Socrates and Plato - Session 04 (22 January 2001)

The ethical problem is a double one. The double one in the sense that is a problem of knowing what is good or right and secondly the problem of willing to do what is good or right. So this an ethical problem is double. So there are two things to be understood, what is knowledge? What is the knowledge of the right or good? And how can there be a will to do what is good or right?

Now in answer to this question two dialogues are referred to two dialogues written by Plato. In which Socrates is the main character. So first is the dialogue called Laches in which Socrates argues, ‘what is the difference between a courageous man and a coward? The normal answer that is given is that coward is one who is afraid and a courageous man is one who is not afraid. But Socrates says no that is not a correct answer both are afraid. The courageous man is also afraid and the coward also is afraid.

Fear is your universal impulse the only difference is that the coward does not know what is to be afraid of. The courageous man knows what is to be afraid of. And since the courageous man knows that one should be afraid of running away afraid of getting disgrace therefore he does not run away. So it is the knowledge that is the differentia between the covered and the courageous. This is what we have seen last time now we come to the second dialogue. The argument in Charmides is that it is the knowledge of the mean between extreme indulgence and extreme asceticism that makes a man temporary or sober. So once again the criterion is a knowledge, if you know how to make a balance between one extreme and the other then you become sober or temperate and therefore virtuous. So these two dialogues discuss the question of what is virtue. And what is knowledge? And now we make a comment on these two dialogues. These two dialogues give a clue it is said as to what meaning is attached by Socrates to the world knowledge.

Here there is no reference to the knowledge of the whole reality or of the highest good. It is therefore not mystic or intuitive knowledge which is an attribute of spiritual experience. Knowledge is therefore concluded to be intellectual apprehension of the right in a given particular situation. There are two meanings of the word knowledge, intellectual apprehension or intuitive perception. Either intellectual or intuitive. You get through intellect and idea through intuition you get an experience. So intellectual knowledge is ideative knowledge. Through intuitive experience you go and get knowledge by identity. Let us write down these two words which are very important. Intellectual knowledge is ideal even character and intuitive knowledge is experiential in character. The central question is when Socrates uses the word knowledge in his doctrine what does knowledge mean? Is it intellectual knowledge or experiential knowledge? That is the issue and on that will depend our appreciation of his doctrine whether that doctrine is right or wrong will depend upon the meaning that he attends to the world in knowledge.

Now if you examine these two dialogues Letches and Charmides. It appears that it means by knowledge intellectual knowledge, it appears. Later on we shall see that it could also mean in the case of Socrates intuitive knowledge. Because there is a possibility of interpreting Socrates in both the ways, one has to work harder to find out what exactly he meant by the word knowledge. Now if it is meant by knowledge intellectual apprehension, intellectual knowledge then this doctrine is subject to criticism. Then you can say that this doctrine does not seem to be sound.

Now what are the criticism that we can level against it are now given in what we are going to read now. First the Socratic doctrine, thus interpreted is liable to obvious objection. First the doctrine can be distrued by an appeal to actual facts. Actual facts tell us that any good action presupposes the knowledge on the part of the agent of what is good? But not vice versa. That is to say knowledge of what is good is not always followed by a good action.

Drunkards for instance know the evil consequences of drinking and know the value of sobriety and yet they are not able to resist the temptation to drink. Saint Augustine when he was a boy knew that stealing was a sin in the sight of god. And yet he used to be tempted to steal apples from an orchard. He used to repent for the act used to weep and cry over it. And still could not be free from the wise for many years. How on Socratic doctrine are you to explain this fact? I hope the argument is clear. It is true that a good action is preceded by the knowledge of the good. But can we say that the knowledge of the good is necessarily followed by a good action? That's a question. So this is the criticism. It is true that a good action presupposes the knowledge of the good but knowledge of the good does not necessarily guarantee then it will follow in the good action.

