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2.5: The Legacy of Socrates and Plato

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    The Legacy of Socrates


    Socrates Theory of the Soul

    Socrates believed that he had a mission to seek after wisdom. He died being faithful to that mission. He attempted to find a stable and certain truth and a wisdom that would serve as a guide for life. He attempted to lead others to real insight. He wanted to persuade others to look into themselves, to seek wisdom and virtue and to care for their noblest possession, their soul, before all else. He attempted this even at his trial and in his final days and hours. He used the dialectical method as a midwife to ideas to lead others to knowledge, truth and virtue. He used the dialectical process to arrive at universal definitions. Plato would develop the explanatory schema in which the universal definition is attainable due to a process of recollection through which all people can gain knowledge of what is within them, their minds from birth. Socrates himself believed in the universality of the inner rational being. He believed that:

    The unexamined life is not worth living! The best manner to examine that life is through reasoning which employs the dialectical method of inquiry. Plato inherits this belief, expands upon it and promulgates this belief.

    Plato's Theory of Immortality

    The Socratic Method

    The Socratic method, also known as maieutics, method of elenchus, elenctic method, or Socratic debate, is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions. It is a dialectical method, often involving a discussion in which the defense of one point of view is questioned; one participant may lead another to contradict themselves in some way, thus weakening the defender's point. This method is named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates and is introduced by him in Plato's Timeus to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding.

    The Socratic method is a method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape beliefs and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic, exploring definitions or logos and seeking to characterize general characteristics shared by various particular instances.

    Socratic Method

    Example of Socratic Dialogue


    For Socrates the key to a virtuous life was knowledge of the good and this links ethics with epistemology. If one knew the good one would choose it. One always chooses the best of the options available. The question was, what is the good? What is best? Virtue would depend on knowledge. Knowledge itself is a virtue but knowledge of the good and of virtue was necessary for the good life. The soul must choose the good but only if it knows what it is. Evil is the result of ignorance. The soul chooses what it thinks is the good but if it isn’t, the soul has made a mistake. Wrong doing is involuntary. Evil doers must be educated, instructed as to what truly is the good and then they will choose it.

    Socrates believed that no one does wrong voluntarily. Evil is the result of ignorance. If people knew what was the right thing to do they would do it. We always choose what we think is the best or good for us. So, if someone chooses to do what we think is wrong, then that person made a mistake and must be educated to see the error. They mistook evil for the good. Do you agree? Why or why not?

    Socrates held that people know that other people think that it is wrong but they do not totally agree. The wrong doers think that there is something good in doing the evil act even if it is only good for them. So, they do it. If the wrong doers understood why the act was considered to be wrong they would not do it. They do it because they mistake the evil act for a good act in some way. Given options humans will choose the options that appears to be good for them. When they choose what other people call evil it is because they do not agree. They will continue to do the evil acts unless and until they no longer think of them as good.

    • Socrates' theory doesn't claim that people who do wrong do not know that the act is wrong.
    • Socrates' theory doesn't claim that people who do wrong do think that it is correct or right to do.

    The theory is that people who do wrong know that other people think that it is wrong but that the wrong doer does not accept that and does not agree because the wrong doer sees some benefit or good result for the wrong doer.

    As long as the wrong doer continues to see some benefit or good result for the wrong doer then the wrong doer will continue to do the act that is considered wrong by other people. When the wrong doer comes to understand and to know why the other people think of the act as being wrong and the wrong doer accepts that, then the wrong doer will stop doing that act.

    1. Person P does act X.
    2. Person P knows that other people think that act X is wrong or bad or evil.
    3. Person P does X anyway because person P thinks that X is in some way good for P. (X is fun or relieves pain or will bring money or power or fame to P)
    4. P thinks that X will benefit P. Bene = good and fit= Make or do. So P thinks that X will in some way make a good for P.
    5. Unless and until P stops thinking of X as a good, P will continue to do X. P does X because people always choose what they think is on some way good for them.

    For Socrates the soul always goes to the good. The soul "volunteers" or wills to do the good.So P chooses X out of ignorance of what is truly good as other people see the good as different from X.

    Further, Socrates held that all virtue is one. Virtue is good. Truth is good. Beauty is good. Knowledge is good. The true, good and beautiful are all good and united in the good as one.How was one to teach others what the good is? Socrates sought an answer to that and many other questions. The Sophists claimed to teach but they trained in technique. They dealt with specialized actions. Virtue is not specialized.

    Plato on the Good Life (Socratic Ethics)


    Socrates developed the dialectical process for gaining knowledge. He used an inductive method of argumentation in order to develop universal definitions. This was his approach to the truth that would be perfected by Plato. Socrates would examine theories (logoi) using the dialectic method, which was similar to a conversational pattern with many questions. Socrates would challenge initial hypotheses and examine them for presumptions and assumptions. He regularly used two techniques:

    1. What follows if……..
    2. What conflicts with …

    He did this in an effort to establish the truth of the hypothesis. He looked for a coherent and consistent set of ideas; a system of thought.The pre-Socratic speculated, Socrates tested the ideas. Socrates looked to facts to test the theories. In this way he was somewhat similar to Sir Issac Newton and modern science. Socrates sought to deduce the consequences of a hypothesis in order to test it thereby.

    The Sophists raised many questions in order to win debates and to gain power. Socrates did so to pursue truth. He did not achieve all of what he sought. Plato would go further and develop answers through the implementation of his theory of the Ideal Forms. Socrates genius was in this:he was the first to raise certain basic questions with a clear understanding of what he was doing.

    What is Epistemology?

