SOCRATES

An Intellectual Conception of Desire

In the Protagoras, Plato has Socrates make a point about what "rules" a human being. Socrates suggests to Protagoras, and Protagoras agrees, that "knowledge is a leader and a ruler" in human beings. In the Gorgias and Meno, Plato may have Socrates express a different understanding of desire. This seems to presuppose what is known as Socratic Intellectualism: that all desire in the human soul is or stems from beliefs about what is good and what is bad.
  "Come, Protagoras, and reveal this about your mind: What do you believe about knowledge (ἐπιστήμην)? Do you go along with the majority? They think this way about it, that it is not powerful, neither a leader nor a ruler (ἡγεμονικὸν), that while knowledge is often present, what rules is something else, sometimes desire, sometimes pleasure, sometimes pain, at other times love, often fear. They think of knowledge as being dragged around by these other things, as if it were a slave. Does the matter seem like that to you? Or does it seem to you that knowledge is a fine thing capable of ruling, and if someone were to know what is good and bad, he would not be forced by anything to act otherwise than knowledge dictates, and that intelligence would be sufficient to save him?
  Not only does it seem as you say, but it would be shameful for me of all people to say that wisdom and knowledge are anything but the strongest in human affairs.
  Well and truly spoken, I said. Now you know that most people will not listen to you and me, but say that many, while knowing what is best, refuse to perform it, though they have the power, and do other things instead. And whenever I have asked them to tell me what can be the reason of this, they say that those who act so are acting under the influence of pleasure or pain, or under the control of one of the things I have just mentioned.
  Yes, Socrates, he replied, I regard this as but one of the many erroneous sayings of mankind.
  Come then, and join me in the endeavor to persuade the world and explain what is this experience (πάθος) of theirs, which they call 'being overcome by pleasure,' and which they give as the reason why they fail to do what is best though they have knowledge of it" (Protagoras 352a-e).

Desire is Part of Reason

Socratic Intellectualism conceives of desire as part of reason. In human beings, according to this conception of desire, there is an on-going process of forming beliefs about what is good and bad in the circumstances. No antecedent desire sets this psychological process in motion. This process is a fixed part of the human psychology. All desires stem from these beliefs.

This understanding of how the soul functions in human beings is in direct opposition with the view according to which reason in human beings consists simply in the general process of forming and retracting beliefs and not in any specific process to solve a particular problem.

This understanding also is in opposition with the view Socrates attributes to "the majority," that it is possible to know the better course of action but to act for the sake of a worse one because belief is overpowered by desire. The many say that this can and does happen to human beings.

How to Control Action


 "Well is there something you call dread, or fear? And is it—I address myself to you, Prodicus [= a Sophist and contemporary of Socrates]—the same as I have in mind—something I describe as an expectation (προσδοκίαν) of bad, whether you call it fear or dread?
 Protagoras and Hippias agreed to this description of dread or fear; but Prodicus thought this was dread, not fear.
 No matter, Prodicus, I said, but my point is this: if our former statements are true, will any man wish to go after what he dreads, when he may pursue what he does not? Surely this is impossible after what we have admitted—that he regards as evil that which he dreads? And what is regarded as evil is neither pursued nor accepted willingly, we saw, by anyone.
 Here also they were all in agreement" (Protagoras 358c-359a).
It seems uncontroversial that a human being controls his actions, and thus the direction of his life, by exerting control over his desires. The question is how a human being controls his desires, and Socrates proposed an an answer: care for the soul so that reason controls belief.

If, as Socrates thought, desires are or stem from beliefs about what is good and what is bad, then a human being controls his desires by controlling his beliefs. If his beliefs are true, he desires the right things, chooses wisely, and hence makes the best of the situations he encounters.

The problem is that most people are confused about what is good and what is bad. They have false beliefs about these things, and the suggestion in the early dialogues is that Socrates thought that the love of wisdom eliminates these false beliefs by eliminating inconsistency in belief.

What One does Willingly

"I am convinced that I never willingly (ἑκὼν) wronged anyone, but I cannot convince you of this because we have conversed with each other only a little while" (Apology 37a).


