Socrates (1)


Socrates believed the best way for people to live was to focus on the pursuit of virtue rather than the pursuit, for instance, of material wealth. He always invited others to try to concentrate more on friendships and a sense of true community, for Socrates felt this was the best way for people to grow together as a populace. His actions lived up to this standard: in the end, Socrates accepted his death sentence when most thought he would simply leave Athens, as he felt he could not run away from or go against the will of his community; as mentioned above, his reputation for valor on the battlefield was without reproach.  The idea that there are certain virtues formed a common thread in Socrates’ teachings. These virtues represented the most important qualities for a person to have, foremost of which were the philosophical or intellectual virtues. Socrates stressed that “the unexamined life is not worth living ethical virtue is the only thing that matters.”

It is argued that Socrates believed “ideals belong in a world only the wise man can understand”, making the philosopher the only type of person suitable to govern others. In Plato’s dialogue the Republic, Socrates openly objected to the democracy that ran Athens during his adult life. It was not only Athenian democracy: Socrates found short of ideal any government that did not conform to his presentation of a perfect regime led by philosophers, and Athenian government was far from that. It is, however, possible that the Socrates of Plato’s Republic is colored by Plato’s own views. During the last years of Socrates’ life, Athens was in continual flux due to political upheaval. Democracy was at last overthrown by a junta known as the Thirty Tyrants, led by Plato’s relative, Critias, who had once been a student and friend of Socrates. The Tyrants ruled for about a year before the Athenian democracy was reinstated, at which point it declared an amnesty for all recent events.

Socrates’ opposition to democracy is often denied, and the question is one of the biggest philosophical debates when trying to determine exactly what Socrates believed. The strongest argument of those who claim Socrates did not actually believe in the idea of philosopher kings is that the view is expressed no earlier than Plato’s Republic, which is widely considered one of Plato’s “Middle” dialogues and not representative of the historical Socrates’ views. Furthermore, according to Plato’s Apology of Socrates, an “early” dialogue, Socrates refused to pursue conventional politics; he often stated he could not look into other’s matters or tell people how to live their lives when he did not yet understand how to live his own. He believed he was a philosopher engaged in the pursuit of Truth, and did not claim to know it fully. Socrates’ acceptance of his death sentence after his conviction can also be seen to support this view. It is often claimed much of the anti-democratic leanings are from Plato, who was never able to overcome his disgust at what was done to his teacher. In any case, it is clear Socrates thought the rule of the Thirty Tyrants was also objectionable; when called before them to assist in the arrest of a fellow Athenian, Socrates refused and narrowly escaped death before the Tyrants were overthrown. He did, however, fulfill his duty to serve as Prytanis when a trial of a group of Generals who presided over a disastrous naval campaign were judged; even then, he maintained an uncompromising attitude, being one of those who refused to proceed in a manner not supported by the laws, despite intense pressure. Judging by his actions, he considered the rule of the Thirty Tyrants less legitimate than the Democratic Senate that sentenced him to death.

Socrates’ apparent respect for democracy is one of the themes emphasized in the 2008 play Socrates on Trial by Andrew David Irvine. Irvine argues that it was because of his loyalty to Athenian democracy that Socrates was willing to accept the verdict of his fellow citizens. As Irvine puts it, “During a time of war and great social and intellectual upheaval, Socrates felt compelled to express his views openly, regardless of the consequences. As a result, he is remembered today, not only for his sharp wit and high ethical standards, but also for his loyalty to the view that in a democracy the best way for a man to serve himself, his friends, and his city—even during times of war—is by being loyal to, and by speaking publicly about, the truth.”


In Plato’s Republic we see one of the earliest attempts at a systematic theory of ethics. Plato wants to find a good definition for “justice,” a good criterion for calling something “just.”  Maybe justice is “telling the truth and paying one’s debts.” But no, Plato says, for sometimes it is just to withhold the truth or not return what was borrowed.  

How about “Do good to one’s friends and harm to one’s enemies”? But that doesn’t work, says Plato, because any definition of justice in terms of “doing good” doesn’t tell us much. It only repeats the question, “What is good (just)?”  Plato’s suggestion for “justice” is twofold: justice for the state, and justice for the soul.  

Justice for the state is achieved when all basic needs are met. Three classes of people are needed: artisans and workers to produce goods, soldiers to defend the state, and rulers to organize everything.  But you cannot have a just state without just men, especially just rulers. And so we must also achieve justice of the soul.

Plato believed the soul had three parts: reason, appetite, and honor. The desires of these three parts conflicted with each other. For example, we might have a thirst (appetite) for water, but resist accepting it from an enemy for fear of poison (reason). Justice of the soul requires that each part does its proper function, and that their balance is correct.  

Justice of the soul merges with justice of the state in that men fall into one of the three classes depending on how the three parts of their soul are balanced. One’s class depends on early training, but mostly, persons are born brick-layers, soldiers, and kings – depending on the balance between the three parts of their soul.

To bring about the ideal state, Plato says, “philosophers become kings… or those now called kings … genuinely and adequately philosophize.” Among other things, the philosopher king is one who can see The Good, that transcendent entity to which we compare something when we call it “good.” The idea of the philosopher-king still appeals to philosophers today, though it has rarely been achieved. It is against this ideal state, ruled by philosopher kings, that Plato can compare other forms of state. The state under martial law (Sparta) is the least disastrous. Oligarchy (Corinth) and democracy (Athens) are worse, and tyranny (Syracuse) is the worst. These problem states come from a lack of justice in the soul. For example, a state of martial law comes from the restriction of appetite by the wrong soul-part: honor instead of reason.


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