Manual Socrates and Philosophy in the Dialogues of Plato

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Others did not. It might be said that the genius of Plato's Socrates was to embrace ordinary human uncertainty and doubt, and fashion it into a flourishing way of life. He recognised that to be human is typically to be ignorant, though unlike other animals, the human creature can become conscious of his or her lack.

And contrary to what the doctrinaire believe, therein lies something immensely valuable. A developed sense of what lies beyond us powers human innovation and creativity. A disciplined desire to reach out for more is the refinement of love. A subtle understanding of the limits of knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. If you were to convert Socrates' philosophy into a self-help book today, the title might be "The Power of Doubt.

We are "inbetween people" — inbetween "the beasts and the angels," as Saint Augustine was later poetically to put it. Moreover, this conviction meant that it is not strictly true that Socrates knew nothing at all. One thing he knew about for sure was precisely the longing that stems from the human condition — the longing to understand, to discover, to become enlightened.

This one certainty powered what Socrates understood to be his vocation, the thing for which he was prepared to die. If Plato is right, Socrates developed a rigorous methodology to give flesh to this insight.

Plato's Dialogues, part 2: Who was Plato's Socrates? | Mark Vernon | Opinion | The Guardian

It was a kind of practice that would ask what something is — say courage, or friendship, or charm — and then would show that everything that might be said about the matter, or any experience that might be brought to bear upon it, failed at some point. It came to be called the elenchus , from the Greek for "refute. For at the point of being stripped of all that they knew, those who could bear Socrates' sting, discovered something remarkable.

They did not learn anything theoretical, let alone how to win an argument. Rather, they gained a profound perception of what it is to be human. That, in turn, set them on a path that steered them to what might be called the good life. It fired their creativity and love, and yielded the kind of wisdom that isn't readily expressed in words, or when forced into words only produces platitudes that seem rather obvious — like the one that sums up them all: " the unexamined life is not worth living.

For Plato, to do so was tantamount to a religious experience, to realising something in the deepest part of your being that, surprisingly, you simultaneously know to be true all along. Hence, Plato's Socrates is portrayed as a messenger from the gods. He has an inner voice, or daemon, who speaks to him, though strictly in accordance with his ignorance; it only offers intuitions about what is not the case, or what is not right. So letting go is at the heart of the Socratic way of life. Only then can you discern more. And there is always more to discern, since that is only to be human.

The modern mind might resist such a portrayal of the man. But it at least offers a solution to what is otherwise something of a conundrum. How can it be that Socrates — who wrote nothing, upset many, and by the end of his life was rejected by his fellows — came to be such a seminal figure, even an axial figure, as Karl Jaspers has called him? His life incarnated something so profound, so true, that we can still sense its moment. After all, only a handful of individuals who wrote nothing have exerted such an influence, figures such as the Buddha and Jesus.

Giannantoni collects every scrap of evidence pertaining to Socrates in his monumental work Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae, which includes writers such as Aeschines Socraticus not the orator , Antisthenes, and a number of others who knew Socrates. According to accounts from antiquity , Socrates' father was Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and his mother Phaenarete, a midwife.

He was married to Xanthippe, who bore him three sons.

Plato and Socrates

She was considered a shrew, and Socrates himself attested that, having learned to live with Xanthippe, he would be able to cope with any other human being, just as a horse trainer accustomed to wilder horses might be more competent than one not. It is believed, based on Plato's Symposium , that Socrates was decorated for bravery. In one instance he stayed with his wounded friend Alcibiades , and probably saved his life; despite the objections of Alcibiades, Socrates refused any sort of official recognition and instead encouraged the decoration of Alcibiades.

During such campaigns, he also showed his extraordinary hardiness, walking without shoes and a coat in winter. It is unclear what exactly Socrates did for a living. In Xenophon 's Symposium, he explicitly states that he devotes himself only to discussing philosophy, and that he thinks this is the most important art or occupation. It is unlikely that he was able to live off of family inheritance, given his father's occupation as an artisan. In the accounts of Plato, Socrates explicitly denies accepting money for teaching; however, Xenophon's Symposium clearly has Socrates state that he is paid by his students, and Aristophanes depicts Socrates as running a school of sophistry with his friend Chaerephon.

