Tag: Socrates

Achilles, Meno, and Bees

Achilles, Meno, and Bees

Several philosophers in the late twentieth century set the characters of The Iliad so far apart from modern man that Achilles, Diomedes, and Agammemnon seem almost to belong to another species. I have written about Julian Jaynes and his claims about how the minds of these characters differed from our own. Alasdair MacIntyre invoked these same figures to make the case that that our ancestors had a far more complete comprehension of the nature of the good and that this grasp of what is right was more widely shared than in the modern age.

Heroic man didn’t have an abstract notion of the good in general, a good that held for men and women, slave and king, Greek and barbarian. For Achilles and Diomedes, the good was always specific to a social role. A king had duties and the virtues of a king were those excellences that helped him fulfill those duties. There was one virtue for a wife and another for a son. A good king was just and magnanimous to his subjects, a good wife was faithful and obedient to her husband, and a good son was dutiful to his father.

Tribes who live in what is taken to be an earlier stage of development, or our own ancestors from the distant past, are sometimes represent as ignorant of, or perhaps free from, certain abstractions. We’re told that they live in the particular and the concrete. Benjamin Whorf claimed that the Hopi have no concept of time in general. And, according to MacIntyre, heroic man had no concept of a good that applied to very person, both men and women, Greek and barbarian.

The heroes of The Iliad were fighting in a war and in combat it is often best not to think, or at least to view the world through blinkers. The Hector who takes the field is a much narrower man than the wife of Andromache or the father of Astyanax. Men who serve in a fighting unit have their role to fill and they do what is asked of them without question when fighting in the field, but that doesn’t mean that they lack a notion of right and wrong that applies to all persons.

When Socrates asks Meno what virtue is, he answers:

There will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question. Let us take first the virtue of a man-he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies; and he must be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman’s virtue, if you wish to know about that, may be easily described: her duty is to order the house and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless and no lack of definitions of them for virtues are relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do.

Meno’s definition is just like that which might be given by Agammemnon but he is a young man who’s grown up centuries later in a setting far more sophisticated that the virile but rude age of heroes. Perhaps this attitude isn’t the mark of an early stage in history but one natural to every unreflecting mind.

Socrates thanks Meno for offering him a swarm of virtues when he asks for only one. He keeps going with the insect analogy and points out that while there are many kinds of bees, they have one nature in common by which they are all bees, and asks for the one good which is common to all virtues. Socrates is after one universal good of which the several virtues are particulars. Just after this he gives another analogy where circles and squares and triangles are all figures, just like the various virtues are all virtue in general.


Socrates isn’t content with a list of virtues that are common to every citizen. He is seeking one universal virtue that is common to every individual. The good is one and the good is universal, to be a guide and a goal in all time and all places. This universality and abstraction puts him very far from the presentation of the heroic man as limited to his caste and situation.

There is one more difference. The hero of Nietzche’s imagining is proud above all and disdains humility. Yet Socrates, by professing that he isn’t wise and knows nothing, is quite humble.


Oracles and Horseflies

Oracles and Horseflies


Socrates is on trial for his life and he is defending himself before his judges. He begins by explaining how he’s been brought to such a pass: why he’s reputed to be wise and how he’s come to have so many enemies. It all began with a busybody by the name of Chaerephon who went to the oracle at Delphi and asked if there was any man as wise as Socrates. The oracle replied that there was no man wiser than he.

Upon hearing of this, Socrates was troubled because he knew that he had no wisdom of any kind. Sure that it must be a test or a riddle or a mystery, he resolved to find a man wiser than himself and bring him before the oracle. He first went to a politician renowned for his wisdom but when Socrates questioned him, he found that he was not wise at all. He explained to the politician that although he considered himself wise, he really wasn’t. The politician took this badly and after this he hated Socrates, and his admirers and supporters did as well. Socrates went to other politicians, examining and discomfiting one after another.

Having run through the politicians without finding a wise man, he next went to the poets and asked them the meaning of their writings. But they were unable to explain their own poems. Because of their fine poems they took themselves to be the wisest of men, but when they set down these passages, they were divinely inspired, a conduit to wisdom but not wise in themselves. Socrates made the rounds of the poets, and finding that they weren’t wise, he left them alone but not before mortally offending them.

Next Socrates went to the artisans, and he found that they knew many things that he did not. Potters, carpenters, shipwrights, and masons knew a great deal of their own art and they could explain their techniques. Because of their expertise, they thought themselves wise, but when Socrates asked about the nature of the holy, the just, and the good, they knew no more than any of the rest.

