Socrates- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter- (11)

Today we move on to a discussion of Socrates. Russell only focuses on him briefly because of the fact that we have so much historical uncertainty regarding him. This article will mostly focus on what we know of him through Plato and Xenophon. One interesting thing about the historicity of Socrates is that we can say that we either know very little about him or quite a lot. This is because there is much source material referencing him, but it’s readily questionable regarding how trustworthy this material is. We do know for certain that he died in 399 BCE aged roughly 70.

Xenophon was a follower of Socrates, but he was famously unintelligent, and was mocked for this. Because of his unintelligence, his accounts of Socrates’ ideas are oversimplified. Russell says that Xenophon had to reduce Socrates’ ideas down to simple language in order to comprehend them, and in doing so, a lot gets lost in translation. One thing that Xenophon does get down well is his depiction of the nature of Socrates’ philosophy through his idiosyncratic line of inquiry. This ‘Socratic Dialectic’, we will discuss later. One further reason to cast doubts over Xenophon’s depictions of Socrates is that they are too perfect. On Xenophon’s account of Socrates, he would never have been executed.

Plato’s writings were all dialogues, and almost all featured Socrates as the protagonist. We know that Plato’s earlier dialogues were more focused on Historically accurate depictions of Socrates, but further through his works, it is called into question how much Plato depicts the real Socrates, and how much he uses the figure of Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. Russell uses the Platonic depictions of Socrates as his source material.

Russell asserts that the Apology was Plato’s most historically accurate depiction of Socrates. It presents us with the trial of Socrates, followed by a monologue Socrates gives his audience in which he makes peace with his death. Plato was at the trial, and his friend Crito was at the execution.

He was put on trial for the impiety of worshiping different Gods from those of the citizens of Athens, and of corrupting the youth by teaching them to think critically, therefore doubting their Gods. He defends himself by stating that he in fact doesn’t follow any Gods, which only makes things worse for him. This is difficult because in other accounts Socrates discusses his relationship with God(s). He further defends himself by saying that he is not a man of science because he is interested in abstract metaphysical questions (such as the true natures of courage, honour, and virtue).

One further defence he makes is to claim that he is not a teacher at all, merely that he is interested in discovering the truth. That he tells people what he is thinking, he says, is beside the point. He, unlike the Sophists, has never charged for his wisdom, nor has he ever offered it. He further adds that the accusation that he has corrupted the youth with his profane ideas is bizarre and socially dangerous because the people accusing him are the younger generation he has supposedly corrupted. If, he says, they are corrupted, they are incapable of holding a higher ground against him.

Ultimately, Socrates says that philosophy is what he is dedicated to, and philosophy is bigger and more important than any living person, and certainly bigger than the Athenian courts, so he will choose death over the option of changing his views. He was offered the chance to choose his own punishment, but chose one so lenient they took it to be an insult and sentenced him to death by drinking Hemlock as punishment for his impiety and disrespect. It is believed that this was a deliberate move on his part.

After his sentence, he gave a final speech, saying that the acknowledgment of immanent death inspires thought in one which should surface. He warns the state that his death will become a totem to others, producing many more thinkers like him. He further asserts that death in no punishment for him whatsoever. If there is no afterlife, he won’t suffer, and if there is, he believes he has lived a righteous life so will not be punished. In the afterlife, he said, he looked forwards to an eternity of philosophical questioning.  In Plato’s dialogue the Phaedo, he explains his ideas of the immortality of the soul in some depth.

The Oracle of Delphi proclaimed Socrates to be the wisest person alive. He found this hard to believe, but feared the impiety of doubting the Oracle. He went on a journey to find somebody wiser than he, but felt he could not find anyone. In doing so, he was short on tact, and rubbed many people the wrong way. He was so wise, he said, because he was comfortable with admitting that he could be certain in none of his beliefs.

Socrates speaks about his religious beliefs differently, often agnostically, sometimes theistically, and sometimes atheistically. He does discuss his devotion to God(s), often in the same breath as casting strong doubts. One way of resolving this seemingly conflicting view is in the fact that Socrates believed he had a relationship with a daemon, similar to a guardian angel. He discusses it as a voice in his head, and occasionally as a presence.

Sometimes his musings would send him into cataleptic trances. These were also often the times when he was talking with his daemon. In the Symposium, he is late to dinner because he had slipped into a trance for many hours. Sometimes these trances would go on for days.

He anticipated the thoughts of the Stoic philosophers in his discussions of virtues, which he believed to be key to living a fulfilling life. He also anticipated the Cynics in how far he rejected the material world as a source of happiness. Socrates was famously considered ugly, and this was, in his eyes, a blessing. It allowed him to detach himself from the trappings of beauty and vanity, keeping his mind focused on the philosophic life.

His philosophy connected virtues with knowledge, showing that someone with a better understanding of what the virtues of life are, lives a more ethical life. A pure heart, he said, is least likely found in the body of an ignorant person. Plato’s earlier dialogues (Charmides, Lysis, Laches, Meno, as a few examples) showed examples of his enquiries into different virtues. They often don’t provide any conclusions, but they are interesting to read, provide veritable food for thought, and lay the grounds for conducive lines of enquiry for the reader.

The ‘Socratic Dialectic’ was the mode in which Socrates conducted his philosophy. It entailed him asking an interlocutor a series of questions to try and arrive at a solid conclusion. Whatever his interlocutor replied with, he would usually cast doubts, leading to a more refined conclusion. In this way, Socrates compared himself to a midwife, proclaiming that he performs the delivery of wisdom. The Socratic Dialectic works best with lines of enquiry in which his interlocutor already has knowledge. In Justice, for example, his interlocutor will have notions of right and wrong, so a verbal dialectic will refine these ideas comfortably.

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4 thoughts on “Socrates- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter- (11)

  1. In his final remarks, Socrates indicates that he (seems to) believe in an afterlife for the individual soul. There could be some Asiatic, even Vedic, influence here.


  2. The thrift edition I have is by Dover Publications and I read it some years back. So, I am relying on that edition for what Socrates is alleged to have remarked.

    Now, as to the possible Asiatic or even Vedic (Indian) influence in his thinking, Radhakrishnan’s tome, Eastern Religions and Western Thought (Oxford University Press), makes the case that Vedic philosophy and religion did influence cultures to the West of India even in the centuries before Christ (Christian era). The Persians did have interaction with India and they may have helped to spread Indian ideas to Greece and the Mediterranean in the 5th century B.C. Diffusion of ideas did occur in the ancient world as there was contact between cultures (military conflicts, commerce/trade). It is interesting. But, belief in an afterlife (in various forms) after bodily death is found in many cultures and societies throughout history and pre-history.


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