Socrates (469–399 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 24, 2024, from

4. Elenchus and moral progress

The topics Socrates discussed were always ethical, and never included questions of physical theory or metaphysics or other branches of philosophical study. Moreover, he always conducted his discussions not as theoretical inquiries but as profoundly personal moral tests. Questioner and interlocutor were equally putting their ways of life to what Socrates thought was the most important test of all – their capacity to stand up to scrutiny in rational argument about how one ought to live. In speaking about human life, he wanted his respondents to indicate what they truly believed, and as questioner he was prepared to do the same, at least at crucial junctures. Those beliefs were assumed to express not theoretical ideas, but the very ones on which they themselves were conducting their lives. In losing an argument with Socrates you did not merely show yourself logically or argumentatively deficient, but also put into question the very basis on which you were living. Your way of life might ultimately prove defensible, but if you cannot now defend it successfully, you are not leading it with any such justification. In that case, according to Socrates’ views, your way of life is morally deficient. Thus if Menexenus, Lysis and Socrates profess to value friendship among the most important things in life and profess to be one another’s friends, but cannot satisfactorily explain under pressure of elenctic investigation what a friend is, that casts serious doubt on the quality of any ‘friendship’ they might form (Plato, Lysis 212a, 223b). Moral consistency and personal integrity, and not mere delight in argument and logical thought, should therefore lead you to repeated elenctic examination of your views, in an effort to render them coherent and at the same time defensible on all sides through appeal to plausible arguments. Or, if some of your views have been shown false, by conflicting with extremely plausible general principles, it behoves you to drop them – and so to cease living in a way that depends upon accepting them. In this way, philosophical inquiry via the elenchus is fundamentally a personal moral quest. It is a quest not just to understand adequately the basis on which one is actually living, and the personal and moral commitments that this contains. It is also a quest to change the way one lives as the results of argument show one ought to, so that, at the logical limit of inquiry, one’s way of life would be completely vindicated. Accordingly, Socrates in Plato’s dialogues regularly insists on the individual and personal character of his discussions. He wants to hear the views of the one person with whom he is speaking. He dismisses as of no interest what outsiders or most people may think – provided that is not what his discussant is personally convinced is true. The views of ‘the many’ may well not rest on thought or argument at all. Socrates insists that his discussant shoulder the responsibility to explain and defend rationally the views he holds, and follow the argument – reason – wherever it may lead.

We learn a good deal about Socrates’ own principles from both Plato and Xenophon. Those were ones that had stood up well over a lifetime of frequent elenctic discussions and had, as he thought, a wealth of plausible arguments in their favour. Foremost is his conviction that the virtues – self-control, courage, justice, piety, wisdom and related qualities of mind and soul – are essential if anyone is to lead a good and happy life. They are good in themselves for a human being, and they guarantee a happy life, eudaimonia – something that he thought all human beings always wanted, and wanted more than anything else. The virtues belong to the soul – they are the condition of a soul that has been properly cared for and brought to its best state. The soul is vastly more important for happiness than are health and strength of the body or social and political power, wealth and other external circumstances of life; the goods of the soul, and pre-eminently the virtues, are worth far more than any quantity of bodily or external goods. Socrates seems to have thought these other goods are truly good, but they only do people good, and thereby contribute to their happiness, under the condition that they are chosen and used in accordance with virtues indwelling in their souls (see Plato, Apology 30b, Euthydemus 280d–282d, Meno 87d–89a).

More specific principles followed. Doing injustice is worse for oneself than being subjected to it (Gorgias 469c–522e): by acting unjustly you make your soul worse, and that affects for the worse the whole of your life, whereas one who treats you unjustly at most harms your body or your possessions but leaves your soul unaffected. On the same ground Socrates firmly rejected the deeply entrenched Greek precept to aid one’s friends and harm one’s enemies, and the accompanying principle of retaliation, which he equated with returning wrongs for wrongs done to oneself and one’s friends (Crito 49a–d). Socrates’ daily life gave witness to his principles. He was poor, shabbily dressed and unshod, and made do with whatever ordinary food came his way: such things matter little. Wealth, finery and delicacies for the palate are not worth panting after and exerting oneself to enjoy. However, Socrates was fully capable of relishing both refined and plain enjoyments as occasion warranted (see §7).

Citing this article:
Cooper, John M.. Elenchus and moral progress. Socrates (469–399 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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