Plato Writes about Socrates

A Life in the Love of Wisdom

Socrates, 470-399 BCE. Plato, 427-347 BCE.

Socrates was ugly by Athenian standards. Alcibiades likens him to the Sileni and particularly to the Satyr Marsyas (Symposium 215a). Critobulus (son of Crito), in Xenophon's Symposium, says that if he were not handsomer than Socrates, he would "be the ugliest of all the Satyrs ever on the stage" (Xenophon, Symposium 4.19).

Crito was contemporary with Socrates and one of his companions. Alcibiades and Critobulus were among of the young followers in the circle around Socrates.

The statues of Socrates made in later times do not capture the strangeness of his appearance.

statue of Socrates
Socrates is the best known figure in philosophy, but little is known about him. What he thought has to be reconstructed from what others said about him, since he wrote nothing.

Plato is the most important source for understanding what Socrates thought. He was in the circle around Socrates, and he left dialogues in which there is a character named Socrates.

The Character Socrates

Plato's works take the form of dialogues.



It is not an assumption of the translation that the ordinary English meanings of 'love of wisdom,' 'wisdom,' 'soul', and 'virtue' are an exact match for Greek words they translate.

The noun φρονήσεως (translated as 'wisdom') has a practical connotation. Someone with "wisdom" has good sense and acts sensibly in situations in which others are likely to be confused. The word derives from the verb φρονέω, "to think, to have understanding, to be sage, wise, prudent."

The possession of the virtue (ἀρετή) or virtues proper to a thing makes it a good instance of the kind. A good knife, for example, is balanced, holds its edge, and so on. These are virtues in a knife. A knife with these features is a good knife.
In many of these dialogues, the character Socrates engages in conversations with one or more interlocutors about various matters. The dialogues in which he has these conversations (especially the Apology and other dialogues from the traditionally early period of Plato's dialogues) are the primary evidence for Socrates.

What Plato has the character Socrates say is the basis for inferences to what the historical Socrates thought and to facts about the life he lived. We have to keep in mind, though, that Plato is not first and foremost writing history, despite the fact that dialogues look like conversations that have taken place in Athens at various times in Socrates' life.

What, then, is Plato trying to accomplish in using Socrates as a character in his dialogues?

Plato does not explain why he writes his dialogues. Nor does he have a character with his name express views. It seems plausible, though, given how he portrays Socrates, that

• Plato writes to understand the significance of Socrates and his life

The dialogues suggest Plato thought Socrates was onto something important about human beings and what makes their lives good, but that Socrates did not clearly articulate what he had in mind and may himself have only partially understood it. Plato tries to bring out what, if anything, is important in the sorts of things Socrates said and in the way he lived. This makes the character Socrates a mix of fact and fiction about the historical Socrates.

The Love of Wisdom

In the Apology, Socrates claims that he will not abandon what he calls φιλοσοφία. This Greek noun transliterates into English as philosophia and translates as the "love of wisdom."

"I shall never give up the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφία) or stop exhorting 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 (φρονήσεως δὲ καὶ ἀληθείας καὶ τῆς ψυχῆς ὅπως ὡς βελτίστη ἔσται)?' If some one of you disputes this, and says he does care, I shall not immediately dismiss him and go away but shall question, examine, 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).

"I say to you, men of Athens, either do as Anytus [Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon bring the suit against Socrates (Apology 19b, 23e)] tells you, or not, and either acquit me, or not, knowing that I shall not change my conduct even if I am to die many times over" (Apology 30b).

"The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus [a philosopher who flourished during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE)], in the Metron [the temple of Cybele at Athens, which was the depository of the state-archives], ran as follows: 'This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death'" (Diogenes Laertius (3rd century CE), Lives of the Philosophers II.40). In 399 BCE, Socrates was tried and put to death for impiety and corrupting the youth.

The Historical Figure

Given the assumption that Plato writes his dialogues as part of an effort to understand what is important about Socrates, it is natural to expect Plato to set out a general description of the way Socrates lived and of the sorts of things Socrates said in explanation of his life.

Part of this outline emerges in the passage quoted from the Apology.
The Apology is the second in a tetralogy of dialogues that purport to show important events in the life of the historical Socrates. The Euthyphro takes place before his trial. It is followed by the Apology, which shows Socrates at his trial. The Apology is followed by the Crito, which shows Socrates in jail awaiting execution. The Crito is followed by the Phaedo, which shows Socrates on the day of his execution.

