INTRODUCTION TO PHILOSOPHY COURSE: Socrates part one

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In an article entitled “The Rise and Fall of the Socratic Problem” written by Louis-André Dorion in the “Cambridge Companion to Socrates” there is the suggestion that there is a contradiction between the assertion that the soul is divided into parts and the assertion that akrasia is a real phenomenon: the phenomenonon namely manifested in a person saying that they knew that what they were doing was wrong but they were forced to do it anyway. The contradiction is assumed to arise because akrasia places in question the idea of one unified active agent striving to obtain the good. If this is true then it would seem impossible for an agent to know the good and not do what they know to be good.
Now Socrates is supposed to have argued that the phenomenon of akrasia is incoherent, although given the current confusion of the identity of the historical Socrates with the identity of the Platonic literary creation of the Socrates of the dialogues, we might well wonder whether we can talk about Socrates at all anymore. Perhaps one should instead describe Socrates by saying “There is an x such that x exists and x insisted the phenomenon of akrasia is incoherent”? But should we succumb to the suggestion that Historians of Philosophy have not known what they have been talking about when they discussed the views of the Philosopher Socrates? Now if any if these comentators/historians had insisted that Socrates had argued that the soul is divisible into three parts, then it is acceptable to question such an attribution. We do know that these words were uttered by Socrates in the dialogue entitled “The Republic” but the suspicion of many philosophers is that by this stage of the proceedings of the Republic, Socrates had become the mouthpiece for the coming theory of forms which most commentators believe we have no reason to attribute to the historical Socrates. Knowing the historical Socrates as we do there is also, it has been argued, every reason to doubt whether the very practically minded historical Socrates could espouse any advanced theory about the reality or existence of everything. The limits of his theoretical speculation on one account seem to have Socrates searching for general definitions of general concepts. Many commentators point to Aristotle to support this picture of the Historical Socrates but I will provide evidence in part 2 of this section to suggest that though it is correct to believe that it was Plato and not Socrates who wanted to divide the soul, Socrates was at least as wide-ranging in his speculations about the world as Aristotle was, at least in relation to ethical, political and religious matters.

Now whilst we believe “The Republic” to be a key document in this discussion relating to the identity of the Historical Socrates” we also believe there is less reason to doubt the veracity of the dialogue entitled “The Apology” than many have claimed. If one believes that Plato respected the identity of his mentor in the Republic as we believe he did then there is also every reason to believe that this was also the case in “The Apology” which is probably the most historical of all of the dialogues given that it was tied very tightly to a historical event important to Athens and to the whole Ancient world. There are many claims in this dialogue made by Socrates in his defence of himself and Philosophy which were made exactly because they were common knowledge in Athens. The Delphic Oracle’s prophesy “that no man is wiser than Socrates” if incorrectly reported by Socrates at his trial would have sealed the philosopher’s fate and would have resulted in an overwhelming vote to convict and probably further ensured a rapid dwindling of interest in the exploits of a “boaster”. The reports of what Socrates did subsequent to receiving the news of the oracle’s prophecy was also public knowledge and this would certainly seem in the average mind to be explained by Socrates´relatively humble interpretation of the meaning of the prophecy(that he should try to find someone wiser than he himself). Engaging in such a practical response to the prophecy also testifies to the practical intent of Socrates’ philosophical questioning and his development of the method of elenchus.

