Wisdom is a State of the Soul

Socrates Spoke Strangely about the Soul

This Socratic conception loses its influence in the subsequent tradition. Aristotle denies that the wisdom the lover of wisdom pursues is sufficient for living the good life. In late antiquity, it was questioned whether the method the lover of wisdom uses is the only way to acquire this wisdom. In Christianity, belief in Christ was seen not as an alternative to the love of wisdom but as the only way to the good life.


The adjective εὐδαίμων is composed of εὐ (an adverb of the adjective ἀγαθός ("good")) and δαίμων (a noun that means "divine power that controls the destiny of individuals"). It means "blessed" and is often translated as "happy." Its etymology reflects the traditional idea that human life and hence human happiness depends on the gods.

The opposite is κακοδαίμων, "miserable, ill-fated, ill-starred, badly-off with respect to the divine force or forces that have influence over the lives of human beings."
As Plato portrays him, Socrates thought the love of wisdom is the way to acquire the wisdom for living a certain kind of life. The life in question is what we might call "the good life." Lives of this type are instances of life at its very best. In Greek, these lives are εὐδαίμων.

The problem is to know what life the good life is and what one needs to do to live this life. If

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

then to begin to get clearer on the answers to these questions, we need to know how the "soul" (ψυχή) is connected to the actions human beings take as they live out their lives.

The Soul from Homer to Socrates

How the ancients understood the soul and its relation to the human being changed over time.



"I cannot persuade Crito, my friends, that the Socrates who is now conversing and arranging the details of his argument is really I; he thinks I am the one whom he will presently see as a corpse [after I drink the poison]" (Phaedo 115c).
In the opening of Homer's Iliad, the wrath of Achilles sends the souls of heroes to Hades but leaves them, the heroes themselves, on the battlefield as food for scavenging birds and dogs. (Similarly, in Homer's Odyssey 11.74, the soul of an unburied hero asks Odysseus to bury "him," where "him" refers to his corpse.) Achilles does not think the souls he sends to Hades are the human beings he kills. Nor does he think the soul is something one could improve or make worse, especially in terms of the "love of wisdom," as Socrates seems to have supposed.


When the soul of Patroclus leaves him, Achilles laments "[a]las, there survives in the halls of Hades, a soul, a wraith, with no mind at all" (Iliad 23.103-104).
The soul in Homer is thought to be necessary for life. A human being dies when the soul departs from his body, but thinking and feeling in the living was not thought to be a function of this soul that departs in death. Feeling was thought to depend on the blood around the heart. Homer's souls are shadow-like things, somehow witless and feeble images of the living.

This is not to deny that the Greeks in Homer's time thought of human beings and their actions in terms of what we would call "psychological" states and processes. They did think of human beings in this way, but they did not think of beliefs and desires in terms of the ψυχή.

How the Greeks came to understand beliefs and desires in terms of the ψυχή is not entirely clear, but it appears that the popularity of the religious cults associated with Orpheus made it increasingly possible to think of the existence of the soul outside the body in more optimistic terms, not as having the grim existence of a "shade" (σκιά). "Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished" (Homer, Odyssey XI.489).

For some evidence about the beliefs in the Orphic cults, see Plato's Cratylus 400b and Republic II.364e.
As this happened, although the word of ψυχή continued to refer to what left the body when a human being died, the conception of what left the body changed. As the existence of the soul outside the body in the thought of the religious cults was less as a witless shade and one in which more of the person survived, it became easier to think of the ψυχή as underlying more of the "psychological" states and processes in terms of which we understand the actions of the life of a human being.

Aristophanes makes Fun of Socrates

Aristophanes (middle of the 5th century to the early decades of the 4th century BCE) was an Athenian comic playwright. His Clouds (423 BCE) is a caricature of Socrates and the new education in 5th century Athens. Anaxagoras introduced the inquiry into nature to Athens. It quickly became an object of suspicion, and Socrates was caught up in the reaction.

When Pheidippides asks who dwells in the "think-tank," Strepsiades says he does "not know the name accurately" so instead of naming them he describes them as "anxious thinkers (μεριμνοφροντισταὶ), noble and excellent" (101).

