Given what the character says in the Apology, it seems that Socrates called himself a lover of wisdom (φιλόσοφος) and called his practice the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφία).

The adjective φιλόσοφος and noun φιλοσοφία, although not unknown, would have been relatively unfamiliar. These words occur rarely in the extant literature prior to Plato's dialogues. The two most prominent occurrences are in Heraclitus and Herodotus. In these authors, a lover of wisdom is someone who arranges his life around an uncommon intellectual pursuit. In Plato, the significance of the words is more precise. A lover of wisdom has a very specific conception of the love of wisdom. According to this conception, (i) the wisdom he pursues is a necessary (and perhaps also a sufficient) condition for living a good life, and (ii) the way he pursues this wisdom is the one and only way for a human being to become wise and hence to live a good life.

(In the subsequent tradition, there was disagreement about whether the wisdom the lover of wisdom pursues is necessary and is also sufficient for living a good life. In addition, in late antiquity, some Neoplatonists challenged the idea that pursuing wisdom in the way the the lover of wisdom pursues it is the only way for a human being to become wise and hence to live a good life.)

As a lover of wisdom, Socrates pursues "wisdom and truth and the best state of [the] soul (ψυχή)" above all else. (The word ψυχή transliterates as psyche and is related etymologically to the word 'psychology.') To many, however, it would have seemed strange to think that wisdom is a state of the "soul" (ψυχή). Today it can seem commonplace to understand human beings as psychological beings, beings who act in terms of their "pysche," but this was not always the case. Socrates seems to have accepted this conception of human beings and to have developed it in a distinctive way. He seems to have thought that there is some way human beings function, to have conceived of this functioning in terms of the "soul" (ψυχή), and to have had a view about the "soul" (ψυχή).

The "Soul" (ψυχή)

The Clouds of Aristophanes shows that Socrates talked about wisdom as a state of the soul as early as 423 BCE, when Socrates was in his middle forties and Plato was a boy. In the play, Aristophanes uses Strepsiades to make fun of Socrates. He has Strepsiades refer to the denizens of the think-tank that Socrates heads as "ψυχῶν σοφῶν" ("wise souls") who "in speaking of the heavens persuade people that it is an oven, and that it encompasses us, and that we are the embers" and who "teach, if one gives them money, to conquer in speaking, right or wrong" (94-99).

(Aristophanes (446-386 BCE) is an Athenian comic playwright. His Clouds is a brilliant caricature of the historical Socrates and of intellectual ideas in 5th century Athens.)

(How the ancient Greeks understood the "soul" (ψυχή) changed significantly over time. In the opening lines of Homer's Iliad, the wrath of Achilles is said to send the souls of heroes to Hades but to leave them, the heroes themselves, as food for birds and dogs on the battlefield. (Similarly, in Homer's Odyssey 11.74, the ψυχή of an unburied hero asks Odysseus to bury "him," where "him" refers to his corpse.) Achilles does not think that the souls he sends to Hades are the human beings he kills. Nor does he think that the soul is something one could improve or make worse, especially in terms of the "love of wisdom," as Socrates supposed. The soul was thought to be necessary for life. A human being dies when the soul departs from his body, but thinking and feeling in the living is not a matter of this soul. Feeling was thought to somehow depend on the blood around the heart. Homer's "souls" are shades or shadows. They are portrayed as witless and feeble images of the living. This is not to deny that the Greeks in Homer's time thought of human beings and their actions in terms of what we would now call "psychological" states and processes. They did, but they did not think of these states and processes as the "soul" (ψυχή). Just how the word ψυχή came to be used this way is not clear. It seems that over time as it became possible to think of human beings as having a life after death rather than existing as a shade or shadow, it also became natural use ψυχή to refer to this aspect of human beings and to think that this aspect is somehow in the body in the living.)

Socrates seems to have thought that human beings are psychological beings and that the "psyche" is better or worse to the extent that it has or lacks wisdom about ethical matters. As psychological beings, human beings do what they do because of the states and processes in their souls. If the soul lacks wisdom and thus is unhealthy and so functions improperly, the individual makes poor choices in life. If, on the other hand, the soul has wisdom and thus is healthy and so functions properly, the individual chooses in a way that makes his life as good as possible given the circumstances.