Therefore Socratic doctrine is not correct. Because according to Socrates the knowledge of the good necessarily implies good action. So Socratic doctrine is contradictory of facts. Therefore the doctrine is not correct. Secondly it follows that a good deed is a result of the knowledge of what is good as well as the will to do what is apprehended to be good. It may therefore be argued that while Socrates recognizes the problem of knowledge he forgets to recognize the problem of volition the word volition? Volition means well. So these are the two criticisms of the Socratic doctrine. Now before we proceed further I want to see that these two criticisms are clear in your mind so we shall revise. It's a good form of an argument and for any philosophical discussion this grounding in a good argument is always useful. So let us repeat now. I will ask questions and you reply to me. What is the Socratic doctrine? State the Socratic doctrine? For any argumentation it is best to be sure as to what exactly is a statement? What exactly? Exactly is the argument? So since we are examining the doctrine of Socrates we must ask ourselves what is a Socratic doctrine? We can state? He's saying that if you know something to be good, he's saying that you should, he would. According to Socrates if you know what is good? You will necessarily do it. His doctrine is not virtue is knowledge. Virtue means good action. Good action he is grounded in knowledge. If you know what is good? You will necessarily do it. Now he gives two arguments to show that virtue is knowledge the first argument is given in Leches.

What is that argument? What is the difference between a coward and a courageous man? Can you tell me what is his argument? That the coward he does not know what to be afraid of? Yes… good. So the differences between the case of knowledge. In regard to knowledge. In the case of Charmeder is... what is the argument? The person knows what is good but they does not knows.

Knowledge is intellectual apprehension? No. In Charmander's argument is how does one become temperate? What is it that makes a man temperate? If he knows the mean between two extremes. Indulgence and asceticism these are the two extremes. If the mean between the two then you will be temperate. You will be sober, so it is the knowledge that makes you temperate. So in both the examples, it is the knowledge that leads you to do the right thing. That is the argument of Socrates. So we have now two steps what is the doctrine of Socrates? answer is, ‘virtue is knowledge’. What is the argument? Take the example of the courageous and the coward and the difference between the two, the difference between the two is in respect of knowledge. Similarly in the case of a temporary person if he is virtuous why is he virtuous because he knows the difference between the two extremes and knows the mean between the two. Because he knows the mean between the two extremes therefore he is temperate. These are his arguments.

Now what are the criticisms? Appeal to facts. If you appeal to the fact you find that even if somebody knows what is right? It does not guarantee that he will necessarily do the right thing. We can give hundreds of examples. The second criticism is therefore that Socrates fixes his mind only upon one aspect of ethical problem namely to know the right. But it does not deal with the problem of willing how do you will the right. So these are the two criticisms of this doctrine.

Now I will ask further questions to put this in a simple order. Who is prepared to give me the complete statement of the doctrine argument and criticisms? All in one's straight line. Anyone, anyone is prepared to give me the complete statements the doctrine the statement of the doctrine Socrates’s argument and criticisms. Yes try good.

The doctrine is telling the truth. Good. The statement of the doctrine is virtue is knowledge. Fine. gives the example of the brave man who knows what to be afraid of it is not Charmander. It is in Letchess, this argument comes in Letches. Then Charmender’s knowledge is temperate. Good, temperance knowledge of the mean between two extremes makes you temperate. That is argument knowledge of the mean between two extremes makes you temperate. That is the argument of the Charmend’s. Perhaps they don’t know the significance of the mean. You know the meaning of mean. You know the word mean temperature? You heard this world mean temperature? If the highest temperature of the day is 25 degrees Celsius and the lowest temperature of the day is 12 degrees Celsius. Then what is the mean you add 25 and 12 divide by two. These are the two extremes 25 degree Celsius is the highest temperature of the day. And the lowest is 12 degrees. Good. You add 15 and 12, 27, 37 now divide by 2 divide by 2 how much 18. 18.5 so mean temperature is 18.5. So how do you arrive at mean you avoid the two extremes arrive at the average. So according to Socrates if you can avoid too much sleep and no sleep then you arrive at the mean. You sleep as much as you really need, neither more nor less. So what is the meaning between two extremes? Then according to Socrates you become virtuous. You are therefore able to maintain a mean between the two. So that is the example he gives in Charmend’s. In Letches his argument continues. What is the difference he asked between a coward and a courageous man?