It is also possible that Socrates survived off of the generosity of his wealthy and powerful friends, such as Alcibiades. Socrates lived during the time of the transition from the height of the Athenian Empire to its decline after its defeat by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens was seeking to recover from humiliating defeat, the Athenian public court was induced by three leading public figures to try Socrates for impiety and for corrupting the youth of Athens.

According to the version of his defense speech presented in Plato 's Apology, Socrates' life as the "gadfly" of Athens began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates; the Oracle responded negatively. Socrates, interpreting this as a riddle, set out to find men who were wiser than him.

He questioned the men of Athens about their knowledge of good, beauty , and virtue. Finding that they knew nothing and yet believing themselves to know much, Socrates came to the conclusion that he was wise only in so far as he knew that he knew nothing. The others only falsely thought they had knowledge. By questioning everything and everyone, in particular those who claimed to have knowledge, Socrates apparently offended the leaders of his time. Brought to trial, he was found guilty as charged, and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock.

His friends and students bribed the prison guard and prepared a ship to escape, but he refused to leave and took a poisonous herb. The dramatic court scene and his final speech in the prison are depicted by Plato in his Apology. One of his contributions to Western thought is his dialogical method of inquiry, known as the Socratic Method, which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts such as the Good and Justice , concepts used constantly without any real definition.

The Socratic Method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those which lead to contradictions. It was designed to force one to examine their beliefs and the validity of such beliefs. Socrates tried to awaken the soul of his partner in dialogue , rather than trying to give them knowledge, so that they would be led to self-realization about their own beliefs and their validity.

Knowing the truth is therefore a matter of realizing or bringing into explicit awareness what one implicitly understands without consciously knowing it. This insight was developed by his student Plato as a theory of recollection. Plato formulated knowing the truth as recollection. Socrates described his method of dialogue as the art of midwifery.

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The midwife serves to help a pregnant mother deliver her baby. The baby is born from the mother. The role of midwife is to assist the mother so that she can smoothly and safely deliver the baby. Socrates understood his role as a helper to lead a partner in dialogue to self-realize the truth within his or her soul. The Socratic Method consists in a series of inquiries paired with replies through which a partner is led to the point where he or she sees the truth within. Just as delivery is a painful and difficult process, seeing the truth is difficult and the partner in dialogue sometimes goes through uncomfortable experiences.

There are a number of obstacles that prevent one from attaining true knowledge. Opinions, on the other hand, are changeable and offer only temporal views, ideas, and mere beliefs. Knowing the truth or possessing true knowledge is not the same thing as having some additional information. Realization of the eternal nature of truth or true knowledge is a process of becoming aware of the eternal nature of the human soul.

Additional topics

One is opened up to the spiritual dimension. It is a turn of consciousness from the materially dominated world to the spiritual realm.

This turn of awareness also involves embracing a different concept of reality. For Socrates, the world of true knowledge or eternal truth is the real world. What is sensible or what one can perceive with the five senses is temporal, changing, and less real than the world of true knowledge or eternal truth. This line of thought was fully developed by his student, Plato. In this sense, what he means by method is comparable to that of existentialism and Zen Buddhism.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

Socrates believed that his wisdom sprung from an awareness of his own ignorance. He never claimed to be actually wise, only to understand the path one must take to become wise. On the one hand, he drew a clear line between human ignorance and ideal knowledge; on the other, Plato's Symposium and Republic describe a method for ascending to wisdom. The world of true knowledge or eternal truth is, for Socrates, vastly superior to the world of everyday reality. Socrates seems aware of its inexhaustible openness, vastness, and potentiality. One cannot really grasp this world at all through conceptual language.

Socrates was aware of the reality of this world and he claimed that he only knew the path or gate to it but not the world itself. To express this point differently, truth is, in a sense, both transcendent of and, at the same time, immanent to the soul. Socrates attempted to grasp this insight and express it in his own language.

Socrates was convinced that the best way for people to live was to focus on cultivating the soul through living a virtuous life rather than through the pursuit of material wealth. The idea that humans possessed certain virtues formed a common thread in Socrates' teachings. These virtues represented the most important qualities for a person to have, foremost of which were the philosophical or intellectual virtues.

Ultimately, virtue relates to the form of the Good; to truly be good and not just act with "right opinion" one must come to know the unchanging Good in itself.

The Apology of Socrates by Plato