There’s a commonly told ancient parable of a group of blind men who are introduced to an elephant for the first time. One feels the tusks, one feels the tail, one feels the flank and one feels the trunk. Each blind man describes a different elephant based on their experience. Their ideas of what an elephant looks like differ wildly because of their limited experience of the whole animal.
There are so many virtuous traits in people, fidelity, kindness and modesty to name only a few. Throughout history, many thinkers, cultures and creeds have emphasised some of those virtues above others. But all cultures agree that there is good, and all cultures generally agree on virtues even if they go by different names or hold different weight.
What if like the elephant, we’re describing the same thing when we talk of different virtues? What if virtues are like the many facets of one beautifully cut diamond – equal and interdependent? And if virtues are really like this, what implications does it have for society?
The ancient Greeks had their own ideas about the virtues. Some would seem strange to us today. For example, the way you looked was a measure of character. Good-looking people were considered good. There were also ancient Greek virtues that we understand well today – courage and justice were two important virtues. The soldier required courage above all else and the politician required a sense of fairness.
This is how Athenian society functioned. People became experts in the virtues and virtues were taught to young men. But then came the philosopher Socrates. He was an ugly and outspoken war veteran who asked awkward questions. Fundamentally, Socrates asked the same question over and over again: what are we really talking about when we talk about virtues? The philosopher was so persistent that the Athenian authorities eventually had him put to death.
A Mysterious Figure
Along with Jesus of Nazareth, Socrates is seen as a foundational influence on Western morality, spirituality and thought. And yet, the figure of Socrates is deeply mysterious.
The philosopher himself never left behind any writing that we know of. There are few substantial contemporary written sources to account for his existence. Socrates is so enmeshed in those writers’ ideas and biases that more recent writers have suggested that he is best treated as a fictional character.
There are a limited number of facts that we can see corroborated through the different accounts. We know that the philosopher was once a soldier and probably commended for his bravery on the battlefield, we know he was regarded as ugly, and we know he was put to death in old age.
We also know that while Socrates went about asking awkward questions he was followed about by rich young men who gave him moral support. One of those young men was Plato. It is thanks largely to Plato that we know what we do about Socrates, but it is also because of Plato that we have so many doubts.
There are three main contemporary sources for Socrates’s life: Xenophon the historian, Aristophanes the playwright, and, of course, Plato the philosopher. It’s difficult to distinguish the real Socrates from the accounts, which differ in many ways. The Socrates described by Xenophon is different from the Socrates described by Plato.
What he said and how he said it is more a matter of plausibility. The Socrates in the early dialogues of Plato is more plausibly the real Socrates than the Socrates in the later dialogues of Plato. It is suspected that Socrates is merely a character in much of Plato’s later writing, just a mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas.
But since Plato is as mysterious as Socrates, it’s hard to tell. The problem is that Plato was an artist as well as a philosopher. Plato’s works that include Socrates are dialogues, written like a play or movie script. While other sources validate some situations Plato describes Socrates as being in, it’s hard to determine what he said. We only have the words Plato put into his mouth.
Emerged at a time of crisis
Socrates became famous at a time of crisis in Athenian history. The city state, which was once the richest and most mighty in the Greek-speaking world, had been defeated by its rival Sparta after a long war.
Athens was then ruled for a short time by the so called “Thirty Tyrants”, a brutal junta installed by the Spartan victors in 404 BC who were finally deposed after a violent uprising. Independence and democracy had returned to Athens but the exhausted ancient superpower was in irreversible decline.
Between the end of the rule of the Thirty Tyrants and his death in 399, Socrates seemed to become a nuisance to the authorities. It’s hard to describe what Socrates did except “philosophise”. The philosopher denied he had anything to teach and refused to call himself a teacher. He had no theories or explanations that resembled any of the philosophers that came before him, though he did hold some spiritual beliefs.
The philosopher principally spent his time challenging people to explain and explore their own – often commonly held – beliefs and theories. In doing so, he enraged some of the most powerful men in Athens.
A Divine Misson?
Socrates is held up as the exemplary rational thinker, a man so wise that he died to attain wisdom. But Socrates painted himself more as a prophet on a moral mission.
Before Socrates, philosophers largely concerned themselves with explaining the natural world and existence. Philosophers like Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Zeno and Parmenides offered different theories of what the universe is composed of and how it changes. Socrates on the other hand had a single-minded occupation with ethics, or rather what “virtue” is.
Socrates was so radically different from these philosophers that they are described as “pre-Socratics”. The Athenian heralded such a profound change in philosophy that practically every philosopher that came after him was under his influence.
Socrates himself saw his influence as a divine intervention by the god Apollo. The oracle at Delphi, where Apollo supposedly spoke through a mediating priestess called the Pythia, supposedly proclaimed that no man was wiser than Socrates.
During his defence while on trial, Socrates said: “When I heard what the Pythia had said, I thought to myself ‘What can the god [Apollo] be saying? It’s a riddle: what can it mean? I’ve no knowledge of my being wise in any respect, great or small, so what is he saying when he claims that I’m the wisest? He certainly can’t be lying; that’s out of the question for him.”
In order to find out what made him wise, Socrates went about finding people known for being wise. He spoke to people from many walks of life: professional teachers (known as Sophists), craftsmen, religious experts and politicians.
Of one of these conversations, Socrates said:
“As I conversed with him, I formed the conclusion that, while this person seemed wise to lots of other people, and especially to himself, in reality he wasn’t; upon which I made a concerted attempt to demonstrate to him that he only thought he was wise, but really wasn’t.” (my emphasis)
Socrates discovered that what made him wise was his own admission that he didn’t really know anything. In knowing that he knew so little, he was wiser than people who thought they knew a lot. During his trial he uttered his famous proclamation, most often translated as “I know that I know nothing.”
