Socrates was of course a historical figure, but he was also Plato’s literary creation, the protagonist in most but not all of Plato’s dialogues. Regarding his power to change lives, listen to what Plato’s character Nicias says of him in the Laches:
Whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and associates with him in conversation must necessarily, even if he began by conversing about something quite different in the first place, keep on being led around [periagomenon] by the man’s arguments until he submits to answering questions about himself concerning both his present manner of life and the life he has lived so far. And when he does submit to this questioning…. Socrates will not let him go before he has well and truly tested every last detail. (187e-188a)
What is true of Socrates’ conversation partners is also true of Plato’s patient readers. To be the same before and after the encounter is impossible. That is because once Socrates has “well and truly tested every last detail,” we find ourselves wanting. Why is that? What kind of lacuna does Socrates reveal in the self-understanding of most human beings?
To find out, we will need to clear away some misconceptions—wrong or partially-wrong ideas—about who Plato’s Socrates is. Then we will be in a position to see what is unique about his way being in the world.
The Progressive Socrates
One misconception is that Socrates is the same person who goes by that name in the left-leaning academy today. This Socrates is most notable for his “critical thinking skills,” his exclusive reliance on “secular reason” released from all commitments to religious authority, and his intellectual undermining of traditional ways of life. Let us call this figure “Progressive Socrates.”
Progressive Socrates is a half-truth. But because he is indeed half-true, we can easily discover him in Plato’s dialogues. For instance, Plato’s Socrates does indeed have a formidable set of “critical thinking skills.” Or, actually, let’s not use that hideous phrase but Plato’s own. Socrates is a master at elenchus, putting people’s beliefs to the test, and of the dialectikē methodos—literally reasoning through an issue, what we translate as the method of dialectic.
Moreover, Socratic reason does seem strictly secular when we read (out of context) what he says of himself in the Crito (46b): He says “I am the sort of man who is persuaded by nothing in me except the reason [logos] that appears to me to be the best when I reason [logizomeno] about a matter.” This suggests that naked human reason, not divine or otherwise mysterious sources of authority, counts as a vehicle for truth.
Of course the Crito actually begins with Socrates’ giving unquestioning credence to a premonition he has had, a dream vision that flatly contradicts a report he knows to be empirically reasonable and true. (The dream vision wins out.) And the Crito ends with Socrates’ adamant claim that he will follow “the way the god is leading.” The question, then, is precisely what Socrates means by logos. Are we entitled to assume it is strictly secular?
But be that as it may, Socrates can also appear to undermine traditional authority, at least sometimes. In the Republic, for instance, he claims that the gods of the Greeks are neither useful nor true. (He is right about that, by the way.) And in his defense speech called the Apology, he admits that young people sometimes hear him ruthlessly examining conventional ideas, and that they go home to similarly scrutinize their parents’ ideas, thereby compromising parental authority. Further, Plato’s Socrates challenges conventional conceptions of virtues such as justice, courage, and piety; and he calls into question traditional lifestyles, such as the pursuit of wealth and military honor. This evidence confirms that Socrates sometimes and in some ways undermines traditional values and traditional authority.
So there is truth in Progressive Socrates, but only a half-truth. I will not demonstrate immediately what the interpretation omits, because I want to consider another misconception about Socrates first. But I will say this with respect to the power to change lives. Progressive Socrates has no ability to change lives, because those who see and admire him (secular-liberal progressives) are actually projecting themselves onto Plato’s literary creation. They want to change Socrates, not themselves.
Absolute Moralist Socrates
Let us turn then to a second misconception about Socrates, virtually the opposite of the first, the notion that he is the great defender of traditional morality against all manner of foes from sophists and rhetoricians to corrupt politicians and religious imposters. This is the Socrates who refutes relativism through his “theory of the forms,” adamantly defends the cardinal virtues of “courage,” “moderation,” “justice,” and “wisdom,” discovers the source of absolute truth in the ultimate form of the Good, and demonstrates the superiority of morality over immorality by revealing its intrinsic worth. This Socrates is a moralist, and a fine one at that. Let us call him the “absolute moralist.”
