Who is Socrates?
Socrates is one of the most widely recognized of the ancient Greek philosophers, and he produced a profound legacy that some even recognize as forming the basis of Western philosophy.
Native to Athens, Greece, he became so famous that he was even the butt of many jokes in local theatrical productions.
While philosophers before him were interested in the underlying structures of reality, Socrates became interested in even larger questions. While philosophers who came before him asked, How does one live a good life in a constantly fluctuating universe?, Socrates asked, What is goodness?
The magnitude of his thought and this dramatic shift are made even greater because of the way Socrates’ life ended.
After being charged with impiety and sentenced to death by poisoning, Socrates accepted this punishment willingly because he was so sure of the virtues and philosophies he’d developed in his life.
Socrates’ legacy on philosophy and even on modern Western civilization cannot be understated. He drew on the ideas of philosophers before him and found instead that there were even deeper questions to answer, such as, What is goodness?
This fundamental shift in philosophical thinking is a movement away from metaphysical or natural philosophy and toward the ethical or practical side of philosophy.
Socrates was determined to find a firm understanding of vice and virtue and how these seemingly conflicting forces play a role in the lives of each and every one of us.
The Socratic Method
Socrates was not as concerned with natural phenomena or ‘things in the sky and below the earth’ as philosophers before and after him were. Instead, Socrates was intensely focused on how he and others could become the best human beings possible.
Many of his teachings came in the form of an inquiry; he asked questions that could not be answered easily to foster further conversation and, he hoped, to point out to others some contradictions of values.
This methodology came to be known as the Socratic Method.
While this method is more commonly understood today in the education realm involving a cross-examination of students and teachers, Socrates used this method to demonstrate that the answers to a series of questions often do not form a cohesive idea and must then be revised until that cohesion is found.
An Example of Socrates’ Method
Socrates used what is now known as the Socratic Method to help his students understand that some questions aren’t easily answered and require further, careful examination. For example, Socrates asks a student, ‘What is piety?,’ and the student replies that piety is whatever the gods hold dear.
Socrates then asks, ‘Do all the gods hold dear the same things or actions?’ The student must admit that no, the gods do not. Then, Socrates asks, are the same actions considered both pious and impious?
Yes, the student begrudgingly agrees. As a result, the student is forced to reconsider their first answer or supposition.
This brief example demonstrates the heart of Socrates’ methodology and his tireless search for an understanding of the most fundamental truths that people may believe they already know.
This examination of truths, and later of self, would become the method that Socrates is most known for and that structures most of his philosophy.
The Examined Life
Self-examination is one of the highest practices Socrates taught; indeed, he infamously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” While this may seem extreme, Socrates did, in fact, place extreme importance on self-examination to lead a fulfilling life.
Socrates taught the importance of constant investigation into what our personal drives and motivations are and whether they are fulfilling to us or are merely satisfying a role or societal obligation.
Without this examination, we will ultimately be led by external forces that do not have our own best interests or psyche in mind.
Similarly, that examination of one’s own internal motivations and desires, and whether they reflect what is actually fulfilling or desirable to us, will help us to uncover exactly what will help create a balanced psyche.
As Socrates stated, “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” Socrates even believed that evil acts were committed out of ignorance and, therefore, involuntarily.
The Ultimate Good
The ultimate good, Socrates proposed, was virtue, or what he defined as moral excellence. It can be found in the person who possesses courage, justice, prudence, and temperance. Socrates believed that virtue was the highest good because it alone could provide happiness.
Virtue brings happiness because it brings order to people’s minds and actions and balances the impulses and desires that ultimately make one only unhappy and unfulfilled. These desires might be for wealth, status, or power.
To become virtuous, Socrates believed that one must seek out a true understanding of what virtue is. Once one knows what true virtue is, they will be able to live virtuously in their actions, motivations, and drives.
This knowledge and possession of virtue is what brings true happiness.
Ignorance is Evil
Socrates’ proposition that virtue is the ultimate good begs the question: If virtue brings happiness, why do so many commit evil? Socrates believed that evil was the result of ignorance.
If ignorance is the root of evil, then evil is committed involuntarily from a lack of knowledge. Socrates believed that it was knowledge of virtue that led people to act selflessly and against their own interests.
Ignorance of virtue and what it means to live virtuously leads people to act on base impulses and desires. It allows them to be pressured by figures of authority, or even their own peers, to live against their best interests.
