Category Archives: Philosophy

Durant 1926: The Psychological Problem

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter I, Section 6 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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VI. The Psychological Problem 

But behind these political problems lies the nature of man; to understand politics, we must, unfortunately, understand psychology. “Like man, like state” (575); “governments vary as the characters of men vary; … states are made out of the human natures which are in them” (544); the state is what it is because its citizens are what they are. Therefore we need not expect to have better states until we have better men; till then all changes will leave every essential thing unchanged. “How charming people are!—always doctoring, increasing and complicating their disorders, fancying they will be cured by some nostrum which somebody advises them to try, never getting better, but always growing worse. … Are they not as good as a play, trying their hand at legislation, and imagining that by reforms they will make an end to the dishonesties and rascalities of mankind—not knowing that in reality they are cutting away at the heads of a hydra?” (425). 

The state is what it is because its citizens are what they are. Reforms cannot put an end to the dishonesties and rascalities of mankind.

Let us examine for a moment the human material with which political philosophy must deal. 

Human behavior, says Plato, flows from three main sources; desire, emotion, and knowledge. Desire, appetite, impulse, instinct—these are one; emotion, spirit, ambition, courage—these are one; knowledge, thought, intellect, reason—these are one. Desire has its seat in the loins; it is a bursting reservoir of energy, fundamentally sexual. Emotion has its seat in the heart, in the flow and force of the blood; it is the organic resonance of experience and desire. Knowledge has its seat in the head; it is the eye of desire and can become the pilot of the soul. 

Human behavior flows from three main sources, desire, emotion, and knowledge. 

These powers and qualities are all in all men, but in divers degrees. Some men are but the embodiment of desire; restless and acquisitive souls, who are absorbed in material quests and quarrels, who burn with lust of luxuries and show, and who rate their gains always as naught compared with their ever-receding goals: these are the men who dominate and manipulate industry. But there are others who are temples of feeling and courage, who care not so much what they fight for, as for victory “in and for itself”; they are pugnacious rather than acquisitive; their pride is in power rather than in possession, their joy is on the battle-field rather than in the mart: these are the men who make the armies and navies of the world. And last are the few whose delight is in meditation and understanding; who yearn not for goods, nor for victory, but for knowledge; who leave both market and battle-field to lose themselves in the quiet clarity of secluded thought; whose will is a light rather than a fire, whose haven is not power but truth: these are the men of wisdom, who stand aside unused by the world. 

There are men who are acquisitive; others who are pugnacious; and then there are those who yearn for knowledge.

Now just as effective individual action implies that desire, though warmed with emotion, is guided by knowledge; so in the perfect state the industrial forces would produce but they would not rule; the military forces would protect but they would not rule; the forces of knowledge and science and philosophy would be nourished and protected, and they would rule. Unguided by knowledge, the people are a multitude without order, like desires in disarray; the people need the guidance of philosophers as desires need the enlightenment of knowledge. “Ruin comes when the trader, whose heart is lifted up by wealth, becomes ruler” (484) ; or when the general uses his army to establish a military dictatorship. The producer is at his best in the economic field, the warrior is at his best in battle; they are both at their worst in public office; and in their crude hands politics submerges statesmanship. For statesmanship is a science and an art; one must have lived for it and been long prepared. Only a philosopher-king is fit to guide a nation. “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and wisdom and political leadership meet in the same man, … cities will never cease from ill, nor the human race” (478). 

Only a philosopher-king is fit to guide a nation.

This is the key-stone of the arch of Plato’s thought. 

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Durant 1926: The Political Problem

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter I, Section 5 (The Political Problem) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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V. The Political Problem 

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Justice would be a simple matter, says Plato, if men were simple; an anarchist communism would suffice. For a moment he gives his imagination reign: 

First, then, let us consider what will be their way of life. … Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed they will work in summer commonly stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley and wheat, baking the wheat and kneading the flour, making noble puddings and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reed or clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds of yew or myrtle boughs. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and having the praises of the gods on their lips, living in sweet society, and having a care that their families do not exceed their means; for they will have an eye to poverty or war. … Of course they will have a relish—salt, and olives, and cheese, and onions, and cabbages or other country herbs which are fit for boiling; and we shall give them a dessert of figs, and pulse, and beans, and myrtle-berries, and beech-nuts, which they will roast at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them (372). 

