Socrates: Welcome to Philosophy

"Socrates," by Mitch Francis

  • Socrates 1.1 – Prometheus and Philosophy

    "Ordo philosophorum," or "Order of the Philosophers"; "causarum cognitio," or "knowledge of causes" - an echo of Aristotle
    Ordo philosophorum,” or “Order of the Philosophers”; “causarum cognitio,” or “knowledge of causes” – an echo of Aristotle: philosophers understand the “why” of things.

    Prometheus and philosophy

    morph‘ comes from the Greek for ‘shape’ and generally implies a change of form. Check out the entry on

    “What is philosophy?” Rather than starting with a formal definition, I propose we pay attention to what philosophers do and how they do it. This will sooner lead us to deeper insight into what they’re up to. So that’s the plan. We’ll start by getting to know someone doing philosophy — and that someone is Socrates. Then we’ll trace his influence through a couple more philosophers — his disciple Plato; and, in turn, Plato’s student, Aristotle. Tracing this line will provide a sense of how philosophic themes morph or change over generations, even while remaining recognizably similar. But some would argue that much of Socrates’ influence is hardly even noticed anymore because it has been so thoroughly absorbed into Western culture — in strands of ethical reasoning, educational theory, scientific method, and “religious” beliefs about the soul. We hardly notice it not only because of the changes it has undergone, but also because it’s ubiquitous – omnipresent; thus, what we are doing requires extra attention and subtlety.

    "Socrates," by Mitch Francis
    “Socrates,” by Mitch Francis
    Socrates walked this planet 25 centuries ago, from about 469 BCE until tensions led to his execution in Athens in 399 BCE. His crime was essentially philosophizing. The next leg of our journey will bring us to the record of his trial, written by his younger disciple, Plato, in a work called The Apology. As we begin,

    • What better to mention than this heightened tension?
    • Where better to start than with this wise heart?
    • When better to attend than as he faces his end?

    Well after Socrates’ death, Plato remarked that the capacities and aims to which Socrates introduced humanity carry importance of mythic proportions: Plato invoked the memory of the scandalous Prometheus —

    There is a gift of the gods to humans, as it seems to me anyway, thrown down from the gods by some Prometheus together with the most dazzling fire. (Philebus 16c5)

    Perhaps the myth of Prometheus’ punishment is a projection of human anxiety about creativity and other human powers. There’s a reason Mary Shelley subtitled her 1818 classic as she did: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

    Frankenstein: Modern Prometheus; Shelley's 1818 novel
    Title page, Shelley’s 1818 novel
    And anyone who has seen the Ridley Scott film, Prometheus (2012), has beheld this anxiety literally projected onto the screen with all of the horror contemporary computer-generated imagery can offer.
    Prometheus Plays With Fire (from the Ridley Scott film, Prometheus (2012)
    from the Ridley Scott film, Prometheus (2012)

    What underlies these ties to the Prometheus myth?

    Most variants of his myth remain close in spirit to Prometheus the Titan-god who created humanity under charge from Zeus; who introduced to humanity words, technology, and medicine, and, against the will of an angry Zeus, fire; and who was consequently strapped into an “eternal-punishment machine” where Zeus’ eagle visited daily to peck out our champion’s ever-regenerated liver. Prometheus represents a hope — the unleashing and fulfilment of human potential — and a danger inherently tied to that unleashing (whether or not we think about it as involving literal punishment).

    The word ‘synthesis‘ originates from the Greek for “composition” — derived from syn- (for together) and ‘tithenai‘ (for put). Hence, “synthetic” does not always imply “fake,” so much as it does a power to make! It is more deeply tied to the concept of creation than to illusion.

    Plato sees Socrates as an intimate part of an analogous process, of a Promethean bequeathing to humanity of the powers of understanding and creation, or synthesis, as they operate in philosophy. The myth shows us the significance of this through the eyes of the Olympian gods: they are deeply concerned, even enraged. And while they enjoy some catharsis through Titan-torture, their cause for concern remains at large — it is us, “on the loose,” exercising divine prerogatives.

