In Xenophon’s dialogue, the Memorabilia, Hippias, upon overhearing Socrates converse with a group of people in the streets of Athens, commented: “Socrates, you are still repeating the same things I heard you say so long ago.” Not in the least bit fazed by Hippias’ attempt to belittle him, Socrates responded: “Yes, and what is more wonderful, I am not only still saying the same things, but am saying them on the same subjects.”

In this lecture we are going to examine a few of the main ideas Socrates repeated over and over in his conversations with his fellow Athenians. We will look at 1) his exhortation to ‘care for your soul’, 2) his conviction that knowledge of virtue is necessary to become virtuous, and in turn that virtue is necessary to attain happiness, 3) his belief that all evil acts are committed out of ignorance and hence involuntarily, 4) and finally his presumption that committing an injustice is far worse than suffering an injustice.

Socrates believed that philosophy had a very important role to play in the lives of individuals and in Plato’s dialogue, the Gorgias he explained why he held such a belief: “For you see what our discussions are all about – and is there anything about which a man of even small intelligence would be more serious than this: what is the way we ought to live?” (Gorgias)

Many people never consciously contemplate this question of how one ought to live. Instead the course of their lives is largely determined by the cultural values and norms which they unquestionably adhere to. But according to Socrates, the examination of this question is very important as it is through striving for answers to it that one can hope to improve their life. One of the reasons why most do not consciously contemplate this question is because it requires that one attain self knowledge, or in other words, turn their gaze inward and analyze both their true nature and the values which guide their life. And such knowledge is perhaps the most difficult knowledge to obtain.

This conviction is conveyed in perhaps Socrates’ most famous statement: “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology).  Examining one’s self is the most important task one can undertake, for it alone will give us the knowledge necessary to answer the question ‘how should I live my life’. As Socrates explained: “…once we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves, but otherwise we never shall.” (First Alcibiades)

When we turn our gaze inward in search of self knowledge, Socrates thought we would soon discover our true nature. And contrary to the opinion of the masses, one’s true self, according to Socrates, is not to be identified with what we own, with our social status, our reputation, or even with our body. Instead, Socrates famously maintained that our true self is our soul.

As a quick side note, it is important to mention that the Ancient Greeks lived before the ascension of Christianity, and hence for them the notion of the ‘soul’ did not have the same religious connotations that it has for us. What Socrates actually meant when he made the claim that our true self is our soul is not known for certain. Although many scholars have taken a view similar to the one put forth by the famous historian of philosophy Frederick Copelston who wrote that in calling our true self our soul Socrates was referring to “the thinking and willing subject”.

According to Socrates it is the state of our soul, or our inner being, which determines the quality of our life. Thus it is paramount that we devote considerable amounts of our attention, energy, and resources to making our soul as good and beautiful as possible. Or as he pronounces in Plato’s dialogue the Apology: “I shall never give up philosophy or stop exhorting you and pointing out the truth to any one of you whom I meet, saying in my most accustomed way: “Most excellent man, are you…not ashamed to care for the acquisition of wealth and for reputation and honor, when you neither care nor take thought for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?” (Apology 29d)

After coming to the realization that one’s inner self, or soul, is all important, Socrates believed the next step in the path towards self knowledge was to obtain knowledge of what is good and what is evil, and in the process use what one learns to cultivate the good within one’s soul and purge the evil from it.

Most people dogmatically assume they know what is truly good and what is truly evil. They regard things such as wealth, status, pleasure, and social acceptance as the greatest of all goods in life, and think that poverty, death, pain, and social rejection are the greatest of all evils.

However, Socrates disagreed with these answers, and also believed this view to be extremely harmful. All human beings naturally strive after happiness, thought Socrates, for happiness is the final end in life and everything we do we do because we think it will make us happy. We therefore label what we think will bring us happiness as ‘good’, and those things we think will bring us suffering and pain as ‘evil’. So it follows that if we have a mistaken conception of what is good, then we will spend our lives frantically chasing after things that will not bring us happiness even if we attain them.

However, according to Socrates if one devoted themselves to self-knowledge and philosophical inquiry, they would soon be led to a more appropriate view of the good. There is one supreme good, he claimed, and possession of this good alone will secure our happiness. This supreme good, thought Socrates, is virtue.

