Socrates, the character and the historical figure

'Socrates' is the name both of a historical figure and a character in Plato's dialogues. The historical figure lived from 469 to 399 B.C.E. He did not write anything, so it is hard to know what he thought. There are writings about Socrates by several authors, but Plato (in his early dialogues) is traditionally thought to provide the most authoritative account. Keep in mind, however, that since Socrates himself wrote nothing, there is no straightforward way to determine how much the character Socrates (who appears in the Platonic dialogues) resembles the historical figure (who lived and died). There must be some resemblance. There would be no reason for the name otherwise, but the inference from what the character says to what the historical figure thought is indirect.

To clarify the nature of this inference, it is useful to state and contrast two models for understanding the relationship between Plato and Socrates.

The apprenticeship model has its basis in the assumption that Plato's dialogues look to many modern readers like records of historical conversations. This can encourage the reader to think that Plato is imitating conversations Socrates had, as an apprentice imitates his master by creating an imitation of a product the master created previously. Another model is the assessment model. This model has its basis in the assumption that Socrates was charismatic but also extremely perplexing. On the assessment model, Plato is not first and foremost imitating Socrates. Instead, he is trying to bring out what is important and what is problematic about Socrates. This is true even in the Apology, which is often thought to provide the strongest evidence for what the historical Socrates thought.

I favor the assessment model. Plato did not write the dialogues to imitate historical conversations. His aim is to understand Socrates and to show that he was onto something important.


The Competency in Living a Good Life

In the Apology, Socrates says that there is a certain practice that he will not abandon even though it has gotten him into trouble and is about to cost him his life.

"While I have breath I shall not cease to pursue the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφία) or to exhort you, charging any of you I happen to meet in my accustomed manner: 'You are the best of men, being an Athenian, citizen of a city honored for wisdom and power beyond all others. Are you not ashamed to care for money, and reputation, and public honor, while having no thought or concern for wisdom and truth and the best state of your soul (ψυχῆς)?' If some one of you disputes this, and says he does care, I shall not immediately dismiss him and go away. I shall question and examine and test him, and if he does not seem to me to possess virtue (ἀρετήν), and yet says he does, I shall rebuke him for counting of more importance things which by comparison are worthless" (Apology 29d-30b).


What does this show about what Socrates thought?

On the basis of what Plato has the character Socrates say in this passage, it is natural to think the historical Socrates thought that

• the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία) involves asking and trying to answer certain questions
• the point of asking and answering these questions is to ensure that the "soul" (ψυχή) has "virtue" (ἀρετή)

The passage suggests that Socrates was concerned with the question of what a human being should care about. The answer might seem to be money and that sort of thing, but the character quickly rejects this answer. Money can be good or bad, depending on what one does with it. So it would seem that more important than money is knowing what to do with it. The same presumably is true of the other things he mentions. What one should care about more is having a certain competency in living. The understanding that constitutes this competency, it seems, is what Socrates has in mind when he castigates the Athenians for not giving enough attention to "wisdom and truth and the best state of your soul." A person needs to have a certain competency to make the right decisions in life. Socrates describes this competency in terms of the "soul" (ψυχή) and "virtue" (ἀρετή), and the suggestion is that the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία) is the way to acquire this competency.

This picture of what Socrates had in mind raises several questions. The most pressing, at this point, is the following:

• What is this wisdom?

The answer is difficult to establish with certainty, but it is possible to begin to see an answer by looking to the early dialogues. In these dialogues, Plato shows Socrates and his interlocutor engaged in asking and answering questions in what has come to be known as the "search for definitions." The search for a "definitions" is the now traditional way to describe what Socrates is doing in these early dialogues, but it is important to keep in mind that Socrates is not interested in the meanings of words. He is asking about matters related to "wisdom and truth and the best state of [the] soul."

The "search for a definitions" in the early dialogues is presumably the sort of questioning Plato has the character Socrates mentions in the passage from the Apology, but just how questioning of this sort is supposed to improve the soul is not immediately clear. The character does not explain his "questioning" much beyond the brief remarks in the Apology, but it seems reasonable to conjecture that Socrates, as Plato understands him, has a view about the best life for a human being and about the competency involved in living this life. The suggestion is that Socrates thought that


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

(The noun ἦθος means "custom" or "manner." ἠθικός is the corresponding adjective.)