Plato’s division of the soul into parts, on the other hand, was both theoretical and mathematical and strangely atomistic given the dualist and idealist nature of some of his assumptions. Aristotle would have opposed this materialistic or mathematical division of the soul into its parts and was more inclined to think in terms of the rational and non-rational aspects of the whole person that he assumed to be the true subject of philosophical examination. Aristotle also clearly distinguished practical reasoning from theoretical reasoning, practical science from theoretical science and ethics from epistemology. All of these were distinguished from each other by the kind of principles which guided the reasoning and investigative processes conducted in their name. Indeed Aristotle’s conception of the soul was that of a substance or form which in his thought system was something more akin to a principle and could not, therefore, be something which could be divided either mathematically or materialistically into parts. Aristotle suggests that in ethics the agent is capable of rational and irrational action in the name of a principle guiding reasoning in the ought system of concepts but he would definitely not agree with substantification of the principle and insisting that the rational action can in some sense like a charioteer control the irrational forces dwelling in a persons body. This would be for him the worst kind of metaphysics and psychology. We do find Aristotle picking a quarrel with Socrates over the phenomenon of akrasia: the phenomenon of an agent knowing that X is the good/right thing to do in circumstances C but mysteriously choosing not to do X. Aquinas, for example, was supposed to have known that it was wrong to steal pears from a strangers pear trees but did so anyway. How do we correctly describe and explain this phenomenon? Aristotle claims that Socrates failed to acknowledge the phenomenon of someone having knowledge but failing to use that knowledge, i.e. failing to allow that knowledge free play in the arena of the action to be considered. What we are witnessing in this phenomenon, according to Aristotle is not full-blown practical knowledge which must issue in action in a unified agent but rather a belief which may be held theoretically: a belief such as “yes it is wrong to steal pears generally but these circumstances are particular to me and to my action and suffice for me to regard this as an exception to the rule,” i.e. the rule was not to be used in these circumstances. But surely it might be argued that some ought premise must be behind the stealing of the pears and that these premises must be true: “one ought in certain circumstances to feel the thrill of doing forbidden things”. One can clearly see here the presence of feeling in this arena of action and the absence of practical reasoning. There is a kind of technical reasoning involved of carrying out the task of stealing efficiently which in its turn involves a kind of selection from differing acts of efficiently stealing the pears but this is not practical reasoning in Aristotle’s sense of the phrase. The contrite thief in these circumstances typically argues without contradiction that he knew that one ought not to steal the pears but because he needed to experience this thrill of doing what is forbidden he ignored what he ought to have done morally in favour of the ought of his appetites, in favour of the pleasures and pains of the situation.

Yet for Aristotle obeying the ought premise related to one’s feelings in this context is a clear breach of rationality in relation to the unity of agency required to lead the examined or flourishing life. We can also recognise this form of reasoning in Socrates’ discussion of the issue of akrasia.
Part of the problem of correctly understanding this situation occurs when we divide the agent into a rational part and an irrational part and imagine a conflict in the form of that which occurs between a master and a slave or an angel and a devil. There is for Aristotle one agent for whom the knowledge of it being wrong to steal pears is present in the knowledge/belief system but is not used and there is another different phenomenon of another different agent for whom the knowledge is both present and active. These agents could only be the same person if some kind of actualising process occurred in the first agent a process that allowed the latent knowledge to become active at some later time in the agent’s arena of action.

It is interesting to note in this discussion the difference between the teacher Socrates and his pupil Plato with respect to the historical conditions necessary for the production of ethical and otherwise instrumental involvements which in their turn are necessary to lead the examined life in the context of a city or totality of life involvements. Socrates in the early books of the Republic outlines the process of the emergence of the principle of specialisation critical to the final account of justice. The emerging of the simple community in the course of Socrates’ account is on the foundation of the condition that everyone in the community works with the craft or work-activity which best suits their ability and refrains from any activity which interferes with the activity of others engaging in their respective specialisations. Socrates describes this as his healthy city and is clearly reluctant to go on to describe justice in what he calls the “fevered” city which requires a military and philosophical presence to ensure the provision of conditions to lead the examined life. Plato in depicting Socrates in the early books of the Republic in this manner is clearly respecting the integrity of his teacher and yet two things from the earlier dialogues are clearly missing from this account: firstly, the presence of Socrates famous “voice of conscience” operating in the individual soul and secondly, the presence of rulers passing just laws to regulate irrational activities in the city. In the “healthy city” of Socrates, one’s conscience would be the principle or the law which ensured for example that one would keep one’s promises or not steal the pears from our neighbors’ pear tree. We would not do what we ought not to do because of our practical principle based knowledge. The laws would regulate the activities of those agents who did not know what was wrong and what was right.