Once again, there is truth in this image, but only half-truth. And conservatives need to be especially careful not to fall for it, because they (or we) may find it so appealing. With a desire to refute the relativists, radicals, and moral revisionists in our midst, conservatives may try to defend something like absolute moral truth. They may, in other words, try to deny the skeptics any ground at all, and to suppose that Socrates would have done the same. But this would be false. Moreover, it would again prove powerless to change our lives. That’s because it would be another mere projection of who we already are or wish to become onto Plato’s literary creation. We would turn Socrates into a certain vision of what it means to be conservative—a vision that I happen to think is deeply flawed. There may be reasons in the end for conservatives to admire Plato’s Socrates, but it will not be because he is a moral dogmatist. He is not.
Let me turn at last, then, to the Socrates who can change lives, the one Plato actually portrayed. I am going to give him a name—not that it will convey everything we need to know about him, but because it will focus attention on a particular feature. I will call him “Ignorant Socrates.” And we need to ask: of what is he ignorant, and what effect does this have on the way he lives?
He is not ignorant of everything. He knows many things. He is no skeptic like the later Pyrrho or the even later Sextus Empiricus. But he is ignorant of a number of things that turn out to be crucial for determining how we should live. He does not know, for instance, what happens after we die, whether there is a judging God and some kind of reward or punishment. He tends to assume so. And because he assumes so, he wants to make sure his conduct is good. But this is a problem, because when he goes to think about good conduct, he finds himself puzzled to say for sure what it is and is not. Let me trace his train of thought, modernizing it for ease of access.
Think of courage. It is a virtue; therefore, acting courageously is good. But the matter is not quite so simple. Consider the jihadist pilots who flew airplanes into the Twin Towers. Did they exhibit courage? Certainly they had to keep to their purpose in the face of fear and foreknowledge of a painful death. And they did. But was that really courage? If courage is good, and their act was evil, then how could their act be courageous? Is courage only sometimes good? Or perhaps what we have to do is find another word for that form of courage that is evil. Either way though, we are faced with a real problem, for we shall need to determine which acts of “courage” are in fact good. How can we know this? We would have to know what “good” is—the good itself, on account of which the many good things are good. That is Socrates’ train of thought. It ends in the realization that unless and until we know what the good is, we cannot be confident about our own moral acts.
Reasoning like this led Plato’s Socrates to the only rational course of action he could discern. If being good is paramount, and if we do not know the ultimate criterion by which to determine what is good, the only rational thing to do would be to search. This search for what Socrates calls the “saving knowledge” (Protagoras 356d), that which can assure him that everything he is doing is good rather than evil, is philosophy. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, not its possession. Socrates repeatedly states that he does not possess this saving knowledge, and that he would be “pluming and priding himself on it if he did” (Apology 20c).
This is one way of understanding Socrates’ life of philosophy: it is the only rational way forward, a kind of extemporizing in the context of not knowing what to do. But gradually, philosophy as a way of life morphs for Socrates into something intrinsically good—not a mere expedient, but the best way of life itself. Here’s why: Socrates eventually sees that the missing knowledge must be transcendent (epekeina, Republic 509b). It is the divine ground and cause of all that is visible and invisible. His search is the dialectical quest for God. And, what is more, in searching lovingly for God, one finds him, at least to some extent; and nothing seems more worthy for man than intellectual participation in the divine (theos, Republic 517d).
Now perhaps you will object: if Socrates finds God, how is he ignorant? The answer is that something but not everything about God is revealed by the search. By ascending the ladder of being, Socrates can infer that the divine source of being must be singular, not plural. Moreover, God, the cause of all that is visible and invisible, cannot itself be the visible and invisible. God stands beyond (epekeina), unifying all beings under his rule. But what Socrates does not know and needs to know is the completeness of God. True wisdom must include comprehensive knowledge. To know a part without knowing the whole is not fully to know the part. Can one really know a hand, for instance, without knowing it in relation to the comprehensive whole that is the body? Yet such comprehensive knowledge of the divine seems beyond the reach of human reason. Why would it not be? How can a finite being comprehend what is beyond being?
Let us now look back at our pseudo-Socrateses and see how they fare. Progressive Socrates needs to be rejected, because “critical thinking” does not begin to describe Socrates’ loving ascent toward the divine source of being. And “secular reasoning” fails to describe the way Socrates’ reasoning actually works. Not only does the goal of Socratic philosophy fully exhaust and transcend secular experience, its premises do too. The fundamental premise of Socratic philosophy is that it probably matters (cosmically) how we comport ourselves in relation to the good. This is not something Socrates says he “knows,” but something he says he believes and acts upon, because believing it “could save us” (sōdzō, Republic 621b-d). And with respect to “overturning authority,” Plato’s Socrates does so only insofar as his quest for divine wisdom reveals the bogusness of many imposters. So much for Progressive Socrates.
