The Philosopher of Virtueby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Socrates lived an uncompromising life in search of virtue. He demonstrated
great self-control, and died for his beliefs. He neglected his job and family
to wander the streets examining slave and king alike all in order to teach virtue.
Those who answered intelligibly were his friends. To those who were prideful
he showed no mercy but displayed their inconsistencies with irony. Nothing except
argumentative reasoning could persuade Socrates. Those who were his friends
absorbed his philosophy and passed it, helping to shape western philosophy.
Before the discussion continues, one thing must be mentioned about the sources of Socrates. First, his contemporaries wrote everything we have about Socrates; Socrates wrote nothing himself. The only sources we have of Socrates are a comedy called The Clouds which pokes fun at Socrates, Plato’s works, Aristotle and others who have second hand accounts except possibly Xenophon, the historian who may have been a first-hand witness.1 One problem with Plato's account, which contains a significant amount of our knowledge of Socrates, is that Socrates pursued such different philosophies that one would think Socrates had multiple personalities.2 It is possible that Plato actually puts his own philosophical ideas into the mouth of Socrates. Thus the reader must know the real Socrates has been lost to history and things attributed to him may really be the beliefs of his contemporaries.
Socrates lived during a time when the Athenian democracy was unstable, and when Greek thinkers were beginning to doubt the validity of their Greek mythology. Socrates had a stonemason for a father and a midwife for his mother. Starting off as a stonemason he was prosperous and married Xantippe, who had an aristocratic name.3 Socrates also served as a soldier. However, as Socrates’ devotion to philosophy increased he became poor. He forced himself to walk around without shoes and he had no shirt.4 Socrates would spend his days in the market place or streets or other places, examining and persuading all sorts of people using an interrogation method now known as the Socratic Method. He would first ask for the thesis or definition, then by asking questions he would establish premises his victim agrees with until he could come to a conclusion that contradicts the thesis or definition. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates discusses piety and impiety with a friend who is prosecuting his own father. Euthyphro seems confident in the piety of bringing his father to court (who he said murdered a slave), and Socrates sarcastically praises him for his great knowledge, and then proceeds to show the inconsistencies in Euthyphro’s proof. Euthyphro cites how Zeus killed his father Cronus to revenge his brothers. Socrates is skeptical of the Greek Mythology like many of the other deep Greek thinkers. And so he shows the inconsistencies in the Greek pantheon and how they show piety. When Socrates has cornered Euthyphro he says that he is in a hurry and must leave. Socrates is left saying how disappointed he is that Euthyphro could not finish telling him about piety, of which Socrates knows Euthyphro is ignorant.
Several of Socrates ideas correlate to the Bible. Socrates himself was obsessed with righteous living like no other philosopher. As a premise, Socrates believed the soul was eternal. Common man could not harm it; only one’s owner could hurt or better his soul with his actions.5 Socrates also strongly associated wisdom with virtue. James 3:13 says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Job 28:28 also says, “And to man He (God) said ‘Behold the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” Thus we see that Socrates view of wisdom and virtue is not altogether untrue.
Continuing Socrates argument, he believes in the virtuous life because it is the ultimate good of the person who lives it. According to Socrates the soul is paramount and one should be foremost concerned with it, because virtue benefits the soul and thus brings happiness.6 Socrates thought that this benefit was immediate, like moderation brings good health, but he did not, as the Bible teaches, say how good deeds store up riches for the next life.7 His belief of the immediate benefit of virtue seems difficult to believe. Why are the wicked often rich, and powerful? Why are so many virtuous people in poverty? Although it may seem that his rule is false, and that the life of virtue only shows foresight of the next life, really it is true and Biblical. According to the Catechism, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. How does one enjoy God? Well, God sends blessings, and so one enjoys God when he receives his blessings, but we do not receive his blessing when we are wicked, but when we are righteous he sends us his blessings. Naturally the next question would be why are there wicked people who are wealthy and enjoy better circumstances than the righteous? One must remember the mandate is to enjoy God, not wealth or happy circumstances, and true joy does not come out of good circumstances anyway; it comes from God alone as a blessing. Many a millionaires has committed suicide. It is in a materialistic culture that Socrates’ ideas are difficult to understand.
One of the ideas that got Socrates in trouble was that he thought he was wiser than many of the people in power. Like most of Socrates’ ideas, this is not what it seems in appearance. Socrates believed that he was wise because he knew nothing and admitted it, while others thought they were wise but really were not. In other words, anyone who admits to not being wise is really wise because no human can really attain complete wisdom. One of Socrates friends had asked the oracle of Delphi if any were wiser than Socrates. The oracle said “no” which greatly surprised Socrates. So Socrates examined famous politicians, artists, and poets to prove the oracle wrong. After examining them and getting his victims into tight spots Socrates surmised that their wisdom was illusionary and the oracle was right. Naturally the people whom he examined were not very happy about being humiliated, and eventually arraigned him and gave him the death penalty.8
This philosophy has some connections to the Bible. 1 Corinthians 8:1 says, “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know.” Perhaps Socrates realized that humans are flawed and therefore can never attain perfect knowledge and wisdom, but to be wise one must first admit his ignorance.
In Plato’s Apology (or defense speech), Socrates gives an account of himself at his trial, and summarizes his life with this analogy: “If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place. It is literally true (even if it sounds rather comical) that God has specially appointed me to this city, as though it were a large thoroughbred horse which because of its great size is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of some stinging fly. It seems to me that God has attached me to this city to perform the office of such a fly; and all day long I never cease to settle here, there and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you. You will not easily find another like me, gentlemen, and if you take my advice you will spare my life. I suspect however, that before long you will awake from your drowsing, and in your annoyance you will take Anytus’ advice and finish me off with a single slap; and then you will go on sleeping till the end of your days, unless God in his care for you sends someone to take my place."9 Thus Socrates does not idly live out his life just thinking about his ideas. On the contrary he believes it the mandate of God to teach them widely everyday making him more a teacher of virtue than a philosopher.
Regardless of whether his teachings were Biblically correct or not, his ideas strongly influenced western thinking. Men like Plato were changed by Socrates, and carried on his thoughts into philosophical schools. These have been carried through history and shaped western philosophy into what it is today.