(Cicero (106-43 BCE), in an often quoted passage, says that "Socrates ... was the first to call philosophy (philosophiam) down from the heavens and set her in the cities of men and bring her also into their homes and compel her to ask questions about life and morality (moribus) and things good and bad..." (Tusculan Disputations V.4.10). Cf. Academica I.4.15. "Socrates was the first person who summoned philosophy away from mysteries veiled in concealment by nature herself, upon which all philosophers before him had been engaged, and led it to the subject of ordinary life, in order to investigate the virtues and vices, and good and evil generally, and to realize that heavenly matters are either remote from our knowledge or else, however fully known, have nothing to do with the good life.")

This makes it a little clearer what Socrates might have had in mind. A human being with the wisdom that interests Socrates arranges his life in accordance with the truth about "ethical matters." The suggestion is that this is the competency involved in a living a good life. So now the question is

• What are these "ethical" matters?

The answer, again, is hard to know, but the Laches (a definitional dialogue) and the Protagoras (a dialogue with the famous Sophist) suggest that knowledge of the definitions and of what is good and bad are the same thing. (Remember that although it is traditional to describe Socrates as searching for a "definition," he is not interested in the meaning of words.)

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" (190e). Nicias suggests a different approach and that in fact "courage is a kind of wisdom (σοφίαν)" (194d). Socrates seems to encourage this suggestion and to suggest further 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 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, 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."

This suggests that the prior way of characterizing Socrates' understanding of the good life is 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" (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" that he suggests his interlocutors care for much less than they should.

Further, the suggestion is that the person who is courageous and has the other traditional virtues is the one who has the competency involved in living a good life. The argument depends on the understanding of desire expressed in the Protagoras that is known as "Socratic intellectualism": that all desire in human beings is or stems from beliefs about what is good and what is bad.


What is the connection to the argument in the Republic?

Socrates is the primary character in the Republic. On the assessment model, Plato uses this character to understand ideas that historical figure seems to have had in mind but did not work out in any real detail. One of these ideas is that having the traditional virtues is somehow the same has having the competency involved in living a good life. It is not immediately clear how this can be true, since it is not clear why doing what courage and the other traditional virtues demand is thereby arranging things so that the person is living a good life and is "happy" (εὐδαίμων).

(Εὐδαίμων is an adjective that means "happy, blessed with good fortune." The opposite is κακοδαίμων, "unhappy, ill-fated, ill-starred, miserable." The noun and verb corresponding to the adjective εὐδαίμων are εὐδαιμονία and εὐδαιμονέω. The verb means "to be happy, prosperous, well off." The noun means "prosperity, happiness.")


The Perspective in the Middle Dialogues

In the middle dialogues, Plato casts the good life in terms of the "contemplation" (θεωρία) the soul enjoys in its disincarnate state.

According to this understanding of the good life, a human being is an immortal soul temporarily located in a mortal body. In its disincarnate state, the soul is free from practical concerns and the need to exercise reason to meet them. Its existence is blessed and completely characterized by knowledge of the forms, the things Socrates is asking about in the early dialogues. The good life for a human being is one in which he or she engages in the love of wisdom to regain, as much as is humanly possible, the existence in contemplation of the forms the soul enjoyed prior to incarnation.