 "[N]o one who has knowledge or thought of other actions as better than those he is doing, and as possible, will do as he proposes if he is free to do the better ones; and this yielding to oneself is nothing but ignorance (ἀμαθία), and mastery of oneself is as certainly wisdom (σοφία).
 They all agreed.
 Well then, by ignorance do you mean having a false opinion and being deceived about matters of importance?
 They all agreed to this also.
Then surely no one willingly (ἑκὼν) goes after what is bad or what he thinks is bad; it is not in human nature (ἐν ἀνθρώπου φύσει), apparently, to do so—to wish to go after what one thinks to be evil in preference to the good; and when compelled to choose one of two evils, nobody will choose the greater when he may the lesser" (Protagoras 358b-d).
"[S]urely no one willingly (ἑκὼν) goes after what is bad or what he thinks is bad; it is not in human nature (ἐν ἀνθρώπου φύσει), apparently, to do so..." (Protagoras 358c).

Socrates does not explain what it is for someone to "willingly (ἑκὼν)" go after what is bad or what he thinks to be bad," but presumably it is this: the person thinks that doing y is worse than than doing x, thinks that he can do x, but nevertheless does y. in this way, he does the worse thing thinking that it is worse and thinking that there is something better he can do.


"For Simonides was not so ill-educated as to say that he praised a person who willingly did no bad, as though there were some who did bad willingly. I am fairly sure of this--that none of the wise men considers that anybody ever willingly errs or willingly does base and evil deeds; they are well aware that all who do base and evil things do them unwillingly..." (Protagoras 345d).

Simonides of Ceos was a lyric poet, c. 566 - 468 BCE. Protagoras 345d occurs in a discussion of the meaning of certain of his remarks about being and becoming good.
Why does Socrates think that this way of acting is "not in human nature"?

The answer, it seems, is that Socratic Intellectualism makes this way of acting impossible. Since he does y, and since all action is motivated by desire, he desires to do y. If Socratic Intellectualism is true, this desire is or stems from a belief about what is good. It follows, then, that he thinks that doing y is good and hence does not think that doing y is worse than doing x.

Problems for the Project Remain

Even given this theory of the soul, serious problems (about both method and focus) remain for the Socratic idea that the love of wisdom results in the good life.

Problems with Method

Is the elimination of inconsistency sufficient for wisdom about ethical matters?

Socrates, as Plato portrays him, assumes that his interlocutors are confused and that this confusion is eliminated by eliminating inconsistency in belief. This presupposes that the problem is the presence of false belief, not the absence of knowledge. Human beings have the necessary knowledge, but their false beliefs confuse them and prevent them from living a good life. Yet, it is not obvious that human beings have the knowledge they need and that false belief is the problem. In the Meno, Plato seems to have Socrates introduce the Theory of Recollection as a possible solution to these questions about the love of wisdom. In addition, Socrates seems to assume that the knowledge that constitutes wisdom cannot be eliminated in eliminating the inconsistency in belief. Again, it is not obvious why this assumption is correct. Finally, from a logical point of view, consistency does not imply truth. Even if one's beliefs are consistent, it does not follow as a matter of logic that these beliefs are all true.

Problems with the Focus

Is knowledge of definitions alone sufficient for wisdom about ethical matters?

Socrates, as Plato portrays him, seems to suppose that in the definitions only the reference class varies. In the Euthyphro, he hints that piety is what is appropriate in matters involving the gods. Further, just as piety is what is appropriate in matters involving the gods, so also justice is what is appropriate with respect to human beings, courage is what is appropriate in fearful situations, and so on. Socrates' interlocutors fail to understand this and instead try to identify a given virtue with some of its salient instances. This in part is why they contradict themselves.

In this case, it seems that knowledge of the definitions is not sufficient.This knowledge alone provides no guidance about what to do in particular situations. It is not enough to know the definitions. It is necessary to know what is appropriate in particular situations.

In the Protagoras, as Plato portrays him, Socrates assumes that a human being has the right desires once his confusion about what is good and what is bad has been eliminated. Given this intellectualist theory, desire is or stems from beliefs about what is good and about what is bad. The right desires follow from true beliefs about what is good and what is bad.

Yet, in the early dialogues, the focus in Socrates' discussions with his interlocutors does not seem to be on what is good and what is bad. Instead, it seems that his interest is in definitions.

The Beginning of a Solution

Remember that although it is traditional to describe Socrates in many of the early dialogues as searching for a "definition," he is not interested in the meaning of words. It is not obvious what the solution to the problem of focus is, but it might be that Socrates thinks that knowledge of the definitions and of what is good and what is bad are the same thing. The Laches and the Protagoras provide some evidence for this interpretation.