Observe here the passing reference to the control of population (by infanticide, presumably), ‘to vegetarianism, and to a ”return to nature,” to the primitive simplicity which Hebrew legend pictures in the Garden of Eden. The whole has the sound of Diogenes the “Cynic,” who, as the epithet implied, thought we should “turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained”; and for a moment we are likely to classify Plato with St. Simon and Fourier and William Morris and Tolstoi. But he is a little more skeptical than these men of kindly faith; he passes quietly on to the question, Why is it that such a simple paradise as he has described never comes?—why is it that these Utopias never arrive upon the map?

Justice is not simple because men are not simple.

He answers, because of greed and luxury. Men are not content with a simple life: they are acquisitive, ambitious, competitive, and jealous; they soon tire of what they have, and pine for what they have not; and they seldom desire anything unless it belongs to others. The result is the encroachment of one group upon the territory of another, the rivalry of groups for the resources of the soil, and then war. Trade and finance develop, and bring new class-divisions. “Any ordinary city is in fact two cities, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich, each at war with the other; and in either division there are smaller ones—you would make a great mistake if you treated them as single states” (423). A mercantile bourgeoisie arises, whose members seek social position through wealth and conspicuous consumption: “they will spend large sums of money on their wives” (548). These changes in the distribution of wealth produce political changes: as the wealth of the merchant over-reaches that of the land-owner, aristocracy gives way to a plutocratic oligarchy—wealthy traders and bankers rule the state. Then statesmanship, which is the coordination of social forces and the adjustment of policy to growth, is replaced by politics, which is the strategy of party and the lust for the spoils of office. 

When land ownership became the privileged class we had aristocracy and statesmanship. As mercantile bourgeoisie arose aristocracy gave way to a plutocratic oligarchy, and statesmanship was replaced by politics.

Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principle. Aristocracy ruins itself by limiting too narrowly the circle within which power is confined; oligarchy ruins itself by the incautious scramble for immediate wealth. In either case the end is revolution. When revolution comes it may seem to arise from little causes and petty whims; but though it may spring from slight occasions it is the precipitate result of grave and accumulated wrongs; when a body is weakened by neglected ills,· the merest exposure may bring serious disease (556). “Then democracy comes: the poor overcome their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing the rest; and give to the people an equal share of freedom: and power” (557). 

Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principle. 

But even democracy ruins itself by excess—of democracy. Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy. This is at first glance a delightful arrangement; it becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses (588). “As to the people they have no understanding, and only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them” (Protagoras, 317); to get a doctrine accepted or rejected it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play (a hit, no doubt, at Aristophanes, whose comedies attacked almost every new idea). Mob-rule is a rough sea for the ship of state to ride; every wind of oratory stirs up the waters and deflects the course. The upshot of such a democracy is tyranny or autocracy; the crowd so loves flattery, it is so “hungry for honey,” that at last the wiliest and most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the “protector of the people” rises to supreme power (565). (Consider the history of Rome.) 

Democracy also ruins itself by excessively promoting the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy when people are not equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses.

The more Plato thinks of it, the more astounded he is at the folly of leaving to mob caprice and gullibility the selection of political officials—not to speak of leaving it to those shady and wealth-serving strategists who pull the oligarchic wires behind the democratic stage. Plato complains that whereas in simpler matters—like shoe-making—we think only a specially-trained person will serve our purpose, in politics we presume that every one who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. When we are ill: we call for a trained physician, whose degree is a guarantee of specific preparation and technical competence—we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one; well then, when the whole state is ill should we not look for .the service and guidance of the wisest and the best? To devise a method of barring incompetence and knavery from public office, and of selecting and preparing the best to rule for the common good—that is the problem of political philosophy. 

It is dangerous to presume presume that every one who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state.

