The purpose of this essay is to analyze the worldview of the 4th century BCE philosopher Socrates through addressing four out of the eight Fundamental Questions of Philosophy: Condition, Solution, Morality, and Death as well as a critique on The Ultimate. Excerpts from The Last Days of Socrates by Plato, and Cassian Harrison’s documentary Empires: The Greeks – Crucible of Civilization will be used to present and prompt analysis of Socrates’ answers to the Fundamental Questions.
Socrates believed that a problem with Athenian society was that people believed they had knowledge and wisdom that they didn’t actually possess. For Socrates, only God had true wisdom and mortal beings could never possess the wisdom of God because they were not God. At one point Socrates was told by an oracle that there was no man wiser than himself. Socrates may have been, according to the oracle, the wisest man but not the wisest being for God is a being and He can only possess real wisdom.
It is not in Socrates’ nature to blindly hear a thing, even if it is from an oracle, and blindly believe it without questioning and examining it to its fullest extent. Socrates, believing he knew nothing and therefore could not possess any type of wisdom, attempted to prove the oracle wrong. During his trial, Socrates states, “I went to interview a man with a high reputation for wisdom, because I felt that here if anywhere I should succeed in disproving the oracle…. And in conversation with him I formed the impression that although many people’s opinion, and especially his own, he appeared to be wise, in fact he was not.”(Apology 21c-d) Socrates concluded that he was wiser than this man because he did not pretend to have wisdom that he, in fact, did not possess. Socrates also generalized about all people that ignorant of their lack of wisdom.
“And in conversation with him I formed the impression that although many people’s opinion, and especially his own, he appeared to be wise, in fact he was not. Then when I began to try to show him that he only thought he was wise and was not really so, my efforts were resented both by him and by many of the other people present.” (21c-d) Socrates also discovered in the very same conversation another issue with society. People are resentful of and defensive against having their ignorance exposed. People don’t like to be questioned and they don’t like to be wrong, especially those with a reputation to uphold.
After the notable ‘wise’ men Socrates moved on to the politicians. The same conclusion was made about these men. Socrates was wiser than them because he was “quite conscious of [his] ignorance.”(21d) Socrates engaged in critical conversation with poets. Socrates “decided it was not wisdom that enabled them to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.”(Apology 22c) “I also observed that the very fact that they were poets made them think they had a perfect understanding of all other subjects, of which they were totally ignorant.” (Apology 22c) The poets were only messengers of their message but they do not fully understand the messages they are conveying because they are not wise. The poets’ inspiration is a higher being (which may be God) holds a higher level of wisdom than the poets. In a last attempt to prove that Socrates himself wasn’t the wisest man like the Oracle said he went to the craftspeople.
Due to the craftsmen’s profession, they possessed knowledge that Socrates did not have. And in that aspect, Socrates believed that they were more informed than himself. “however,… these professional experts seemed to share the same failing that I had noticed in the poets; I mean that on the strength of their technical proficiency they [also] claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject…”(Apology 22d) With this conclusion, Socrates found that when humans have a grasp of one concept they believe they know all things to an equal extent. This for Socrates is a problem because a human cannot be proficient in all things. That is something only God can do.
Another problem that Socrates believed applied to Athenian society is that people’s thoughts and actions are influenced by others in society (Apology 20a-b). People don’t think for themselves. This issue is exemplified in people with a reputation for wisdom. They believe they are wise because other people believe they are wise. The men that are said to be wise have been told by many that they are wise and haven’t questioned their wisdom they just believed it.
People are not conscious of ignorance. The problem with people is that they think they are wise when really they know nothing at all. Real wisdom is the property of God and that is the highest level of wisdom. You cannot call a person wise who does not possess the wisdom of God.
The solution to the human condition according to Socrates’ speeches in the Apology would seem to be for people to investigate commonly held beliefs and based on the answers they receive to determine for themselves what they believe based on his statement “let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself an others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without that sort of examination is not worth living,…”(Apology 38a).
While this is a practical remedy to the human condition, jailed and awaiting death, Socrates comes to the conclusion, “So long as we keep to the body and our soul is contaminated with this imperfection, there is no chance of our ever attaining satisfactory to our object, which we assert to be Truth.” (Phaedo 66b) The only way to attain any real knowledge is to die. In Phaedo, it is established in 65c that one cannot be truly wise while the soul is connected with the body because the senses and the needs of the body are distracting the mind from discovering Truth. If people spend their whole lives attempting to fulfill every want and need of the body then they cannot simultaneously discover Truth. Life, according to Socrates, isn’t about material things but about finding knowledge
In life, however, Socrates wants Athenians to analyze their lives and the world around them because he wants people to have the highest level of knowledge attainable by man because God holds all real knowledge. Socrates wants people to be more attuned to God so that they can be lead to this knowledge.