In the Laches, Nicias says that Socrates and Laches have not been "defining courage" in the right way (194c). Laches had been defining courage in terms of salient examples. He says that someone who is courageous "is willing to stay at his post and face the enemy, and does not run away" (190e). Nicias suggests a different approach: that "courage is a kind of wisdom (σοφίαν)" (194d). Socrates seems to encourage this suggestion and seems further to suggest that this wisdom is knowledge of what is good and what is bad (199a-199e). The idea, then, in the case of courage, is that a person who knows what courage is knows what is good and what is bad in circumstances that inspire fear and hence does what is appropriate in these circumstances.

There is a similar suggestion in the Protagoras in the discussion of the unity of virtue.

"And now, Protagoras, so please answer me this. You say that virtue (ἀρετὴν) may be taught, and if there is anybody in the world who could convince me, you are the man: but there was a point in your speech about which I wondered. You said that Zeus had sent justice (δικαιοσύνην) and shame (αἰδῶ) to mankind, and furthermore it was frequently stated in your discourse that justice, temperance, holiness and the rest were all but one single thing, virtue: pray, now proceed to deal with these in more precise exposition, stating whether virtue is a single thing, of which justice and temperance and holiness are parts, or whether the qualities I have just mentioned are all names of the same single thing. This is what I am still hankering after" (Protagoras 329b-d).

These discussions suggest that the prior understanding of Socrates was incomplete. It was that

• the soul has virtue just in case the person has a certain wisdom
• this wisdom is knowledge about ethical matters

To this characterization, it is necessary to add that

• knowledge about ethical matters is knowledge of what is good and what is bad

On this interpretation, knowledge of what is good and what is bad is what Socrates wants and what Plato has the character search for in the search for definitions. Having this knowledge with respect to ethical matters is the competency or "wisdom and truth and the best state of [the] soul" that Socrates, in the Apology, says his interlocutors care for much less than they should.

Further, given the truth of Socrates' intellectual understanding of desire, it follows that

• the virtues are necessary and jointly sufficient for wisdom

This connection between the traditional virtues and happiness is not obvious. For this to be plausible, it is necessary to know what activity or activities constitute "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία) and why living in terms of the virtues is living a life in which these activities predominate. Plato takes up this problem in the Republic. The person who is just and has "the rest" of the traditional virtues is the one who chooses wisely and thus arranges things in his life so that he is "happy" (εὐδαίμων).





Perseus Digital Library:
Plato's, Laches, Protagoras

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀκρατής, (ἀ + κράτος), akratēs, adjective, "without strength,"
ἑκών, hekōn, adjective, "of one's own accord,"
ἡγεμονικὸν, hēgemonikos, adjective, "leader,"
προσδοκίαν, prosdokian, noun, "expectation"


"[I]n the Protagoras, Socrates seems to argue as if the soul just were reason, and the passions were reasoned beliefs or judgments of some kind, and as if, therefore, we were entirely guided or motivated by beliefs of one kind or another. On this picture of the soul, it is easy to see why Socrates thinks that nobody acts against his knowledge or even his beliefs: nothing apart from beliefs could motivate such an action" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," xxx. Plato. Protagoras. Translated by S. Lombardo and K. Bell, introduction by Michael Frede (Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), vii-xxxii).

"[Socrates] 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. Greek thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, edited by J. Brunschwig and G.E.R. Lloyd (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 3-16).

"[If] virtue is a certain kind of wisdom... [it]] is not just one among several virtues. Rather, one must wonder whether wisdom is also a necessary condition for the other virtues or even whether the other virtues are not just parts of this wisdom. Perhaps, indeed, one and the same wisdom, applied in different contexts, grounds or even guarantees a courageous or pious or just response, as the context demands" (Michael Frede, "Introduction,: xxii. Plato. Protagoras. Translated by S. Lombardo and K. Bell, introduction by Michael Frede (Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), vii-xxxii).

"[I]f the [Protagoras] does suggest a positive thesis, it is the strong thesis that the virtues are identical with wisdom, the knowledge of what is good and bad. ... Being virtuous, Socrates suggests, is being wise, possessing a science or an art of properly evaluating things" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," xxiii, xxxii. Plato. Protagoras. Translated by S. Lombardo and K. Bell, introduction by Michael Frede (Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), vii-xxxii).



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