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Durant 1926: The Ethical Problem

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter I, Section 4 (The Ethical Problem) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

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IV. The Ethical Problem 

The discussion takes place in the house of Cephalus, a wealthy aristocrat. In the group are Glaucon and Adeimantus, brothers of Plato; and Thrasymachus, a gruff and excitable Sophist. Socrates, who serves as the mouthpiece of Plato in the dialogue, asks Cephalus: 

“What do you consider to be the greatest blessing which you have reaped from wealth?” 

Cephalus answers that wealth is a blessing to him chiefly because it enables him to be generous and honest and just. Socrates, after his sly fashion, asks him just what he means by justice; and therewith lets loose the dogs of philosophic war. For nothing is so difficult as definition, nor anything so severe a test and exercise of mental clarity and skill. Socrates finds it a simple matter to destroy one after another the definitions offered him; until at last Thrasymachus, less patient than the rest, breaks out “with a roar”:


“What folly has possessed you, Socrates? And why do you others all drop down at one another’s feet in this silly way? I say that if you want to know what justice is, you should answer and not ask, and shouldn’t pride yourself on refuting others. … For there are many who can ask but cannot answer” (336). 

Socrates is not frightened; he continues to ask rather than answer; and after a minute of parry and thrust he provokes the unwary Thrasymachus to commit himself to a definition: 

Listen, then,” says the angry Sophist, “I proclaim that might is right, and justice is the interest of the stronger. … The different forms of government make laws, democratic, aristocratic, or autocratic, with a view to their respective interests; and these laws, so made by them to serve their interests, they deliver to their subjects as ‘justice,’ and punish as ‘unjust’ anyone who transgresses them. … I am speaking of injustice on a large scale; and my meaning will be most clearly seen in autocracy, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not retail but wholesale. Now when a man has taken away the money of the citizens and made slaves of them, then, instead of swindler and thief he is called happy and blessed by all. For injustice is censured because those who censure it are afraid of suffering, and not from any scruple they might have of doing injustice themselves” (338-44). 

Plato points out that the human nature is such that the strong has his way with the weak. This underlies the problem with justice.

This, of course, is the doctrine which our own day more or less correctly associates with the name of Nietzsche. “Verily I laughed many a time over the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had lame paws.” Stirner expressed the idea briefly when he said that “a handful of might is better than a bagful of right.” Perhaps nowhere in the history of philosophy is the doctrine better formulated than by Plato himself in another dialogue, Gorgias, (483 f), where the Sophist Callicles denounces morality as an invention of the weak to neutralize the strength of the strong. 

They distribute praise and censure with a view to their own interests; they say that dishonesty is shameful and unjust—meaning by dishonesty the desire to have more than their neighbors; for knowing their own inferiority, they would be only too glad to have equality. … But if there were a man who had sufficient force (enter the Superman), he would shake off and break through and escape from all this; he would trample under foot all our formulas and spells and charms, and all our laws, that sin against nature. … He who would truly live ought to allow his desires to wax to the uttermost; but when they have grown to their greatest he should have courage and intelligence to minister to them, and to satisfy all his longings. And this I affirm to be natural justice and nobility. But the many cannot do this; and therefore they blame such persons, because they are ashamed of their own inability, which they desire to conceal; and hence they call intemperance base. … They enslave the nobler natures, and they praise justice only because. they are cowards. 

This justice is a morality not for men but for foot-men (oude gar andros all’ andrapodou tinos) ; it is a slave-morality, not a hero-morality; the real virtues of a man are courage (andreia) and intelligence (phronesis).

Justice is approached with the idea that morality is an invention of the weak to neutralize the strength of the strong. This is a problem.

Perhaps this hard “immoralism” reflects the development of imperialism in the foreign policy of Athens, and its ruthless treatment of weaker states. “Your empire,” said Pericles in the oration which Thucydides invents for him, “is based on your own strength rather than the .good will of your subjects.” And the same historian reports the Athenian envoys coercing Melos into joining Athens in the war against Sparta: “You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question for equals in power; the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” We have here the fundamental problem of ethics, the crux of the theory of moral conduct. What is justice?—shall we seek righteousness, or shall we seek power?—is it better to be good, or to be strong?

Plato asks—What is justice?—shall we seek righteousness, or shall we seek power?—is it better to be good, or to be strong?