Virtue is defined as moral excellence, and an individual is considered virtuous if their character is made up of the moral qualities that are accepted as virtues. In Ancient Greece commonly accepted virtues included courage, temperance, prudence, and justice.

Socrates held virtue to be the greatest good in life because it alone was capable of securing ones happiness. Even death is a trivial matter for the truly virtuous individual who realizes that the most important thing in life is the state of his soul and the actions which spring from it: “Man, you don’t speak well, if you believe that a man worth anything at all would give countervailing weight to the danger of life or death, or give consideration to anything but this when he acts: whether his action is just or unjust, the action of a good or of an evil man.” (Apology 28b-d).

In order to become virtuous Socrates maintained that we must arrive at knowledge of what virtue really is. Knowledge of the nature of virtue, in other words, is the necessary and sufficient condition for one to become virtuous.

This explains why Socrates went about conversing with his fellow Athenians, always in search of the definition, or essence, of a specific virtue. He thought that when one arrived at the correct definition of virtue, one would come to realize that virtue is the only things which is intrinsically good. And since human beings naturally desire the good, as it alone secures happiness, with this knowledge one would have no choice but to become virtuous.

To summarize this idea it is useful to express it in a simple formula: knowledge=virtue=happiness. When we arrive at knowledge of virtue we will become virtuous, i.e., we will make our souls good and beautiful. And when we perfect our souls, we will attain true happiness.

If all individuals naturally desire happiness, and if it is only by becoming virtuous that one can attain happiness, then a simple question arises: Why do so many people fail to become virtuous and instead commit evil acts, thereby preventing themselves from attaining that which they really want?

To put it bluntly, the answer to this question is that most people are ignorant. If one truly knew what they were doing was evil, they would refrain from such an action. But because all evil acts are committed out of ignorance, Socrates held that all evil acts are committed involuntarily. Socrates did not mean that when one committed an evil act they did so in some sort of state of complete unawareness, but rather that such an individual was unaware that their action was evil. In Plato’s dialogue the Protagoras Socrates says: “My own opinion is more or less this: no wise man believes that anyone sins willingly or willingly perpetuates any base or evil act; they know very well that every base or evil action is committed involuntarily.” (Protagoras)

An individual who commits an evil act is one who is ignorant of the fact that virtue alone is the one true good. Such an individual instead falsely assumes that wealth, power, and pleasure are the greatest goods in life, and therefore if necessary will use evil means to attain these goods. In other words, they are ignorant of the fact that by committing such evil acts they are tarnishing their soul and thus condemning themselves to a perpetual unhappiness.

As A.E. Taylor explains: “Evil doing always rests upon a false estimate of goods. A man does the evil deed because he falsely expects to gain good by it, to get wealth, or power, or enjoyment, and does not reckon with the fact that the guilt of soul contracted immeasurably outweighs the supposed gains.” (Socrates, A.E. Taylor)

This self inflicted harm to one’s soul caused by not acting virtuously is the greatest evil which could befall an individual. In fact, Socrates went so far as to put forth the astonishing claim that it is better to suffer an injustice than to commit an injustice. “So I spoke the truth when I said that neither I nor you nor any other man would rather do injustice than suffer it: for it is worse.” (Gorgias)

When we commit an injustice we are harming our own soul, which is our true self. Yet on the other hand, when we suffer an injustice it is not our soul which is harmed, but instead what is harmed is merely something we possess: be it our wealth, reputation, or even our body. Since the state of our soul is of the utmost importance in the attainment of happiness, we should ensure that we take care of our soul even at the expense of our possessions and body. And if the choice confronts us, we should choose to suffer harm rather than inflict it.

This is quite a proposition, and to conclude this lecture we will quote a passage by George Vlastos, who presents an extreme condition which illuminates just how staggering this idea of Socrates’ really is:

“Imagine someone living under a brutal dictatorship, accused of a political crime, who saves himself by incriminating falsely a friend, whereupon the latter is apprehended and tortured, coming out of the ordeal a broken man to die soon after, while the accuser, well rewarded by the regime, lives on to a healthy and prosperous old age. Socrates is claiming that the perpetrator of this outrage has damaged his own happiness more than his victims. Has any stronger claim been ever made by a moral philosopher? I know of none.” (Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, George Vlastos)

Further Readings