Socrates: An Examined Life

3.1 The Philosophical Gadfly

Socrates’s unattractive appearance contrasts with his remarkable charisma, courage, and intellect, the latter of which are among the things that make him so appealing to many of Athens’s youth. In several of Plato’s dialogues, this tension is used to great effect. One’s outer appearance is nothing in comparison to one’s inner goodness—virtue.

3.2 The Socratic Method

Socrates’s method is the tool for determining the state of one’s knowledge about ethical concepts and so also whether one is virtuous: for Socrates, one’s ethical state generally cannot be divested from one’s epistemological state.

The method consists of directed question and answer. A ‘What is X?’ question is asked, where X is some ethical concept, such as friendship, courage, justice, and so on. Socrates’s interlocutor provides an answer. That answer is examined and found wanting. The process then begins again.

The reductio ad absurdum is the mechanism whereby answers are found to be inadequate. Whether a definition of justice is too broad, too narrow, or deficient in some other way, the error is ferreted out by this mechanism of assuming a statement to be true, and deducing from it a false or logically incompatible statement (the absurdity). The resulting statement shows that the initial assumption is false.

3.3 Knowledge and Ignorance

Socrates’s method almost inevitably embarrasses and angers his interlocutors—to be shown ignorant where you have professed knowledge usually does the trick. To avoid this uncomfortable situation, Socrates could, for example, simply lecture on ethical topics. He does not do this, however, for several reasons: (1) he did not think himself a Sophist — one who teaches, and does so for a fee; (2) his method and views about the soul are inextricable, so that the wellness of a soul, living the good life—and preparing oneself for an afterlife—depends on the sort of self-examination the method employs; (3) related to (2), the connection between virtue and knowledge is such that one has to discover for oneself whether or not one knows what one claims.

The state of one’s soul is revealed by answers to the questions Socrates asks. One obvious indicator of an unhealthy soul, according to Socrates, is preoccupation with wealth, social status, power, and pleasure. All these distract one from pursuing knowledge, which is to say, from pursuing the right way to live. (Even if these were indicators of the right way to live, they’d need to be established as such.)

3.4 Socrates’s Trial and Death

Socrates’s activities eventually resulted in his death. Faced with charges that he corrupts the youth, worships false gods, and creates new divinities, Socrates boldly declares that he would not stop his activities.

He argues that many young Athenian men liked to observe the conversations Socrates had—ones that resulted in humiliation for the interlocutor—but that he didn’t actively corrupt them. Even if he does corrupt them, Socrates argues, he should be educated, not punished, since he does not corrupt them intentionally.

He further argues that he cannot both be an atheist and a creator of new divinities, but not before he explains the origin of the animosity toward him. His reputation, he claims, is the result of his new accusers—Meletus and Anytus, among others—being raised by a previous generation who resented Socrates’s activities. Of singular importance to this series of events is the Oracle at Delphi.

After the oracle told one of Socrates’s friends that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, Socrates set out to determine the meaning of the claim—especially since he could not believe himself wise. His interrogations of those who he thought must be wiser than himself yielded the conclusion that, although he wasn’t wise, he was at least wiser than these men because he did not presume to have knowledge he didn’t actually possess.

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