How does Socrates—i.e., Plato—meet the challenge of this theory? At first he does not meet it at all. He points out that justice is a relation among individuals, depending on social organization; and that in consequence it can be studied better as part of the structure of a community than as a quality of personal conduct. If, he suggests, we can picture a just state, we shall be in a better position to describe a just individual. Plato excuses himself for this digression on the score that in testing a man’s vision we make him read first large type, then smaller; so, he argues, it is easier to analyze justice on a large scale than on the small scale of individual behavior. But we need not be deceived: in truth the Master is patching two books together, and uses the argument as a seam. He wishes not only to discuss the problems of personal morality, but the problems of social and political reconstruction as well. He has a Utopia up his sleeve, and is resolved to produce it. It is easy to forgive him, for the digression forms the core and value of his book. 

Plato wishes not only to discuss the problems of personal morality, but the problems of social and political reconstruction as well.

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Durant 1926: The Preparation of Plato

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter I, Section 3 (The Preparation of Plato) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

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3. The Preparation of Plato

Plato’s meeting with Socrates had been a turning point in his life. He had been brought up in comfort, and perhaps in wealth; he was a handsome and vigorous youth—called Plato, it is said, because of the breadth of his shoulders ; he had excelled as a soldier, and had twice won prizes at the Isthmian games. Philosophers are not apt to develop out of such an adolescence. But Plato’s subtle soul had found a new joy in the”dialectic”game of Socrates; it was a delight to behold the master deflating dogmas and puncturing presumptions with the sharp point of his questions; Plato entered into this sport as he had in a coarser kind of wrestling; and under the guidance of the old “gad-fly” (as Socrates called himself) he passed from mere debate to careful analysis and fruitful discussion. He became a very passionate lover of wisdom, and of his teacher. “I thank God,” he used to say, “that I was born Greek and not barbarian, freeman and not slave, man and not woman; but above all, that I was born in the age of Socrates.” 

Socrates’ questioning was for the sole purpose of clarification. In Plato it developed into a careful analysis and fruitful discussions.

He was twenty-eight when the master died; and this tragic end of a quiet life left its mark on every phase of the pupil’s thought. It filled him with such a scorn of democracy, such a hatred of the mob, as even his aristocratic lineage and breeding had hardly engendered in him; it led him to a Catonic resolve that democracy must be destroyed, to be replaced by the rule of the wisest and the best. It became the absorbing problem of his life to find a method whereby the wisest and the best might be discovered, and then enabled and persuaded to rule. 

Plato was disgusted by Socrate’s death at the hands of the mob mentality of a “democratic state.” He resolved that democracy must be destroyed, to be replaced by the rule of the wisest and the best.

Meanwhile his efforts to save Socrates had marked him out for suspicion by the democratic leaders; his friends urged that Athens was unsafe for him, that it was an admirably propitious moment for him to see the world. And so, in that year 399 B.C., he set out. Where he went we cannot for certain say; there is a merry war of the authorities for every turn of his route. He seems to have gone first to Egypt; and was somewhat shocked to hear from the priestly class which ruled that land, that Greece was an infant-state, without stabilizing traditions or profound culture, not yet therefore to be taken seriously by these sphinxly pundits of the Nile. But nothing so educates us as a shock; the memory of this learned caste, theocratically ruling a static agricultural people, remained alive in Plato’s thought, and played its part in writing his Utopia. And then off he sailed to Sicily, and to Italy; there he joined for a time the school or sect which the great Pythagoras had founded; and once again his susceptible mind was marked with the memory of a small group cf men set aside for scholarship and rule, living a plain life despite the possession of power. Twelve years he wandered, imbibing wisdom from every source, sitting at every shrine, tasting every creed. Some would have it that he went to Judea and was moulded for a while by the tradition of the almost socialistic prophets; and even that he found his way to the banks of the Ganges, and learned the mystic meditations of the Hindus. We do not know. 

Plato was impressed by the learned caste that ruled Egypt, and the group of Pythagoreans in Italy among the various places he travelled to.

