17  Know Thyself



The philosophers of Classical Greece also constructed influential theories on how to lead a good life. The Sophists took the pragmatic route, teaching their students useful life skills, including how to effectively persuade others to get ahead in life. Socrates had a totally different approach. He taught that man should not persuade, but should instead speak truth. Through his dialogues, he questioned the strongly held beliefs of anyone who wanted to speak to him, revealing the ignorance in their ideas, which then allowed them to develop a more nuanced understanding of the world and themselves. Finally, Aristotle equated living the good life with the cultivation of virtues, which he worked out in his famous works on ethics.


The Sophists

Unlike the pre-Socratic philosophers, the Sophists (“wise men”) were less interested in abstract ideas about the cosmos and instead wanted philosophy to be relevant to everyday life. They saw it as their duty to educate their fellow men by teaching them useful skills. Some Sophists even taught mundane skills, such as money-making and persuasion, often attracting huge crowds.

One of the most famous Sophists was Gorgias (c. 485–380 BC). His main focus was on rhetoric, the art of speaking and writing for the purpose of persuasion—essential skill in a democracy. He was convinced that his skills made it possible for him to argue any case. To prove this point, he once wrote a famous defense of the indefensible Helen of Troy (he claimed she was either abducted against her will, was forced to go by a god, involuntarily fell in love through the intervention of Eros, or was involuntarily persuaded by Paris’s mighty persuasive power).

Not surprisingly, many other philosophers protested his approach. Was it not dangerous to teach people how to persuade others using deceptive tricks? This seemed especially true in democratic Athens, where the wrong political decision could have disastrous consequences. Gorgias, however, believed that effective oratory kept freedom alive. By speaking well, we can also defend the innocent and bring great ideas to the foreground.

The Sophist Protagoras (c. 490–c. 420 BC) exemplified the willingness of the Greeks to question any belief. Believing that all knowledge could, in principle, be doubted, he became convinced there were no absolute truths. Instead, he saw all knowledge as nothing more than opinions based on personal preference. For instance, honey generally tastes sweet, but might taste bitter to someone experiencing a fever. As a result, he claimed, sweetness or bitterness is not a quality of the honey, but depends on the person tasting it. Extending this argument to all of life, he famously concluded:

Man is the measure of all things.

In a later chapter, we will read that Protagoras even dared to question whether the gods exist.


The teachings of Socrates

The philosopher Socrates (c. 470–399 BC) strongly resisted the approach of the Sophists. Instead of persuasion, he was dedicated to truth and moral character.

Since Socrates didn’t write anything down, we have to rely on descriptions by his student Plato to learn about his teachings. According to Plato, Socrates had a rather ugly appearance. He had a peculiar swagger in his walk, his eyes bulged out of his head and were focused sideways, and his nose resembled that of a pig (Fig. 310). He also walked barefoot and never changed his robe (which he also used as a blanket at night). Yet, this shabby character is often regarded as the founder of Western philosophy.

Socrates was the son of a stonecutter and grew up in a family of average income. His father, however, ensured his son received a good education in poetry, music, and athletics. When he turned eighteen, Socrates was required to join the military. He fought valiantly in battles against the Spartans and even saved the life of Alcibiades (c. 450–404 BC), a famous Athenian general.

True to the stereotype of a philosopher, Socrates could be lost in thought for hours. On one occasion, he was so consumed in thought that he fell behind his companions and ended up spending the evening on someone’s porch. One of his friends remarked: “You’d much better leave him to himself. It’s quite a habit of his, you know. Off he goes and there he stands, no matter where he is.” [118]


Fig. 310 – Bust of Socrates by Lysippos (1st century AD) (Derek Key, CC BY 2.0; Louvre)

Fig. 311 – The Oracle of Delphi (Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0; Antikensammlung Berlin)

Socrates spent much of his time in the agora—the public space of Athens—asking questions to anyone willing to speak with him. His small group of disciples particularly enjoyed hearing him interrogate the wisest and most influential men in the city, whom he often managed to lure down logical dead ends, causing them to doubt even their most deeply held beliefs. His questioning must have been an intense experience, as Plato wrote:

Anyone who is close to Socrates and enters into conversation with him is liable to be drawn into an argument, and whatever subject he may start, he will be continually carried round and round by him, until at last he finds that he has to give an account both of his present and past life, and when he is once entangled, Socrates will not let him go until he has completely and thoroughly sifted him. [119]

The main focus of these interactions was to bring his fellow men to a better understanding of themselves and the society they lived in. To do this, he used the dialectic method of inquiry, also known as the Socratic method. This method became his greatest contribution to Western philosophy. Instead of telling others what to think, he would start a dialogue in which he asked clever questions that allowed his students to discover the flaws in their thinking on their own, which would then give them a more nuanced understanding of the world. Socrates sometimes compared himself to a midwife, since his questioning brought truth to birth within his students.

