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3.2: Socrates

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  • Socrates is widely regarded as the founder of philosophy and rational inquiry. He was born around 470 B.C., and tried and executed in 399 B.C.. Socrates was the first of the three major Greek philosophers; the others being Socrates’ student Plato and Plato’s student Aristotle.

    Socrates did not write anything himself. We know of his views primarily through Plato’s dialogues where Socrates is the primary character. Socrates is also known through plays of Aristophanes and the historical writings of Xenophon. In many of Plato’s dialogues it is difficult to determine when Socrates’ views are being represented and when the character of Socrates is used as a mouthpiece for Plato’s views.

    Socrates was well known in Athens. He was eccentric, poor, ugly, brave, stoic, and temperate. He was a distinguished veteran who fought bravely on Athens’ behalf and was apparently indifferent to the discomforts of war. Socrates claimed to hear a divine inner voice he called his daimon and he was prone to go into catatonic states of concentration.

    The conflicting views of the Ionian and Eleatic philosophers of nature encouraged skepticism about our ability to obtain knowledge through rational inquiry. Among the Sophists, this skepticism is manifested in epistemic and Moral Relativism. Epistemic relativism is the view that there is no objective standard for evaluating the truth or likely truth of our beliefs. Rather, epistemic standards of reasoning are relative to one’s point of view and interests. Roughly, this is the view that what is true for me might not be true for you (when we are not just talking about ourselves). Epistemic relativism marks no distinction between knowledge, belief, or opinion on the one hand, and truth and reality on the other. To take a rather silly example, if I think it’s Tuesday, then that’s what’s true for me; and if you think it’s Thursday, then that’s what is true for you. In cases like this, epistemic relativism seems quite absurd, yet many of us have grown comfortable with the notion that, say, beliefs about the moral acceptability of capital punishment might be true for some people and not for others.

    Moral Relativism is the parallel doctrine about moral standards. The moral relativist takes there to be no objective grounds for judging some ethical opinions to be correct and others not. Rather, ethical judgments can only be made relative to one or another system of moral beliefs and no system can be evaluated as objectively better than another. Since earlier attempts at rational inquiry had produced conflicting results, the Sophists held that no opinion could be said to constitute knowledge. According to the Sophists, rather than providing grounds for thinking some beliefs are true and others false, rational argument can only be fruitfully employed as rhetoric, the art of persuasion. For the epistemic relativist, the value of reason lies not in revealing the truth, but in advancing one’s interests. The epistemic and Moral Relativism of the Sophist has become popular again in recent years and has an academic following in much "post- modern" writing.

    Socrates was not an epistemic or moral relativist. He pursued rational inquiry as a means of discovering the truth about ethical matters. But he did not advance any ethical doctrines or lay claim to any knowledge about ethical matters. Instead, his criticism of the Sophists and his contribution to philosophy and science came in the form of his method of inquiry.

    As the Socratic Method is portrayed in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, interlocutor proposes a definition or analysis of some important concept, Socrates raises an objection or offers counter examples, then the interlocutor reformulates his position to handle the objection. Socrates raises a more refined objection. Further reformulations are offered, and so forth. Socrates uses the dialectic to discredit others’ claims to knowledge. While revealing the ignorance of his interlocutors, Socrates also shows how to make progress towards more adequate understanding.

    A good example of the Socratic Method at work can be found in one of Plato’s early Socratic dialogues, Euthyphro. Here is a link: Here is Euthyphroas an audiobook:

    In Plato’s dialogues we often find Socrates asking about the nature of something and then critically examine proposed answers, finding assorted illuminating objections that often suggest next steps. In this dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing the nature of piety or holiness. Socrates and Euthyphro never conclusively discover what piety is, but they learn much about how various attempts to define piety fail. The dialogue works the same if we substitute moral goodness for piety. Understood in this way, Euthyphro provides a classic argument against Divine Command Theory, a view about the nature of morality that says that what is right is right simply because it is commanded by God.

    Socrates would not have us believe our questions have no correct answers. He is genuinely seeking the truth of the matter. But he would impress on us that inquiry is hard and that untested claims to knowledge amount to little more than vanity. Even though Euthyphro and Socrates don’t achieve full knowledge of the nature of piety, their understanding is advanced through testing the answers that Euthyphro suggests. We come to see why piety can’t be understood just by identifying examples of it. While examples of pious acts fail to give us a general understanding of piety, the fact that we can identify examples of what is pious suggests that we have some grasp of the notion even in the absence of a clear understanding of it.