He returned to Athens in 387 B.C., a man of forty now, ripened to maturity by the variety of many peoples and the wisdom of many lands. He had lost a little of the hot enthusiasms of youth, but he had gained a perspective of thought in which every extreme was seen as a half-truth, and the many aspects of every problem blended into a distributive justice to every facet of the truth. He had knowledge, and he had art; for once the philosopher and the poet lived in one soul; and he created for himself a medium of expression in which both beauty and truth might find room and play—the dialogue. Never before, we may believe, had philosophy assumed so brilliant a garb; and surely never since. Even in translation this style shines and sparkles and leaps and bubbles over. “Plato,” says one of his lovers, Shelley, “exhibits the rare union of close and subtle logic with the Pythian enthusiasm of poetry, melted by the splendor and harmony of his periods into one irresistible stream of musical impressions, which hurry the persuasions onward as in a breathless career.” It was not for nothing that the young philosopher had begun as a dramatist.

Plato developed into a dramatist. He created the wonderful medium of expression “the dialogue” in which both beauty and truth might find room and play.

The difficulty in understanding Plato lies precisely in this intoxicating mixture of philosophy and poetry, of science and art; we cannot always tell in which character of the dialogue the author speaks, nor in which form; whether he is literal or speaks in metaphor, whether he jests or is in earnest. His love of jest and irony and myth leaves us at times baffled; almost we could say of him that he did not teach except in parables. “Shall I, as an older person, speak to you, as younger men, in apologue or myth?” asks his Protagoras. These dialogues, we are told, were written by Plato for the general reading public of his day: by their conversational method, their lively war of pros and cons, and their gradual development and frequent repetition of every important argument, they were explicitly adapted (obscure though they may seem to us now) to the understanding of the man who must taste philosophy as an occasional luxury, and who is compelled by the brevity of life to read as he who runs may read. Therefore we must be prepared to find in these dialogues much that is playful and metaphorical; much that is unintelligible except to scholars learned in the social and literary minutiae of Plato’s time; much that today will seem irrelevant and fanciful, but might well have served as the very sauce and flavor by which a heavy dish of thought was made digestible for minds unused to philosophic fare. 

Plato’s dialogues are characterized by playfulness and they present a bit of a challenge to understanding.

Let us confess, too, that Plato has in sufficient abundance the qualities which he condemns. He inveighs against poets and their myths, and proceeds to add one to the number of poets and hundreds to the number of myths. He complains of the priests (who go about preaching hell and offering redemption from it for a consideration—cf. The Republic, 364), but he himself is a priest, a theologian, a preacher, a super-moralist, a Savonarola denouncing art and inviting vanities to the fire. He acknowledges, Shakespeare-like, that “comparisons are slippery” (Sophist, 231,) but he slips out of one into another and another and another; he condemns the Sophists as phrase-mongering disputants, but he himself is not above chopping logic like a sophomore. Faguet parodies him: “The whole is greater than the part?—Surely.—And the part is less than the whole?—Yes… Therefore, clearly, philosophers should rule the state?—What is that?—It is evident; let us go over it again.”

Plato writes about things that he himself is guilty of.

But this is the worst that we can say of him; and after it is said, the Dialogues remain one of the priceless treasures of the world. The best of them, The Republic, is a complete treatise in itself, Plato reduced to a book; here we shall find his metaphysics, his theology, his ethics, his psychology, his pedagogy, his politics, his theory of art. Here we shall find problems reeking with modernity and contemporary savor: communism and socialism, feminism and birth-control and eugenics, Nietzschean problems of morality and aristocracy, Rousseauian problems of return to nature and libertarian education, Bergsonian elan vital and Freudian psychoanalysis—everything is here. It is a feast for the elite, served by an unstinting host. “Plato is philosophy, and philosophy Plato,” says Emerson; and awards to The Republic the words of Omar about the Koran: “Burn the libraries, for their value is in this book.” 

But Plato’s Dialogues are full of wisdom.