The Phaedo is traditionally a middle dialogue. The other dialogues in the tetralology are traditionally early dialogues.
On the basis of what the character Socrates says, it is plausible to think that the historical Socrates thought

• living a good life is a matter of having a certain competency in living

This competency seems to be what the character has in mind when he castigates the Athenians for not giving enough attention to "wisdom and truth and the best state of [the] soul."

Socrates, in the passage in the Apology, does not provide much detail about this competency, but what he says makes it plausible to think the historical Socrates thought that

• the competency consists in controlling oneself so that one lives a good life
• someone controls himself in this way just in case his soul has virtue

Further, the passage suggests that the historical Socrates thought that

• the soul has virtue just in case it has wisdom
• the practice he calls the "love of wisdom" is the one and only way to acquire wisdom

The Missing Details

To provide the details about this competency the historical Socrates may not have supplied very clearly, we can expect Plato to work through the following questions in the dialogues:

• what is the thinking in the soul that leads to action
• what is it to control this thinking and thus the direction one's life takes
• how is the love of wisdom the way to acquire this control

This is not to say that Plato will formulate these questions in these terms. Nor need he take them up in this order. Further, he might take up some of them more than once as he tries out different solutions to the problems they raise. In addition, he might suggest answers that seem unpromising to us given the historical context that conditions our point of view.

To trace Plato's discussions of these questions through the dialogues is not straightforward. In this and the next couple of lectures, I only set out some of the initial steps.

The Search for Definitions

The search for "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 he 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."

Thrasyllus of Mendes, second half of the 1st century BCE to first half of the 1st century CE, associate of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. According to Diogenes Laertius, Thrasyllus claims the authority of Plato for the ordering in tetralogies (Lives of the Philosophers III.56).
If we take the traditional ordering of dialogues in tetralogies, an ordering that goes back to Thrasyllus, the first dialogue in the first tetralogy is the Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Plato has Socrates engage in what has come to be known as the "search for definitions."

In the Euthyphro, Socrates chances to meet Euthyphro at a building in which the Athenians conducted official business. Socrates is there to acknowledge the suit against him (that Plato has him answer in the Apology). Euthyphro is there to register a suit against his father.
Euthyphro and his father seem to be historical figures who farmed land in an Athenian settlement on the island of Naxos in the South Aegean (Euthyphro 4c). As part of its empire, Athens allotted confiscated land to colonies of its citizens in the territories of its allies in the Delian League.

The Delian League (founded in 478 BCE) was an association of city-states under the leadership of Athens for the purpose of uniting the Greeks against the Persians. Not longer after its inception, Athens began using the resources of the league more to build its empire than to fight the Persians. This was one of the causes of the Peloponnesian War.
Socrates finds this surprising, given the details of the suit Euthyphro intends to press.

Socrates says, in expression of his surpise, that Euthyphro must be "far advanced in wisdom" (Euthyphro 4a) to bring this suit. Euthyphro acknowledges the point and suggests that indeed he is an expert. Socrates does not let this boast pass untested. He asks Euthyphro what piety is. Socrates thinks, it seems, that this knowledge must be what gives Euthyphro expertise in matters with respect to piety and in which others would easily go wrong. Euthyphro is confident that he has "exact knowledge" (Euthyphro 4e) and that he can answer the questions, but he is unable to defend his answers in the questioning with Socrates that ensues.
This is typical. The dialogues in which Socrates searches for a definition end in "perplexity" (ἀπορία).

This "search for a definition" is presumably an instance of the sort of questioning Socrates mentions in the passage in the Apology. The suggestion is that if Euthyphro could see his way through Socrates' questioning, this would show that he has the competency in living that Socrates thinks is so important. We saw, in the passage in the Apology, 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..." (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations V.4.10).

"Socrates was the first to summon 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" (Cicero, Academica I.4.15).

• the soul has virtue just in case it has wisdom

Now, given the portrayal in the Euthyphro of the questioning Socrates mentions in the Apology, there is an indication of what this wisdom is. It is knowledge of a certain kind. This

• wisdom is knowledge about ethical matters

We do not expect someone with wisdom to easily become confused, but this does not seem true of Euthyphro. He contradicts himself repeatedly in his conversation with Socrates.