It’s clear that the artisans were no wiser than any other men, but we must stop here because again and again Socrates compares the few who can improve the youth to horse trainers. If horse trainers can’t be numbered among the artisans, they are certainly akin to them. And like the artisans, they know their own business. They know how often a horse should be fed, what he should be fed, and how often. They can lift up a hoof and look it over, quickly spotting any injury and infection. They’re familiar with the diseases to which horses are susceptible and they can hear in the animal’s breathing when he is unwell.

Yet like the artisans, when questioned about what Socrates refers to as ‘higher matters’ they can give no better answers than any who have come before. Socrates has said again and again that there is a small class of men who can improve the youth just as horse trainers can care for and improve horses. And as the horse trainers act on their special knowledge, these men must have a special knowledge of their own. In order to guide the youth and impart to them their own wisdom, these men must have a knowledge of these higher matters.

But Socrates says this is impossible:

And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he wants to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; is is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.

The few men who can improve the youth are like the few men who know how to properly care for horses, not because they have a special knowledge, but because they are few. While no man is truly wise, nearly all men believe that they are. Socrates might, in fact, be completely alone. Socrates compares himself to a gadfly and warns the Athenians that if they swat him, they won’t easily find another like him.

To improve the youth, a mentor must bring them to see that they know nothing and admonish them to proceed accordingly. Their teaching is entirely negative, a denial that their charges know anything. This may seem obstructive and fruitless, but Socrates one really public act was equally obstructive. When Socrates held public office, he acquitted himself well, not by proposing some ingenious measure or by drafting some salutary law, but by opposing the entire Assembly when it was about to perpetrate an injustice. The Assembly proposed to try the generals who had neglected to gather up the bodies of the slain after the Battle of Arginusae as a body rather than individually. This was illegal and Socrates stood against the measure in spite of being threatened with impeachment or death.

Socrates doesn’t believe that knowledge can be imparted by being poured into the ear. He does believe that the young can be taught but he doesn’t give an account of that here. He does tell of his oracle, a kind of voice, that first came to him when he was a child. This voice doesn’t whispers secrets to him, mysteries and esoteric truths hidden from everyone else. The voice doesn’t counsel him, telling him of what lies in the future, or suggesting steps that will benefit him, his family, or the state. The oracle never commands but only forbids him from doing anything evil or unjust.

The few who can guide and improve the youth must do the same, humbling their pride and curbing their feckless certainty. Socrates doesn’t teach in the manner of the Sophists, imparting knowledge and truth in long, elegant, rhetorically polished passages. If the young can learn, they must first be shown that what they think they know is false and that they don’t know anything.

Reason, Fear, and Motorcycles

Reason, Fear, and Motorcycles


The Protagoras concludes with an examination of the relation between reason and the appetites:

For the general opinion about knowledge is more or less as follows: it isn’t a strong or controlling element. And not only do people have this opinion about knowledge, but they also believe that in many cases when knowledge is present in a man, it is not the knowledge that controls him, but something else-now anger, now pleasure, now pain, now love, and often fear-thinking of knowledge just as one does of a slave, as something dragged along behind all the other elements.

We can hear the indignation in Plato’s tone down through the millennia. But what do we mean by knowledge? On a basic level, we carry within us a model built up of symbols or ideas which matches the world without. The symbols or ideas don’t resemble the corresponding things, but the relations between the symbols match the relations between the things. The point of such a model is that it may be more readily referred to and worked from than the things themselves. We may be a long walk from the cache of food we have hidden, but we don’t need to see it. We can simply call up the map we carry in our heads. Animals can also know and remember, and they carry the same maps with the locations of stores of food, springs of water, and game trails.

But humans have language, and with language they can construct a far more extended and complex world than the grasslands of their ancestors. We live in an artificial realm but simply because things like bank accounts, university degrees, credit ratings, and outstanding warrants are artificial doesn’t mean that they don’t have teeth. We created these things but now they’re very real and they bear heavily on our well-being and happiness.

A man wakes up from a good night’s sleep and goes to an important meeting with his financial adviser at a nice coffee shop. The adviser shows him charts and graphs and tables, and they look at the man’s assets and liabilities, and the man makes plans for decades ahead. A student wakes up in a warm, snug bed in a nice, solid dormitory. He strolls to a morning class through a beautiful campus, a landscaped, and patrolled garden of delights. He steps into a comfortable, quiet, acoustically superb lecture hall and there he takes in knowledge.

These places of meeting and halls of learning are calm, quiet, safe venues perfect for the transmission of information. Our intellects work best when we’re well-rested and calm, and it works very well indeed. The student at university remembers and learns, and when called upon, he can recite what has been imparted to him and use the methods and algorithms he’s been shown. We save our money, invest wisely, curb our impulse to buy tempting baubles and we lay a foundation for our own prosperity. The student studies long into the night, shutting out any games or shows that might distract him, poring over his lessons no matter how tedious. There are a thousand things he’d rather be doing but he works hard and perseveres.

