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Plato among his students, Pompeian mosaic, National Museum, Naples

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Appendix I

A Synoptic Essay on Socrates

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 duty, he was thinking about something. He thought and thought over some problem, which he could not solve. He did not give up and continued thinking from early dawn until noon he stood fixed in thought; at noon when attention was drawn to him,

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all the 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 up 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 explained that he has a way of stopping anywhere and losing himself without any reason." Socrates came 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 the 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 his 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 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 of Elea a disciple of Parmenides. For, if we read Plato's dialogue parmenides, we find that Zeno uses the same kind of dialectic Socrates. But there is no doubt that Socrates developed t this

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the form of subsequent philosophy        

There is a fundamental difference 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 enquiry; 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 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 realisation. In many ways, therefore, the Socratic method and the Indian philosophical method are similar.

Socrates used to go to the market and ask questions to the passer-bys. But his questions were so deep that many young people found in him a great teacher. He had, therefore, gathered around 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 whose name was Alcibiades. Once he went to the oracle of Delphi, whom he asked if there was any one wiser than Socrates. The oracle said that there was none. On hearing this, Alcibiades 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 to be wise by many and regarded himself

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wiser-still. 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 man 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 who have no wisdom know that I do not have it. This is the truth of the oracle."

But during this enquiry, 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 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 the custom that the wife and children of the accused would come to the court, they would 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 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

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go our way 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.

Socratic doctrine: "Virtue is Knowledge"1

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 word 'Virtue' and 'Knowledge'. We shall deal with them one after the other.


Traditionally, it is held that the ethical problem is double 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, a person cannot voluntarily do wrong.

Knowledge, in 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. InLaches, Socrates says in effect that it is not the case that the brave man is never afraid, but inspite of fear he advances, rushes the slopes and captures the enemy's weapons. Why does he? Because he is afraid of certain things even more than of the weapons such

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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 it is that 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.

   The Socratic doctrine thus interpreted is liable to obvious objection. First, the doctrine can be disproved 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. St. Augustine, when he was a boy, knew that stealing was a sin in the sight of God and yet he used 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 vice for many years. How, on the Socratic doctrine, are we to explain this fact?

 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.

But it may be held that the traditional interpretation of the

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doctrine does not do full justice to it. The account of virtue given by Socrates and the stress put upon the state of freedom in doing a good action are not considered fully. Moreover, if we consider the philosophy of Socrates as a whole, we may come to doubt whether the connotation of the word 'knowledge' should be restricted to mere intellectual apprehension.

We are thus led to a different approach to the doctrine.


There are two peculiarities of the 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 with 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.

Secondly, there is, according to Socrates, unity of virtue. A virtuous person is one who has developed all the virtues and harmonized 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 piecemeal or particular but a universal and unified vision of the Highest Reality. '

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

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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 a totality of Knowledge, which manifests spontaneously in the forms of various 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, which is a unity of virtues. There the state of IS 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 there 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 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 true knowledge. In the Republic of Plato, when we read the myth of the den,where Plato describes the way by which the Highest Good is realized, what we get is the symbolic description of spiritual experience. That realization is not intellectual apprehension, but that in which cognition,affection3 and conationare fused together and transcended. It is, then, we may conclude, that knowledge obtained on this transcendental level that is referred to by Socrates in his doctrine 'Virtue is Knowledge'.

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Notes and References

  1. Myth of the den: It is a part of the famous dialogue The Republic by Plato. In this allegory, he brings to light the difference between what men think of as real, but, which is, in fact, an illusion and that, which is the real Reality. In this he likens human beings as prisoners who have been tied up in a cave since their childhood in such a manner that they cannot even move their head. There is a fire behind them, which they cannot see. There are puppeteers who use objects to cast shadows on the wall of the cave in front of the prisoners, which they believe to be real. And then, one of them is freed and forced to turn around and see that the shadows were an illusion and the real fire is behind him. He is then, forced to leave the cave and go outside. He shrinks at first, for the daylight is too much for him, and instead, he looks only at shadows cast by objects and men. He then looks at the reflection of things in water, then he ventures to look at the objects themselves. Subsequently, he looks at the stars and moon at night when the light of the sun is absent. At last, he looks at the sun and finds that the sun is the source of everything the seasons, day and night, and in a sense, of everything; even that which the prisoners see in the cave. He then goes back in the cave, for he wants to share his knowledge with his fellow men. At first when he enters the cave, he finds it difficult to see because he is no more used to the darkness. In fact he is less adept at looking at things in the cave as compared to his fellow men who think that his visit to the outside world has been detrimental to his sight and understanding. When he, therefore, tries to tell them about the. real reality, they do not believe him, and think that he is wrong. And if he were to ask them to leave the cave and come out, they would probably kill him. He likens the freed man to a philosopher, who has come to know the difference between illusion and real Reality.

  2. Cognition: the psychological operation of the human understanding, by which objects are perceived and cognised.

  3. Affection; the operation of the experience that is incited by feeling.

  4. Conation: the operation of human consciousness, which is marked by volition or will. Conation, therefore, is what we normally call action.

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478-431 BC — Age of Athenian domination in Greece.
469 BC — Birth of Socrates at Athens.
431-404 BC

— Peloponnesian war (between Greek cities, but mostly Athens and Sparta). Socrates earns a good reputation as a soldier in several battles.

427BC — Birth of Plato.
405 BC

— As a member of the ruling "Council of 500", Socrates shows great courage in opposing alone the condemnation to death of ten generals by a collective verdict, which he considered unconstitutional.

404 BC

— The Oligarchs seize power and establish a "Council of thirty". Socrates refuses to collaborate to the execution of unjust orders from the Oligarchs.

403 BC — Restoration of democracy at Athens.
399 BC

— Socrates is judged and condemned. He refuses a possibility of escape and is executed.

347 BC — Death of Plato.


Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization: part II, The Life of Greece. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966

Hare, R.M. Plato. Oxford University Press, 1982.

Plato, The Last Days of Socrates. Translated by Hugh Tredennick. Penguin Books, 1961.

Russell, Bertrand.A History of Western Philosophy. London:

Unwin Paperbacks, 1979.

Taylor, A. E. Socrates. 1933

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