Was he afraid of the coward ……..

Doesn’t. So there again it is knowledge that makes the courageous man courageous. Now continue.., now what is criticism? That knowledge of the good is not always followed by a good action. Our first argument is appeal to facts. That when we appeal to facts we find now you can say what you are saying. That's right. Although it is true that good action presupposes the knowledge of the good is not vice versa. You know the meaning of vice versa no?

That's right. Not the other way around in technical terms it is said but conversion is not true if you convert it, it's not true. So that is one argument. Second argument is that Socrates takes into account the problem of knowledge. But not the problem of will. Right. Yes. Now I shall write down you just dictate to me your full arguments. Now your state Socratic doctrine. So Socratic structuring is virtual knowledge. Good Then, Arguments.

Knowledge is… it is from is temporal stage……

Knowledge of the mean between the two extremes makes a man. Good. Good. This is the argument in Chamender’s then there is the second argument.


No. Which dialogue? Letches. What is the argument? The great man knows what to be the failure and not the colony. Knowledge of what one should really be afraid of makes a man courageous. Right. This is the argument now comes criticism. What is the criticism? You can read the board from here. You can read? Yes. Now criticism. That knowledge of good is not always followed by good actions. Good. The knowledge of the good is not always followed by good actions. Then knowledge of the good is not always followed by good actions. This criticism is a criticism by appeal to facts. So you put your criticism from appeal to facts. As a matter of fact we find knowledge of the good does not necessarily produce a good action. Now comes the second criticism. Which follows from here what is the second criticism? You can read and tell me.

Good. Socrates ignores the problem of the will. Now you have made a good model now of how to expound a doctrine? How to support the doctrine? How to argue against it? In future whenever an argument is put before you in order to be clear you should take a piece of paper and write down in clear terms it's a very helpful exercise. To write down clearly gives to your thought a precession then you can argue in favour of it and argue against it in the best possible manner. Now I shall do this exercise once again. Now who wants to volunteer to repeat? You want to repeat? Tell him. If Socrates' doctrine and spiritual knowledge then he gives two arguments. Yes. The first one is Letches nature is that the knowledge of what one should really be afraid of is courage then there is Charmende’ is the knowledge of the name between which been next.

Excellent.. Then there is criticism. The first one is that knowledge of good is not always followed by good action. And the second one is to charge the problem of knowledge in another way. Excellent. Now on this side would anybody like to repeat this argument the whole thing? You can do it? Try. We shall do it again together.

Your virtues question knowledge …..** The other around virtues knowledge…

Courageous and the Coward both are afraid.

But more of them knows most ……

One should be afraid of the other one doesn't know. Good.

Second argument….

Good…. The knowledge of the mean makes you to encourage


Knowledge of the good…

Even then one can do wrong action. Its appeal to facts and second criticism is Socrates…..

About yes he does not he ignores the problem of will. Good.

Can you rapidly summarize this argument? No? You don't understand it. Where is the difficulty? From the beginning. Can you ask me questions so as to elicit from me? So that you're not is unloosed, from the beginning what is the problem you don't understand? Yes. You understand the problem that Socrates is trying to answer? No that is why? Good. Let us revise it for your sake. Socrates wants to define what virtue is his problem. He wants to give an idea as to when you call a virtue a virtue. So his answer is that virtue is virtue only when what is right or good. If you do an action which happens to be good by itself therefore you are not virtuous. It is only if what is good and you do it then only it is a virtuous action. So far clear, then he gives examples: why is a courageous man? Virtuous.

He knows. Correct that's right. Why is a temperate man? Virtuous. Temperate means what, one who does not indulge too much. When you eat too much it is gluttony. Right, when you don't eat at all you go hungry completely then you become weak both of them are wrong things. Gluttony is wrong. Not to take food is also wrong. To be temperate means to take food in the right measure that's called temperate. Clear you are neither abstaining yourself nor are you indulging in something. Clear so a temperate man is one who knows the meaning between one extreme and the other. So a temperate man is virtuous because he knows the meaning between two extremes. Clear right. Now the criticism. What is the first criticism? Followed by good action and second one is that the will he only emphasizes the aspect of knowledge but not of will is it clearer now slightly. It doesn't fix the center of the mind right.