How would Socrates describe the situation in which there was no corrective voice telling us that for example we ought not to murder the neighbour that has wronged us? Socrates’ favoured image is an image of someone thinking about doing or not doing something, a thinking which is, to use Aristotelian language, not actualized. What we have here is an image of living in a divided house which cannot easily house contradictory values. It would be, to take an extreme case, like living together in the same house as a murderer which in Socrates’ view would be sufficient punishment for him to say that irrespective of what the law and its punishment system says about this phenomenon, that one should never respond to evil with evil. One would have to live with a value that one did not respect. In this connection we find the otherwise reticent Socrates giving the moral advice, “Resist not evil”. This is obviously a recommendation on the individual level to abandon the commonly accepted lex talionis principle which in itself has two different inconsistent formulations. In the first formulation one claims an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and here we can easily see how such a principle can easily escalate to a murder for a murder. Socrates is clearly against this formulation or definition. The second formulation would insist that a just punishment must be proportionate to the crime committed and there might be a sense in which Socrates might accept this when one considers his remark that we should in our lives get what we deserve. It is, however, doubtful whether Socrates would have, in the name of the advice “resist not evil”, agree that a state had the right to murder a murderer, much less murder someone for doing philosophy in the marketplace. In spite of this fact we see Socrates prepared to accept his fate at the hands of the laws of Athens. Given the facts that Athens had provided the legal framework for his birth, upbringing and education it would not be giving Athens what it deserved if Socrates had conspired to escape the sentence of death. Had he escaped he would have continued to live in a divided house and this would in his view have been to refute the Delphic prophecy that he was the wisest man in Athens: Living with himself in such a divided state of value would be a refutation of the oracle’s challenge to each man to “know thyself”. This reminds one of a prophecy from the Bible hundreds of years after the death of Socrates, namely that the truth will set one free. It is sometimes claimed that the ancient Greeks did not realize the importance of the idea of freedom in their philosophizing and their discussions of justice. It certainly is true that the idea of freedom is seldom mentioned in Socratic discussions but insofar as the idea of “choice” is definitely referred to many times in Aristotelian discussions this seems to be a questionable judgment in relation to Aristotle’s discussions of justice. It is even questionable in relation to Socratic discussions of ethics and justice. It would seem to be more accurate to claim that the idea of freedom was not thematized but was operational in Socratic discussions of justice and ethics. In this context it would be appropriate to say that one is free to choose what one ought to do and also to choose one what ought not to do by choosing to live the examined life. This picture is somewhat clouded by the biographical information that we have of Socrates seeking assistance from his daimon when it came to making difficult decisions. Here we have an image if a man submitting to the power of the demiurge to lead him in the right direction. He would not have needed this voice to advise him what to do in the case of murder where it is doubtful whether the thought of murdering Thrasymachus would have even occurred to him but he certainly seemed to need the help of the demiurge in the decision of what to do in relation to his indictment. We as moderns celebrate our freedom from the demiurge but struggle for example to correctly characterise the state of mind of mass murderers like Hitler, Eichman and the Nazis, and Stalin and his henchmen.

The philosopher we usually immediately think of in relation to the search for essence specifying definitions is, of course, Aristotle but a cursory examination of the method of elenchus should also lead our thoughts to Socrates. There are always moments of the method which can be characterised as the search for the nature of something. It is almost as if the moral of the method of elenchus is the normative imperative: “Ask of everything what it is in its nature.”. Socrates’ interlocutor is asked to give a general definition which inevitably fails to specify the essence of the matter that is being discussed, whether it be piety or poetic inspiration or courage or justice. Socrates points out a contradiction: sometimes it is something which follows from the negation of an assumption that Socrates’ interlocutor is making. There is much in this method that reminds us of Aristotles general search for essence specifying definitions and it is a relatively easy matter to pick out the differences between the first generation Philosopher Socrates and his third generation critic, Aristotle but the difference is not in our opinion sufficient to deny a thread of continuity that connects these two philosophers. If this thread is as thick as we believe it is then this should in its turn suffice to establish with more clarity the contours of the figure of the Historical Socrates.

A. Kenny in his work referred to above “Ancient Philosophy” examines the similarity of the above discussion of the Historical Socrates versus the literary creation of Plato to the difference long noted between Mark and Johns gospel accounts of the Historical Jesus. To some it almost seems as if these two different accounts identify different people and concentrating on the differences to the exclusion of the similarities can easily create the impression that a once public figure is in fact a creation of someones literary imagination. Xenephon’s account of the character of Socrates creates similar doubts about the identity of the Historical Socrates but only if one ignores the evidence of Aristotle, the key evidence of the Apology and the early books of the Republic.