But Morally Absolute Socrates must be rejected too. Socrates cannot begin to pose as a knowing moralist, because he knows what he does not know—the absolute form of the good (God). And without this, all moral knowledge (such as what is and is not true courage for instance) must remain conditional at best.
This can be glimpsed in the Republic. After Socrates and Glaucon successfully define courage, moderation, justice and wisdom in Book Four of that dialogue, Socrates says (in Book Six), that to know these virtues alone will not do. They must be examined through “the greatest study,” the study of the form of the good. Only “by availing oneself of it along with the just things and the rest do they become useful and beneficial.” Yet, as Socrates points out, “we do not have sufficient knowledge of it,” and if we do not know it and should have ever so much knowledge of the virtues without this, “it’s no profit to us, just as there would be none in possessing something in the absence of the good” (504b-505a).
Knowledge of particular virtues without comprehensive knowledge of the Good leaves us morally suspended in mid-air. And this is where Plato’s Socrates himself confesses he remains (Apology 29b, Laches 186e). If Socrates reveals anything about the moral life, it is how uncertain and unstable it is without grounding in knowledge of the Good; and yet he confesses that such grounding is beyond his reach, beyond (I think we can say) the reach of human reason itself to attain. In this way Socrates reveals the genuine problem of moral relativity that plagues the human condition and animates the loving search for God.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us, I suggest, with a potentially life-changing account of man. Man’s nature is incomplete and finds completion only in God. This account is not only Socratic; it is true, as far as I am concerned. Let me now sketch out some implications of this understanding of man for politics and personal happiness.
Both sets of implications can be glimpsed in an oft-cited, pivotal line from Plato’s Republic (V.473d).
Unless philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide. . . there will be no rest from ills for the cities, nor I think for human kind…. And in no other way would there be private or public happiness.
If by “philosopher” we understand people who ordinarily go by that name, the passage is laughable, as Socrates’ interlocutor points out. Philosophers are rather awkward people at best, and not very practically wise. But the key lies in what Socrates means by philosopher; and the next two books of the Republic flesh that out.
The upshot is this: A philosopher is one who after decades (literally thirty years) of intellectual training is eventually able not only to ascend to knowledge of the Good itself, but to comprehend it completely and thus resolve all moral questions with absolute certainty. He (or she) is one who, to use the Allegory of the Cave, is able to understand at last precisely how and why the shifting images are so shifting. He understands them not in terms of their initial appearances, but in terms of their relationship to the source of all that is, seen and unseen.
What are we to make of this? Is Plato saying that philosophy can fulfill its own search for comprehensive knowledge of the divine? Two interpretations are possible. One is, “Yes,” that’s exactly what Plato is saying, so that, whether or not Socrates ever attained such knowledge, a better philosopher could. It’s possible. And when this terrific possibility is achieved, then people will at last enjoy civic and personal happiness.
A second interpretation is that Plato does not think this is possible, and neither does his character Socrates. But for one reason or another he makes it sound possible. I will consider a potential reason for this in a moment. But first, let’s see what this would imply: if civic and personal well-being are only possible when rulers are “philosophers,” and if philosophers are not possible in this complete sense, then it follows that there will be no end to political and personal disorder. This would indeed be a sobering thing to know and would certainly affect the way we approach politics. I think it is true. I also think it is Socratic. Beyond the Republic a central passage from Plato’s Theaetetus supports it too, where Socrates tells Theodorus:
It is impossible that evils should be done away with, Theodorus, for there must always be something opposed to the good; and they cannot have their place among the gods, but must inevitably hover about mortal nature and this earth. Therefore we ought to try to escape from earth to the dwelling of the gods as quickly as we can; and to escape is to become like God, so far as this is possible (176a-b, my italics).
Though we can and should engage in the kind of philosophy Socrates practices, we should understand that this will neither finally resolve our political problems nor deliver us personally from evil.