Let us study The Republic

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Durant 1926: Socrates

Reference: The Story of Philosophy 

This paper presents Chapter I, Section 2 (Socrates) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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2. Socrates

If we may judge from the bust that has come down to us as part of the ruins of ancient sculpture, Socrates was as far from being handsome as even a philosopher can be. A bald head, a great round face, deep-set staring eyes, a broad and flowery nose that gave vivid testimony to many a Symposium—it was rather the head of a porter than that of the most famous of philosophers. But if we look again we see, through the crudity of the stone, something of that human kindliness and unassuming simplicity which made this homely thinker a teacher beloved of the finest youths in Athens. We know so little about him, and yet we know him so much more intimately than the aristocratic Plato or the reserved and scholarly Aristotle. Across two thousand three hundred years we can yet see his ungainly figure, clad always in the same rumpled tunic, walking leisurely through the agora, undisturbed by the bedlam of politics, buttonholing his prey, gathering the young and the learned about him, luring them into some shady nook of the temple porticos, and asking them to define their terms.

Socrates insisted on terms being defined accurately. This is a key feature of Subject Clearing also.

They were a motley crowd, these youths who flocked about him and helped him to create European philosophy. There were rich young men like Plato and Alcibiades, who relished his satirical analysis of Athenian democracy; there were socialists like Antisthenes, who liked the master’s careless poverty, and made a religion of it; there was even an anarchist or two among them, like Aristippus, who aspired to a world in which there would be neither masters nor slaves, and all would be as wordlessly free as Socrates. All the problems that agitate human society to-day, and provide the material of youth’s endless debate, agitated as well that little band of thinkers and talkers, who felt, with their teacher, that life without discourse would be unworthy of a man. Every school of social thought had there its representative, and its perhaps origin. 

Around Socrates, apparently, politics was a popular subject of discussion.

How the master lived hardly anybody knew. He never worked, and he took no thought of the morrow. He ate when his disciples asked him to honor their tables; they must have liked his company, for he gave every indication of physiological prosperity. He was not so welcome at home, for he neglected his wife and children; and from Xanthippe’s point of view he was a good-for-nothing idler who brought to his family more notoriety than bread. Xanthippe liked to talk almost as much as Socrates did; and they seem to have had some dialogues which Plato failed to record. Yet she, too, loved him, and could not contentedly see him die even after three-score years and ten. 

Socrates seemed to live a carefree life, and was loved and revered by many.

Why did his pupils reverence him so? Perhaps because he was a man as well as a philosopher: he had at great risk saved the life of Alcibiades in battle; and he could drink like a gentleman without fear and without excess. But no doubt they liked best in him the modesty of his wisdom: he did not claim to have wisdom, but only to seek it lovingly; he was wisdom’s amateur, not its professional. It was said that the oracle at Delphi, with unusual good sense, had pronounced him the wisest of the Greeks; and he had interpreted this as an approval of the agnosticism which was the starting-point of his philosophy “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt particularly to doubt one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas and one’s axioms. Who knows how these cherished beliefs became certainties with us, and whether some secret wish did not furtively beget them, clothing desire in the dress of thought? There is no real philosophy until the mind turns round and examines itself. Gnothi seauton, said Socrates: Know thyself.

There is no real philosophy until the mind turns round and examines itself. Philosophy seeks wisdom by questioning even the most cherished beliefs.

There had been philosophers before him, of course: strong men like Thales and Heraclitus, subtle men like Parmenides and Zeno of Elea, seers like Pythagoras and Empedocles; but for the most part they had been physical philosophers; they had sought for the physis or nature of external things, the laws and constituents of the material and measurable world. That is very good, said Socrates; but there is an infinitely worthier subject for philosophers than all these trees and stones, and even all those stars; there is the mind of man. What is man, and what can he become?

Prior to Socrates the focus of philosophy was on the external world.

So he went about prying into the human soul, uncovering assumptions and questioning certainties. If men discoursed too readily of justice, he asked them, quietly tò tí?—what is it? What do you mean by these abstract words with which you so easily settle the problems of life and death? What do you mean by honor, virtue, morality, patriotism? What do you mean by yourself? It was with such moral and psychological questions that Socrates loved to deal. Some who suffered from this “Socratic method,” this demand for accurate definitions, and clear thinking, and exact analysis, objected that he asked more than he answered, and left men’s minds more confused than before. Nevertheless he bequeathed to philosophy two very definite answers to two of our most difficult problems— What is the meaning of virtue? and What is the best state?

