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What did the man who knew nothing know?

This is a chapter from my book, Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“Socrates was a teacher, in the manner in which he meant it”
Gregory Vlastos, Socrates – ironist and moral philosopher

For someone who said he knew nothing, Socrates surely made a lot of extraordinary claims, which amazed his audience with their originality. The amazement derived from the fact that his moral principles were not in pace with the common sense of the time, whether he addressed the nature of virtue or punishment. That is why they were named “Socratic paradoxes”; not like the mathematical paradoxes which cannot be proven or which must be accepted as originating from an authority figure, but precisely because they are against the moral dogmas of the Athenians (para-dox – παρά-δόξα – against-the-dogma).

Ο Σωκράτης στην Ακαδημία Αθηνών (στο βάθος ο Απόλλωνας)
Socrates in front of the Academy of Athens (Apollo behind)

Virtue is knowledge. Meaning he who knows what is good, will also do good. Starting with the basic hypothesis that we all want our well-being, the only thing that remains is to discover how to achieve it. Therefore, any harmful action of ours, is surely performed only out of ignorance or unwillingly. All the decisions we make in our lives, personal or political (e.g. should the Athenians start the Sicilian campaign or not?), pave the way to unknown roads ahead. If we knew in advance whether our choices have beneficial or harmful effects, we would have no doubt whatsoever as to what to do. Even someone who keeps smoking while knowing it is bad for his health, he does it because he hasn’t thought about it enough. If he was truly conscious of his habit affecting his well-being, he would act differently. He must realize this; “own it”, as it were. His former belief that smoking is harmful is just that; a belief. It is an opinion not knowledge, even if it is the correct opinion (see Socrates vs Protagoras – Can virtue be taught?). But opinions, according to Socrates, are unstable; they flee the mind like works of Daedalus.

Socrates of course has the reputation of an ascetic[1], and perhaps it is because of our lack of mental vigor that we struggle to understand this paradox. If we deem an action to be simply the result of knowledge or ignorance, we must ignore the frailty of will; which is absurd. Karl Joel said of Socrates: “in the strength of his character lay the weakness of his philosophy”. Joel seems to think that Socrates ought to have given a more thorough explanation of how one is supposed to become virtuous, perhaps not in impressive maxims, but with greater persuasion. Aristotle said of Socrates that he should study less on defining virtues and more on their acquisition; less on what courage is and more on how to become courageous. By correlating virtue and knowledge, he ignores the irrational part of the soul[2].

There’s no need to make guesses as to how Socrates would respond, since in Meno his interlocutor asks him to do just that: stop discussing what virtue is and find a way to become virtuous. Meno of course is hotheaded and hasty and cannot be compared to Aristotle; and in effect he asks Socrates an easy way of acquiring virtue –he just wants Socrates to tell him what to do. Socrates however insists. How is it possible to acquire something, he wonders, when we don’t even know what it is; when its nature is unknown? (As stated earlier, to know thyself must precede the knowledge of the way to attain eudaimonia).

But if we accept that all of us care about increasing our well-being, and since Socrates considers that to achieve this goal it is crucial to acquire virtue (and since virtue is knowledge), whichever action leads us to the opposite result must imply that we made a mistake. Therefore, no one would do wrong knowingly. If Socrates is right, morality is determined by natural necessity. Because, according to him, it is complete or perfect knowledge that defines action, not free choice. However, it is obvious that there is no such thing as complete knowledge, and Socrates did not recognize the human ability of acquiring it. Only gods are wise, and humans are left only with philosophy (“φιλοσοφία” = akin to wisdom). Thus, his paradox does not acquit us from moral responsibility, but enforces upon us the duty of searching for knowledge, however limited it may be. Apart from entailing the denial of our moral duty (even just apparently), most would hasten to protest that his claim only addresses moral actions that benefit or harm ourselves. However, there’s no doubt that some people, even though they are fully aware that an action will benefit themselves but hurt someone else, they perform it nonetheless. How would Socrates deal with this?

We would have to suppose that he considered the injury of the other to somehow affect the one committing the act. And the truth is he had said that the wrongdoer is not only harming himself, but is harmed more than the person he is directly mistreating. We may have associated this kind of “moralism” with Christianity, but Socrates was way ahead of his time when he argued that our soul is harmed when committing “hubris” or an unjust action (perhaps today we would use the word “sin”[3]), and there is no mysticism in this maxim of his. This conviction stems from the social mission he felt he had and was one of the conditions he deemed necessary for people to coexist harmoniously, rather than a command from divine authority.