Doesn't matter, we shall come back to it later on then you'll be able to put it in the centre of your mind, alright? So don't worry just now. You have understood at least that at least there is a definition of virtue which is given in terms of knowledge that arguments have been levelled that these arguments however do not prove this doctrine. Alright so far so good, we shall come back again to it. Now we go to the second level of understanding this doctrine. If Socrates was confined only to these statements which you have made so far, Socrates’ doctrine is defective. Now we bring some more facts, you come to section number two:

There are two particularities of Socratic virtue. First, according to Socrates virtue is not an art, it is not an outward accomplishment. Art can be used in a good way as well as in a bad way. A doctor can cure as well as murder a patient by his knife but for a doctor who is good as a man also there is only one way open and it is to cure. A virtuous man can and must do only what is good, he is too free to have alternatives.

These are very simple statements; we shall go forward and then come back to it again. Secondly there is according to Socrates unity of virtue. A virtuous person is one who has developed all the virtues and harmonised them in such a manner that they make a unity among themselves. Whatever action springs from such a person is always good. Corresponding to this unity of virtue there is the Socratic view of the unitary knowledge, the knowledge of the good which is not piece–meal or particular but is a universal, unified vision of the highest reality.

These are the two basic statements now these two paragraphs are basically very simple but I will give you an example of complex writing. This is a complex writing so I’ll have to simplify it: These are the two basic statements virtue is not an art and virtue is a unity. If Socrates had said nothing more than what he said in Laches and Charmides and then the criticism levelled against him would be quite correct. Now we go to define, Socrates and say but that is not all that Socrates has said. Socrates has said something much more. So before you criticise you take into account these two facts also. These two statements are: Virtue according to Socrates is not an art and virtue according to him is a unity.

Let us try to understand these two statements. You know what is a good manner? You are having a good manner if you sit properly, if you eat properly, if you behave properly. Now there is a difference between behaviour or manners and virtue. Do you distinguish between the two things? To be good–mannered is not necessarily to be virtuous. Tobean, can you say the difference between a good manner and virtue? There is a very nice sentence in Shakespeare’s drama which is called Hamlet. ‘One may smile and smile and yet be wicked.’ Now to smile is a good greeting, is a good manner and yet one can be inwardly quite mischievous, quite troublesome, quite wicked. It makes a distinction between a greeting between a good manner and the inner condition of the heart and mind. So when Socrates says ‘Virtue is not an art’ what he means is that virtue is not an outward manner, virtue is something seated deep into your being, and what is deep in your being manifest spontaneously what is only an outward behaviour may not be spontaneous, you may greet people even without meaning inwardly in our own heart but if you are really appreciative of the person whom you are greeting then you cannot but greet well. In the other case you may greet, you may not greet, it is not a spontaneous thing but when you are truly happy with somebody, you cannot but spontaneously greet well, it’s not an art; it’s a spontaneous expression.

This definition he made in the word in this context is more part of his then.. Quite Right.

It is an artifice but this is the word he has used ‘virtue is not an art’ you do not contrive in that sense, art as opposed to spontaneity. You don’t make an effort in the sense in which a good doctor may be a good surgeon. He has a skill but the same skill can be used also by the murderer, the same skill as far as the artistic skill is concerned. But if you are really a good man, a virtuous man you can use your skill only for curing the patient. So his first statement is 'virtue is not an art', virtue is a spontaneous expression.

Second, that 'virtue is a unity', if you are kind, you will also be forgiving, if you are forgiving, you will be also generous, if you are generous, you’ll be supportive, if you are supportive, you will promote the good of all. Each virtue is tied up with every other virtue, so unless you are virtuous totally, your virtue is incomplete. You are supposed to be virtuous only when you have cultivated all the virtues. You cannot be a good man of knowledge unless you are heroic at the same time, you cannot be heroic unless you are full of love at the same time, and you cannot be a person full of love unless you are able skilfully to protect the weak and the oppressed. All the four things should go together. If you are wise, you are courageous, if you are courageous, you are full of love, if you are full of love, you’ll be very skilful. Virtue is unity. When all the virtues are united then only each virtue becomes complete. Now this is Socratic doctrine. Not only 'virtue is knowledge' but 'virtue is not an art and virtue is a unity'. Now we proceed further.