One’s own best interest, Socrates believed, was wisdom, truth, and a healthy psyche. If someone understood how their actions were hurting themselves and others, they would not commit them, and, therefore, ignorance was the root of evil.
Thoughts on Tyranny
A concept that intrigued Socrates, even right up to his death, was tyranny. He saw tyranny as both an external force, coming from figures of authority or peers, and an internal force in the form of our own desires, appetites, and emotions.
Socrates proposed that fighting the injustice of tyranny could be done only by attaining knowledge of virtue and living in a virtuous way that can’t be influenced or swayed by external forces or internal desires. While this may seem simple on paper, it’s definitely easier said than done.
However, it was easy for Socrates. His willingness to take on the sentencing of poisoning for impiety was proof to himself of just how strong his virtue and willingness to fight tyranny was. He states in Apology, “The tyrannical government of the Thirty, powerful as it was, did not intimidate me into any wrongdoing [i.e., acting against my values].”
Socrates saw tyranny in two forms, external and internal. External tyranny comes in the form of authority or conformity to peers that begins to shape one’s values. Authority and conformity ultimately lead an individual to value only what society values, for example, the pursuit of wealth, status, or reputation. It can also lead one to act in ways that go against their own values.
If someone allows the masses or society to dictate how they live and what they value, they actually end up becoming part of that same authoritative force that urges others to live or act against their own values and psyche.
To break this cycle, Socrates believed it was important to establish an internal set of values revolving around wisdom, truth, and the health of one’s own psyche (or mental health) so as not to be a victim or participate in external tyranny.
The Tyrants in our Minds
External tyranny, or the pressure of authority and conformity, was not the only tyrannical threat that Socrates saw. He also believed the threat of internal tyranny could be just as significant.
This tyranny comes in the form of personal appetites, desires, and the drive for status. While it is easy to see how external pressure can change the behavior of an individual, Socrates also saw the internal threat to one’s own psyche.
If a person does not taper their own internal desires –for wealth, fame, success, and the like – then there is no way to overcome external tyranny or to establish a virtuous life. Happiness is realized only through knowledge and virtue.
To create a healthy and balanced psyche, Socrates believed it was important to perform a self-examination of what one actually desires and whether those desires are in line with a virtuous life.
Balancing the Psyche
Socrates believed three forces were at play within each of us: thumos, epithumia, and logos. Thumos translates to ‘passion’ and describes internal emotions, pride, anger, and the drive for status.
Epithumia translates to ‘appetites’ and describes the desires and wants we each possess. Logos translates to ‘word’ or ‘thought’ and describes the capacity for logic or reasoning.
Thumos and epithumia could be virtues but they could also easily be vices, Socrates proposed, if they are not constantly examined and kept in check by the individual. It is good, he believed, to have desires and motivations and pride in our work.
However, without constant examination, what can be a virtue can easily become a vice and an internal tyrant, especially if left unchecked or influenced by external tyrannical forces.
To foster a balanced psyche, each of these forces must be equalized so that no single aspect becomes our own personal tyrant in our heads and our lives.
What is the Way We Ought to Live?
In his Apology, Socrates asks, “For you see what our discussions are all about – and is there anything about which a man of even small intelligence would be more serious than this: What is the way we ought to live?’
Most people never contemplate this question; therefore, not only do their lives go unexamined, but their psyches, or mental health, may suffer as they find themselves leading unfulfilling lives.
To correctly answer how one ought to live, it’s necessary to examine one’s own desires, drives, and motivations and to identify external forces that influence them.
As Socrates said, “…[O]nce we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves, but otherwise, we never shall.’
Socrates believed that most people spend their lives chasing after notions such as status, wealth, and pleasure, but, ultimately, these are empty. To find true happiness, we must lead a virtuous life.
Slowing Down and Self-Examining
We live in an era of ‘the grind’ or ‘the hustle’ where productivity to the point of exhaustion is glorified and the highest value in society is reputation and wealth.
But what if we took the time to live by Socrates’ philosophy? How often do our busy lives give us time to examine our values, to examine what we really want?
If we were to slow down and complete that examination of values, would we be happy with our lives? Are the ambitions we’re chasing after ones we’ve decided for ourselves, or have society and our internal desires chosen them? Socrates’ wisdom may seem distant, but it’s highly practical and useful.
A thorough examination of what values we’re chasing and what values we want to embody can help us even now, in the 21st century, lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives.