Socrates was one of the first philosophers to place the emphasis he did on reason and rational thought. It was inchoate with the pre-Socratics but it wasn’t until Socrates that reason took central stage the way it did. Everything he says is presented in the form of an argument: reasons are demanded, inferences examined, consequences deduced, definitions refined, hypotheses rejected. The ‘just so’ stories the pre-Socratics were all too eager to indulge in were no longer acceptable.
Reason and argumentative dialectic were Socrates’ specialty and led to his characteristic method of interrogation that now bears his name; the Socratic Method. Originally, the way Socrates would go about questioning individuals in Athenian high society was by asking his (unwitting) interlocutor to recommend a definition for some concept, say, truth. After they did this, Socrates would then proceed to pull it to pieces through a series of insightful questions that would typically lead his companion into contradictory or absurd conclusions.
In Socrates’ hands his method seemed to have been something of a weapon and he probably didn’t deploy it with as much tact as he could have. In modern parlance, we typically use it to refer more to the act of eliciting insights directly from students themselves, rather than just telling them the answers outright.
Virtue, Ethics, Wisdom and Happiness
Socrates was obsessed with righteous living. All of the important discussions of the real Socrates were about how one ought to live and focused on the five conventional Greek virtues: courage, moderation, piety, wisdom and justice. This was so important to him that at his trial he remarked that one would be mistaken if one spent any time weighing up the prospects of life and death; the only thing that matters is whether one is acting rightly or wrongly.
The reason Socrates was so concerned about virtue was that he believed the soul was damaged by wrong actions and benefitted by right ones. In fact, he maintained that no other kind of harm is important. The logical consequence of this is that bad people only harm themselves. And this of course, gives us that old moral gem, ‘turn the other cheek’. There are two interesting features about this: 1) it conflicted with traditional Greek values, whereby it was acceptable, even honourable, to harm your enemies, and 2) it enjoins a universal morality based on self-interest as opposed to explicitly altruistic thinking or relying on heavenly reward/punishment for motivation.
The reason Socrates pursued knowledge of the virtues so doggedly was that he believed understanding them was a prerequisite for possessing them. How can one be virtuous (just, courageous, etc.) unless one knows what possession of that particular virtue entails? And the only way to obtain this knowledge is by examining the particular virtues themselves.
But Socrates didn’t just think knowledge was necessary for virtue, he thought it was sufficient too. This is a much stronger claim and means that if one knows the right thing one will always do the right thing; i.e. it is impossible to know what the right thing is and then fail to do it. In large part, this is based on Socrates’ insistence that humans are fundamentally rational creatures. A rational being would never act against what he or she believes to be best. Combining this with the earlier idea that doing wrong only harms oneself, it naturally follows that when people do wrong (i.e. act againstvirtue), they only do so out of ignorance.
Socrates also argues that the virtues themselves are linked in such a way that if you have one, you must have all of them; they come as a package deal or not at all. The argument usually turns on showing that one virtue presupposes another. One cannot have courage, for instance, without wisdom; being brave but foolish leads to rashness, not courage. From this, we can see that wisdom, in particular, played a special role among the virtues for Socrates. Wisdom, lying as it does, underneath every virtue is therefore a prerequisite for virtuous living.
There is one more point to be made here and that is that Socrates believed happiness consisted in nothing more than virtuous activity. The just person is happy, the unjust miserable. One might argue against this by pointing out that evil-doers often get ahead in life and are happier than their virtuous counterparts. This is true, but Socrates would reply by saying that the evil-doers aren’t really happy. The appear happy and they may even think they are happy but if they understood the importance of the soul and the fact that their evil acts only harm themselves, it would be clear to them that they aren’t.
So in this way, Socrates saw knowledge, wisdom, virtue, ethics and happiness as all being intimately related. Given that knowledge is sufficient for virtue, knowledge is in fact, virtue, and virtue is, in turn, inextricably linked to ethics, wisdom, and happiness.
Socrates was agnostic about what happened after death; however he was certain that it was nothing to be feared. In the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates give a number of proofs for the immortality of the soul, but it is unlikely that this was Socrates’ true opinion. For one thing, Plato was far more ‘other-worldly’ minded than his master. It also hardly fits with the character of the self-proclaimed ignorant philosopher to suddenly have privileged knowledge about death. Lastly, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates asserts that death is not an evil because it is either the end of one’s consciousness or a migration to a better place. If the former, there would be nothing to fear because one wouldn’t be conscious of anything at all. It would be like an eternal sleep. If the latter, one would be able to meet the legendary heroes of Greek history and who wouldn’t want to do this?
It is unlikely that Socrates was an atheist. During his trial, he refers to a daimon which manifested as a ‘voice’ only he could hear. This ‘voice’ only ever dissuaded him from certain courses of action; it never encouraged or advised him in any positive fashion. (This sounds to a modern, secular reader suspiciously like a conscience). He also invokes the Delphic oracle as setting him on his ‘quest’ to establish how he could be the wisest man in Athens and claims his actions are divinely mandated. However, Socrates was nothing if not a free thinker. This means that he almost certainly wasn’t orthodox in his beliefs and it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that he didn’t necessarily abide by all of the traditional Greek beliefs and practices.