Sokrates questioned
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco Invictus
For many, Sokrates the Athenian (469 - 399 BCE) embodies the archetype of the philosopher, mainly through paintings by renaissancists and classicists (David's "Death of Socrates", for example) and literary portraits by Plato and Xenophon, two of his students. The problem is, however, that Sokrates himself never wrote down any of his teachings, opinions or musings. Much like Jesus - with whom he has been compared on several occasions - it's hard to discern fact and fiction from one another. Certain is that especially Plato used his former teacher as a mouthpiece for his own ideologies. However, Plato was influenced considerably by Sokrates, and in his earlier works most researchers agree that the Sokrates we encounter there is closer to the actual man.

When we think of his appearance, an image of an old man in a white chiton and possibly a staff comes to mind: dignified, with a grey beard. Stern perhaps, but friendly just as well. In truth, Sokrates probably was a short, bald man. Although appraised for his physical endurance and heroism on the battlefield (as an Athenian citizen, he was called to arms in various occasions), any buste will tell you that his face was not the calm embodiment of virtue but rather a funny, expressive face as though it was freely molded by life itself. That's how one could perhaps best imagine him: a funny old man in the streets of Athens, surrounded by a swarm of followers, constantly discussing and talking - much to the irritation of his fellow citizens.

Sokrates was heavily influenced by the current of the sophists: rich orators and teachers, popular and cunning. They were anthropocentric, relativist, and hence quite materialistic. For them a good reputation and considerable wealth was more important than compassion or what we associate nowadays with the word virtue. Until the time of Sokrates, however, the corresponding word aretè was just what the sophists meant: to prove onself within society, to gain status and wealth. So, one could describe Sokrates as a reactionary, even though his methods of debating and his interest in humans rather than abstract principles also makes him an heir of this tradition. Even Plato, who can't let an opportunity pass to blacken the reputation of the sophists, uses their very same tricks to get his points across.

Even though Sokrates claimed he had no knowledge ("The only thing I know, is that I know nothing", for which the oracle at Delphi called him the wisest man in Greece), he did have ideas, even though we have to extract them from Plato's own writings. One of his ideas, which was diametrically opposed to the sophist concept of morality, was the so-called "intellectual morality". This was, that a man can never truly be evil. Why not? Sokrates argued that no one will willfully do an evil or harmful act, knowing he is doing an evil and harmful act. His point was that if you know better, you will act and become better. This not only equates evil to stupidity, it also shows that Sokrates was fairly optimistic and believes that essentially, man is good, and that education can polish these qualities (a belief that Plato and many philosophers of the far east shared as well).

But how much truth is there in this statement? Psychology and criminology, to name two disciplines that didn't exist in Sokrates' time, also try to map the mental workings of man, especially with regards to people with a mental illness or pathological behaviour that leads them into doing acts that most people consider "evil". Nowadays, one could argue against socratic morality on basis of two arguments. The first one would be to bring about the example of psychopaths. Many a psychopath is an educated and intelligent individual and as such must be aware of the cruelty and evil of his acts. So why doesn't he stop killing people, let alone enjoying it, if he is intelligent enough to realise what he's doing? Secondly, there is the factor of guilt. Everyone has done things in his or her life that brought a feeling of shame or guilt: you knew it was wrong, yet you did it.

Sokrates might have provided the following answers to these objections. The first one is that the psychopath still doesn't know what is right or wrong. He only realises the fact that other people think his acts are evil, but he himself does not think of them as evil. As has been demonstrated by studies, what psychopaths truly lack is the capability of empathy, i.e. imagining how another person experiences or feels something. It's a form of insight and intellectual capability. The psychopath lacks this insight, or has experienced such traumatic events in his life that the capacity to gain these insights or to develop a normal sense of empathy have been destroyed.

The guilt and shame problem can be divided in two categories. The first type of guilt comes after the deed. Sokrates would have an easy time saying that this guilt occurs because you've just realised your act is evil but irreversible. The second type comes at the same moment of your action. Then, I think, it's more a question of social patterns and conventions again, as noted in the example of the psychopath. Not all guilt we feel is justified. Especially perfectionist or sensitive people tend to feel guilty or ashamed quickly. Other cases where shame and guilt can occur simultaneously with the "evil" act may have ambiguous backgrounds: stealing to keep yourself alive, lying to protect someone else, killing to save other lives. A third explanation is the force of habit. It's very hard to change your habits, even though you may have flashes of insight that you're doing things the wrong way.

As such, even though the concept of daimones and Plato's Ideas doesn't sound very attractive to most modern people, what Sokrates said about two and a half millennia ago on morality can still survive the relentless hammer of scientific logic. In conclusion, I think that the "intellectual morality" still holds a substantial amount of truth.
© 2001-2018 Societas Via Romana