Take, for instance, the case of General Laches, who was asked to define courage. His first try was that it had to do with remaining at one’s post when fighting an enemy. Socrates countered that in some circumstances, it was wiser to withdraw and attack at a later time. His second attempt was that courage was an “endurance of the soul,” to which Socrates objected that courage is supposed to be a noble quality, while in some cases endurance can be foolish. Laches then revised his definition to the “wise endurance of the soul,” but Socrates countered that people often persevere in a rational manner, for instance when setting up a business, without it having to be courageous. After these back-and-forths, the general had to admit that although he was an experienced soldier, he could not define courage.

Socrates’s willingness to explore any topic is beautifully described in Plato’s Phaedo. In the text, we read that some students of Socrates got upset when a young man presented arguments against the soul being eternal. Socrates told them not to be overwhelmed, but instead to “examine the argument.” He also warned them not to become “misologoi” (“haters of conversation”), as this could make them “misanthropoi” (“haters of men”). His student Phaedo then recalled:

What I wondered at most in him was the pleasant, kind, and admiring way he received the young man’s argument, and how sharply he was aware of the effect the discussion had on us, and how well he healed our distress and, as it were, recalled us from our flight and defeat and turned us around to join him in the examination of their argument. [120]

Socrates was equally willing to search for the ignorance in his own beliefs. In fact, he often admitted the limits of his own knowledge. He once famously said:

I know one thing; that I know nothing.

Paradoxically, it was Socrates’s knowledge of his own ignorance that made him wise. This was also the conclusion of the oracle at Delphi (see Fig. 311). In Delphi, near Athens, there was a temple to Apollo. In an underground chamber of the temple, people could ask questions to a prophetic priestess, the Pythia, who entered a state of trance and made contact with Apollo to discover the answer. According to one author, she achieved her altered state of consciousness by looking into a crack in the Earth, which made anyone who looked into it “possessed” and made them “prophesy things to come.” About Socrates, she proclaimed:

No one is wiser than Socrates.

Socrates, in turn, replied that he was not aware of any wisdom he had. To prove the oracle wrong, he set out to find others with more wisdom. He first went to the politicians, but there he found no wisdom. Then he went to the poets, but though they spoke in beautiful verses, they did so through divine inspiration and not through wisdom. The craftsmen did have knowledge, but they often believed they knew much more than they actually did. Finally, Socrates concluded that he was better off than his fellow citizens because he was at least aware of his own ignorance.

Despite his claim of ignorance, Socrates did have some strong convictions about how to lead an ethical life. For instance, he believed that it is never just to harm anyone, whether friend or enemy. He even discouraged retaliation, no matter what was done to him.

Socrates also insisted that human beings have an eternal soul that desires the good. As a result, every human being always does what they think is right. Even when people do wrong, he claimed, they do this because of their ignorance about what is right. We read:

No one errs willingly or willingly does base and evil deeds.

To make more right decisions, Socrates recommended cultivating virtue, which he regarded as the most important human task, far more crucial than the achievement of worldly success or the pursuit of material wealth. According to Socrates, cultivating virtue required self-knowledge. To convey this message, he regularly referred to the inscription above the entrance of the Oracle of Delphi:

Know thyself.

To Socrates, this practice was so pressing that he had no time for far-flung esoteric topics, such as far-flung scientific theories. We read:

I have no time for this at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things. [121]

According to Socrates, cultivating self-knowledge and goodness was the only path towards well-being (eudaimonia). Therefore, he recommended to his disciples that they “let no day pass without discussing goodness.”


The trial of Socrates

In 399 BC, Socrates was convicted by the city of Athens and sentenced to death. His student Plato later wrote:

The way in which they treated my friend Socrates, an old man, whom I would certainly not hesitate to call the most just of the men then living [...]. Some of those in power brought my friend Socrates before a court on a most ignominious charge, which Socrates least of all deserved. For they brought him to trial on the charge of impiety, and others voted him guilty and sentenced him to death. [122]

The charge was as follows:

Socrates does criminal wrong by not recognizing the gods that the city recognizes, and furthermore by introducing new divinities; and he also does criminal wrong by corrupting the youth. [123]

Let’s start with the accusation that Socrates did “not recognize the gods of the city.” Socrates indeed did not believe literally in the myths of the Olympian gods. During the trial, however, his accuser went further, accusing him of being an atheist:

SOCRATES: […] Is it that you are saying that I teach people that there are indeed some gods, and the accusation is that they are not those of the city? I can tell you I do recognize that there are gods, and I am not guilty of being an out-and-out atheist! Or is it that you say I don’t recognize gods at all, and I teach this position to others?

