INTRODUCTION TO PHILOSOPHY COURSE: Socrates part two

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The philosophicial triumvirate of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle presented itself in Athens at roughly speaking the same historical period and this in itself is a remarkable fact of History. Exploring the relationship between the thoughts of these great thinkers presents an awesome task but it is not a task that is, even two thousand years later, nearing completion. In contrast to that other triumvirate of Philosophers: Kant, Hegel, and Marx who never shared that almost holy relation of teacher-pupil we seem with our three ancient Greek philosophers to be wandering the same territory, the same Callipolis. Yet they occupy distinctively different regions of this territory. Aristotelians obviously feel that Aristotle is the key to the understanding of the other two and it is not certain that the other two philosophers would disagree with this position. We certainly feel that important contributions to understanding could be made if philosophical investigations focused upon firstly,the connections there were between the respective positions of Socrates and Aristotle and secondly the difference that both positions manifest in relation to the different positions Plato adopted throughout his long career. The first section of this part of the Introduction took up the matter of the identity of the historical Socrates and we argued for the traditional view. The view namely that Socrates is most accurately portrayed in the earlier dialogues and especially those connected with his trial and death. This is the Socrates whose thoughts we will be comparing with the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle
The Demiurge, for Socrates, is the power that will ensure that ”The Good” exists and prevails in the world. This power seems to have a Heraclitean ancestry: it seems, that is, to be a monolithic transformation of the Erinyes, Diké Moira and Lightning. The Demiurge is not conceived along the lines of a physical power or capacity: it is a religious power and perhaps one might argue that the belief that Socrates had in this power was not fully consistent with a belief in the Platonic Theory of Forms. If this is correct, then a paradox presents itself. Both Socrates and Aristotle had similar views relating to the Demiurge and a monotheistic God that is mysteriously connected to thought. If this is true then they would appear to, in a certain sense be more religious than Plato. Another paradox given the facts that Socrates was indicted for religious offenses and Aristotle was threatened with an indictment on the same grounds. Plato seems to have escaped suspicion in spite of the fact that his Theory of Forms was more of a threat to the gods of the state than the practice of elenchus in the marketplace or the goings on in the Lyceum.
The Early books of the Republic have Socrates constructing a healthy city without philosophers or warriors or the theory of forms. What comes subsequently is a defense of the “fevered” city which requires warriors, Philosophers and their theories of the Forms. It Is at his point we believe that the literary Socrates Is born. Socrates becomes less the philosopher working in the interrogative mode and more the philosopher working in the lecturer/assertoric mode of discourse.

Given these conditions, it could be argued that Socrates was not fully committed to Plato’s Theory of Forms as an explanation or account of ”The Good” as he understood it. For Socrates ”the good” must be ”out there” in the visible chaotic, ever-changing Heraclitean Anaxogorean infinite external world: a world organized by something cosmic resembling the way in which a mind works.

This essay is arguing for the position that we need to take pre-Socratic and Aristotelian positions into account when interpreting the thought of Socrates. Plato was the teacher of Aristotle and from what we can see in the early dialogues we know he respected the integrity of his teacher, Socrates’ views. These facts suggest that Aristotle was probably in contact with the views of Socrates via his teacher Plato and this, in turn, might suggest more of a resemblance between the underlying assumptions of Socrates and Plato than is normally suggested. If this is the case then the idea of a Demiurge or a God as a divine thinking being whose thought is present in the movement of every atom, movement, and action in the universe would seem to be present in different forms in the thoughts of both philosophers.

There has been much discussion relating to the historical Socrates and the Platonic “constructed” Socrates lecturing Plato’s brothers on the Theory of Forms. We have argued that it is possible to separate the historical from the literary Socrates on the basis of the available evidence. There is also, we would add a considerable amount of evidence for the above position. Surely, some kind of “triangulation” is possible given the existence of the writings of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle?
Let us begin with the account of Socrates’ thought which we find in Aristotle who claims that Socrates provided us with inductive arguments and general definitions. Initially, this seems to be a very short review of the figure that by the time of Aristotle’s writings must have achieved the status of a very important thinker. If, however one pays attention to the resemblances in the thinking of these two figures in relation to “the divine mind” and their parallel positions in ethics on the nature of the Good, the review may seem less dismissive and more a case of abbreviation as a consequence of familiarity with the position that is being reviewed. In the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle has the following to say:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice is thought to aim at some good: and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends: some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is of the nature of the products to be better than the activities.”

