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Ancient Greek Philosophy Part 5 - Socrates

PillarofCreationJul 5, 2018, 4:41:28 PM
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Socrates(469—399 BC) is undoubtedly one of the greatest men who has ever lived. Although it doesn't seem like he ever wrote anything down, his ideas have had a profound and lasting effect on philosophy. Socrates seems to have been one of the first Greek philosophers who dealt extensively with ethics. Above all, Socrates was tremendously charismatic, but also incredibly unattractive. He was also a warrior. Socrates fought for Athens in many battles, and even saved the life of a famous Athenian general. Despite this, Socrates was widely distrusted by the rest of Athens. This plus some complex politics between Athens and Sparta eventually led to his trial and execution. But I don't want to focus on his trial, as many of the most important documents which survive that tell of his life do. I want to focus on Socrates's method of doing philosophy, which was revolutionary and in my opinion is not replicated well enough in modern philosophy. Socratic philosophy is all about dialogue. The Elenchus, probably better known as the Socratic Method, is somewhere halfway in between a debate and an interrogation on the subject of the definition of a certain word or concept, usually a word with a subjective meaning. For example, some things that Socrates loved to talk about are courage, virtue, and justice. All things which the specific definitions for are somewhat hard to pin down, especially with respect to whether something in the world is an example of these ideas. Socrates would vigorously question his opposition about the meaning of the term in question, and then attempt to refute what they have said. There is much debate over the purpose of this method, and whether or not it can definitively prove something right or wrong. But I think people who look for logical truth value in the Socratic Method are missing the point. Socrates surely found these types of conversations to be tremendously entertaining, but the real purpose of the Elenchus is to elucidate the thoughts of the people involved. By having a vigorous debate about the meaning of a word that means different things to different people, the true scope and limit of the concept is tested in the minds of all who witness the conversation. Because of this method, Socrates was often accused of trying to make the worse argument into the better. What he was really doing was testing the limits of every argument from every direction possible. Socrates rejected the label of teacher, even though he was better at it than pretty much anyone else who ever lived. He taught an entire civilization how to think for themselves. And this is exactly the problem with the way philosophy is taught now. The social dynamic of teacher and student often prevents this type of aggressive and probing dialogue that leads to important realizations, although I have met a handful of teachers who could successfully replicate it regardless.

Socrates firmly believed that the most important good for human beings was the health of the soul. His purpose, in his own mind, was to agitate the people around him into thinking about themselves. In Plato's Apology, Socrates tell the jury that "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being." The health of the soul requires all people to question themselves, to keep careful track of what they do and do not know, and to live in accordance with and defend their beliefs. Socrates tells the jury that killing him will not help them escape self examination. "To escape giving an account of one’s life is neither possible nor good, Socrates claims, but it is best to prepare oneself to be as good as possible."

Socrates was correct. Self-reflection is the foundation of all ethics. Because ethical principles are not found in the world, they are not deduced from knowledge of any kind. Ethics come from within us, and if we do not know who we are, we cannot know why we believe what we do. It is better to proudly stand and announce your ignorance to the world than to cower and hide from those who have confidence and differing opinions.

Part 1 - Thales of Miletus

Part 2 - Heraclitus of Ephesus

Part 3 - Pythagoras of Samos

Part 4 - Parmenides and Zeno of Elea