MELETUS: The second option: that you do not recognize gods at all.

SOCRATES: You are extraordinary, Meletus! Why do you say this? Do I not even recognize the sun or the moon as gods, as other people do?

MELETUS: No by Zeus, judges, he does not! He says that the sun is a stone and the moon made out of earth.

SOCRATES: Do you think it is Anaxagoras you are accusing, my dear Meletus? [124]

The claim that Socrates was “introducing new divinities” referred to a voice he heard in his head, the daimonion (“the divine thing”), which warned him against mistakes. The Athenians objected against private gods that were not accepted by the state.

The charge of “corrupting the youth” referred to the fact that he had taught various Athenians who were sympathetic to the Spartan cause, including Critias, who in time had become one of the Thirty Tyrants who had ruled over Athens in the year 404 BC, after the city was defeated by Sparta. During their short rule, the Tyrants executed various public figures loyal to democracy. Various aristocratic Athenian families favored the rigid hierarchy of power in Sparta over the democratic distribution of power in Athens. According to Plato, Socrates had also praised Sparta on various occasions, yet Socrates was also loyal to Athens and felt strongly about following its laws. At some point, he even refused an order by the Tyrants to arrest a democrat named Leon of Salamis.

In his defense statement, Socrates presented himself as a law-abiding citizen, even in times when it was hard to do so. He had worked for the good of Athens, but the city had failed to appreciate this. In response to the accusation that he had corrupted the youth, Socrates responded in line with his philosophy. He said he could not possibly have done so, for he did not know enough to teach anybody anything:

You will find that throughout my life I have always behaved as I am doing now, both in public and in private, and have never yielded to anyone unjustly, whether it was any other person or any of those who are said by my accusers to be my pupils, but I have never been anyone’s teacher: if anyone, young or old, desires to hear me talking while I pursue my interests, I have nothing to object. I do not converse with people only when I get a fee, or do not when I don’t, but I talk with the rich and poor indifferently, and whoever wishes may answer and hear what I have to say. And whether any of these discussions turn out to be useful or not, I should not be held justly responsible, for I have never promised anything or given orders to any of my listeners.

Yet Socrates refused to give up his right to speak truth:

Men of Athens, I respect and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you, and as long as I have breath and strength in me, I shall never stop philosophizing […] or point things out to any one of you I meet.

In response to an accusation that he was playing Sophist word games to get his way, he said:

Athenians: I don’t know whether you have been persuaded by my accusers. As for me, they spoke so cleverly that I have almost forgotten who I am. And yet there is hardly a word of truth in what they said. Of all their lies, one I found particularly shocking: when they said that you should beware of being deceived by me, because I am a clever speaker. This, I think, was the most shameful part of their conduct because I will soon show them guilty of falsehood by the evidence of fact, when I show myself to be not in the least a clever speaker, unless indeed they call a clever speaker him who speaks the truth; for if this is what they mean, I would agree that I am an orator, not after their fashion. Now, as I say, they have said little or nothing true; but you shall hear from me nothing but the truth. [122]

He failed to convince his judges and was condemned to death. His friend Crito claimed he could have his death sentence converted into exile through bribes, but Socrates refused. Even though he believed the sentence to be unjust, he believed it had nevertheless been reached through legitimate procedures. The trial had been conducted according to the established rules, he had made his case, and the voting had been done by citizens. Therefore, he decided to accept his fate. Also, being 70 years old, he didn’t wish to live anywhere else.

After his conviction, Socrates made one of the most famous proclamations in the history of philosophy. He told the jury that he could never have kept silent, since “the unexamined life is not worth living”:

Perhaps someone might say, “Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking? Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue [...] and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less.” [121]

Fig. 312 – The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787) (The MET)

His friends gathered around his bed when he had to drink the prescribed poison. Before he drank it, however, he washed his body to save the women the trouble after his death. He thanked his jailer for his kindness and even made some mild jokes about his predicament. He was able to look death calmly in the face, without anger or blame, and forbade his friends from mourning. He told his students that there was nothing tragic about death. His final words were a testament to his kindness:

Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.

With his death, Socrates became a model not just of how to live well, but also of how to die well.