Socrates loved to deal with moral and psychological questions. He demanded accurate definitions, and clear thinking.

No topics could have been more vital than these to the young Athenians of that generation. The Sophists had destroyed the faith these youths had once had in the gods and goddesses of Olympus, and in the moral code that had taken its sanction so largely from the fear men had for these ubiquitous and innumerable deities; apparently there was no reason now why a man should not do as he pleased, so long as he remained within the law. A disintegrating individualism had weakened the Athenian character, and left the city a prey at last to the sternly-nurtured Spartans. And as for the state, what could have been more ridiculous than this mob-led, passion-ridden democracy, this government by a debating-society, this precipitate selection and dismissal and execution of generals, this unchoice choice of simple farmers and tradesmen, in alphabetical rotation, as members of the supreme court of the land? How could a new and natural morality be developed in Athens, and how could the state be saved?

Sophists had destroyed the faith in gods, and the ability to think critically was lacking in the society.

It was his reply to these questions that gave Socrates death and immortality. The older citizens would have honored him had he tried to restore the ancient polytheistic faith; if he had led his band of emancipated souls to the temples and the sacred groves, and bade them sacrifice again to the gods of their fathers. But he felt that that was a hopeless and suicidal policy, a progress backward, into and not “over the tombs.” He had his own religious faith: he believed in one God, and hoped in his modest way that death would not quite destroy him; but he knew that a lasting moral code could not be based upon so uncertain a theology. If one could build a system of morality absolutely independent of religious doctrine, as valid for the atheist as for the pietist, then theologies might come and go without loosening the moral cement that makes of willful individuals the peaceful citizens of a community.

Socrates knew that the youth needed a moral code, but it could not be based on faith in some theology.

If, for example, good meant intelligent, and virtue meant wisdom; if men could be taught to see clearly their real interests, to see afar the distant results of their deeds, to criticize and coordinate their desires out of a self-cancelling chaos into a purposive and creative harmony—this, perhaps, would provide for the educated and sophisticated man the morality which in the unlettered relies on reiterated precepts and external control. Perhaps all sin is error, partial vision, foolishness? The intelligent man may have the same violent and unsocial impulses as the ignorant man, but surely he will control them better, and slip less often into imitation of the beast. And in an intelligently administered society—one that returned to the individual, in widened powers, more than it took from him in restricted liberty—the advantage of every man would lie in social and loyal conduct, and only clear sight would be needed to ensure peace and order and good will. 

“Good” comes from intelligent actions, and “virtue” comes from wisdom. Self-control comes from wisdom applied intelligently. Only in its absence that external control is required.

But if the government itself is a chaos and an absurdity, if it rules without helping, and commands without leading, how can we persuade the individual, in such a state, to obey the laws and confine his self-seeking within the circle of the total good? No wonder an Alcibiades turns against a state that distrusts ability, and reverences number more than knowledge. No wonder there is chaos where there is no thought, and the crowd decides in haste and ignorance, to repent at leisure and in desolation. Is it not a base superstition that mere numbers will give wisdom? On the contrary is it not universally seen that men in crowds are more foolish and more violent and more cruel than men separate and alone? Is it not shameful that men should be ruled by orators, who “go ringing on in long harangues, like brazen pots which, when struck, continue to sound till a hand is put upon them”? Surely the management of a state is a matter for which men cannot be too Intelligent, a matter that needs the unhindered thought of the finest minds. How can a society be saved, or be strong, except it be led by its wisest men? 

The society should be led by its wisest of men, and not by mere majority agreement of selected common people, as the case in a democracy.

Imagine the reaction of the popular party at Athens to this aristocratic gospel at a time when war seemed to require the silencing of all criticism, and when the wealthy and lettered minority were plotting a revolution. Consider the feelings of Anytus, the democratic leader whose son had become a pupil of Socrates, and had then turned against the gods of his father, and laughed in his father’s face. Had no Aristophanes predicted precisely such a result from his specious replacement of the old virtues by unsocial intelligence? [In The Clouds (423 B.C.) Aristophanes had made great fun of Socrates and his “Thinking-shop.” where one learned the art of proving one’s self right, however wrong. Phidippides beats his father on the ground that his father used to beat him, and every debt should be repaid. The satire seems to have been good-natured enough: we find Aristophanes frequently in the company of Socrates; they agreed in their scorn of democracy; and Plato recommended The Clouds to Dionysius. As the play was brought out twenty-four years before the trial of Socrates, it could have had no great share in bringing the tragic dénouement of the philosopher’s life.]