    We’ll see Plato develop Socrates’ more vague notion of what is highest or best into a theory of The Highest Good — which Plato calls the “Form of the Good” — in The Republic.

    Plato takes a more optimistic view than those of Ridley Scott or Mary Shelley; our powers of understanding and creation open the possibility of a cosmos into which we integrate harmoniously, by means of “grasping,” appreciating, and pursuing what is highest or best. For Plato, the prophet of this unification or harmony is Socrates, a highly developed, self-styled, provocateur, always on the way toward wisdom, always attentive to unusual voices.

  • Socrates 1.2 – Madness in Your Method

    A dash of madness in your method?

    Socrates was put to death for philosophizing. Of course, his style might have had something to do with it, too. In our reading of The Apology, we’ll encounter something of the flavor of the man. Here, I’ll introduce some ideas about Socrates’ role in shaping a conception of philosophy, which through his life takes a distinctive turn and receives a permanent coloring.

    The word ‘elenchus‘ derives from the Greek for ‘refutation’.

    Socrates carried out his philosophical mission by means of open-ended discussion or dialogue, modeling a practice involving others not by happenstance, but essentially: for Socrates, philosophy implies community, critical scrutiny and equality. Anyone might contribute key insights, and no one has the power to secure her or his favoured outcome because it’s favored: reasons are required. Socrates’ practice, called elenchus in the Greek, is perhaps best described as the dialogue-driven process of interrogating beliefs, teasing out and testing their implications. When he exposed unresolved confusions, he accepted his ignorance, and cautioned others.

    The idea of “an inner voice” calling us “back” to ideals might be considered a nice metaphor. But there is evidence in Plato’s writings that Socrates believed each of us to be in possession of knowledge, hidden even from ourselves — knowledge rooted in a state before our birth, and which we might “recollect” with the aid of philosophy.

    The exposure of unresolved confusions might be thought of as part of a critical and analytic aspect of philosophy — it calls for clarification and consistency, and it questions the answers: it tests, and exposes what it falsifies. And thus it opens our ears to a voice within ourselves that “calls us back” to first questions. (I don’t mean “first” in a chronological sense, as in “the questions of children.”) Some such questions arise as we aim at a deeper understanding of the world — they are the questions that arise when we press the common answers we take for granted. For instance, when philosophical thinking uncovers inconsistencies in my world view, I face questions like,

    • What makes right right?
    • Is
    • Can I trust “science”? What should I believe when scientists disagree?
    • Does a god exist? A good one? If so, why is there suffering that seems unjustified?
    • Is using brutal or lethal force ethically justified? If so, by whom and when?
    • What is it that I call “myself”? Does saying, “It’s my soul,” answer, or raise, more questions?
    • If I’m composed of material particles the behavior of which is governed by physics (not on my will?), can “I” have real “free will”? Is it possible to say in detail in what sense “I” wiggle my finger? What exactly is the “I” in that story?

    Other “first questions” arise when we undertake to find our way, to ask ourselves where we’re headed and why. For instance, how I respond to inconsistencies in my world view uncovered by philosophical thinking says a lot about what kind of person I am. I have to take a stand on questions like,

    • Is it important that I resolve inconsistencies in my thought and behavior?
    • Can I live a truly good life if some degree of consistency isn’t important to me?
    • What standards of rigor and evidence should I accept pertaining to my beliefs about science, god, and myself? Why?
    • How much courage, honesty, and overall dedication should I expect from myself?
    • Can I live a truly good life even if these are not important to me?

    This kind — or quality, or style — of engagement faces us with questions about what is true, what is beautiful, and what is good. Pursuing these deepens our understanding of the world; and in turn, that growth at times focuses questions for us about what we believe, what we value generally, and what kind of persons we want to be, specifically. Grappling with questions that seem more objective — pertaining to matters out beyond me — can also lead inward to self-reflection, appreciation, and evaluation.

    In the text, Alcibiades, Socrates argues that the sign-post of wisdom points inward to self-understanding:

    1. We ought to desire to be the best we can be; and rather than leave it to chance, we should undertake to bring this about through “care of the soul.”
    2. Self-knowledge is required for care of the soul.        
    3. Thus, we have a rational motive to pursue self-knowledge.