The term "anxious thinker" is one Aristophanes seems to have made up. He maybe echoing the thought in his audience that it is foolish to be "anxious" about what it true or false with respect to the nature of the universe. Xenophon, in his Memorabilia, reports that Socrates himself thought that pondering such things was foolish.

"Socrates did not discuss that topic so favoured by other talkers, the nature of the universe, and avoided speculation on the cosmos, how it works, and on the laws that govern the phenomena of the heavens: indeed he would argue that to trouble one's mind (φροντίζοντας) with such problems is sheer folly. In the first place, he would inquire, did these thinkers suppose that their knowledge of human affairs was so complete that they must seek these new fields for the exercise of their brains; or that it was their duty to neglect human affairs and consider only things divine? Moreover, he marvelled at their blindness in not seeing that man cannot solve these riddles; since even the most conceited talkers on these problems did not agree in their theories, but behaved to one another like madmen. As some madmen have no fear of danger and others are afraid where there is nothing to be afraid of, as some will do or say anything in a crowd with no sense of shame, while others shrink even from going abroad among men, some respect neither temple nor altar nor any other sacred thing, others worship stocks and stones and beasts, so is it, he held, with those who worry (μεριμνώντων) with the nature of the universe" (Xenophon, Memorabilia I.1.11).

"For many accusers have risen up against me before you, who have been speaking for a long time, many years already, and saying nothing true; and I fear them more than Anytus and the rest, though these also are dangerous; but those others are more dangerous, gentlemen, who gained your belief, since they got hold of most of you in childhood, and accused me without any truth, saying, 'There is a certain Socrates, a wise man, a ponderer (φροντιστὴς) over the things in the air and one who has investigated the things beneath the earth and who makes the weaker argument the stronger.' These, men of Athens, who have spread abroad this report, are my dangerous enemies. For those who hear them think that men who investigate these matters do not even believe in gods. Besides, these accusers are many and have been making their accusations already for a long time, and moreover they spoke to you at an age at which you would believe them most readily (some of you in youth, most of you in childhood), and the case they prosecuted went utterly by default, since nobody appeared in defence. But the most unreasonable thing of all is this, that it is not even possible to know and speak their names, except when one of them happens to be a writer of comedies" (Apology 18b).
In the Clouds, Socrates is made out as a laughingstock. Strepsiades refers to the denizens of the think-tank Socrates heads as "ψυχῶν σοφῶν" ("wise souls") who "in speaking of the heavens persuade people that it is an oven, and that it encompasses us, and that we are the embers" and who "teach, if one gives them money, to conquer in speaking, right or wrong" (94-99).

This strongly suggests that the historical Socrates talked about wisdom as a state of the soul as early as 423 BCE, when the Clouds was performed in the annual Dionysian festival.

Two Interpretations of the Joke

It is clear that Aristophanes is lampooning Socrates, but the joke is no longer obvious.

Aristophanes might mean that Socrates is absurd because the control he exercises over his actions through the care of his soul has turned him into a fool, not a wise man, contrary to what he and his followers believe and advertise. This presupposes that the audience conceived of human beings as beings whose actions are caused by the states and processes in their souls. As such, a human being exerts control over the direction his life takes by exerting control over the beliefs and other states in his soul. On this interpretation of the joke, Socrates and his followers exert this control in a comical way. Aristophanes portrays them as devotees of the new scientific/sophistical education, and he shows in comical fashion how this devotion has turned them into fools, pale-faced bare-footed characters who live completely absurd lives.

Another possibility is that many found it laughable to think that wisdom was a state of the soul at all. To them, Socrates would be someone who spoke strangely about the soul. This is not to deny that the joke in part is that to care for the soul in the way Socrates urges has turned him and his followers into complete fools, not wise men. Many in the audience would have thought that Socrates and his fellow denizens in the think-tank were complete fools and that their devotion to the new scientific/sophistical eduction was utterly misguided, but what to the audience makes it funny to call them "wise souls" is the absurdity they found in thinking that the "soul" (ψυχή) underlies any specifically intellectual cognition in human beings.

On this interpretation of the joke, Socrates is ahead of the audience. It would become commonplace to understand thinking to be part of the ψυχή, but this was not true in 423 BCE.