"[H]istorically the decisive step was taken by Socrates in conceiving of human beings as being run by a mind or reason. And the evidence strongly suggests that Socrates did not take a notion of reason which had been there all along and assume, more or less plausibly, that reason as thus conceived, or as somewhat differently conceived, could fulfill the role he envisaged for it, but that he postulated an entity whose precise nature and function was then a matter of considerable philosophical debate.... [W]hat Socrates actually did was take a substantial notion of the soul and then try to understand the soul thus substantially conceived of as a mind or reason. ... By 'a substantial notion of the soul' I [mean]... a notion according to which the soul accounts not only for a human being's being alive, but for its doing whatever it does.... This was not a common conception, it seems, even in Socrates' time, but it was widespread and familiar enough under the influence of nontraditional religious beliefs, reflected, for instance, in Pythagoreanism. And it seems to have been such a substantial notion of the soul which Socrates took and interpreted as consisting in a mind or reason." (Michael Frede, "Introduction" in Rationality in Greek Thought, 19.)

"Socrates, it seems, relied on a substantial notion of the soul as what guides our behavior and whose health and well-being should thus be a primary concern of ours. His extreme intellectualism seems to have been based on a conception of the soul as a mind or reason, such that our desires turn out to be beliefs of a certain kind" (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 10).

The soul needs to be rid of inconsistent beliefs to function properly

Given the way he seems to try to instill wisdom by forcing his interlocutors to contradict themselves, Socrates seems to commit himself to the view that reason in the human soul consists in more than the ability to make inferences. In addition to this ability, his view seems to be that reason includes the knowledge that constitutes wisdom. Everyone has this knowledge. At the same time, everyone is confused. Their problem is the presence of false belief, never the lack of knowledge, and eliminating inconsistency in belief is the remedy for this confusion.

As Plato portrays him, Socrates seems to think that the proper functioning of the "soul" (ψυχή) constitutes rationality in human beings, that a soul with inconsistent beliefs is unhealthy and functions improperly, and that once this inconsistency in belief is eliminated a human being is wise and no longer is confused about what to do to make his life good.

  • a rational human being has a properly functioning soul
  • a human being whose soul is functioning properly is wise about ethical matters
  • a human being with this wisdom is "happy" (εὐδαίμων)

(The Greek noun εὐδαιμονία is commonly translated as "happiness," but it might be also be translated as "well-being." The unanswered question is about the condition or conditions necessary (and perhaps also sufficient) for a life to be good and thus for the person to be happy, and Socrates (as Plato portrays him) has an answer to this question in terms of the "soul" (ψυχή).)

(The etymological meaning of εὐδαίμων is "blessed with good fortune." The opposite is κακοδαίμων, "ill-fated, ill-starred, miserable.")

This way of understanding Socrates show why he was doing something important in questioning his fellows in the marketplace and elsewhere. In saying that the soul requires "care" and that this care consists in the love of wisdom, the view seems to be that his "testing" and "examining" helps those with whom he comes in contact to have healthy souls and thus to be rational and not confused in their thinking and behavior. If Socrates is right, then he is a great benefit to the citizens of Athens. He helps them make the right choices and thus to live good lives.

(It seems possible to agree that belief formation is a psychological process, that there is a right way way to form beliefs, and that beliefs are rational just in case they are formed in the right way, but to deny that inconsistency in belief is necessarily a matter of improper psychological functioning and irrationality. The "soul" (ψυχή) might be understood as a kind of cognitive mechanism that executes the following procedure over and over again: evaluate the current circumstances, try to make the circumstances so that one's life is better, and repeat the procedure. Yet, even so, it is not obvious that the mechanism has malfunctioned if the person has acquired inconsistent beliefs in this process. This is true even if consistency in belief would lead to better outcomes.)

Perseus Digital Library:
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
εὐδαιμονία, eudaimonia, "happiness,"
εὐδαίμων, eudaimōn, "happy,"
κακοδαίμων, kakodaimōn, "unhappiness"