Socrates (469–399 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 02, 2024, from

8. Socrates in the history of philosophy

Looking back on the early history of philosophy, later philosophers traced to Socrates a major turn in its development. As Cicero puts it: ‘Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens… and compel it to ask questions about life and morality’ (Tusculan Disputations V 10–11). Previously it had been concerned with the origins and nature of the physical world and the explanation of celestial and other natural phenomena. Modern scholarship follows the ancients’ lead in referring standardly to philosophers before Socrates collectively as ‘Presocratics’ (see Presocratic philosophy). This includes Democritus, in fact a slightly younger contemporary of Socrates; Cicero’s verdict needs adjustment, in that Democritus, independently of Socrates, also investigated questions about ethics and morality. With the sole exception of Epicureanism, which developed separately out of Democritean origins, all the major movements of Greek philosophy after Socrates had roots in his teaching and example. This obviously applies to Plato, whose philosophical development began with a thorough reworking and assimilation of Socratic moral inquiry, and through him to Aristotle and his fellow members of Plato’s Academy, Speusippus and Xenocrates and others, as well as to later Platonists. Among Socrates’ inner circle were also Aristippus of Cyrene, who founded the hedonist Cyrenaic school (see Aristippus the Elder; Cyrenaics), and Antisthenes, an older rival of Plato’s and major teacher in Athens of philosophical dialectic. Both of these figure in Xenophon’s Memorabilia (Antisthenes also in his Symposium), where they are vividly characterized in conversation with Socrates. Another Socratic, Euclides, founded the Megarian school (see Megarian school). These ‘Socratic schools’ developed different themes already prominent in Socrates’ own investigations, and competed in the claim to be his true philosophical heirs (see Socratic schools; Dialectical School).

In the third to first centuries bc, both the Stoics and their rivals the Academic sceptics claimed to be carrying forward the Socratic tradition. In both cases this was based upon a reading of Plato’s dialogues and perhaps other eye-witness reconstructions of Socrates’ philosophy. The Academic Arcesilaus interpreted the Platonic Socrates as a sceptical inquirer, avidly searching but never satisfied that the truth on any disputed question had been finally uncovered. He could point to much about Plato’s Socrates in support: his modest but firm denial that he possessed any knowledge, and his constant practice of inquiring into the truth by examining others’ opinions on the basis of ideas which they themselves accepted, without formally committing himself to these ideas even when he was the one to first suggest them. Arcesilaus, however, applied his sceptical Socratic dialectic to more than the questions of ethics and human life about which Socrates himself had argued, making it cover the whole range of philosophical topics being investigated in his day. The Stoics read the dialogues (especially the Euthydemus and Protagoras) quite differently. They found Socrates espousing a complete doctrine of ethics and the psychology of human action. He posed his questions on the basis of this doctrine, leaving the respondent (and the reader) to recover for themselves the philosophical considerations underlying it. They thus emphasized the conceptions of virtue as knowledge, of virtue as unified in wisdom, and of voluntary action as motivated always by an agent’s beliefs about what is best to do, that emerged through Socrates’ examination of Protagoras (see §§6–7). They thought these constituted a positive, Socratic moral philosophy, and in their own moral theory they set out to revive and strengthen it with systematic arguments and with added metaphysical and physical speculations of their own. Later Stoics regularly referred to Socrates as a genuine wise man or ‘sage’, perhaps the only one who ever lived. He had brought to final, systematic perfection his knowledge, along Stoic lines, of what is good and bad for human beings, and what is not, and therefore possessed all the virtues and no vices, and lived unwaveringly the best, happy life, free from emotion and all other errors about human life. It is a tribute to the complexity and enigmatic character of Socrates that he could stand simultaneously as a paragon both of sceptical, non-committal inquiry and life led on that uncommitted basis, and of dogmatic knowledge of the final truth about all things human.

The figure of Socrates has continued to fascinate and to inspire ever-new interpretations of his innermost meaning. For Montaigne, he proved that human beings can convincingly and attractively order their own lives from their own resources of mind, without direction from God or religion or tradition. In the nineteenth century Kierkegaard and Nietzsche offered extensive interpretations of him, both heavily dependent upon Hegel’s absolute-idealist analysis. Hegel interpreted Socrates as a quintessentially negative thinker, aiming at making people vacillate in their superficial moral beliefs and endorse none of them wholeheartedly, thus hinting that the truth, although universal and objective, lies deep within the freedom of their own subjectivity. For Kierkegaard he represents, on the contrary, the possibility of living wholeheartedly by occupying an unarticulated position somehow beyond the negative rejection but expressed through it: ‘infinite absolute negativity’. In Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy) Nietzsche treats Socrates principally as having poisoned the ‘tragic’ attitude that made possible the great achievements of classical culture, by insisting that life should be grounded in rational understanding and justified by ‘knowledge’; but his fascinated regard for Socrates led him to return to him repeatedly in his writings. Socrates was paradigmatically a philosopher whose thought, however taken up with logic and abstract argument, is inseparable from the search for self-understanding and from a deeply felt attachment to the concerns of human life. His power to fascinate and inspire is surely not exhausted.

Citing this article:
Cooper, John M.. Socrates in the history of philosophy. 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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