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 and to show that he was onto something important.


The Love of Wisdom

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?

It is hard to know for sure, but the suggestion seems to be that (i) human beings are psychological beings and (ii) that the human "soul" (ψυχή) can be improved or be made worse.

As psychological beings, humans beings do what they do because of the states and processes in their souls. In this way, the quality of one's life is tied to the health of one's soul. If the soul is unhealthy, and so functions poorly, the individual makes poor choices. To function properly, the soul requires constant care. This care is of the utmost practical importance, since what a human does (and to this extent whether his life is good and thus whether he finds happiness) is tied to the functioning of his soul. This care consists in something Socrates called the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία).

On this picture, proper psychological functioning in human beings is a matter of rationality. A human being whose psychology functions properly is rational. He chooses wisely in life. Choosing wisely in life is a matter of having wisdom. Having wisdom is knowing what to do in the circumstances. A human being who knows what to do in the circumstances makes his life as good as possible.

This picture of what Socrates had in mind raises several questions. The most pressing are the following two:

• What is this wisdom?
• How does one acquire it?

The suggestion in the Apology is that having this wisdom is having "virtue" (ἀρετή) and that having this virtue is a matter of having a certain competency in living.


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. In the Republic, Plato considers the idea that "justice" (δικαιοσύνη) is the dominant virtue of the soul relative to which a human being chooses wisely in life.



The Opening Conversation

The opening discussion in Book I of the Republic is about justice, what it is and whether it pays.


1. Cephalus

Cephalus expresses a common view about justice and happiness. He is rich, near the end of his life, and concerned about whether his life has been good.

He suggests that wealth is good because it removes the need to act unjustly (Republic I.331b). 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 can be a burden and that sometimes a human being is better off without it. Socrates believes that the just life is always better than the unjust life and that it is never in one's interest to act unjustly. So, to determine the truth of the matter, he asks Cephalus 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 he fails to understand that 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).

Thrasymachus is unhappy with the conversation thus far. He thinks that justice is what is in one's self-interest, but he has 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).

At this point, instead of determining what justice is, the conversation turns to the question of 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 is better for a person because it helps him 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, for my part that I am not convinced, neither do I think that injustice is more profitable than justice, not even if one gives it free scope and does not hinder it of its will" (Republic I.345a).

Socrates gets Thrasymachus to admit that the "soul" (ψυχή) has a "function" (ἔργον), that this function is "to take care of things, to rule, to deliberate" (τὸ ἐπιμελεῖσθαι καὶ ἄρχειν καὶ βουλεύεσθαι), and that "justice is the virtue (ἀρετήν) of the soul" (Republic I.353d). Justice, in this case, because it is the virtue proper to the soul, makes the soul good. It is the feature that constitutes human rationality in its most expert form. The just human being knows what is good and acts for its sake.

"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, can injustice be more profitable than justice" (Republic I.353e-354a).


The Two Questions Remain

Thrasymachus quits the conversation, but the answers to the two questions about justice remain. It remains unclear what justice is and whether the just life is better than the unjust life.






Perseus Digital Library: Plato, Republic
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon: λυσιτελής