"[P]hilosophy (φιλοσοφία) sees that the most dreadful thing about the imprisonment in the body is the fact that it is caused by the lusts (ἐπιθυμίας) of the flesh, so that the prisoner is the chief assistant in his own imprisonment. ... The soul of the true philosopher (ἀληθῶς φιλοσόφου ψυχὴ) ... stands aloof from pleasures and lusts and griefs and fears (ἡδονῶν τε καὶ ἐπιθυμιῶν καὶ λυπῶν καὶ φόβων), so far as it can, considering that when anyone has violent pleasures or fears or griefs or lusts he suffers from them not merely what one might think--for example, illness or loss of money spent or his lusts--but he suffers the greatest and most extreme evil and does not take it into account. ... The evil is that the soul of every man, when it is greatly pleased or pained by anything, is compelled to believe that the object which caused the emotion (πάσχῃ) is very distinct and very true; but it is not. ... Each pleasure or pain bonds the soul as with a nail to the body and rivets it on and makes it corporeal, so that it fancies the things are true which the body says are true. For because it has the same beliefs and pleasures as the body it is compelled to adopt also the same habits and mode of life (ἐκ γὰρ τοῦ ὁμοδοξεῖν τῷ σώματι καὶ τοῖς αὐτοῖς χαίρειν ἀναγκάζεται οἶμαι ὁμότροπός τε καὶ ὁμότροφος γίγνεσθαι), and can never depart in purity to the other world, but must always go away contaminated with the body; and so it sinks quickly into another body again and grows into it, like seed that is sown. Therefore it has no part in the communion with the divine and pure and absolute. ... This is the reason why the true lovers of knowledge (φιλομαθεῖς) are temperate (κόσμιοί) and brave (ἀνδρεῖοι); not for what the many say. ... For the soul of the philosopher would not reason (λογίσαιτ᾽) as others do, and would not think it right that philosophy should set it free, and that then when set free it should give itself again into bondage to pleasure and pain and engage in futile toil.... No, his soul believes that it must gain peace from these emotions, must follow reason (λογισμῷ) and abide always in it, beholding that which is true and divine and not a matter of opinion (τὸ ἀληθὲς καὶ τὸ θεῖον καὶ τὸ ἀδόξαστον), and making that its only food; and in this way it believes it must live, while life endures, and then at death pass on to that which is akin to itself and of like nature, and be free from human ills" (Phaedo 82e-84b).


This understanding of the good life highlights a problem

The suggestion in the early dialogues was that the competency involved in living a good life was a matter of having justice and the traditional virtues. Yet, if the good life for a human being is a life in imitation of the existence of the soul enjoys in its natural and disincarnate state, it is unclear how this understanding of wisdom and the traditional virtues can be true. It seems that an unjust life would be better because it would allow one to spend more time in in contemplation of forms and thus to have a better life than someone whose life is burdened with the demands of justice.

In the Republic, Plato seems to explore a possible solution this problem. He has Socrates argue that justice pays.


Book I of the Republic

The Opening Conversation (Cephalus, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus)

The Republic divides into ten books. Book I is in the style of definitional dialogue. Socrates' interlocutors are Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. The discussion is about justice, what it is and whether it pays. This discussion is preliminary to the Theory of Justice that Socrates presents in the subsequent books of the Republic.


1. Cephalus

Cephalus has a common view about justice and happiness. He is rich, near the end of his life, and the conversation turns to how he has benefited from his wealth (Republic I.330d).

He suggests that wealth is good because it removes the need to act unjustly (Republic I.331a-b). The rich man has no need to risk punishment, either in this world or the next. Justice opposes happiness and tempts a human being to act unjustly to satisfy his desires. Wealth is good because it undermines this temptation and renders such unjust action unnecessary.

Socrates thinks that Cephalus is mistaken. Cephalus suggests that justice is a burden a human being is sometimes better off without. Socrates believes that the just life is always better than the unjust life and that injustice is never in one's interest. So, to determine the truth of the matter, he asks Cephalus a question about what justice is (Republic I.331c).


2. Polemarchus

Polemarchus takes his father's place once now that the conversation has taken a more serious turn (Republic I.331d).

Polemarchus appeals to the poet Simonides (who died about the time of Socrates' birth) to say what justice is (Republic I.331e). Polemarchus says that it justice is giving each man his due, that to one's enemies what is due is harm, and that to one's friends what is due is benefit.

This exchange highlights the question of what a human being is due. If justice is what is appropriate in connection with human beings, then they are due the things that are appropriate for them. Polemarchus is confused about what this is. He cannot defend his answers because what is appropriate for human beings is good for them, both friends and enemies alike.


3. Thrasymachus

Thrasymachus jumps into the conversation once Polemarchus drops out (Republic I.336b).

"[D]o you yourself answer and tell us what you say the just is. And don't you be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or the beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I won't take from you any such drivel as that" (Republic I.336d; cf. Clitophon 409b-c).

Thrasymachus is not satisfied with how the conversation has gone. He wants an analysis of the underlying facts and gets closer to the truth about what justice is, at least as Plato understands it. Thrasymachus thinks (despite his rant) that justice is what is in one's interest, but he is confused about what that is. He seems to have the common idea that the good life is a life of satisfying one's desires. He tells Socrates that "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger" (Republic I.338c), that the rulers are the strong, that they use the power of the state to satisfy their desires, and that "justice is the same in every city, being that which supervenes on the advantage of the established rulers" (Republic I.338e-339a)

The conversation turns to a new question: whether justice is better than injustice (Republic I.343b; cf. Republic I.347e).