    The Legacy of Plato

    Were it not for Socrates, Plato would not have become a Philosopher and not only the western world but the entire world would have been a different place with a decidedly different history!

    Scholars have studied Plato's many dialogues very carefully. Many of them agree that the dialogues were written over many years and that they appear to have a slightly different tone, which reflects Plato's intention in writing them. Indeed, scholars who find in them a progression of ideas set the dialogues in a temporal order. Plato works from those ideas and methodology he inherits from Socrates and then devises his own unique set of ideas and further develops the dialectical method of reasoning, which he learned from Socrates.

    Plato does develop a single coherent worldview because of the need to develop in a critical fashion such a conceptual framework that would be capable of enunciating all the distinctions one must make in describing reality and yet capable of eliciting the meanings one must have.

    Plato learned from the Sophists, the Ionian scientists and the Milesians but most of all from Socrates. Plato forged a complete philosophical system. He gathered the best of ideas from the Pythagoreans and the other great minds and put together a unified system of thought and ideas.

    His theory of reality, his metaphysics was the basis for his physics and that was consistent with this theory of knowledge and of virtue. These ideas serve also as the foundations for his ethics and politics. He combined the thinking of Heraclitus who thought that all things that were real were constantly changing and the world of Parmenides who thought that all change was unreal.

    For Plato the particular concrete world is what it is to the degree it participates in the universals which inform all that is real. To get at primary being, the essence of things one follows science and mathematics for they lead us away from the particular to the universal, the patterns underlying and constituting all that is real.

    The rational move, reasoning is to go from the:

    • Particulars to essences
    • Concrete to abstract
    • Imperfect to perfect

    The soul may ascend to the level of the eternal by an intelligent apprehension of particulars. The soul may become free as it reflects for itself, resign passion for contemplation and fix its eyes on the principles, the ideals, and the eternal forms.

    For Plato to know a thing is to understand its purpose: the essence of a thing is its function, this is its good. The essence of a thing is eternal, part of the eternal realm. It is what it is for all eternity. The essence of a thing is linked to the universal and the ideal. Each element in a human’s nature has its function and its end

    Knowledge is not possible through experience but through reason. The universals that are grasped by reason are innate and not learned. Rationalism is a non-empirical process. For Plato what exists is:

    • God (the one) – energy of creation
    • Mind (nous)- Ideas - the pattern of creation and all components
    • Matter –world- the stuff of creation- in chaos until transformed into cosmos by Nous

    Plato’s Social Philosophy and Political Thought

    The Republic

    The Republic is one of the greatest works ever invented by a human being. At some colleges students spend an entire term studying it and all of its intricacies and all of its import. In this work Plato touches upon all the most important questions in Philosophy. He presents a single unified system of ideas in a work that is self referential in as much as it illustrates some of the very things concerning which he is attempting to educate his readers.

    Plato preferred the rule of those who are best suited to rule rather than to have people ruled by kings, military commanders, wealthy people or tyrants. In particular he did not like democracy as a form of government. Democracy had killed Socrates. Democracy promoted and rested upon the cult of the average who gather as a mob, constitute a majority and conceive of themselves as experts. There is no impulse towards self-criticism and self improvement in democracy because the mob believes that each is correct and that they are the ones to determine everything by voting. No need to change because there is no absolute standard against which any one could measure. There is only the voting and the rule of the majority for whatever reasons or for no reasons at all. The cult of the majority degenerates to the level of the least ambitious and least suited.

    Plato preferred that the whole of society be organized as an organic whole, with each part doing its part to provide for the proper functioning and prosperity of the whole. Those that know best how to do so would organize these social units. Those who are truly the best at doing something would get to do it. This was a meritocracy that Plato favored. In the Greek language of his day it was called “Aristocracy” meaning the rule of the best( aristos). Today that term means the rule of a class of people who inherit their positions. That idea is something towards which Plato was quite definitely opposed.

    Humans were composed of three parts and they should also be kept functioning properly in relation to one another as an organic whole, with each part doing its proper work.

    • Soul- unity of the whole
    • Reason – think, contemplate
    • Spirit- desires, appetites, drives, instincts

    The Allegory of the Cave

    Plato believed that there were four levels or approaches to knowledge and genuine understanding. They are illustrated in the Republic in the allegory of the cave and in the divided line.

    • Level I: guided by images, stories guesses, opinions
    • Level II: guided by practical common sense, trial and error approach, practical
    • Level III: a theoretical, scientific approach seeking to understand why things are as they are
    • Level IV: philosophical approach, by which theories are themselves evaluated. True understanding
    Allegory of the Cave

    People in the cave spend their time playing games and identifying the shadows on the wall. They think that the shadows on the wall are the real things. They are happy to win prizes in the cave for being so quick and accurate at identifying the shadows. They do not know that those are just shadows (I) caused by the light crossing over the statues (II) which are themselves representations of the things outside the cave (III) and all of those would not exist if not for the source of all things and all life, the sun.

    Philosophical Applications

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    Are there many people that you know who are at the first two levels, living in a cave and thinking it is the only reality? Thinking that the shadows on the world are the reality and refusing even to turn around and look at what else may be the actual truth? Do you know of people who are happy to have a nice position in the cave and are looking for little beyond that? People who don’t want their thinking to be disturbed even if it is wrong?

    1. Plato believed that through careful abstract reasoning we arrive at the real truth. He thought mathematics was the key to unlock the truth about the physical universe. Do you agree with him that humans need to arrive at the true knowledge as separate from opinions, through careful analysis, critical thinking, abstraction, categorization, and inductive reasoning as to ascertain the essence of things?


    Vocabulary Quizlet 2.5

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