Then the revolution came, and men fought for it and against, bitterly and to the death. When the democracy won, the fate of Socrates was decided: he was the intellectual leader of the revolting party, however pacific he might himself have been; he was the source of the hated aristocratic philosophy; he was the corrupter of youths drunk with debate. It would be better, said Anytus and Meletus, that Socrates should die. 

Socrates was condemned to death because he was the source of aristocratic philosophy that led to a bitter revolution against the democracy in Athens.

The rest of the story all the world knows, for Plato wrote it down in prose more beautiful than poetry. We are privileged to read for ourselves that simple and courageous (if not legendary) “apology,” or defense, in which the first martyr of philosophy proclaimed the rights and necessity of free thought, upheld his value to the state, and refused to beg for mercy from the crowd whom he had always contemned. They had the power to pardon him; he disdained to make the appeal. It was a singular confirmation of his theories, that the judges should wish to let him go, while the angry crowd voted for his death. Had he not denied the gods?Woe to him who teaches men faster than they can learn. 

Socrates made the Athens crowd very angry because he went against the traditional faith and social norms.

So they decreed that he should drink the hemlock. His friends came to his prison and offered him an easy escape; they had bribed all the officials who stood between him and liberty. He refused. He was seventy years old now (399 B. c.); perhaps he thought it was time for him to die, and that he could never again die so usefully. “Be of good cheer,” he told his sorrowing friends, “and say that you are burying my body only.” “When he had spoken these words,” says Plato, in one of the great passages of the world’s literature,

he arose and went into the bath-chamber with Crito, who bade us wait; and we waited, talking and thinking of … the greatness of our sorrow; he was like a father of whom we were being bereaved, and we were about to pass the rest of our lives as orphans. . . . Now the hour of sunset was near, for a good deal of time had passed while he was within. When he came out, he sat down with us again, … but not much was said. Soon the jailer … entered and stood by him saying “To you Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison indeed I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are the guilty cause. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be; you know my errand.” Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out. 

Socrates looked at him and said: “I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid.” Then turning to us, he said, “How charming the man is; since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and now see how generously he sorrows for me. But we must do as he says, Crito; let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared; if not, let the attendant prepare some.”

“Yet,” said Crito, “the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and many a one has taken the draught late; and after the announcement has been made to him he has eaten and drunk, and indulged in sensual delights; do not hasten then, there is still time.” 

Socrates said: “Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in doing thus, for they think that they will gain by the delay; but I am right in not doing thus, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should be sparing and saving a life which is already gone; I could only laugh at myself for this. Please then to do as I and not to refuse me.”

Crito, when he heard this, made a sign to the servant; and the servant went in, and remained for some time, and then returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: “You, my good friend, who are experienced In these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed.” The man answered: “You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act.” At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of color or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, as his manner was, took the cup and said: “What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not?” The man answered: “We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough.” “I understand,” he said: “yet I may and must pray to the gods to prosper my journey from this to that other world—may this then, which is my prayer, be granted to me.” Then, holding the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank the poison. 

And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept over myself; for certainly I was not weeping over him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having lost such a companion. Nor was I the first, for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up and moved away, and I followed; and at that moment Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out into a loud cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: “What is this strange outcry?” he said. “I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not offend in this way, for I have heard that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience.” When we heard that, we were ashamed, and restrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard and asked him if he could feel; and he said “No”; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And then Socrates felt them himself, and said, ”When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end.” He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face (for he had covered himself up) and said, they were his last words, “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; you will remember to pay the debt?” “The debt shall be paid,” said Crito; “is there anything else?” There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth. 

Such was the end of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, the justest, and best of all the men whom I have ever known. 

The above account of Socrates’ last hours by Plato shows the courage and character of Socrates.

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