European Humanities 2015

Sophie on Socrates (pp. 56-78)

Alberto Knox's Prompts for Thought:

  1. Wisest is she who knows she does not know...
  2. True insight comes from within. 
  3. He who knows what is right will do right.

Review: The Philosophy of Athens

Alberto Knox asserts that

Socrates represents a new era, geographically as well as temporally. He was the first of the great philosophers to be born in Athens.... From the time of Socrates Athens was the center of Greek culture. The natural philosophers had been concerned with discovering the most basic substance of the physical world.... In Athens the focus of philosophy turned to the individual and his place in society. (61-62)

In other words, the new philosophical project sought an answer to the question, "How should we lead our lives?"

When Socrates was put on trial for his life before the Jury of Five Hundred, he was accused of being a "Sophist", of arguing that humans were better than the gods, which he earnestly refuted. A "Sophist" quite literally means "a wise and learned person". Socrates called himself a "philosopher", a lover of wisdom, and upon this fine distinction rests all the difference.(62)

The Sophists were a group of itinerant teachers from throughout the Greek world who flocked to Athens when the city state adopted democracy as its form of government. (63) In a democracy decision making relies on debate and compromise rather than force. To be an effective leader, a politician must possess the ability to see an issue from many different perspectives. He must also possess the public speaking skills to persuade others to support his own position. The "Sophists" taught rhetoric, the art of persuasion, to the privileged children of Athens' richest families, and they made a very good living at it. (Hey, great idea!)

The Sophists believed that the natural philosophers had been wasting their time trying to answer impossible questions about the nature of the universe and its mysterious transformations. What is the basic substance of the universe? Is there life after death? Who knows? People should occupy their time with considering the individual's relationship with society.  For the Sophists there was no ultimate truth. They were skeptics. They argued that "Man was the measure of all things." It is people who decide what is good and bad, right and wrong. Basically, the person who makes the most persuasive case in an argument is "right". There are no absolute norms for morality. Everything is relative. Alberto Knox points to the example of nudity to illustrate this belief: is it un-natural (physis) to walk around naked? Or is the taboo on nudity a social norm (nomos)?


Socrates rejected this way of thinking as "moral relativism". He argued that all people possess a "divine voice", a conscience. He believed that this voice is innate: we are born with it, and by listening to it we can find our way to the truth. Notice that for Socrates the truth can only be found in our own minds: no one can give you the answers; you must find them on our own. And the process is not easy! For Socrates, the path to the truth requires the rigorous application of reason. (He was a rationalist-- like who?) He used a teaching method called the dialectic, which basically means that he asked his students questions which forced them to defend their opinions with reason rather than merely asserting them. The students quickly discovered that making a wise choice in a difficult moral situation demanded an arduous process.  We must discover the real motivations for our actions in a particular situation.

Socrates believed that people are all born with an innate understanding of truth (which is universal and eternal), but humans can lose track of their voice because we are overwhelmed by our fears and desires. He believed that people just get lost. We let the urges of our bodies rather than our intelligence choose for us in difficult moral situations. We let other people make decisions for us because we are afraid of being rejected by them. Rediscovering the truth requires painful soul searching. Our conscience, what Socrates called his 'inner voice', reminds us when we are on the verge of doing something which is wrong, but doing the right thing? That is harder to figure out. When the Delphic Oracle called Socrates "the wisest man alive", he responded incredulously. How could he who knew so little about wisdom be wise? But when he thought about it, he had to agree because most of the 'wise people' whom he had met really weren't so smart. They just thought they were. Only he knew how little wisdom he or any other human possesses.

A philosopher is a thinker who recognizes how little he truly understands about the world, even about why we make the choices that we make every day. Socrates was the first true philosopher: he instilled in his students not only the desire to pursue truth but also the humility to appreciate the difficulty of the task. He also gave them the tool to find their way: reason. And he gave them hope. He believed that the application of reason to our decision making process can help us discover the truth, and once we do, he believed that we cannot help but do the right thing.

Sophie on Socrates Quiz Questions:

  1. What is the difference between a sophist and a philosopher?
  2. Define rhetoric:
  3. Why did the Sophists believe that a politician needs to master rhetoric? (What is an even more important skill?)
  4. Define skepticism (as a philosophical term):
  5. Define moral relativism (Why are lawyers accused of this flaw?)
  6. Define innate knowledge (Why are we on our own in the pursuit of truth?)
  7. Define rationalism (as a philosophical term): (What path do the other guys pursue?)
  8. Define dialectic: (How many of your teachers use this technique? How many rely on "Sprago Babble"?)
  9. What is the flaw in Socrates' belief that people who understand truth can do no wrong?
  10. Is nudity un-natural or immodest?