Socrates and Thrasymachus disagree about whether the just life is better than the unjust life Thrasymachus thinks that the unjust life is better. He is convinced that injustice helps a person get the most he can for himself. Thrasymachus, however, is unable to defend his views about justice against Socrates' questioning.

"For I tell you, Thrasymachus, I am not convinced, and do not think that injustice is more profitable than justice, not even if one gives it free scope and does not hinder it" (Republic I.345a).


Justice and the Function of the Soul

Socrates gets Thrasymachus to admit that the "soul" (ψυχή) has a "function" (ἔργον). They agree that this function is "to take care of things, to rule, to deliberate" (τὸ ἐπιμελεῖσθαι καὶ ἄρχειν καὶ βουλεύεσθαι). They agreed, earlier in the conversation at Republic I.350c-d, that "justice is the virtue (ἀρετήν) of the soul."

"The soul, has it a work which you couldn't accomplish with anything else in the world, as for example, management, rule, deliberation, and the like, is there anything else than soul to which you could rightly assign these and say that they were its peculiar work?
Nothing else.
And again life? Shall we say that too is the function of the soul?
Most certainly.
And do we not also say that there is a virtue of the soul?
We do.
Will the soul ever accomplish its own work well if deprived of its own virtue, or is this impossible?
It is impossible.
Of necessity, then, a bad soul will govern and manage things badly while the good soul will in all these things do well.
Of necessity.
And did we not agree that the excellence or virtue of soul is justice and its defect injustice?
Yes, we did" (Republic I.353d-e).

Given this much, Socrates goes on to argue that injustice is never more profitable than justice.

"The just soul and the just man then will live well and the unjust badly?
So it appears by your reasoning, Socrates.
But surely he who lives well is blessed and happy (μακάριός τε καὶ εὐδαίμων), and he who does not the contrary.
Of course.
Then the just is happy and the unjust miserable.
So be it, Socrates.
But it surely does not pay to be miserable, but to be happy.
Of course not.
Never, then, most worshipful Thrasymachus (Θρασύμαχε), can injustice be more profitable (λυσιτελέστερον) than justice" (Republic I.353e-354a).

(The word λυσιτελέστερον ("more profitable") is the comparative of λυσιτελής, which is a compound formed from λύω ("free") and τέλος ("end") So the issues is which life frees the end more, the just life or the unjust life. The answer depends on what the end is. Thrasymachus seems to think it is get whatever one happens to desire.)

Book II of the Republic

Socrates refutes Thrasymachus, but the answers to the two questions about justice (what justice is and whether the just life is better) have not been settled (Republic I.354b-c). Book I of the Republic thus ends in perplexity (like the early dialogues devoted to the search for a definition), but Plato's older brother, Glaucon, is not content to let such an important matter go without further discussion. He tell Socrates that he is "eager to hear the nature of each, of justice and injustice, and what effect its presence has upon the soul (ψυχῇ)" (Republic II.358b).


The common view about justice and whether the just life is better

To press his case, Glaucon outlines a view of justice and the value of the just life that many accept but that he himself wonders about. "They say that to do wrong is by nature good, to be wronged is bad, but the suffering of injury so far exceeds in badness the good of inflicting it that when men do wrong and are wronged by one another and taste of both, those who lack the power to avoid the one and take the other determine that it is for their profit to make a compact with one another neither to commit nor to suffer wrong; and that this is the beginning of legislation and covenants between men, and that they name the commandment of the law the lawful and the just, and that this is the genesis and being of justice (γένεσίν τε καὶ οὐσίαν δικαιοσύνης)" (Republic II.358e-359a).

"Advantage (πλεονεξίαν) is what all of nature naturally pursues as good..." (Republic II.359c).

On the view of the many about justice and the good life that Glaucon outlines, justice is a convention that provides individuals with space to work out for themselves what the good life is. The only restriction is that these lives risk retribution from the many unless they are consistent with the convention is justice and that regulates group living.


Similar views about justice and the good life in the Protagoras and Gorgias

The view Glaucon outlines is a variation on the views Protagoras and Callicles suggest in the Protagoras and Gorgias.