Bernardino di Betto - Socrates
Bernardino di Betto – Socrates on the mount of knowledge (photo)

There is no clear justification of this principle in the Socratic dialogues, and, moreover, in Crito, Socrates refers to it as something that has been agreed upon “in the past”, during another conversation. It is perhaps in the same dialogue where we can find the key to solve this mystery we are presented with. There, Socrates refuses to escape from his cell with the help of his friends, and chooses to endure the unjust capital punishment. He does this, among other factors, because he does not want to subvert the Athenian polity by arbitrarily violating the lawful decision of his co-citizens. He recognizes some kind of a social contract which whoever partakes in the city has silently accepted, and which is necessary for a city to function; a city that, with its laws, gave him the life he lived and allowed him to relish in freedom -a life he would not find anywhere else. By escaping, he would harm the city and consequently its citizens. And by harming the citizens he would harm all those that made him who he is, and by extension himself and all those who would live after him. Besides, he believed that when you hurt someone, you hurt your soul, your moral essence. It is preferable to let someone harm your body rather than harm him, as in that way you would harm your soul, which is a lot worse.

We can see how Socrates puts social matters alongside personal ones, recognizing, as in Protagoras, that an individual cannot live on his own, thus introducing social justice and solidarity as a requisite for differentiating men from wild beasts.

In this way, his teaching transforms what sounded utilitarian or even selfish (because he said that good is that which is beneficial) into something that transcends by far the personal gain. With this, not only does he suggest that it is better to be wronged than to wrong someone, but also that it is better for the wrong-doer to be punished rather than avoid punishment. And that’s because the harm to the soul when committing injustice can be cured through punishment, just like medicine cures the illness.

We are presented with the proposal of a stance of moral integrity which looks to personal gain, but which becomes possible only through selflessness and a sense of social duty. In this context, since the unjust is harmed more than his victim, we have nothing to fear from all the injustices forced upon us and our eudaimonia is not threatened by them. He who leads the philosophical life offered by Socrates has freedom. He remains unscathed by the hardships of life and the injustices of others, and therefore does not conform to fate, but it is rather up to him how he will face it.

The notion that virtue is knowledge has a consequence; it has to be teachable. Whether virtue can be taught is a basic problem in the Socratic philosophy. Often, he seems to refute it (see Socrates vs Protagoras – Can virtue be taught?), but only apparently so. In fact, Socrates wanted to demonstrate that virtue may well be teachable, but that the sophists cannot teach it. Besides, the idea that anyone can become virtuous, something Socrates purported, conforms to the notion of equalitarianism that was instituted in Athens; how could anyone become virtuous without some kind of acquisition of virtue?

Socrates - unknown (4th cent.) (photo)
Socrates – unknown (4th cent.) (photo)

But, how would we convince Medea not to kill her children in the tragic finale of Euripides’ play? Guthrie claims that Socrates’ philosophy cannot convince someone like Medea who, knowing with absolute certainty that killing her children is a vile crime, proceeds to do the act with only a few words of hesitation. That, he implies, is a weakness of Socratic moral philosophy because in order to convince someone to do good by it, one has to accept axioms such as “it is worse to be unjust than to suffer injustice” or “injustice harms the soul of the unjust”. Philosophy therefore seems to be losing the clash against reality. This is not necessarily true.

Perhaps we should take a step back, and invoke some of Sam Harris’ insights from his book The Moral Landscape. Harris, who was not writing about Socrates but suggested his own method of basing morality on scientific knowledge, invites us to imagine two extremes: the worst possible universe in which everybody suffers forever, and its opposite, the best possible universe. Obviously, the real world in which we live is somewhere in between. Whichever action leads us towards the worst possible universe must be considered wrong or immoral, and vice versa. Guthrie might have deemed this definition of morality to be an axiom in its own right which needed further justification if it were to be taken seriously, in which case I would have to disagree.

What could lead us to this worst possible universe and not be considered “bad”, “wrong”, “evil” or “immoral”? What is that to which we can attribute the term “immoral” if it doesn’t lead us there? If the word “immoral” is to have a meaning, surely it can be applied to the aforementioned scenario. Killing, for example, is considered wrong with such certainty (it drives us towards the worst possible universe) that we can find its prohibition in every organized society –and if a society does not prohibit it we can’t call it organized or civilized. We consider it objectively wrong. But we can expect, with the same certainty, people to deny to comply with this law (even if they know it is wrong, even if they expect the risk of punishment to be big). Does this change our perception of murder? Does it mitigate our decisiveness in confronting it? Does it make us think that maybe we are wrong to objectively consider murder to be immoral? The answer is, of course, ‘no’.