    Heidegger wrote, “To be human is to be concerned for who one is.” Perhaps this phrase brings into focus what’s distinctively human. Are fish, flies, frogs, sheep, pigs, or dogs concerned about what they are? How about whales or other primates?

    In the desire to live well, there is an essential if only intimated concern for “the Good,” motivating self-knowledge. In effect, self-knowledge begins with an implicit acknowledgement of and desire for the Good. The influential recent philosopher Martin Heidegger credits Socrates with articulating the insight that to be human is essentially to be concerned for who one is. For both of these philosophers, true philosophy addresses the whole person. Intellect is an essential aspect; but it exists as an aspect of the whole person, whose concern toward life is more than narrowly intellectual, and involves other values, goals, and ideals.

    Socrates in Alcibiades goes on to suggest that we encounter our own souls through engagement with others, in something like the way we can see a reflection of ourselves in another’s pupil.

    [I]f the soul… is to know herself, she must surely look at a soul, and especially at… wisdom, and… the seat of knowledge and thought… [T]his part of her resembles God, and whoever looks at this, and comes to know all that is divine, will gain thereby the best knowledge of himself.

    There is a part of us which we can see best with the help of others, and in this part we reflect more properly the Highest Things.

  • Socrates 1.3 – A Trend-Transcending Radical

    A Trend-Transcending Radical

    Logic is the science of good reasoning, first studied systematically by Aristotle. The word derives from the Greek ‘logos‘ (‘λογική’), which means ‘reason’ or ‘principle’.

    Not every account of philosophy gives such prominence to values and the dimension of personal meaning. It is true that some modern philosophers consider their work to be primarily technical and analytical, without any necessary connection to the personal. Some of these thinkers say the philosopher’s job is primarily the clarification of concepts; or the evaluation of views and the evidence for them; or the unconvering of hidden meanings, or untying of intellectual knots, whether by appeal to logic and analysis or to ordinary language.

    esoteric‘ comes from Greek (‘esōterikos‘), which derives from the word for within. Esoteric knowledge is “insider knowledge,” possessed by few (e.g., magicians, high priestesses, and those who know the inner secrets of baseball) and perhaps hidden from the many.

    Anglo-American analytic philosophy‘ here means philosophy as practiced in the native English-speaking world, including Britain, North America, and also Australia and New Zealand. During the twentieth century, philosophy in these lands was often more “Analytic” in its style, and promoted techniques of conceptual clarification and logical analysis as methods, while sometimes shunning speculation and conceptual vagueness.

    There is certainly merit to these accounts, even if they are incomplete. At times, they have been the dominant flavors of Philosophy as an institution – whether practiced by the medieval monk utilizing Aristotelian metaphysics to make sense of esoteric theological doctrines, perhaps far from everyday concerns; or by the Anglo-American analytic philosopher devoted to clarifying and demystifying, to “showing” that certain “puzzles” slink away once we clarify our concepts — showing, for instance, that the mental fog around the concept of “freedom of the will” dissipates as soon as the concept of freedom is clarified through philosophical scrutiny.

    transcend‘ has Latin roots: trans- (beyond) and scandere (to climb). Hence, its meaning — to surmount, move, or ascend beyond. As an athlete might “transcend pain,” we might “transcend our intellectual horizons.”

    The Latin root from which ‘radical‘ comes (radicalis, itself rooted in the Latin for ‘radish’!), means “of roots, having roots,” thus supporting the connotation, “going to the original spirit or substance.”

    Institutions — taken loosely: political parties, religions, or bands will do — are prone to become lopsided with time, as power shifts within them. Enduring ones often return to the spirits of their youth for renewal. This is good reason for starting with Socrates: His embodiment of philosophical spirit is often thought to be radical and trend-transcending.

    By the end of the semester, you’ll form your own view about that.

  • Socrates 1.4 – Aporia and the Wisdom of Emptiness

    Aporia and the wisdom of emptiness

    Plato’s early dialogues, most probably the ones closer in time and spirit to Socrates, are sometimes called the “aporetic dialogues” because of this theme.

