"It (the true soul) is the concealed Witness and Control, the hidden Guide, the Daemon of Socrates, the inner light or inner voice of the mystic."
– Sri Aurobindo
One of the greatest of the Greeks was Socrates who is known as the father of Philosophy. His early life is not much known but he must have lived a disciplined life right from early boyhood. We are told that he had a great power of endurance and could bear extreme cold and heat. He was a sturdy soldier and had shown remarkable skill and valour in several battles.
It is, however, said that he was very ugly; he had a snub nose and a considerable belly. He was always dressed in shabby old clothes and went barefoot everywhere.
But he was a profound thinker and philosopher. Even when he went to serve in the Army, he used
to spend his time in thinking. One morning, while he was on military service, he was thinking about something. He thought and thought over some problem which he could not solve. He would not give up and continued thinking from early dawn until noon ─ he stood fixed in thought; at noon when attention was drawn to him all people began to wonder at him. At last, after supper some people brought out their mats and slept in the open air to watch him and see whether he would stand all night. There he stood until the following morning; and with the return of light he offered a prayer to the sun, and went his way.
At another time, Socrates and his friend Aristodemus went together to a banquet, but on the way Socrates went into a trance and dropped behind. When Aristodemus arrived at the feast, he was asked by the host: “What have you done with Socrates?” Aristodemus was astonished to find that Socrates was not with him; in those days rich people used to have slaves; so a slave was sent to look for him. The slave returned and said: “There he is fixed, and when I called him he would not stir. Those who know him well
explain that he has a way of stopping anywhere and losing himself without any reason”. Socrates came only when the feast was half over.
Socrates was a great seeker of truth and he had developed a method of enquiry which has come to be known as the Socratic Method. This method, which is also called dialectic, consists of arriving at conclusions by question and answer. Socrates used to begin an enquiry by saying that he knew nothing or very little about the subject of enquiry. Then he would invite certain notions or definitions of the subject under enquiry; this would be followed by presenting some difficulties in accepting those notions or definitions; he would then suggest some modifications or present some new hypothesis followed by fresh discussions. Quite often the discussions would end in stimulating questions instead of arriving at conclusions. But when he would arrive at any conclusions, it would be only after examining the subject freely and from as many points of view as possible.
This method seems to have been practised by Zeno, the disciple of Parmenides. For if we read
Plato's dialogue, Parmenides, we find that Zeno uses the same kind of dialectic as Socrates uses elsewhere in other dialogues of Plato. But there is no doubt that Socrates developed this method and, through Plato it has determined to a very large extent the form of subsequent philosophy.
There is a fundamental distinction between science and philosophy; science seeks facts and the laws governing them, while philosophy attempts to interpret and evaluate the facts from the point of view of the whole. Evidently, the Socratic Method is not the scientific method; for it presupposes the prior existence of notions or definitions about the subject under inquiry; it does not arrive at new facts. What the method attempts to do is to examine the given facts and notions from various points of view, to clarify them and to give them a coherent form. This is the philosophical method. For although in philosophy, nothing is to be taken for granted, it cannot and does not originate in a vacuum; there must already be some glimpse of light in the human mind which would initiate philosophical reflection. This glimpse may be either in the form of a personal experience or in the form of
a Word or, to use the Indian terminology, sruti, heard from the lips of the man of experience or realization. In Indian philosophy, the authority given to sruti is higher than that given to any other mode of knowledge except that of direct experience or realization. In many ways, therefore, the Socratic Method and the Indian philosophical method are similar.
Socrates used to go to market places and ask questions to the passers-by. But his questions were so deep that many young people found in him a great teacher. He had therefore gathered round him a band of young people who used to go to him for learning. One of these young men was Plato, his chief disciple and one of the greatest philosophers of the world.
Socrates had a friend. Once he went to the oracle of Delphi whom he asked if there were any one wiser than Socrates. The oracle said that there was none. On hearing this, he was very pleased and told Socrates what the oracle had spoken to him. But when Socrates heard this he was greatly puzzled. He thought that he knew nothing and yet he could not believe that the god
Apollo could be wrong. He therefore went about among those people who were famous for their wisdom. First he went to a politician who was thought wise by many and regarded himself as still wiser. But Socrates found out that he had no wisdom. He then went to poets and asked them to explain their poems. But they could not. Then he knew that poets do not write by wisdom but only by genius and inspiration. Then he went to the artisans, but found that they too were not wise. Finally he concluded: “God alone is wise; the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing. I am called the wisest among men; but that is not because I have wisdom. Others too have no wisdom and yet think they have it, whereas I have no wisdom but know that I do not have it. This is the truth of the oracle.”
But during this inquiry, Socrates showed the people whom he interviewed their ignorance and this embittered many. Already many elderly philosophers and politicians of Athens were afraid of the great influence that Socrates wielded over the young people. They therefore brought a charge against him. They said: “Socrates is an evil-doer and a curious person,
searching into things under the earth and above the heaven; and making the worse appear the better, and teaching all this to others”. They held that Socrates was guilty of not worshipping the gods of the State and inventing new gods. They further said that he was guilty of corrupting the young by teaching them wrong things.