And if it’s easy to condemn murder, it’s because it’s easy to see how destructive it is. We know it instinctively. This knowledge is not something that needs to be taught or proposed with the power of persuasion. It is the same certainty of this knowledge that Socrates (as well as Harris) envisages for a much greater range of human actions, if not for all those actions that could be called moral or immoral. The ‘Medeas’ of the real world do not dismay our moral philosophy, however much they defy our morality or refuse to abide by it. They just get punished. Not out of revenge, but because punishment may avert them from repeating their transgressions, and also because society has a need to be protected from them (punishment here has to be seen as the driving force towards the best possible universe, and is therefore just). As we see in Gorgias, Socrates does not refute punishment, but rather redefines it (as he redefines the concept of politics). Punishment, for him, becomes a means to correct someone, it benefits the punished as well as his victims.

Plato in front of the Academy of Athens (photo)
Plato in front of the Academy of Athens (photo)

And so we move to one of the most revolutionary teachings of Socrates: the denial of reciprocity. According to ancient Greek morals, to harm one’s enemy or someone that harmed him as much as the laws of the state allowed, was not just accepted but considered worthy of praise. Anaximander has raised reciprocity to a cosmic principle: the prime elements of nature find balance by reciprocating the injustice forced upon them by each other. Reciprocity was some kind of debt the wronged one had to pay in order to settle the injustice laid on him, with the concept of revenge clearly defining his action. But, as Vlastos informs us, revenge, in the minds of ancient Greeks, must not be understood as resentfulness against the unjust or as intention to cause harm. Those who impose the punishment are not ‘licensed wrongdoers’, but have every right to enforce punishment impelled by a sense of duty and loyalty to the laws, thus fulfilling the community’s demand to comply with its rules. It is the one who asks for unreasonable punishment that Protagoras likens to a ‘wild beast’.

Socrates says, in Crito, “we must never reciprocate injustice, nor harm anyone, no matter what has befallen on us by them”49c. Rejecting the principle of reciprocity, he became the only ancient Greek philosopher to achieve this radical contestation of his co-citizens’ common belief, offering a new moral code centered on the individual’s moral integrity. And he justified this on the conviction that injustice harms the unjust’s soul.

Socrates, however, does not demand to convince Medea or anyone else of his convictions, and even he himself, he admits, is not certain of all this. The disagreement among researchers, about whether he was being ironic when he said he knew nothing, is rather redundant. In any case, he was sincere when he tried to discover the truth, doubting even his own beliefs so strongly that he resigned himself to death so that his actions would not contradict his philosophy. He refrains from calling his convictions “knowledge”, rather just “opinions” awaiting someone to disprove them. In Gorgias he makes it clear: “I always postulate this, that I know not what is the truth of all this, and that of all the people I’ve met, like now, none who spoke differently managed to not get ridiculed. I claim, therefore, that this is the way things are”509a. So, in a sense, Socrates indeed “doesn’t know anything”, under one condition, that when we say “doesn’t know” we mean “doesn’t know with absolute certainty”. Like Dorion phrases it, “The wisdom he refuses to credit himself with is the certain and infallible knowledge”. If we were to add to the irony, we could say that Socrates’ virtue was not his knowledge, but his ignorance.

Thus we reach to a last paradox: though his method was rejective (see The Socratic Method), he had, as we saw, some very strong convictions. he had, as we saw, some very strong convictions. He had searched for someone to demolish his beliefs, but neither did anyone manage it nor could he on his own do so. Therefore, resilience to examination was enough to make convictions impossible to reject. None of his interlocutors were convinced by any of his paradoxes, but neither did anyone rise to the challenge of proving them wrong. And this, for Socrates, was enough.

[1] Xenophon tells us that Socrates had very few possessions, but he refrains from calling him poor, as poverty does not mean scarcity of  means to survive, but rather insufficient wealth in relation to one’s needs.

[2] Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics1216b10: “he pursued an inquiry into the nature of justice and courage and each of the divisions of virtue. And this was a reasonable procedure, since he thought that all the virtues are forms of knowledge, so that knowing justice and being just must go together, for as soon as we have learnt geometry and architecture, we are architects and geometricians; owing to which he used to inquire what virtue is, but not how and from what sources it is produced.” And in Magna Moralia1182a20: “in making the virtues departments of science he ignores our irrational part, and thus ignores both passion and the moral character.”

[3] The notion of hubris varies from the notion of sin inasmuch as it doesn’t entail the infringement of an explicit and predefined divine rule, but a transgression of behavioral boundaries. The fact that these boundaries were not predefined, gave one the freedom to act according to his judgement, and the moral responsibility to not cross the limits and face divine punishment. The concepts of “know thyself” and sophrosyne are very important in this context. In Phaedo237e-238a we read: “The predominance of the opinion which, through reason, leads to the best and prevails, is called sophrosyne; while the predominance of desire which dominates and leads us without reason to the pleasures, is called hubris”.

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