Socrates and Aristotle on this account would not immediately agree with resorting to the theory of forms in determining the significance of ethical judgments. Both appear to be committed to the “practical” nature of the ethical, i.e. they believe that practical wisdom is concerned with what we ought to do in order to achieve a state of eudaimonia: the good flourishing life. In such a state every art, inquiry, and action aim at the good and use practical reason to do so. Practical wisdom for both of these Philosophers is related to being excellent at a particular kind of thinking which is aiming at or intending a good flourishing life. Both Socrates and Aristotle have argued that there is an unconditional form of practical reasoning that is not identical with the kind of thinking involved in those productive activities where reason is being used to give rise to an intention that is instrumentally aiming at objects which relate atomistically and perhaps accumulatively to the idea of the instrumental good.(e.g. good health, safe house in a safe neighborhood, good marriage etc). This unconditional kind of practical reasoning aims at the flourishing life via a way or form of action which is logically and not in our modern sense “causally” related to the self-sufficient life. The intentions involved in this categorical form of action will be “good” in the sense of being what we ought to do non-instrumentally and unconditionally to achieve this moral aim. The agent understands this activity in a particular way which is not theoretical. In this context doing what is required to be done is understood as logically necessary for living the good life. In this context the means are not causally related to the end but rather, the moral worth of the end must also attach logically to the means one uses to achieve this end. But what is the connection of this good life to the divine mind thinking about itself or the Socratic Demiurge? It is not clear, for example, whether we can do more than aim at the good. We are rational animals capable of discourse for Aristotle and both our animal nature and our need to debate the good in the agora separates us significantly from the picture of the divine mind we get from Socrates and Aristotle. But why argue that we even aim at the good given the fact that we are animals red in tooth and claw? Once we have learned what is good and having been habituated to the good we will do the good according to both Socrates and Aristotle, i.e. once we can holistically understand the ultimate value of a self-sufficient flourishing life where means and ends are logically related. Aristotle, as we know complained that Socrates did not in his account sufficiently acknowledge the phenomenon of akrasia: i.e. the weakness of the will which leads an agent who believes a course of action is good to do something else instead. But in spite of this complaint both philosophers agree that if one knows the good as instantiated by a number of general and particular premises, one will do this good. If the phenomenon of akrasia occurs, Aristotle claims, it is because the agent does not understand the full meaning of at least one premise or, alternatively the full implication of the argumentatively structured premises. The passions cannot, as Socrates pointed out, drag knowledge and reason about like a slave.
The implication of the above is that both Socrates and Aristotle shared the conviction that practical reason and the ideas we have of what we should or ought to do are the steering mechanisms of moral action. As we have argued the Platonic Socrates emerges after the early uses of elenchus against the claims and general definitions of Cephalus, Polemarchus and Thrasymachus. When the Platonic Socrates then turns to engage with Plato’s brother’s Glaucon, elenchus is replaced by a lecturing explorer who will in the later books surprise everyone not just with a definition of justice but a complete theory of justice and the practical consequences of leading an unjust life. We are suddenly transported to the Academy and are reminded of Plato lecturing to his students. The parts of the soul argument is obviously a foundation stone for the Theory of forms and it is uncertain to what extent, if any, Socrates would have embraced this form of argumentation. The argument claims that the reason why one person can both want to drink a glass of water because they are thirsty and not want to drink because the water might be poisoned is that there are different parts of the soul desiring different things on different grounds. If the soul were one indivisible whole, it is argued, then to want to drink and to want not to drink would look like a contradiction. On the Aristotelian characterization of the law of noncontradiction, however, the assertion of these contraries might not be contradictory because the law states that one can claim contraries to be true at different times and in different respects. Aristotle did claim that the soul could have parts but he only talked about its rational and irrational “parts” and it might be the case that he meant “aspects” and not parts in the Socratic sense. He consequently would have thought that one and the same person could both want to drink and want not to drink at different times and on different grounds. So, if we are right to insist on the close relation of the Socratic and Aristotelian positions it might be that Plato is the odd man out in this triumvirate of Philosophers and the parts of the soul argument was taken from the Platonic political handbook. The argument, i.e, may have been needed for the construction of Plato’s hypothetical Callipolis. This Platonic “fevered” city looks very different to the Socratic healthy city of craftsmen doing the work they are best suited for and minding their own business. In the healthy city, commerce and areté appear to be the engines generating the energy necessary for the meeting of the needs of the citizens. The healthy city is a small city without soldiers or Philosophers. One assumes there will be laws but these will probably be in place to ensure the working of the so-called principle of specialization. One presumes there will be rulers who have the interests of the city as a whole at heart. Socrates uses the principle of specialization to justify the role of the captain on a ship and refers to the captain’s holistic vision or knowledge of the ships telos to justify his position of authority. There is nothing to suggest that this analogy is a Platonic invention although one can see how the analogy could be used to justify the role of the Philosopher in Plato’s Callipolis.

We have seen, however, the consequences that Socrates was forced to endure in the course of leading a philosophical examined life. Perhaps Plato viewed the failure of Socrates to convince his fellow Athenians of the importance of such a life as a failure of practical reason. Could this be the explanation for the intensive theoretical training of the Philosopher-rulers? The rulers were to be trained in mathematics and dialectic but it is never made clear how these skills will benefit the city as a whole. Plato feels the need to abolish wealth and the family from the lives of the warriors and philosopher rulers suggesting that spirit and reason in itself were not sufficient for the self-control that was needed in these areas of existence. When these suggestions are made by the Platonic Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus ask for more detail about such waves of change in the city and the type of justification forthcoming from Socrates appears to become more and more mythological and at times as fantastic as a science fiction narrative. To get the populace to cooperate in this bold endeavor noble lies about their past and their memories of the past are to be told. As if the argument of the parts of the soul was not sufficiently materialistic we are then told that the souls will contain the metals of either gold silver or the base metals. Analogies and allegories abound and elenchus all but disappears as the theory of forms appear to support an otherwise hypnotic account of the perfect Republic. The Socratic narrator of these books of the Republic is a very different figure to the character we find arguing with his accusers in the Apology.
Looking to the writings of Xenophon for the literary creation of Plato will serve no useful purpose but Xenephons account does to some extent support the picture of Socrates we have from the early dialogues.

