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Socrates 4.1 – Last Thoughts

"Socrates," by Mitch Francis

“Socrates,” by Mitch Francis


It’s worth asking how Socrates himself might assess all that “influence.” That’s something I want you to consider as you get to know him: Would he see his charge as largely fulfilled today? After all psycho-therapy is a pillar devoted to bringing health (therapia) to soul (psyche); science has institutionalized the formation and challenging of hypotheses as its method of progress toward truth; legal practices take impartiality for granted and from the point of view of civic life in the West, consistency is seen as an important test for “good” thought and action. Shouldn’t Socrates be satisfied?

These are reasonable points to note on the score card. But we should also remember the importance of the subjective dimension that Socrates modeled, the active pursuit of wisdom by concrete individuals, the aporia which always has a dimension as experienced alone…

Philosophers before Socrates used intellectual tools, which guided them to beliefs outside those of received common sense — whether like Thales they were doing physics, hypothesizing that all things visible are deep down made of a single common substance; or like Parmenides offering metaphysical proofs that change is unreal; or like Heracleitus defending flux as most real. Socrates tells us that in his youth he studied the natural sciences in search of understanding, but didn’t find it (see Phaedo 96a and following). He proceeded to tell of a deeper disappointment:

Then one day I heard a man reading from a book, as he said, by Anaxagoras, [97c] that it is the mind that arranges and causes all things. I was pleased with this theory of cause, and it seemed to me to be somehow right that the mind should be the cause of all things, and I thought, ‘If this is so, the mind in arranging things arranges everything and establishes each thing as it is best for it to be. So if anyone wishes to find the cause of the generation or destruction or existence of a particular thing, he must find out what sort of existence, or passive state of any kind, or activity is best for it. And therefore in respect to [97d] that particular thing, and other things too, a man need examine nothing but what is best and most excellent; for then he will necessarily know also what is inferior, since the science of both is the same. As I considered these things I was delighted to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher…. [98b] I prized my hopes very highly, and I seized the books very eagerly and read them as fast as I could, that I might know as fast as I could about the best and the worst. My glorious hope, my friend, was quickly snatched away from me. As I went on with my reading I saw that the man … [98c] did not assign any real causes for the ordering of things, but mentioned as causes air and ether and water and many other absurdities.

That is not the understandings that Socrates seeks. See whether his analogy helps you grasp something of what he is after:

And it seemed to me it was very much

  • as if one should say that Socrates does with intelligence whatever he does, and then, in trying to give the causes of the particular thing I do, should say first that I am now sitting here because my body is composed of bones and sinews, and the bones are hard and have joints which divide them and the sinews [98d] can be contracted and relaxed and, with the flesh and the skin which contains them all, are laid about the bones; and so, as the bones are hung loose in their ligaments, the sinews, by relaxing and contracting, make me able to bend my limbs now, and that is the cause of my sitting here with my legs bent. Or
  • as if in the same way he should give voice and air and hearing and countless other things of the sort as causes for our talking with each other, [98e] and should fail to mention the real causes, which are, that the Athenians decided that it was best to condemn me, and therefore I have decided that it was best for me to sit here and that it is right for me to stay and undergo whatever penalty they order.

For Socrates, these accounts leave out what seems the most powerful part of the explanation, the role of “intelligence,” or as we might say, his intentions:

[99a] For, by Dog, I fancy these bones and sinews of mine would have been in Megara or Boeotia long ago, carried thither by an opinion of what was best, if I did not think it was better and nobler to endure any penalty the city may inflict rather than to escape and run away.

What the so-called explanations appeal to (for instance, the states of Socrates’ body and brain) might well be necessary to explaining his posture or location; but they are not sufficient. “The choice of what is best” is essential to any account of human beings, he claims.

If anyone were to say that I could not have done what I thought proper if I had not bones and sinews and other things that I have, he would be right. But to say that those things are the cause of my doing what I do, [99b] and that I act with intelligence but not from the choice of what is best, would be an extremely careless way of talking. Whoever talks in that way is unable to make a distinction and to see that in reality a cause is one thing, and the thing without which the cause could never be a cause is quite another thing.

An example of the fallacy Socrates is pointing out here might look like this:

  • A person is a biological entity.
  • Therefore, the causes of people’s actions are biological and can be understood by studying biology.

Suppose it’s true that if there were no biological entities, then there would be no persons whose “choice of what is best” directs their paths in the world. Does it follow that biology provides an account of “the choice of what is best.” No! Biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology may all speak about human persons without saying the same thing.

And so it seems to me that most people, when they give the name of cause…, are groping in the dark.

But Socrates distinguished himself further by using intellectual tools — prominently, his dialectic — to interrogate the very outlook through which we experience the “everyday world,” and even induce a feeling of uncertainty about it in aporia. Socrates considered the everyday outlook inadequate to some of the most important questions for a human being, and that it conceals as much as it reveals. Hence, to be a good person — that is, one in which the soul is fulfilling it function — is to pursue wisdom.

Is wisdom the same thing as “lots of knowledge”? If not, what’s the difference?

Perhaps on the front of active, personal, subjective engagement, Socrates would still feel the call of his mission. Many of us might point to all the information amassed in the modern world, and the technologies for manipulating our natural and social environments, to justify our claim to understand reality. Socrates challenge might still be to open the minds of those who think themselves wise!

[Y]ou … give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor, and give no care or thought to truth and wisdom and the perfection of your soul… (Apology)

This spirit of self-critical reflection is felt through other Socratic voices. In the seventeenth century, Descartes interrogated our grasp of the everyday world through the senses in search of deeper understanding; in the late twentieth century, in The Matrix, the Wachowskis questioned our certainties about a world which might for all we know be a fabricated cage.
I leave it to you to consider whether Socrates should fly the “mission accomplished” banner.

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