We’re capable of tremendous discipline and discretion and we forego small pleasures for a much greater reward far into the future. Yet the same thoughtful, diligent student may be set on buying a motorcycle. He may be shown the records of a large insurance company, and these will list name after name, face after face, or young men just like him who were killed riding motorcycles. Presented by this mountain of evidence, he will assent to the proposition that motorcycles are very dangerous vehicles. And then he will go and get one of his own.

This young man can understand statistics perfectly well, but he also believes that he’s invulnerable and immortal. This belief is very different from any of the truths he’s learned in schhol and he will never assert it aloud. He may even be brought to deny it. But he does believe it and his behavior bears this out. Nothing in a folder or dossier will ever convince him otherwise. When he himself is hurtling through the air, when he’s sucked into an accident he wasn’t nearly fast enough to avoid, when he’s skipping across concrete that scrapes the flesh from his bones, then and only then will he realize how slow, and weak, and fragile, he really is.

When dealing with the natural world, we still work from a model we inherited from our ancestors. This was a model that was put together from generation after generation struggling to survive on the savanna. An adaptable, opportunistic omnivore that will eat anything and live anywhere, will flourish while a far more powerful and prepossessing predator will disappear into extinction. We are just such an omnivore, and we learned that if we come across something edible, we eat it, and if it’s fatty and salty so much the better. If we have a chance to couple and spread our seed, we take it. If danger is near, we freeze. If danger is after us, we run away. Danger on the savanna almost always came in the form of a predator chasing us, or a grass fire sweeping ahead. In both cases, the best course is to run straight away from the threat. None of our ancestors was ever pursued by an inanimate object that followed a straight, narrow, fixed path and so swerving was not part of their repertoire.

When we are rested and calm, reason reigns supreme, but when we are terrified, or in the grip of some overmastering passion, or drunk, or exhausted, reason is cast down from her throne and we work from the model passed down to us from prehistory. It is not that reason is dragged along behind, so much that reason is locked up in the penthouse while the real work is done in the basement.

You may be worried that I have lost touch with Plato and gone off on an unpardonably long digression but we’ve been following a track parallel to his. He has discussed the rash, feckless courage of those who are sure that while others may be maimed or killed, they can never be touched. The difference between the truly brave and the foolhardy is knowledge.

The cavalry and the infantry are brave because they have knowledge of fighting on horseback, or fighting on foot. Terror will rob us of our reason more surely than anything except perhaps alcohol, and when it does we honor it will the name panic. Those who are trained to work in terrifying situations, are trained so as not to succumb to panic. The best aids to such training is mindless repetition and training when too exhausted to think because the training sinks in below the level of reason and overwrites the much deeper programming we were born with. None us enter this world a blank slate. We weren’t born with innate propositions of geometry but we were born with survival instincts that are outdated and possibly fatal. These can only be accessed and altered by pushing past our reason.

Soldiers may be lectured on political science, informed how their political system is indubitably superior to that of the enemy, exhorted to defend their native soil and way of life but the untried recruit may still abandon his comrades and flee from the fight. Dialectics can never alter these programs and the most rigorous training can only scratch the surface. Well-trained troops are never as good as those who’ve actually faced combat. Most of the warriors down through the ages have gone into battle exhausted and stricken with diarrhea. Sick, numb, confused, and terrified, they had to hold and fight. They carry out the actions they’ve performed a million times before, they survive, and they’re victorious. Only this teach them and turn them into hardened veterans, overwriting their inherited programming.

Those who do some terrifying job that can get them killed, whether soldiers or firefighters or something else, only really learn and know by getting through the ordeal itself. They hung together and they survived, they fought and overcame their instincts, and now they’ve implanted new ones. This may be considered knowledge but it can certainly not be considered a science.

Recollection, Intuition, and Innate Ideas

Recollection, Intuition, and Innate Ideas


Most of the Meno is devoted to a discussion of virtue: whether virtue can be taught, whether it is one thing or many, whether there is a virtue for women and a virtue for men, a virtue for children and a virtue for grown ups, and why so many eminent Athenians were unable to teach virtue to their own sons. This are questions that are taken up in many other Socratic dialogues.

In the middle of the Meno, however, there is a lengthy digression. Meno has brashly claimed to know what virtue is, and like so many other brash young men that have come before, he’s being harried from one definition to the next. At a certain point, he turns on his pursuer and asks Socrates:

And how will you inquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of inquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you do not know?