What we are suggesting is nothing more than an avenue of research where more is made of the connection of Socrates’ views to the views of the pre-Socratic Philosophers: Heraclitus, Anaximander etc on the one hand and the resemblance of many of the Socratic and Aristotelian positions on the other.
A further argument for the above opening up of an avenue of research comes from the borderlands between the ethical and religious. Prof T J Saunders in his work “Early Socratic Dialogues” points to what he calls “Socrates’ Teleological view of the world”. Saunders claims that this account views man as having a telos or function which describes the world as “ a rationally ordered structure in which man has a function to fit in with the whole”.
We should recall in this context Aristotle’s claim to have discovered the role of teleological explanation as a genuine mode of explanation amongst the modes of explanations at our disposal. If our claim that the resemblance of these two philosophers has been underestimated in the past has credence than we could see Socrates’ teleological view as an inspirational predecessor of Aristotle’s “final cause” discussion. It is clear that Socrates is at the very least “operationally” using teleological explanation when in his use of elenchus he confronts a position A with a position B which leads demonstratively to a contradiction in relation to some premise constituting position A. The Euthyphro contains an example of this strategy. It is clear in this dialogue that Socrates is using the above holistic perspective to convince Euthyphro that his indictment of his father in the name of piety may not be just and if justice and piety have some kind of conceptual relation it may turn out that the gods or at least some of them might not agree with what Euthyphro is doing. In the minds of these gods, justice and religion are holistically connected.

Whatever the differences, and there are many, between Socrates, the first generation philosopher , and Aristotle, the third generation philosopher of the triumvirate, the resemblances in a number of key areas of discussion suffice for us to believe that the short review Aristotle gives of Socratic philosophy is not dismissive but rather a consequence of the fact that they agreed upon so much of importance.
Both agree, to take a further example, on the importance of the terms areté and eudaimonia. Prof T J Saunders claims that the best translation of the Greek term areté is excellence. Both Philosophers agree that the man whose actions can be described with the term areté is the man who has a particular kind of knowledge. He is the man “who is excellently equipped to fulfill his function and be happy”. Such a man will weave his way toward his goal through the crowds in the marketplace where many lead the lives of pleasure, luxury, and power. Areté enabled Socrates to go resolutely to his death in the face of being shouted down at his trial by crowds who could not see the holistic connections between justice, religion and the philosophical examined life.

Perhaps we can also mention in this context the contrast between those who live life in accordance with the Freudian pleasure-pain principle manically seeking pleasure and manically avoiding pain. Freud sought inspiration at the end of his theorizing in the pages of Plato but it is not clear whether it was the historical or the literary Platonic Socrates that most interested him. The Pleasure –pain principle and its elder brother, the reality principle certainly make an appearance in the last books of the Republic after the introduction of the allegories and the theory of forms. These books may see the reappearance of the historical Socrates, especially when it is a question of the arguments relating to the pleasures of the wealthy man and the powerful tyrant where the implication is that such lives are really being blindly directed by a maniacal striving after the pleasure that accrues from the absence or avoidance of pain. The man of excellence, on the other hand, who strives after leading the examined life is resolute in the face of pain: he “knows” that nothing can harm a just man and that there is, therefore, no reason to fear the actions of an unjust man—even if the consequences are death. In this sequence of reasoning, we do not encounter the tripartite soul—merely the rational and irrational processes at play in a man’s life.

Aristotle, of course, thought the contemplative life was the good and therefore what we should aim for. He also thought the soul was a principle somehow related to thought. But how would he have characterized thought? In terms of thinking about something or in the more complex terms of thinking something about something. Surely the latter. How could one think something unconnected to anything else? Yet surely this brings us back to the question of how can one think something about something. Hannah Arendt refers to thinking as talking to oneself. Socrates called his voice his daemon. When he was transfixed in what looked to be thought he was “in communication” with his “daemon”:

Here is how Socrates refers to his daemon in the Apology:

“You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of my being a politician.” 

Could this voice, Oracle or sign not speak or signify? Could one be forbidden to do something without being told in language that one ought not to do this something? Aristotle also might have conceived of the divine mind as talking to itself when it was thinking of itself. And since the divine mind is essentially itself thinking we arrive at the meta-level of this discourse about this divine mind that it is thinking about thinking. If God is talking to himself what would such a language look like?

Aristotle claims at the beginning of the metaphysics that all men by nature desire to know. What was it that Socrates failed to know in claiming that he knows that he does not know? Was he referring to this meta-level of divine thinking that Aristotle outlined? Was this why his sign could not positively command? Was this why he could stand transfixed in thought for hours, attempting to interpret the sign? Was he listening to some divine conversation?