The Socratic Psyche
I will begin this paper with a brief account of Socrates. I
feel this is necessary for those who are not familiar with
Socrates. It is as follows: Socrates (C. 470-399 B.C.)
Athenian philosopher who allegedly wrote down none of his
views, supposedly from his belief that writing distorts ideas.
His chief student, Plato, is the major source of knowledge
about his life. Socrates questioned Athenians about
their moral, political, and religious beliefs, as
depicted in Plato^s dialogues; his questioning technique,
called dialectic, has greatly influenced Western philosophy.
Socrates is alleged to have said that ^the unexamined life
is not worth living.^ In 399 B. C., he was brought to
trial on charges of corrupting the youth and religious heresy.
Sentenced to die, he drank poison.
Of the early life of Socrates, there is little to go on.
Looking at W.K.C. Guthrie^s History of Greek Philosophy Vol.
III, we can extract some useful background information.
Socrates was a native Athenian and he was the son of
Sophroniscus and Phaenarete. His father is thought to have been
a stone mason or sculptor. Some even think that Sophroniscus
owned the stone-cutting shop and was quite wealthy. Socrates^
mother is believed to have come from a good family (378).
Socrates was also involved in active military service during
the Peloponnesian war as a hoplite. Socrates would to have had
the wealth and status associated with this position. Socrates
had earned high praise for his courage and coolness in battle.
He took part in three campaigns and his feats of endurance were
well known (Guthrie 379). We also know that Socrates was an
excellent soldier and that neither heat nor cold affected him
and that his fortitude was well known among fellow hoplites and
acquaintances (Symp. 220b). Socrates was not a handsome man, at
least outwardly. He had bulging eyes, a broad, flat, turned-up
nose, thick lips and a paunch (Guthrie 387). Socrates speaks
of an inner voice, given to him by a god. Socrates said that he
did not understand the meaning of this voice, but that it
guided him to seek the truth, the just, what he felt were
virtuous. This inner voice propels him to seek the truth, to
steer him away from what is wrong. As Socrates goes about
seeking the truth and knowledge, he tells people that he knows
nothing and understands even less (Apology 31d) I would call
this inner voice the morality of Socrates; the innate knowledge
of what is right/wrong and what is just/unjust, voices that are
mostly negative for people. This voice, though, leads him to
seek the answers for unresolved questions. Socrates was a
gadfly, a pest always there creating an itch, as if forcing a
person to pay constant attention. Socrates was called the
wisest man in Athens, a compliment that he brushed aside which
also baffled him. The understanding of the truth was the final
goal. Socrates^ method for attaining this was to take a
statement, have a series of cross-examinations, try to tear
down the other side^s argument and then to rebuild and reform.
The result would be the truth of a given matter. This process
is called dialectic, or elenchos. In the Euthyphro, we have a
man who professes to know the law and duty to religion.
Euthyphro had charged his father with murder. His father had
bound a servant by the hands and feet and threw him into a
ditch. The man had killed a household slave and the father went
to seek the advice of the priest in how to handle this matter.
Meanwhile, the man had died of hunger, cold and because of his
hands being bound. Socrates comes along (he was near the
king-archon^s court, for he was under indictment by one
Meletus, for corrupting the youth and religious heresy) and in
the dialogue, Socrates makes Euthphro see his error. Euthyphro
realized that after talking to Socrates he really did not know
as much as he thought he did. In fact, he understood nothing
and Socrates got poor Euthyphro so confused, that he felt like
a fool. In the aforementioned dialogue, Socrates asks
Euthyphro, ^Is the pious loved by the Gods because it is pious
or is it pious because it is loved by them?^(10.a) Do the gods
love us because we are pious to them or does the everyday
person by being pious (following the laws of the city and the
laws of the gods) make himself a better person? The problem
here is that the gods did not have a single absolute conception
of piety. The gods did not always agree. The gods were relative
in their piety and so were the citizens, (most of them) for
following what they thought was loved by the gods. The citizens
had an interesting dichotomy, on one hand they followed nomos
and on the other hand, the law of physis. Although the
citizens would follow all of the human laws and the laws of
religion, bad things still occurred, due to the
unpredictability of nature. So, did being a pious citizen mean
they were above man^s law and only had to answer to the laws of
the gods? This is where Socrates demolished the premise that
Euthyphro had used for dragging his father to court. After
dealing with Socrates, Euthyphro understood even less than he
at first claimed to. Euthphro could not get away from Socrates
soon enough, ending the conversation. Socrates was incredible
in his "midwives' art" of discourse. This method of dialectic
process, it was a purifying process, like that of a water
filter, removing all scum and sediment, until the results were
pure. It is like the cream that rises to the top. For Socrates,
the inner truth is covered by layers of veils, untruths,
(opinions) and we try to peel away these layers until we
achieve true knowledge (episteme). Socrates is sometimes
confused with the sophists of his time. A clear distinction
must be made here between the two. Sophists of Socrates' time
would use or find the argument that worked best. Socrates
believed in finding the truth; the sophists did not. The
sophists in Athens at this time were not usually citizens and
they traveled throughout the Greek world. They charged
substantial fees for their services, while Socrates did not.