This is a grave difficulty and if it can’t be overcome then there is no knowing and no use seeking to know. Socrates answers that the soul is immortal, and having been born many times, has knowledge of all things. All learning is merely a process of recollection. To prove this, Socrates agrees to a demonstration. Calling forward a young boy, Socrates asks a series of questions and the boy answers. He doesn’t tell or explain anything to the boy but merely elicits his opinions. Under questioning, he makes several true statements about geometry.

How is this possible? Socrates believes the boy knew these truths all along and in the course of dialectical question and answer, the truths were drawn out of him. Meno’s conundrum is inescapable, if we have knowledge already, we need not seek it, but if we don’t have it at all, we don’t where to look and we can’t recognize if it if we happen to come across it. The only solution is that we have knowledge we’ve forgotten and that we just need to recollect it. The boy possesses knowledge and they can awaken him into knowledge by putting questions to him.

One delightful consequence is that if the soul learns all things between lives, then the soul is immortal. Socrates has proved that knowledge is possible, and in so doing he’s also proved that the soul is immortal.

Immanuel Kant was challenged by the same problem. In his unique phrasing: how are synthetic a priori judgments possible? A synthetic judgment is one that adds something to a concept over and above its definition; it adds predicates to a subject. An a priori judgment is one that can be made any sensations based on pure intuitions alone. All knowledge arises with sensation, but a priori judgments are possible and they are more than generalization about similar objects or observed patterns.

When Kant wants to give an example of a synthetic a priori science, he turns to geometry, the very subject Plato uses for his dialectical demonstration. He extolls geometry as:

Geometry is a science which determines the properties of space synthetically, and yet a prior. What then must be the representation of space, to render such a knowledge of it possible? It must be originally intuitive; for it is impossible from mere concepts to deduce propositions which go beyond the concept, as we do in geometry. That intuition, however, must be a priori, that is, it must exist within us before any perception of the object, and must therefore be pure, not empirical intuition. For all geometrical propositions are apodictic, that is, connected with the consciousness of their necessity, as for instance the proposition, that space has only three dimensions; and such propositions cannot be empirical judgments, nor conclusions from them.

Because Plato believes that the soul learned geometry before it entered the body, does that make the science of geometry a posteriori? Socrates states that the soul sees all things that exist in this world or the world below. Does the soul remember its many births? Does it remember the countless deaths it’s suffered?

There are some therapists who believe that we remember past lives and that our phobias and anxieties stem from the tragedies we’ve lived through in previous incarnations. We may have fallen off a cliff or from some great height; we remember the plummet and the impact, and this horrific memory is the cause of our acrophobia. We may have been bitten by a poisonous snake and have died in agony and in this life we’re terrified of serpents but don’t know why.

Whether or not Plato believed that the events of a past life can be remembered in this one is hard to say. But these biographical details aren’t the kind of knowledge he’s trying to elicit through dialectics. He’s concerned with the universal not the particular, the necessary not the contingent. Before the soul entered the body, it had intuitions of the forms themselves. The soul knew the forms of the true, the just, the good, the beautiful, and it is this knowledge that must be recollected.

Plato believed the soul knew the forms directly without the body and apart from the senses, but for Kant there can be no intuition of concepts. A priori intuitions of the pure forms of intuition are possible, but concepts proceed from the understanding and cannot be intuited. Geometry can be conducted a priori because it’s an exploration of the very conditions that make experience possible, not an investigation of empirical objects.

Both Plato and Kant agreed that geometry was a priori. Kant mentions the fact that space has only three dimensions as an a priori and apodictic truth. In the present era, it’s argued whether space has three dimensions or many, many more, but the number of these dimensions is contingent and can ultimately only be settled by the outcome of an experiment.

Euclid’s reasoning was sound; his conclusions do follow from his premises, and they pertain under certain conditions. Euclidean geometry is apodictically valid but only empirically true. Deductive systems can be constructed and every link in the chain can be tested. Their validity can be determined by pure reason alone. Their existence must be found out in the real world.

An untutored mind can be walked through a deductive system of wugs, and whatses, and jabberwockies, and based on intersection, complements, negation, transitivity, and other principles of logic that novice can draw conclusions about thesm. Based on axioms and premises, an entire science of whatses, wugs, and jabberwockies can be built. That science will be logically sound and completely a priori. Validity is a matter of logic and the soundness of the system can be checked without any appeal to pure forms of intuition or recollection of forms. The truth as to whether this deductive system matches anything in the real world, whether whatses, wugs, and jabberwockies exist, must be decided a posteriori by an appeal to the world itself. But many of these systems that began merely as the logical connection and interlocking of symbols and concepts has turned out to be a description of a system that does in fact exist.