“This was the end of our friend, the best, wisest and most upright man of any that I have ever known.”
This was said of Socrates by a witness at his death. A cheerful Socrates was surrounded by his weeping followers. He was condemned to drink a cup of hemlock poison by the Athenian authorities, which he drank without protest.
Socrates had been condemned to death not for his beliefs, but for his insistent questioning of others’ beliefs.
Before Socrates, philosophy was largely concerned with questions that we now associate with science: what is the world? And how do we experience it? But Socrates lived in Athens at a troubled time. He was a veteran of the Pelopenisian War, a war that Athens had lost to the rival state of Sparta.
Unlike democratic and artistic Athens, Sparta was an oppressive militaristic state. The Spartans imposed the rule of the “Thirty Tyrants”, a pro-Spartan oligarchy that would impose Spartan rule and wipe out Athenian democracy. It’s estimated that the Thirty Tyrants murdered up to 5% of the Athenian population before being deposed. Athens regained its sovereignty but the once mighty state was scarred by its humiliating defeat.
A War Veteran
As a war veteran and a man who lived through the political upheavals of defeat, Socrates had witnessed the follies of human conceit. His dialogues are more concerned with the question “how should we live?” This changing of priority revolutionised philosophy. Socrates raised questions that were so awkward, so controversial, that the Athenian State condemned him to death.
At the time of Socrates, “Sophistry” was prevalent in Athenian education. Sophistry is the art of rhetoric, the use of cleverness to win arguments by appealing to people’s beliefs and emotions. Socrates disdained the Sophists as being instrumentalists, only concerned with manipulation.
His method — elenchus— appealed to people’s reason by a process of questioning. Socrates would ironically profess to have no knowledge of a concept being discussed. But he would lead people to rational conclusions by asking them questions about the concept.
Socrates questioned what makes people religiously pious, what they think bravery and virtue is, and why they are patriotic. He never came to specific conclusions himself: his concern was to examine widely-held beliefs, often demonstrating that they were baseless or problematic.
The Legacy of Socrates
Socrates never wrote anything down. He taught out in the streets of Athens. However, his followers, the most influential being Plato, broadened out many of the implications of Socrates’s ethical examinations. Xenophon and Plato wrote down their recollections of the Socratic dialogues. Plato, in particular, started to form a cohesive philosophical system from Socrates’s teaching.
Pierre Hadot, a historian of philosophy, wrote that, for Plato, the Socratic method, “turns the soul away from the sensible world, and allows it to convert itself towards the Good.”
Plato’s ideas reconsider how we can know what we know about the world, what is real or not, what is beauty and how we should govern ourselves. These became the five categories of philosophy:
- Epistemology (how do we know what we know?)
- Ontology (how do we define reality?)
- Aesthetics (what is beauty?)
- Politics (how should we organise ourselves?)
- Ethics (how should we conduct ourselves?)
Plato built an entire system of thought on the basis of Socrates’s simple questions about how we ought to live our lives. Plato’s ideas, in turn, had an enormous amount of influence on Christianity (the immortality of the soul being an example of an idea not widely held in the ancient world).
Ethics dominated philosophy for a long time after Socrates. The Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans derived their ideas of politics, beauty, reality and knowledge from their own ethical viewpoints. Each of these philosophies looked to Socrates as a kind of patron. They believed that Plato’s Academy had done the older philosopher a disservice.
Three Types of Ethics
Ethics is perhaps the most accessible of the philosophical branches. Practically every decision we make every day forces us to question what is right or wrong. We are guided by a mix of rules, reasoning, biases and emotions. Socrates likely held the view that reasoning alone is what is necessary to do the right thing.
There are three fundamental approaches to ethics: consequentialist, deontological and virtue ethics. The first two are rule-based.
When you take a consequentialist approach to your actions you weigh up if they were good or bad based on the expected consequence. For example, it is right to kill one person to save thousands of others.
“Deontological” comes from the Greek word for “ought” or “must”. This is a rule-based approach. Murder is wrong, it is therefore wrong to kill somebody, even if you’d save thousands of others by doing so.
Virtue ethics is a practical approach that rejects rules. Actions are good if they emanate from good traits of character. The decisions we make should be guided by our desire to be virtuous. Socrates was among the earliest to subscribe to this view, it became dominant in the ancient world.
Ethics Through the Ages
All the great philosophers since Socrates have given some form of an answer to the question “how should we live?” Below I’ve given a very basic summary of a selection of them.
Socrates: It is wise to admit that we know very little in order to learn more. Wisdom is the path to virtue and happiness.
Epicureanism: Pleasure is the highest good. But to get pleasure we must stop desiring anything that is more than sufficient for our basic needs.
Stoicism: Virtue is the highest good. We do not have control over external circumstances, only our judgement of them. Judge in harmony with reason for virtue and a tranquil mind.
Immanuel Kant (Idealist): Reason is the highest good. Act in accordance with principles that ought to be the principles for everybody.
Arthur Schopenhauer (Idealist): Man and animal are ultimately part of the one indivisible reality. To harm others is ultimately to harm ourselves.
Friedrich Nietzsche (pre-existentialist): Create your own “self”, rather than let others impose their morality on you. That which is done out of love takes place “beyond good and evil”.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (Linguistic Philosophy): Metaphysical statements about ethics are senseless. Be ethically guided by art and poetry. Philosophers should remain silent on the matter of ethics.
Jean-Paul Sartre (Existentialist): We are condemned to be free. We must embrace our freedom and be authentic to ourselves.
Simone de Beauvoir (Existentialist, Feminist): Our freedom depends on the freedom of others. We must increase the freedom of others to increase our own freedom.
Alain Badiou (contemporary philosophy, Socialist): Our (political) ethics are predicated on our physical fragility, but they should be predicated on the strength of our imagination. We should stay faithful to causes that are authentically good, that would preclude questions of what is right or wrong.
Contemplating the very idea of what is right and wrong is a start to being truly virtuous. I personally like Simone De Beauvoir’s and the Stoics’ ideas of virtue. What’s your preference?