Their teachings would include ethical, social, and political
issues (G&W xx). Socrates spent most of his life in Athens,
whereas the sophists did not. As Martin L. King Jr. wrote in
his Letter From Birmingham Jail, in 1963, he was asked why he
was doing the things he was doing by his fellow clergymen. He
answered, "that there is a type of constructive, nonviolent
tension which is necessary for growth and just as Socrates felt
that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind, so that
individuals could arise from the bondage of myths and
half-truths, to the unfettered realm of created analysis and
objective appraisal." Juries in Athens were quite large, 501
citizens in Socrates' case. They would combine to be both jury
and judge and would also convict and sentence. The job of
assessing the penalty was handled by a prosecutor. This type of
"tension in the mind," in part, led to Socrates being charged
with religious heresy and corrupting the youth of Athens.
Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death. While he was
awaiting his fate, Crito, a dear and old friend, came to
Socrates and told Socrates that there was a plan for him to
escape and to avoid death (Crito 46). Socrates explained that
he could not, that two wrongs do not make a right. Socrates had
lived his life as an Athenian citizen and lived by her laws. It
would have been wrong for him to violate the unjust verdict
given to him. He had an obligation to obey the laws of Athens.
As with most of the citizens of Athens, the state was first and
the people came second. Socrates made people think. Most
people fear the truth, as if it were death. Socrates did not,
believing in the immortality of the soul. He went to his death
not afraid, but eager to go and enjoy the fortunes of the
blessed (Phaedo 115 d). He also tells the jurors who acquitted
him: ^but the time has come to go. I go to die and you to live;
which of us goes to a better thing is clear to none, but the
god^ (Apology 42a). Socrates, felt that the afterlife would be
a pleasant and learning experience. There is a another side to
the trial of Socrates. Some people think he was guilty as hell
and deserved what he got. We know that he was not a well-liked
person. Going back to the oracle of Delphi, after Socrates was
told of the reply of none wiser than he in Athens, he was
baffled. He then sets out to prove the god incorrect. He first
goes to a politician, who was considered wise by many and was
full of himself. Socrates found this politician not to be wise
and told him so. Naturally, the man did not like Socrates at
all after this. Socrates then went to the poets and artisans
seeking the same answer without success. However, he did make
many enemies. Socrates sums this up as god is the only perfect
being, who is wise and all others who profess wisdom or claim
to be wise are worth nothing or very little at that (Apology
21-23). Socrates was also the teacher of a couple of students
that were part of the Thirty in 404 B.C. and some people think
that this was a payback to Socrates. He was taking the blame
for the actions of Critias and Alcibiades during the Thirty
Tyrants^ reign (B&S 73). Socrates^ accuser^s could not charge
him with complicity during the reign of the Thirty, due to an
amnesty created, forbidding this. The people who might have had
a part in the overthrow of the democracy in Athens, could not
be charged for it, at least directly. Most people do not want
change. We are born, we consume, we die. If you act differently
from what people expect of you, then you are a freak of nature.
Socrates taught that there is a need for justice, compassion
and tolerance. Individuals have a collective and democratic
duty toward society and themselves. It must be an individual
decision and commitment though, an inwardness beginning with
oneself. People must learn to think for themselves. Life can
and should be made worth living. This is the legacy of
Gagarin, Michael and Paul Woodruff, eds. Early Greek Political Thought
from Homer to the Sophists. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,
Grube, G.M.A. ed. Plato: The Trial and Death of Socrates.
Indianapolis/Cambridge, Hackett Publishing Company, 1975.
Nehamas, Alexander and Paul Woodruff, eds Plato: Symposium.
Indianapolis/Cambridge, Hackett Publishing Company, 1989.
Taylor, A E. Socrates: the Man and His Thought. New York, Doubleday &
Company, Inc. 1952.