    Socrates’ interrogations lead to a condition the Greeks called ‘aporia‘ (literally translated, ‘perplexity’, ‘impasse’, ‘puzzlement’). Socrates himself refers to it as “the torpedo” and claims its “shock” is “of advantage,” intellectually speaking. But its tendency in the larger process is not only destructive. In Plato’s Meno, Socrates says of his befuddled young interlocutor that far from being harmed by the ignorance that resulted from our “causing him to doubt and giving him the torpedo’s shock,” he is “better off” for it:

    At first he did not know what [he thought he knew], and he does not know even now: but at any rate he thought he knew then, and confidently answered as though he knew, and was aware of no difficulty; whereas now he feels the difficulty he is in, and besides not knowing does not think he knows…. [W]e have certainly given him some assistance, it would seem, towards finding out the truth of the matter: for now he will push on in the search gladly, as lacking knowledge; whereas then he would have been only too ready to suppose he was right….
    [Having] been reduced to the perplexity of realizing that he did not know… he will go on and discover something. (Meno 84a-d, Lamb translation)

    While the experience of aporia can be disturbing, for his part, Socrates modeled the ultimate peace within aporia in his confrontation with death, maintaining his curiosity and seriousness, his awe and levity. His path, and perhaps his serenity on it, disturbed the peace, in part through destroying the (over)confidence of others. But his life affirmed a constructive role for philosophy as well: For Socrates, dazzlement is an inevitable part of growing to “know thyself.” In fact, it is in large part this that Socrates considers his achievement: With courage, he sets aside the aspects of his world view that wobble under scrutiny, and in the end reports no certainties — even claiming to “know nothing.” Is it possible that it is a “wise ignorance” he has achieved? This is “Socratic ignorance.” Ignorance itself is the absence of knowledge. But Socratic ignorance is the wisdom of a courageous journeyer, whose “view of the facts” isn’t in the way of reality! Hence, even when Socrates ends empty-handed, the emptiness after moving through aporia is a kind of progress, even when it doesn’t yield new truths.

    It’s also worth considering another strand of courage here: I would argue that Socratic ignorance is more than just “lack of knowledge,” but more even than an acknowledgement of that lack arising from the interrogation of one’s beliefs. The ideal of Socratic ignorance (as a philosophic “virtue”) also implies a profound desire for the Good, even a love of it.

    The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek ‘philosophia‘ (φιλοσοφία), which is built of an element that means loving, ‘philo-‘, and the word for wisdom, ‘sophia‘ — and it thus translates literally as the “loving of wisdom”. This is helpful; but we shouldn’t pass too quickly over understanding ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’ here. Both the word form and Socrates’ life suggest the “love” active in philosophy inspires a journey calling for courage. As we’ll see, the “wisdom,” likewise, has its “vectoral” depth, aiming not just at understanding objects in the world, but also at subjective understanding, or self-knowledge.

    Apollo: a son of Zeus, he eclipsed Helios as the sun god, and became the god associated with reason, structured music, and prophecy.

    “Know thyself.” This is the translation of the inscription above the Oracle’s kitchen door in The Matrix (it read, “temet nosce.” “Know thyself”). It is also the message inscribed in Greek, “Gnothi seauton,” over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece, through which Socrates received the charge of his life’s mission, as we read in The Apology. It is what Socrates held true to because he considered it essential to a life lived well, lived rightly. In the face of death, he says:

    [L]ife without this sort of examination is not worth living.

    “Know thyself,” Socrates is convinced, resonates within each of us, if only as an ember with potential to ignite: We each have the capacity to respond well to life’s possibilities, through living with courage, honesty, commitment, and love, in “heart” and in “intellect” — in short, with our whole being.

    Let it roll off your tongue a few times; turn it in your mind:

    “Life without this sort of examination is not worth living.”

    What is philosophizing? What is this sort of examination, that Socrates thinks it so important that he’d sooner face execution than stop doing it? He identifies it as the path of wisdom. I read him as presenting a love-inspired image of excellence that includes developing our ability to operate with high standards of consistency, openness, and productivity – not for angels, but for us.