    After a few failed attempts to define piety, Euthyphro suggests that what is pious is what is loved by the gods (all of them, the Greeks recognized quite a few). Many religious believers continue to hold some version of Divine Command Theory. In his response to Euthyphro, Socrates points us towards a rather devastating critique of this view and any view that grounds morality in authority. Socrates asks whether what is pious is pious because the gods love it or whether the gods love what is pious because it is pious. Let’s suppose that the gods agree in loving just what is pious. The question remains whether their loving the pious explains its piety or whether some things being pious explains why the gods love them. Once this question of what is supposed to explain what is made clear, Euthyphro agrees with Socrates that the gods love what is pious because it is pious. The problem with the alternative view, that what is pious is pious because it is loved by the gods, is that this view makes piety wholly arbitrary. Anything could be pious if piety is just a matter of being loved by the gods. If the gods love puppy torture, then this would be pious. Hopefully this seems absurd. Neither Socrates nor Euthyphro is willing to accept that what is pious is completely arbitrary. At this point, Socrates points out to Euthyphro that since an act’s being pious is what explains why the gods love it, he has failed to give an account of what piety is. The explanation can’t run in both directions. In taking piety to explain being loved by the gods, we are left lacking an explanation of what piety itself is. Euthyphro gives up shortly after this failed attempt and walks off in a huff.

    If we substitute talk of God making things right or wrong by way of commanding them for talk of the gods loving what is pious in this exchange of ideas, we can readily see that Divine Command Theory has the rather unsavory result that torturing innocent puppies would be right if God commanded it. We will return to this problem when we take up ethical theory later in the course. While we don’t reach the end of inquiry into piety (or goodness) in Euthyphro, we do make discernible progress in coming to see why a few faulty accounts must be set aside. Socrates does not refute the skeptic or the relativist Sophist by claiming to discover the truth about anything. What he does instead is show us how to engage in rational inquiry and show us how we can make progress by taking the possibility of rational inquiry seriously.


    This dialogue by Plato is a dramatization of Socrates’ defense at his trial for corrupting the youth among other things. Socrates tells the story of his friend Chaerophon who visits the Oracle of Delphi and asks if anyone in Athens is wiser than Socrates. The Oracle answered that no one is wiser than Socrates. Socrates is astounded by this and makes it his mission in life to test and understand the Oracle’s pronouncement. He seeks out people who have a reputation for wisdom in various regards and tests their claims to knowledge through questioning. He discovers a good deal of vain ignorance and false claims to knowledge, but no one with genuine wisdom. Ultimately, Socrates concludes that he is wisest, but not because he possesses special knowledge not had by others. Rather, he finds that he is wisest because he recognizes his own lack of knowledge while others think they know, but do not.

    Of course people generally, and alleged experts especially, are quite happy to think that what they believe is right. We tend to be content with our opinions and we rather like it when others affirm this contentment by agreeing with us, deferring to our claims to know or at least by“respecting our opinion” (whatever that is supposed to mean). We are vain about our opinionseven to the point of self identifying with them (I’m the guy who is right about this or that). Not claiming to know, Socrates demonstrates some intellectual humility in allowing that his opinions might be wrong and being willing to subject them to examination. But in critically examining various opinions, including those of the supposed experts, he pierces the vanity of many of Athens’ prestigious citizens. Engaging in rational inquiry is dangerous business, and Socrates is eventually brought up on charges of corrupting the youth who liked to follow him around and listen to him reveal people’s claims to knowledge as false pride. The Apology documents Socrates’ defense of his of behavior and the Athenian assembly’s decision to sentence him to death anyway.

    You will find the Apology in several formats here:

    Study questions for the Apology:

    1. What are the ancient and the more recent charges brought against Socrates?
    2. How does he answer the ancient charges?
    3. According to Socrates, why would he not intentionally corrupt the youth?
    4. Suppose Socrates unintentionally corrupted the youth. Should he be punished anyway for the negative impact of his actions? Explain your answer.
    5. Explain the mission Socrates sets himself on in response to the the pronouncement by the Oracle at Delphi.
    6. Socrates argues in a couple places that the worse man can not harm the better man. How does that argument go?
    7. What does Socrates’ defense reveal about the values he lives by? What matters most to Socrates in life?
    8. How does Socrates argue that the fear of death is irrational?
    9. How could Socrates have avoided the death penalty?
    10. Was his choice not to evade death an honorable one?
    11. How did Socrates see his critical questioning of Athenians as beneficial to his city and its citizens?
    12. Do you think Socrates was too hard on his fellow Athenians before his accusers came forward? Was he too hard on them during the trial and after the verdict?
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