Humans are Psychological Beings

However Aristophanes' joke is to be understood, it seems clear that Socrates understood human beings in terms of their "souls" (ψυχάι). He thought that human beings do what they do because of the processes and states in their souls and that wisdom is one of these states.

Socrates, on this interpretation, was an early and important participant in the new way the Greeks conceived of the soul, human beings, and the actions they take. Socrates understood human action in terms of the states and processes in the soul, and he had a view about how human beings can exercise control over their actions and hence over the their lives.

This Socratic understanding of human beings figures prominently in the subsequent philosophical tradition. There is an extended attempt to understand action in terms of the soul and to understand how the soul exists and what its relation is to the body.


Perseus Digital Library:

Aristophanes, Clouds:

Strepsiades is burdened with debt because of both is aristocratic wife and the expensive tastes she encourages in their son, Pheidippides. To solve his problems, he tries to enroll his son in the "think-tank" to learn how to make the weaker argument appear stronger. He hopes to relieve himself from his debts by having Pheidippides defeat the family's creditors in court, but Pheidippides (who is young and althetic) wants nothing to do with those "quacks, the pale-faced wretches, the bare-footed fellows, of whose numbers are the miserable Socrates and Chaerephon."

Strepsiades.
Do you see this little door and little house?
Pheidippides.
I see it. What then, pray, is this, father?
Strepsiades.
This is a think-tank (φροντιστήριον) of wise souls (ψυχῶν σοφῶν). There dwell men who in speaking of the heavens persuade people that it is an oven, and that it encompasses us, and that we are the embers. These men teach, if one give them money, to conquer in speaking, right or wrong.
Pheidippides.
Who are they?
Strepsiades.
I do not know the name accurately. They are anxious thinkers (μεριμνοφροντισταὶ), noble and excellent.
Pheidippides.
Bah! They are rogues; I know them. You mean the quacks, the pale-faced wretches, the bare-footed fellows, of whose numbers are the miserable Socrates and Chaerephon.

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
δαίμων, daimōn, noun, "the divine force or forces that influences what happens to human beings"
εὐδαιμονία, eudaimonia, noun, "happiness"
εὐδαίμων, (εὐ (adverb of adjective ἀγαθός ("good")) +‎ δαίμων), eudaimōn, adjective, "happy"

The adjective εὐδαίμων appears for the first time in Hesiod. The concluding sentence in Works and Days is "The man who is happy and blest (εὐδαίμων τε καὶ ὄλβιος) knows all these things and does his work without offending the deathless gods, who discerns the omens of birds and avoids transgression" (Hesiod, Works and Days 826). The heroes on the "Isles of the Blest" are ὄλβιοι because they are free from care (Hesiod, Works and Days 170). The idea, it seems, is that if a man follows what Hesiod says about work and omens and does not offend the δαίμονες through acts of transgression, he will have good δαίμονες (be εὐδαίμων) and thus will be "blest" with material wealth.

κακοδαίμων, (κᾰκός +‎ δαίμων), adjective, kakodaimōn, "unhappiness"
μεριμνοφροντιστής (μεριμνάω + φροντιστής), merimnophrontistēs, noun, "one who is an anxious thinker"
φροντιστήριον, phrontistērion, noun, "place for meditation, thinking-shop"
σκιά, skia, noun, "shade of one dead, a phantom"



"[T]he decisive step was taken by Socrates in conceiving of human beings as being run by a mind or reason. And the evidence strongly suggests that Socrates did not take a notion of reason which had been there all along and assume, more or less plausibly, that reason as thus conceived, or as somewhat differently conceived, could fulfill the role he envisaged for it, but that he postulated an entity whose precise nature and function was then a matter of considerable philosophical debate.... [He took] a substantial notion of the soul and then [tried] to understand the soul thus substantially conceived of as a mind or reason. ... By 'a substantial notion of the soul' I [mean]... a notion according to which the soul accounts not only for a human being's being alive, but for its doing whatever it does.... This was not a common conception, it seems, even in Socrates' time, but it was widespread and familiar enough under the influence of nontraditional religious beliefs, reflected, for instance, in Pythagoreanism. And it seems to have been such a substantial notion of the soul which Socrates took and interpreted as consisting in a mind or reason." (Michael Frede, "Introduction," 19. Rationality in Greek Thought, 1-28).




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