Plato and the allegory of the cave

Socrates’s death was an important turning point in the life of the young Plato. He had always wanted a political career, but after Socrates’s death, he withdrew from public life in disgust. Wherever he looked, in any city, the government was bad. He wrote:

Finally, it became clear to me, with regard to all existing communities, that they were all misgoverned. For their laws have got into a state that is almost incurable. [125]

As a result, Plato dreamed of a time when those in charge were philosophers who would govern by reason:

Therefore, I said, there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men, till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the states, or those in power in the states by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers. [125]

Plato also developed his own ideas about morality, using his doctrine of the Forms (see the previous chapter). Plato was convinced that even concepts such as beauty had their own Forms. When we recognize someone or something as beautiful, it is because we see the eternal Form of beauty through its earthly manifestation. Yet, while all earthly objects eventually lose their beauty, the concept of beauty will always live on. When we fall in love with a person, we actually fall in love with the Form of beauty of which they are a manifestation. Love should, therefore, ideally be transformed from love for a specific person into love for the Form of beauty itself. This type of beauty, Plato believed, exists even in a physically ugly person.

According to Plato, the end goal for mankind is to know the Form of the Good, which he believed required rigorous training in dialectic and rational thought. To highlight its importance, Plato used his famous allegory of the cave. He imagined a group of men who had been chained up all their lives as prisoners in a cave. They were turned away from the sunlight and could see only shadows reflected from the outside world onto a rocky wall. To Plato, this was the condition of unenlightened men, who could not see the Forms directly but only the imperfect world of the phenomena. Because these men didn’t know better, they mistook the shadows for reality. If these men were liberated from their captivity and stepped into the sunlight, they would at first be overwhelmed by the light. For many, this would likely be too much to handle, and they would run back into the cave. However, for some, the light—representing the Good—would enable them to see the world clearly and give them freedom.

A liberated man had the option of going back inside the cave and helping his fellow men, yet his message would likely get rejected. Had this not been the fate of Socrates?


Aristotle’s virtue ethics

Besides his groundbreaking work in the fields of science and logic, Aristotle also created one of the most important moral philosophies in world history. In line with his theory of causes (see the previous chapter), Aristotle believed that man, too, has a final cause or purpose. To discover this purpose, he wanted to know what men do who are excellent at being human. Just as a good painter is good at making paintings, a “good human being, he reasoned, must be good at being human. [126]

So, what makes a human being excellent at being a human being? According to Aristotle, it must have something to do with our ability to reason, since reason above all else distinguishes us from other species. But where will reason take us? Aristotle believed that the purpose of reason is to develop our character (ethos, related to the modern word “ethics,” which comes from the Greek “ta ethika,” which literally means “matters to do with character”). According to Aristotle, our character can be developed by cultivating our virtues (“arete,” literally meaning excellence). Every person, he believed, has these virtues inside as a potentiality, but they only turn into an actuality through repeated practice, until they become a habit.

But what is the purpose or final cause of character development? Aristotle believed that it was eudaimonia (well-being). He explained it is a common mistake to confuse well-being with pleasure. Instead, eudaimonia is about flourishing or thriving as a human being, it is about living a life worth living. This, he believed, was achieved through the pursuit of virtue. In his own words, eudaimonia is caused by “the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” True to the Greek ideal, Aristotle claimed the pinnacle of the pursuit of eudaimonia was the contemplation (theoria) of eternal truths, which he considered divine:

A man will live in this manner not insofar as he is a man, but insofar as he has something divine in him. [127]

In his view, men should not “think only of human things and […] mortal things,” but we should “try as far as possible to partake of immortality and to make every effort to live according to the best part of the soul in us; for even if this part be of small measure, it surpasses all the others by far in power and worth.”

Having established the importance of virtues, Aristotle set out to identify the most important ones. Following Socrates, he recognized that virtues can’t be defined as absolute laws. Instead, he advised being “moderate in all things,” avoiding both excess and deficiency. He called this principle the doctrine of the mean (also called the golden mean). He recognized the following virtues:

·      Courage between cowardice and recklessness.

·      Temperance between overindulgence and insensitivity.

·      Generosity between miserliness and giving more than you can afford.

·      Ambition between vanity and not giving yourself enough credit.

·      Patience between being irritable and lack of spirit.

·      Truthfulness between boastfulness and self-deprecation.

·      Wittiness between buffoonery and boorishness.

·      Friendliness between being quarrelsome and too compliant.

·      Modesty between being shy and being shameless.

·      Righteous indignation between spitefulness and envy.

Tragically, Aristotle too got in trouble with the Athenian authorities, likely for his connections with the Macedonians (among them Alexander the Great). Fearing for his safety, he left Athens, claiming he “would not allow Athens to sin twice against philosophy.” He died of natural causes the following year.