In the Euthyphro, Socrates asks questions about what Euthyphro says in response to the 'What is piety?' question. Euthyphro answers. Socrates asks whether the answer contradicts a previous answer. Euthyphro admits that it does, withdraws the answer, and tries again. Finally, after several attempts, although Socrates wants to continue to discuss the matter, Euthyphro says that he is "in a hurry" and that it is time for [him] to go" (Euthyphro 15e).

This seems to show that Euthyphro does not have knowledge about ethical matters, at least not about piety, but the assumption seems to be that such knowledge is possible.

It is natural, then, to wonder how the questioning is related to the knowledge.

Socrates's method is to try to force his interlocutors to contradict themselves. Euthyphro contradicts himself, and the suggestion, it seems, is that this puts him in a position to eliminate this inconsistency in his beliefs and hence helps him eliminate the false beliefs that confuse him in his conversation with Socrates. The suggestion, it seems, is that in the absence of the confusion produced by these false beliefs, the interlocutor would have the competency he claimed or otherwise might be thought to possess at the outset of the conversation. On the basis of logic alone, the consistency of a set of propositions does not imply the members of the set are true. It implies only that their joint truth is possible.

• false belief about ethical matters stands in the way of wisdom
• eliminating inconsistency eliminates false beliefs
• the question-and-answer method eliminates inconsistency

On this interpretation, Socrates is part of the new tradition of philosophy that emerged in connection with the inquirers into nature. Traditionally competence in living is primarily a matter of long and often hard experience in the situations human beings typically encounter as they live out their lives. Only the old, not the young, are thought to have wisdom. The young learn from the old and take on the traditional forms of behavior that have been passed down from previous generations. Socrates challenges this traditional way of thinking about wisdom in terms of experience and thus challenges the traditional form of education in Athens.

Virtue in the Soul

In the Laches, which is a dialogue where Socrates also engages in the "search for definitions," Lysimachus and Melesias seek advice in the education of their sons.
The dramatic date of the Laches is between 424 and 418 BCE, when Athens was engaged in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). Laches mentions the battle of Delium (Laches 181a), in which the Athenians were severely defeated by the Boeotians (who were allied with Sparta) in 424 BCE. (Socrates was at Delium and earlier at the battle of Potidaea (Symposium 219e, 221a). Nicias negotiated a treaty in 421 BCE that held for about a year and a half. In 418 BCE, the Athenians and Spartans again faced each other at the battle Mantinea. Laches was killed there in the Athenian defeat.

Aristides was an Athenian general remembered for his role in the Persian Wars (499-449 BCE), in which the Greeks were ultimately victorious. Herodotus (5th century BCE) says that he was the "best and most honorable man in Athens" (Histories VII.79). Thucydides was an Athenian general who represented the conservative and aristocratic Athens against Pericles. Thucydides was the loser in this political confrontation and was expelled from the city for ten years. Aristophanes mentions Thucydides as someone famously defeated in oratory (Acharnians 703, Wasps 947).

Socrates raises the question of education in the Apology.

"I happened to meet a man who has spent more on sophists (σοφισταῖς) than all the rest, Callias, the son of Hipponicus. So I asked him—for he has two sons—if your sons were colts or calves, we should be able to hire an overseer who would make them good in the virtue proper to them (τὴν προσήκουσαν ἀρετήν), and he would be a horse-trainer or a husbandman. But since they are human beings, whom have you in mind to get as overseer? Who has knowledge (ἐπιστήμων) of that kind of virtue, that of a man and a citizen (ἀνθρωπίνης τε καὶ πολιτικῆς)? I assume you have looked into the matter, Callias, as you have two sons. Is there anyone or not" (Apology 20a)?

Callias was one of the richest men in Athens. His family leased slaves to the state for use in mining silver at Laurium (on the shores of the Agean Sea in southeastern Greece, about forty miles from Athens). This silver built the fleet that allowed the Athenians to win the second Persian War.

Lysimachus and Melesias have not done as well in life as their famous fathers (Aristides and Thucydides), and now they seek advice about they should educate their sons. It is natural for parents to want good lives for their children, but Lysimachus and Melesias are troubled because they do not know how to proceed. They turn to Socrates for advice, and he questions the Athenian generals Laches and Nicias about the form the education should take.