Socrates is famous for his particular method of inquiry. This is known as “Socratic Irony” to modern teachers, and known by the more technical Greek term “Elenchus” to philosophers.
The idea of elenchus is that through dialogue a teacher can bring a student to a conclusion through a line of questioning. In other words, the student already has the wisdom within them. Socrates compared himself to a midwife (the profession of his mother) in this approach to knowledge. Like a midwife assists women in giving birth, Socrates helped the people he conversed with reach their own conclusions about matters of virtue.
But the story of Socrates is complicated by the spiritual dimension of the mission that many biographies and appraisals gloss over. The philosopher claimed that he was guided by a voice since he was a child. He told the jury at his trial:
“Some god or ‘divinity’ intervenes with me […] It’s something that started in my boyhood, a sort of voice that comes to me and, when it comes, always discourages me from doing what I’m about to do, never encourages me.”
Plato’s cast of characters paint a vivid picture of Socrates’s abnormal behaviour. The philosopher would habitually stand still in a trance for hours. He never seemed to wear shoes, and as a soldier could march bare foot in the snow. He seemed impervious to extreme cold and heat and could go hungry or thirsty longer than any ordinary man could bear.
His persistent questioning of the supposed experts of any form of virtue or excellence, and the financial poverty that entailed, seems in keeping with his extreme resilience.
He described himself as a “gadfly” stinging the “steed” of Athenian society. In effect, he admitted he was an annoyance, albeit an essential one, to remind the state of its obligations. “I believe that no greater good has ever happened to the state than my service to the god,” he said at his trial.
The Root of Virtue
In his lines of questioning, Socrates was attempting to find universal definitions for the virtues. But there is a great deal at stake in the dialogues of Socrates: his point was not merely ethical but also epistemological (concerned with knowledge). In other words, knowledge and ethics were less distinct than people supposed. Virtue and wisdom were the same thing to Socrates, since one cannot exist without the presence of the other.
In Phaedo, Plato’s account of Socrates’s last hours alive (recounted by the character Phaedo), the condemned philosopher demonstrates how different virtues are dependent on one another.
Phaedo recalls that Socrates elicited no pity from those who met him before his death. In fact, “the man rather struck me as fortunate,” Phaedo reported, “Both because of his manner and because of what he said, so fearlessly and nobly did he meet his end.”
The condemned philosopher discusses his fearlessness with his young followers. What made him so courageous? Socrates believed his soul was immortal and that death would free his soul from his body. Since the sufferings and pleasures of the body got in the way of finding true knowledge, death would allow the soul to more fully flourish.
Any good philosopher, Socrates explains, understands that the body is a hindrance to wisdom of “the truth”. The limitations and needs of the body impedes us from achieving the kind of knowledge we want, “for the body provides us with a million distractions”. According to Socrates, the soul, when freed of the body, can attain more wisdom than an embodied person could dream of.
The philosopher, then, is unperturbed by his death sentence. There seems, at least from the account, that there is no fear of death, nor does the philosopher express bitterness at his fate. Socrates sees his death as a kind of completion to his mission to gain wisdom. So, for Socrates, courage in the face of death comes from the fulfilment of knowledge.
Socrates contrasts this with the common idea of “courage”, that people face lesser fears to avoid greater fears. An example of this is a soldier who’d bravely die in combat to save himself from the shame of becoming a prisoner. In this instance the fate of death is preferable – it has more value to the soldier – than the fate of being a prisoner. The exchange of fates is like a silver coin being exchanged for a gold one.
Socrates said to his followers:
“I don’t suppose that this is the correct sort of exchange for the acquisition of virtue – exchanging pleasures for pleasures, pains for pains, fear for fear, the greater ones for the lesser, as if they were a kind of currency; the only true coin, I hazard, for which all these things should be exchanged is wisdom.”
Virtue has many faces, courage and wisdom being two. Each requires the other, and they grow in strength together. For Socrates, it is wisdom that does the “purifying” necessary for the other virtues. Justice needs courage to flourish, and courage requires modesty and so on. What all these interdependent virtues have in common is wisdom.
Imagine four principle virtues as the sides of a square. Fortitude, modesty, justice, and prudence, and wisdom makes up the square itself. Perhaps what Socrates is describing is wisdom not as a virtue in itself but rather as the well from which our virtues spring. Wisdom is the one cardinal virtue. As wisdom increases, the virtues increase.
When everything is “bought and sold” for wisdom, or in the presence of wisdom, Socrates claims, there will be true courage, true moderation, and all virtues will be true. Virtues without wisdom are just “stage-painting”, there is nothing “true” about them to Socrates.
“I try to persuade you, whether younger or older, to give less priority, and devote less zeal, to the care of your bodies or of your money than to the care of your soul and trying to make it as good as it can be,” he said.
You cannot buy virtue or excellence of character. Anybody, rich or poor, can live in virtue. Socrates himself was poor as a result of his mission. It’s not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with money, Socrates simply believes that money is better spent when in the service of virtue.
We ought to strive for virtue, and not money or popularity. The path to virtue is wisdom. As we self-reflect and reason our wisdom will grow, and with it all those characteristics that we label with virtues. What good is money or power if you can do no good with them?
When Socrates was condemned by the court he was offered leniency if he would stop his constant questioning. His response to this offer? He declined, proclaiming “The unexamined life is not worth living.”