Knowledge is a Leader and a Ruler

In the Protagoras, Plato seems to address one of the puzzles this interpretation of Socrates raises. He has Socrates make a point about what rules a human being that seems to presuppose a view about how belief and desire exist in the soul. Socrates suggests, and Protagoras agrees, that "knowledge is a leader and a ruler" in human beings. 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.

(In the Gorgias and Meno, Socrates may express a different view of desire.)

  "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).

"Here in 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" in Plato, Protagoras, xxx).

"[Socrates'] extreme intellectualism seems to have been based on a conception of the soul as a mind or a reason, such that our desires turn out to be beliefs of a certain kind" (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 8).


Desire is Belief about what is Good

Socratic Intellectualism conceives of desire as part of the intellect. In human beings, according to this understanding, 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.

It also is in direct 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

It seems uncontroversial that a human being controls his actions, and thus the direction of his life, by exerting control over his desires. How a human being controls his desires is the difficult question, and Socrates seems to have an answer: care for the soul so that reason controls belief.

If desires either are or stem from beliefs about what is good and about what is bad, then a human being controls his desires by controlling his beliefs. If his beliefs are true, he desires the right things, choose 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, 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.


A Corollary to Socratic Intellectualism

 "[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).

Socrates does not explain what it is for someone to "willingly (ἑκὼν) goes after what is bad or what he thinks to be bad," but presumably what it is is as follows. The person thinks that doing y is worse than than doing x, thinks that he can do x, but nevertheless does y. He does the worse thing thinking that it is worse and that there is something else he can do that is better.

Why does Socrates say that this possibility "not in human nature"? Since the person does y, and since all action is motivated by desire, it follows that 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 the person thinks that doing y is good and hence does not think that doing y is worse than doing x.


 "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).

"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. The discussion is about the meaning of certain of his remarks about being and becoming good.)

"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).


Serious Problems for the Project Remain

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


I. Problems with Method

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

Socrates, as Plato portrays him, seems to assume that his interlocutors are confused and that this confusion is eliminated by eliminating inconsistency in belief. Hence, for the love of wisdom to result in wisdom, Socrates seems to assume that the problem is never the absence of knowledge. Instead, it is always the presence of false belief. Human beings have the background knowledge and powers of reason to know what to do, 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 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.

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.


II. Problems with 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. The point is general. 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 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 is clear that knowledge of the definitions is not sufficient for wisdom because 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. Yet, the focus in the early dialogues is on definitions, not on what is appropriate.

In the Protagoras, Socrates seems to assume that a human being has the right desires once his confusion about what is good and what is bad has been eliminated. Given the intellectualist theory of the soul, desire either is or stems from beliefs about what is good and about what is bad. So given the right beliefs about what is good and what is bad, the right desires follow.

Yet, in the early dialogues the focus does not seem to be on what is good and what is bad. It is on the search for definitions.


Toward a solution to this problem

The Laches and the Protagoras suggest that knowledge of the definitions and of the good are somehow the same thing. (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. In the Laches, e.g., he wants to know what courage is.)

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, that someone who is courageous "is willing to stay at his post and face the enemy, and does not run away" (Laches 1903e). Nicias suggests a different approach and that in fact "courage is a kind of wisdom (σοφίαν)" (Laches 194d). Socrates seems to encourage this suggestion and to suggest further that this wisdom is knowledge of what is good and what is bad (Laches 199b-199e). The idea, then, in the case of courage, is that a human being knows what courage is just in case he knows what is good and what is bad in circumstances that inspire fear and hence acts appropriately.

There is a similar suggestion in the Protagoras in the discussion of the unity of virtue, which Socrates introduces at 329b-d. "And now, Protagoras, there is one little thing wanting to the completeness of what I have got, 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 at which I wondered, and on which my spirit would fain be satisfied. 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."

"[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" in Plato. Protagoras, xxii).

This suggests that the prior way of characterizing Socrates' understanding of the good life is incomplete. It was that

• the good life is a life in which the soul has virtue
• the soul has virtue just in case it has a certain wisdom
• this wisdom is knowledge about about ethical matters

To this characterization, it is necessary to add that

• knowledge about ethical matters is knowledge of what is "good" (ἀγαθός) and what is "bad" (κακός)

Knowledge of what is good and bad seems to be what Socrates wants and what Plato has the character search for in the search for definitions. Having this knowledge with respect to ethical matters seems to be the competency or "wisdom and truth and the best state of [the] soul (ψυχῆς)" that he suggests his interlocutors care for much less than they should.

"[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" (Michael Frede, "Introduction" in Plato. Protagoras, xxiii). "Being virtuous, Socrates suggests, is being wise, possessing a science or an art of properly evaluating things" (Michael Frede, "Introduction" in Plato. Protagoras, xxxii).

This interpretation of Socrates and "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία) leaves open what what is good and bad and thus what life the good life is.





Perseus Digital Library:
Plato's, Laches, Protagoras
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀκρατής, (alpha privative + κράτος (kratos)), akratēs, "without strength,"
ἑκών, hekōn, "of one's own accord,"
ἡγεμονικὸν, hēgemonikos, "leader,"
προσδοκίαν, prosdokian, "expectation"