediction:
This is to have succeeded.

I claim no great progress in this direction.  All I can say is that I find as I get older I am perhaps getting a little better at it. I like to think that intent matters as much as result. If we honestly do the best we can, we really have succeeded—at least in moral terms.

Anyway … I have far less difficulty with the Russell quotation, but vicarious immortality through living on through others yields, to me, only false comfort. Though our descendants are certainly derived from us, they are not us.  I see it as a sort of cultural form of Parfit’s argument from the physical.


As I am finishing this, I noticed Mr. Miller’s comments on a previous post.  I do sympathize with his ever pessimistic sentiment but find myself resisting the suicide that, as he accurately describes, seems to be dictated by the logic underwritten by the reality of existence. Is this a weakness in me, I wonder, for I like to think of myself as a creature who lives consistent within the dictates of reason and the constraints of reality? This is what is so unnerving about the meaning-of-life problem! It’s bad enough that life evidently has no meaning beyond the intrinsic, but that that same existence includes creatures impelled by the biologic imperative to resist with all their might (and then some!) its implications for action makes my head spin in an effort to make sense out of it.  As mentioned elsewhere, perhaps I hold out hope that time will reveal a “solution” simply not apparent at this time. More likely, though, I am simply being swept along by the biologic imperative to survive. There is, perhaps, a little comfort in viewing the situation as an exercise in irony, but, if truth be told, not much. So I go on, wandering in the dark, not knowing where—and certainly not why.

Derek Parfit, Personal Identity, and Death

What does it take for a person to persist from moment to moment—for the same person to exist at different moments?

In a previous post, my guest author Ms. Wojcik expressed worries that death undermines meaning or perhaps renders our lives altogether meaningless. (Her argument is actually much longer and more complex but I think that is the salient idea.)

An anonymous reader (see comments section of “What’s It All About?) responded by claiming that there is no personal identity over time—we are continually dying and being reborn—an insight he claims should assuage our fear of death and help us realize that we should care for others about as much as we care about ourselves. To help explain, the reader quotes the philosopher Derek Parfit:

When I believed [that personal identity is what matters], I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

When I believed [that personal identity is what matters], I also cared more about my inevitable death. After my death, there will be no one living who will be me. I can now redescribe this fact. Though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connections as those involved in experience-memory, or in the carrying out of an earlier intention. Some of these future experiences may be related to my present experiences in less direct ways. There will later be some memories about my life. And there may later be thoughts that are influenced by mine, or things done as the result of my advice. My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me. Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad.

However, Ms. Wojcik didn’t find comfort in Parfit’s words.  As she puts it:

It seems to me that just because the nature of the biologic process involves the swapping out of atoms, it does not follow that we are ever “different” persons.  Rather, there is an essential continuity that does not get lost in the physiologic process of life, including sleep … What I am today does not originate as a copy of the previous day’s experiences, but rather it’s a continuously evolving stream of the experiences of a single conscious entity.  That my experiences may have an effect on others provides no comfort or mitigate the finality of my death.

Brief Reflections – I don’t know how to resolve this dispute. On the one hand, I regard death as an ultimate evil to be defeated. On the other hand, I find the idea of my continuity with those who will continue on after my death to be both comforting and insightful. Bertrand Russell beautifully expressed this latter sentiment:

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.
If we must die perhaps this is our best response.