To Laches, Socrates says that Lysimachus and Melesias "are inviting us to a consultation as to the way in which virtue (ἀρετὴ) may be joined to their sons' souls, and so make them better." In the ensuing discussion of the virtue the children need to live good lives, Socrates does not investigate what this virtue is directly. Instead, he focuses the conversation on what courage is, the traditional virtue of character that the generals Laches and Nicias should understand.

  "And you know, Laches, at this moment our two friends are inviting us to a consultation as to the way in which virtue (ἀρετὴ) may be joined to their sons' souls, and so make them better?
  Yes, indeed.
  Then our first requisite is to know what virtue is? For surely, if we had no idea at all what virtue actually is, we could not possibly consult with anyone as to how he might best acquire it?
  I certainly think not, Socrates.
  Then we say, Laches, that we know what it is.
  I suppose we must.
  And of that which we know, I presume, we can also say what it is.
  To be sure.
  Let us not, therefore, my good friend, inquire forthwith about the whole of virtue, since that may well be too much for us; but let us first see if we are sufficiently provided with knowledge about some part of it. In all likelihood this will make our inquiry easier.
  Yes, let us do as you propose, Socrates.
Then which of the parts of virtue shall we choose? Clearly, I think, that which the art of fighting in armor is supposed to promote; and that, of course, is generally supposed to be courage, is it not?
  Yes, it generally is, to be sure.
  Then let our first endeavor be to say what courage (ἀνδρεία) is. After that we can proceed to inquire in what way our young men may obtain it, in so far as it is to be obtained by means of pursuits and studies. Come, try and tell me, as I suggest, what is courage" (Laches 190b).

Socrates, in the Laches, seems to assume that virtue in the soul is a matter of having courage and the other virtues of character. He thinks, it seems, that a human being who is courageous and has the other traditional virtues is someone who has the competency involved in living.

This raises a question and perhaps also a problem about the competency in living Socrates talks about in the Apology. In neither the Laches nor elsewhere in the early dialogues does Socrates explain the connection between the virtue in the soul and the virtues of character. The virtue in the soul is the competency involved in living a good life, but without further explanation it is unclear that living according to the virtues of character is the same as living this life.

To understand, then, what Plato thinks is significant about Socrates and his life, we can expect him to provide more explanation. In particular, we can expect him to explain

• what activity or activities make a life good
• how the virtues of character are sufficient for living this life

Thinking about Socrates

It seems clear, though, even the absence of these explanations, that Plato was convinced Socrates was onto something important about how to live and that he wanted to understand what Socrates seemed to know but did not explain. This, it seems, is why he writes about Socrates. He wants to work out the significance of Socrates and his life for philosophy.

Further, as one might expect, Plato's attempt to work out this signifance does not end with the initial steps in the early dialogues that I have sketched and briefly set out in this lecture. It continues throughout much of his philosophical life, as I explain in subsequent lectures.




Perseus Digital Library:
Plato's, Apology, Euthyphro, Laches

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀγαθός, agathos, adjective, "good"
ἀπορέω, aporeō, verb, "to be at a loss, be in doubt, be puzzled"
ἀπορητικός, aporētikos, adjective, "capable of inducing doubt, puzzlement"

‎-τικός forms adjectives from verbal stems. See Smyth, 858.6d
ἀπορέω → ‎ἀπορητικός
πείθω (peíthō, verb, "persuade") → ‎ πειστικός (peistikós, adjective, "persuasive, capable of persuading")

Plato's early dialogues in which Socrates searches for a definition are said to be "aporetic." They end in ἀπορία.

The Pyrrhonians, later, connect ἀπορία with ἀταραξία (ataraxia, noun, "lack of disturbance, calmness").
ἀπορία, aporia, noun, "lack of passage"
ἄπορος, aporos, adjective, "having no way in, out, or through"
ἀρετή, aretē, noun, "virtue"
ἔλεγχος, noun, elenchos, "refutation"
εὐθύφρων, euthyphrōn, adjective, "right-minded" (from εὐθῠ́ς ("straight, direct") +‎ φρων ("mind"))
Euthyphro (Εὐθύφρων) is Socrates' interlocutor in Plato's Euthyphro
"[The part of philosophy devoted to ethics] relates to manners (mores), called in Greek ἤθη, while we usually term that part of philosophy the study of manners, but the suitable course is to add to the Latin language by giving this subject the name of 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, 1902, 11).
ἠθικός, ēthikos, adjective (from the noun ἦθος), "ethical"
ἦθος, ēthos, noun, "custom"
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"



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