Why might Socrates in the Republic exaggerate the possibility of philosophy attaining its goal? One reason (remember, this is a literary drama as much as it is a philosophical text) might be to check his interlocutor Glaucon’s political ambition by channeling it into philosophy, an enterprise he will never reemerge from, because he will never complete the search, and his life will be changed. Glaucon would eventually learn why the knowledge he would need to rule expertly is not fully attainable. There may be other reasons too for Socrates’ exaggeration, but I will not survey them here, because whatever the reason, the basic fact stands: the kind of philosopher imagined in the Republic, one who comprehends God fully and can therefore solve all moral puzzles, is not possible, because again a finite being cannot comprehend what is beyond being. He would have to be a god-man, a being who is also beyond being.
But let me now make a rather remarkable association. In the Western tradition following Plato, we do come to know such a man. He is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In other words, Plato’s Socrates describes perfectly the kind of figure that salvation would actually require. Socrates calls him a “philosopher,” but the hyper-ontological status of this figure requires us to understand that he is not a philosopher in the sense that Socrates is, nor in the sense of someone who simply thinks very hard and often. This figure is defined as much by who he is as by what he knows.
Of course, Plato does not anticipate the Messiah four hundred years before the Messiah was born, but he does know the formal criteria that such a figure would have to possess in order to save mankind, bringing peace and eudaimonia (happiness, blessedness) at last. Nowhere in the Republic does Socrates say such a figure is impossible, which is strange since he is not humanly possible. Rather he says there may in some future time arise such a one. And in the meantime he uses the Myth of Er, a story about the judgment of souls after they die, to do some of the work a savior might do. He tells Glaucon:
A tale has been saved and has not perished, and will save us if we are obedient to the word spoken; and we shall pass safely over the river of Forgetfulness and our soul will not be defiled. Wherefore my counsel is that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years that we have been describing.
These are the final lines of the Republic, which in many ways express all that can be said. What is captured here, beautifully, is the faith that animates philosophy.
In closing then let me be more direct about the implications of Socrates for life. If Socrates is right, then in our personal lives, we shall not find true happiness or satisfaction in the places where most people try to find them. Possessions will not make us happy unless we know how to use them well. The virtues will not make us happy or blessed unless we know how to align them with the good. A rational response would therefore be to more or less bracket off these unreliable paths to happiness and to search for the one thing needful, knowledge of the absolute good, of God. Such a life will, of course, not be for everyone; but at the very least, we can learn to approach our earthly enterprises with a substantial grain of salt: we might become less dogmatically sure of our causes, more aware of the relativity of the goods that we chase after here on earth, less inclined toward activism or any other activities that might risk sullying our souls. For it may well be, as Socrates puts it in the Phaedo, that our souls, if pure, might depart to a place “invisible, divine, immortal, and wise, where on its arrival, happiness awaits it, and release from uncertainty and folly, from fears and uncontrolled desires, and all other human evils, [a place where], it really spends the rest of time with God” (81a).
And in terms of politics, let me also be more direct: Though there are of course better and worse kinds of political order, we human beings are not going to be “saved” in any full sense of that word by actions in the political domain. Our political leaders cannot solve the fundamental human predicament, and we should be clear-minded about that.
This should also lead us to be more cautious and minimalist when it comes to the state. Socratic philosophy need not lead us away from political careers. We desperately need more Socratics in politics in order to defend ordered liberty and remind fellow citizens of the limits of politics. However, the Socratic insights might lead us away from politics, as they did Socrates himself, who eschewed all involvement with the Assembly. The reason for this was simple: no truly just man can survive when he argues against the passions of the masses. Socrates understood that he would be killed, and he would have done no good either for others or himself (Apology, 31d). And of course Socrates was eventually killed, despite his avoidance of the Assembly. That is because he did not eschew everything that might go by the name politics. Rather, he went around in private to engage people one-on-one about their ways of life and the search for the Good. He called this “being a busy-body in private,” and it’s something which (according to his own account in the Apology) he felt literally called to do (prostasō, Apology 33c).
Under various social conditions, the possibility of a truly political Socratism may be more or less promising (usually less). When possible, it should be pursued. But at all times, I believe, those engaged in the love of wisdom have a duty to continue the noble work of “being a busybody in private.” Only in this way can we have some hope, as Socrates so lovingly says, of “doing good for others and ourselves.”
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Socrates in Prison” by J.F. Clemens, courtesy of Thorvaldsen’s Museum.