In his dialogue, Apology, Plato has described the trial of Socrates. Socrates defended himself. But his accusers were not open to reason. He was therefore sentenced to death. In those times, it was a custom that the wife and children of the accused would come before the court; they would cry and beg of the judges to lessen the punishment. But Socrates was not afraid of death and he was sure within himself that he was not guilty. He therefore prevented his wife and children from coming to the court for pleading. On the contrary, he said, “Those of us who think that death is an evil are in error... for death is either a dreamless sleep or the soul migrates to another world. In the next world, I will converse with Hesiod and Homer; and in that world they do not put men to death for asking questions”.
And then he added: “The hour of departure has come, and we go our ways ─ I to die and you to live. Which is better God alone knows.”
Socrates was cheerful up to the last minute of his life. When he was given hemlock to drink, he took it without any complaint or sorrow. Within a few minutes, his limbs became cold and thus ended the great life of Socrates.
Among the many views of Socrates, his doctrine of ‘Virtue is Knowledge’ is perhaps the most important. This doctrine can be interpreted in two ways, according as we attach different meanings to the words ‘Virtue’ and ‘Knowledge’. We shall deal with them one after the other.
Traditionally, it is held that the ethical problem is a double one first, the problem of knowing what is right and, second, the problem of doing what is known to be right. But, according to the first interpretation, Socrates identifies Knowledge, the first problem, with Virtue, the second problem. According to Socrates, it is maintained, knowing and doing cannot be separated. If a person knows a thing to be right, he cannot
but do it. Or, in other words, person cannot voluntarily do wrong.
Knowledge, on this view, means the knowledge of what is good and the knowledge is the intellectual apprehension. And by virtue is meant any good deed of an agent who has apprehended it to be good.
The plausibility of this interpretation depends upon the two dialogues Charmides and Laches, in which the Socratic doctrine is expounded to a certain extent. In Laches, Socrates says in effect that it is not the case that the brave man is never afraid, but in spite of his fear he advances, rushes the slopes and captures enemy's weapons. Why does he? Because he is afraid of certain things even more than of the weapons ─ such things as the doing of what is disgraceful, of feeling shame, of the reputation for cowardice, of betraying one's comrades. What then is the difference between a coward and a brave man? The difference is that while the brave man knows what is really to be afraid of, the coward does not. Hence the knowledge of the right makes the former courageous.
The argument in Charmides is that it is the knowledge of the mean between extreme indulgence and extreme asceticism that makes a man temperate or sober. These two dialogues give a clue, it is said, as to what meaning is attached by Socrates to the word ‘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. But at a deeper level, Socrates made a distinction between opinion and knowledge, to which we shall turn.
Opinion and Knowledge: Opinion is an apprehension of the particular, which 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.
What in effect have we arrived at? Virtue is not this virtue or that virtue and knowledge is not the
apprehension of a particular good. What Socrates seems to be stating is that there is a state of consciousness where there is totality of Knowledge which manifests spontaneously in the forms of virtuous actions. Indeed this state does not belong to the moral plane; for in the moral plane we cannot speak of having attained to the totality of Knowledge and unity of virtues. There the state is always contrasted with WHAT OUGHT TO BE. This contrast ceases when the Summum Bonum or the Highest Good is attained in the state of spiritual illumination. Indeed even in the spiritual field, there are degrees and progression; but the essential knowledge is present at every stage which prevents evil in Will. With reference to the spiritual man therefore we can say: Virtue is Knowledge.
We have to remember that although Socrates initiated the rational movement in Western Philosophy through his method of dialectic, he was essentially a mystic. As we saw, he used to go into a state of trance quite frequently, and he is reported to have been guided by his Daemon, the inner soul, light and guide. To such a man, indeed, no given action is good unless it is a
manifestation of the integrating experience which is also the state of true knowledge. In the Republic of Plato, we read the myth of the den, where the way by which the Highest Good is realized is described. What we get there is the symbolic description of spiritual experience. That realization is not intellectual apprehension, but that in which cognition, affection and conation are fused together and transcended. It is, then, we may conclude, the knowledge obtained on this transcendental level that is referred to by Socrates in his doctrine ‘Virtue is Knowledge’.
One of the important consequences of the Socratic Method was to arrive at definitions. What therefore the Socratic doctrine states is the definition of Virtue; it does not enunciate the principle of the development of virtue. It is not an answer to the question: “How to be good?” It is rather an answer to the question: ‘What is the definition of Good?’ If therefore we argue against the doctrine by appeal to the facts of moral struggle in which there is a constant division between what one knows to be good and what one does, that would be irrelevant. For
what Socrates seems to have been concerned with was to give a definition of Virtue, not a guiding principle of moral development.