Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

What Did Socrates Teach and to Whom Did He Teach It?

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

What Did Socrates Teach and to Whom Did He Teach It?

Article excerpt


A LARGE NUMBER OF PEOPLE, ancient and modern alike, have always found in Socrates what seemed to them a suspicious, if not actually repugnant, aspect. This aspect, to put the point first in crude terms, is his devotion to philosophy, which presupposes an apparently unshakable faith in reason, in the power of understanding to secure goodness, and in the power of goodness to provide us with happiness.

But philosophy, Plato has Callicles say in the Gorgias, emasculates even those who may possess great talents: it makes them avoid public life, where serious matters are decided and real reputations are established; instead, philosophers "live out their lives skulking in some corner whispering with three or four boys, never saying anything grand, great or important."(1) Seen from the outside, this is not a totally inaccurate description of the picture which Socrates' life, as Plato depicts it in his dialogues, may have presented to many of his contemporaries.

For Nietzsche, whose repugnance for Socrates was indissolubly mixed with admiration, Socrates' trust in reason was one of his most despicable features. Socrates, Nietzsche sneered early on in his writings, "is the prototype of the theoretical optimist who, with his faith that the nature of things can be fathomed, ascribes to knowledge and insight the power of a panacea, while understanding error as the evil par excellence."(2) The sneer only becomes more pronounced in the later works:

One chooses dialectic only when one has no other means. One knows that one arouses mistrust with it, that it is not very persuasive. Nothing is easier to erase than a dialectical effect: the experience of every meeting at which there are speeches proves this. It can only be self-defense for those who no longer have other weapons.(3)

Nietzsche's remark about dialectic's inability to convince is worth thinking about further, and we shall return to it. For the moment, I am concerned to specify exactly what in Socrates has provoked such criticism, both traditional and contemporary.(4) As a first approximation, we may say that this is the element in his philosophy and in his personality that has come to be known as his intellectualism.

Intellectualism involves a number of features. First, it seems to identify virtue with knowledge and therefore appears to consider the affective side of our nature irrelevant to our virtue, to what counts as a good human life. Just for this reason, intellectualists pay no heed to the necessity of socialization and habituation, to the importance of the careful, long-term attention to our noncognitive side which, it seems plausible to claim, is at least as necessary for becoming good as is the knowledge of the nature of goodness.(5)

Second, intellectualism as we find it in Socrates seems to be a view that considers virtue not only necessary but also sufficient for the good life and for happiness: being good, in some way, is the essence of being happy--nothing else matters. To quote one of the most recent criticisms of Socrates on this issue, it may seem that, unconcerned with anything but virtue, especially with the things that luck or chance might give us or take away without any responsibility on our part, Socrates "can't lose" in the game of life,

because he does not care so deeply for the things that are subject to risk that their loss would be a serious loss to him. There is his strangeness, awe-inspiring and alarming. And it leaves the question: Is this a good way for a human being to live?(6)

The third feature of intellectualism is the following. Since Socrates believed that only knowledge and argument,(7) not the whole nature of one's personality, can lead us to virtue, and since reason seems to be the most universal human capacity, he made it his business to address his questions to everyone indiscriminately. Not caring whether those he engaged in discussion, particularly the young among them, had the character appropriate for philosophy, he encouraged the wrong people--like Critias, Charmides and Alcibiades--to engage in philosophy to the detriment both of the youths and of philosophy. …

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