“To put it bluntly I’ve been assigned to this city as if to a large horse, which is inclined to be lazy and is in need of some great stinging fly, and all day long I’ll never cease to settle here, there, everywhere, rousing and reproving every one of you.” —Socrates
Socrates believes God made him so that he could spur the people of Athens into thought and lead them to open themselves up to the guidance of God. Socrates won’t stop examining the peoples’ beliefs because the people have fallen into a pattern of complacency. Socrates asked questions and criticized the military and political decisions because God told him that he must. He listened to God. And for listening to the words of God the people disliked him.“
For over 50 years, Socrates had been publicly questioning and attacking the traditions of Athenian life, and around him, he had gathered a group of youthful followers. Surely, this must have weakened the city’s moral character, undermined her hunger for glory. Socrates was arrested on charges of undermining the state religion and corrupting the youth of the city.” The political leaders of the city are upset with Socrates because they believe that if he hadn’t questioned Athenian military might and power they would have been successful in their campaigns against the Spartans and their city may not have experienced the plague.
“Humiliated, their empire lost, the Athenians looked for someone to take the blame for their defeat. They searched for an enemy within their city walls — someone who had dared to question their dreams of supremacy. They searched for Socrates.”(Harrison)
“Socrates says you must make every decision based on your own understanding of what is good and what is not good.” (Nehamas) People have their own ideas about right and wrong but Socrates’ understanding of right and wrong, just and unjust come directly from God. In Socrates’ own words, Meletus’ accusation reads, “Socrates is guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in supernatural things of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the state.”(24b-c)
Through examining this statement Socrates concludes that he isn’t guilty of these charges because his moral compass comes straight from God. “ In the past the prophetic voice to which I have become accustomed has always been my constant companion, opposing me even in quite trivial things if I was going to take the wrong course.” (Apology 40a) God tells Socrates when he is wrong and because Socrates listens to God, and lets God guide him, Socrates cannot do anything which is unjust. Because God didn’t stop Socrates from philosophizing, Socrates believes that what he was doing was justified.
“Death is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another.”(Apology 40c) Death according to Socrates cannot be a bad thing because the dead are 1) not aware they are dead and therefore the soul dies with the body or 2) there is an afterlife for the soul and only the body dies and the soul is released. Either way Socrates believes that his death can only be good because it is God’s will that Socrates dies. If in fact there is an afterlife as Socrates believes there is then his soul will be able to keep following God and it will be able to philosophize without fear of consequence.
“This is the defence [sic] which I offer you,…to show that it is natural for me to leave you and my earthly rulers without any feeling of grief or bitterness, since I believe that I shall find there, no less than here, good rulers and good friends.” ( Phaedo 69d-e)
Socrates isn’t afraid of death or what comes after death because he believes God wouldn’t have led him down this path if death was a bad thing. Socrates also believes that God wants him to die so that he can discover true knowledge. “If no pure knowledge is possible in the company of the body, then either it is totally impossible to acquire knowledge, or it is only possible after death, because it is only then that the soul will be isolated and independent of the body.”(Phaedo 66e-67a) In death, Socrates will be able to fulfill his desire for knowledge and wisdom, which, for Socrates is preferable to living in a society that doesn’t allow him to achieve his life’s purpose.
“We are in fact convinced that if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things in isolation with the soul in isolation.”(Phaedo 66e)
Socrates’ views about discovering knowledge are somewhat contradictory because he says that the purpose of human life is to find Truth, however, humans can’t find Truth because Truth can only be discovered when the soul is separate from the body. The soul can’t be separated from the body without the body being dead. Socrates also believes that God put him on Earth to help people discover knowledge so that human beings could be wiser. The Apology and Crito establish these ideals, but it is in Phaedo that these ideas are contradicted.
Socrates concludes in Phaedo 66e-67a that the soul cannot discover Truth because “when it [the soul] tries to investigate anything with the help of the body it is obviously liable to be lead astray.”(Phaedo 65b) If the soul cannot acquire Truth while it is connected with the body then what is the real purpose of life? And if God wanted human beings to find Truth and be wise then why would he create our bodies as a distraction? Socrates concludes that the real purpose of life, if not to gain knowledge and wisdom, is to die.
“We are in fact convinced that if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things in isolation with the soul in isolation. It’s likely, to judge from our argument, the wisdom which we desire and upon which we profess to have set our hearts will be attainable only when we are dead, and not in our lifetime.”(Phaedo 66e) Only in death can Truth be discovered and people become wise. God wants Socrates to have the Truth and enlighten the people of the world, but if Truth can only be discovered in death then God wants Socrates to die.
Socrates’ Argument of Opposites (Phaedo 70c-d) states that there is a ceaseless cycle of life (the dead come from the living and the living come from the dead). By this reasoning, Socrates will be reborn again after he obtains knowledge and wisdom. Socrates’ Theory of Recollection allows him to still follow Gods word and enlighten the people when he is reborn. The Theory of Recollection says that even though a person forgets knowledge they learned in the afterlife, it can be recalled by asking the right questions. When the reborn Socrates remembers the knowledge he learned in the afterlife he can begin to enlighten the world’s people.
In examining Socrates theories about life and death, and the acquiring of knowledge it can be concluded that God doesn’t want to human beings to be wise but he does want humans to have knowledge. The people of Socrates time weren’t ready to be enlightened. God wanted Socrates to die so that he could be reborn with knowledge only attainable in death at a time when the world is ready to be enlightened.