Moreover we have to note the Socratic doctrine of freedom which comes close to the Hindu idea of moksha or liberation. Such liberation is obtained by freeing oneself from the bonds of spiritual blindness which is the cause of all evil. The state of liberation is the state of illumination spoken of as knowledge by Socrates. Both in Socrates and Plato there is a distinction between opinion and knowledge. Opinion is an apprehension of the particular that is partly real and partly unreal, whereas knowledge is the comprehension of the universal which is wholly real. It is the knowledge which according to Socrates liberates man from the bonds of ignorance and evil.

Now this is the other word which is very important ‘virtue is freedom’, freedom from what? Freedom from ignorance. This is similar to the Hindu idea of moksha. Moksha also means freedom; you become free from bonds, bondage, bondage to ignorance, bondage to evil because evil arises out of ignorance. According to Socrates when you have virtue one sign of virtuousness is that you should be feeling a sense of freedom in which evil has no hold on you. You don’t have to make an effort, effort is a sign that you are as yet in the grip of bondage. When you are really free, you are spontaneous. You automatically do the right thing. So virtue is freedom. So you take these three concepts together–virtue is not an art, virtue is unity, and virtue is freedom. Now there are two sentences in this paragraph which I read out to you which are not very easy.

Both in Socrates and Plato there is a distinction between opinion and knowledge. When you know a particular thing it is opinion, when you know the whole it is knowledge.

This is the difference he makes between opinion and knowledge. Any knowledge, this is a tree according to Plato this idea that this is a tree is an opinion. You take any particular object and try to know it, Socrates and Plato said that you will never know it wholly because it is a particular thing. You will know it wholly when you know the whole world then only you will know this particular thing truly. To know anything in particular, you can simply have an opinion but not the knowledge. So when Socrates says virtue is knowledge the answer is that it is that knowledge which unifies.

Virtue is knowledge means virtue is knowledge means that is knowledge that is the knowledge of the whole, of the totality. It is knowledge of the totality which according to Socrates liberates man from the bonds of ignorance and evil. This is the second sentence. It is the knowledge of the totality which liberates from ignorance and evil.

Now having said all this you now have a complete idea of the doctrine of Socrates. Unified virtue is unified knowledge. So the equation is when you say virtue is knowledge, it is an equation. Now after all this we come to the conclusion that unified virtue is equal to unified knowledge. Now all these sets are necessary to understand Socratic doctrine. Socratic doctrine is not a simple statement merely of a courageous man and a temperate man that is only an introduction. At the deeper level Socrates mentions all these important statements which are mentioned here. He has not ignored the problem of will that was our criticism in the first place that Socrates has ignored the problem of will. But if you understand these statements he has not ignored it. His statement is that if you know virtue as a whole, not this virtue or that virtue but unified virtue and if by knowledge you mean not knowledge of this or that, knowledge of this particular or that particular but knowledge as a whole then in that condition knowledge and will become one. Therefore when you know you can immediately act according to the knowledge.

The divergence between knowledge and will exists so long as knowledge is partial and so long as the virtue that you speak of is only a partial virtue. But if you speak of the totality of knowledge and the totality of virtue then there is a complete equation between virtue and knowledge. There is a complete identity of will and knowledge. This is what Socratic doctrine comes to. There is a very interesting chapter in The Life Divine, it’s called the Problem of Will, Problem of Life one full chapter is given on the problem of life and he points out that the problem of life in human beings is knowledge and Will are divorced from each other. There has been a division between knowledge and will and that is the problem of life. We are all in the state of division. As a result what we will is not backed by knowledge, what is known is not translated into will and that is why all the problems of life ultimately if you analyse, you take any problem of life, you will find that problem arises from the division between knowledge and will so Sri Aurobindo gives a concept of knowledge will.