"Thus far provided, men dwelt separately in the beginning, and cities (πόλεις) there were none; so that they were being destroyed by the wild beasts, since these were in all ways stronger than they; and although their skill in handiwork was a sufficient aid in respect of food, in their warfare with the beasts it was defective; for as yet they had no civic (πολιτικὴν) art, which includes the art of war. So they sought to band themselves together and secure their lives by founding cities. Now as often as they were banded together they did wrong to one another through the lack of civic art (ἠδίκουν ἀλλήλους ἅτε οὐκ ἔχοντες τὴν πολιτικὴν τέχνην), and thus they began to be scattered again and to perish. So Zeus, fearing that our race was in danger of utter destruction, sent Hermes to bring respect and right (αἰδῶ τε καὶ δίκην) among men, to the end that there should be regulation of cities and friendly ties to draw them together. Then Hermes asked Zeus in what manner then was he to give men right and respect: 'Am I to deal them out as the arts have been dealt? That dealing was done in such a way that one man possessing medical art is able to treat many ordinary men, and so with the other craftsmen. Am I to place among men right and respect in this way also, or deal them out to all?' 'To all,' replied Zeus; 'let all have their share: for cities cannot be formed if only a few have a share of these as of other arts. And make thereto a law of my ordaining, that he who cannot partake of respect and right shall die the death as a public pest.' Hence it comes about, Socrates, that people in cities, and especially in Athens, consider it the concern of a few to advise on cases of artistic excellence or good craftsmanship, and if anyone outside the few gives advice they disallow it, as you say, and not without reason, as I think: but when they meet for a consultation on civic art, where they should be guided throughout by justice (δικαιοσύνης) and good sense (σωφροσύνης), they naturally allow advice from everybody, since it is held that everyone should partake of this excellence (ἀρετῆς), or else that states cannot be" (Protagoras 322a-323a).

"The makers of the laws (τοὺς νόμους) are the weaker sort of men, and the more numerous. So it is with a view to themselves and their own interest that they make their laws and distribute their praises and censures; and to terrorize the stronger sort of folk who are able to get an advantage (πλέον), and to prevent them from getting one over them, they tell them, that such aggrandizement is foul and unjust (αἰσχρὸν καὶ ἄδικον), and that wrongdoing is just this endeavor to get the advantage of one's neighbors: for I expect they are well content to see themselves on an equality, when they are so inferior. So this is why by convention (νόμῳ) it is termed unjust and foul to aim at an advantage over the majority, and why they call it wrongdoing: but nature (φύσις), in my opinion, herself proclaims the fact that it is right for the better to have advantage of the worse, and the abler of the feebler. It is obvious in many cases that this is so, not only in the animal world, but in the states and races, collectively, of men--that right has been decided to consist in the sway and advantage of the stronger over the weaker" (Gorigias 483b-d).








Perseus Digital Library:
Plato's, Apology, Euthyphro, Laches, Republic
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀγαθός, agathos, "good,"
ἀπορία, aporia, noun, "lack of passage,"
ἄπορος, aporos, adjective, "having no way in, out, or through,"
ἀρετή, aretē, noun, "virtue,"
ἠθικός, ēthikos, adjective, "ethical,"
ἦθος, ēthos, noun, "custom,"
ἔλεγχος, noun, elenchos, "refutation,"
φιλοσοφία, philosophia, noun, "love of wisdom,"
φιλόσοφος, philosophos, adjective, "lover of wisdom,"
σοφία, sophia, noun, "wisdom,"
φρόνησις, phronēsis, noun, "sensibleness,"
ψυχή, psychē, noun, "soul"

Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary:
moralis, adjective, "of or belonging to manners", (from mos, noun, "manner, custom, way," mores, plural of mos, "customs, manners, morals," first used by Cicero to translate ἠθικός),

"I. . . . because it relates to character, called in Greek ἦθος, while we usually term that part of philosophy ‘the study of character,’
but the suitable course is to add to the Latin language by giving this subject the name of 'moral science (moralem)'" (Cicero, On fate I.1).

"I may observe that the term 'moral' is commonly used as synonymous with 'ethical' (moralis being the Latin translation of ἠθικός),
and I shall so use it in the following pages" (Henry Sidwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers, 5th edition. (Macmillan and Company, 1902), 11).