    Consider whether you think it’s important (and reasonable!) to probe ourselves and others about:

    Consistency: Do any of my beliefs contradict each other? What am I doing to promote consistency in my thinking? Is there harmony between my thinking and my behavior patterns? These include

    • my shopping habits, including what I buy and don’t buy, and why;
    • the ways I treat people, including myself and everyone else — from intimates to those more socially distant;
    • the ways I spend time; the way I vote; what I eat;

    and more.

    Openness: Perfect consistency is arguably not enough for living well. For instance, one who believes nothing matters, and behaves like it, may be consistent. But the underlying belief deserves scrutiny. So I should ask: Am I open to inquiring into the bases of my outlook and beliefs? Do I understand and take responsibility for assessing those underpinnings? Do I believe what’s easiest or most convenient, or do I make an effort to see beyond those motives by considering the possibilities

    • that I’ve picked up some false beliefs along the way;
    • that my reasoning went astray; or
    • that I might even tend to turn away or “shut down intellectually” when I hear something that challenges my habitual thinking?

    How open am I to perspectives in tension with my everyday thinking, beyond those of my circle of friends and mainstream media? In what ways do I test my beliefs? Are my practices in these areas “good enough”?

    Arete was given face as a minor Greek goddess, sister to Harmonia. Here she stands sculpted at the Library of Celsus — a wealthy Roman Senator — built in Ephesus (in contemporary Turkey) at the beginning of the second century of the common era. And there I am next to her.
    Productivity: As gardeners and doctors, musicians and athletes, we go to some trouble to cultivate healthy plants and bodies, and skilled hands and feet. These are the goods at which those disciplines aim. According to Socrates, as people, we ought similarly to strive for our good — for “perfection of the soul” — by honing our capacity to live well, practicing the skills that help us be our best selves, which also keep us from falling into sheep-hood in thought, behavior, and aspiration. The discipline devoted to this art is philosophy.

    ’Soul’ here — psyche (ψυχή), which is derived from the Greek verb for ‘to blow’ — should not necessarily to be taken to imply a literally airy or ghost-like aspect of our existence which “controls” the physical body “from within.” That conception is probably a later, Christianized development, admittedly indebted to Socrates. But apart from theorizing about what soul is, he associated it first with its special power: it’s the element capable of understanding, the element most suited to guide a life well lived. Hence, whatever else it is, it has the strongest claim to being the true self.

    The Greek word for such ‘excellence’ is arete (ἀρετή), usually rendered in English as ‘virtue’. But that is a “thin” translation if it brings to mind Goody Two-Shoes. The models of arete that would have come to mind in Socrates’ day are great heroes and athletes — those who aspire and actualize their potential; they are inspiring, noble, strong, wise; and as such, they are true, beautiful, and good. In their souls, we might say, are reflected Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

    Some philosophers will distinguish practical arete for wise living from theoretical arete for intellectual understanding, or divide practical arete into a list of “virtues,” or excellences of human character. But before such refinements, it’s worth considering the very idea of human excellence. It implies that just as one can be a better or worse doctor, one can be better or worse at soul care; and just as one can be healthy or sickly, one can enjoy better and worse conditions of soul. To start or progress on the path of excellence. Socrates tells us, we should develop Socratic ignorance, courageous creativity, and other excellences — and to ask ourselves:

    • Am I happy about, or even proud of, what and who I am? If not, am I working to become someone I can be proud to be?
    • What’s my attitude toward identifying and developing my capacities, whatever they may be? Am I lazy about my own physical, emotional, intellectual, or artistic growth?
    • If I am, does that matter? Is Socrates right that I am in some sense better off making my life a personal tribute to Arete?
    • Have I asked myself whether my existence matters, and if so, what makes it matter?

    This is just a start. But we have begun our journey with Socrates, who calls us to care for and improve our souls; to honor the inner voice drawing us to “first questions”; to cultivate our philosopher natures.

    Is wisdom the path, or the destination?