Part I. GREEK PHILOSOPHY -
Sect. 2. The Moral Period
Socrates came forward as the opponent of the Sophists. He discussed
the same moral problems as they did, but while they used their skill to
undermine truth and unsettle morality, he sought to re-establish the
ideals of right and goodness. He raised his voice of protest against the
scepticism of his age, and contended for the claims of absolute truth
and absolute morality. He admitted that man was supreme, but he denied
that truth and virtue were contingent upon the individual sensations of
man. Truth he held to be dependent not on the variable and particular
part of man's nature, but on the invariable and universal part, on that
faculty which he has in common with all intelligence.
There were two ways in which the argument of the Sophists might be
met. The one was the way of the orthodox conservative party in
Athens,—that of suppressing all inquiry and resting in blind faith upon
the old traditional customs and conventions.
The other way was the way of Socrates. He would not be a party to quenching
investigation. On the contrary, he cordially welcomed inquiry, and was willing
with the Sophists to subject the institutions of society and the accepted
opinions of men to a rigorous examination. He agreed with the Sophists in their
demand for free inquiry, but he demanded that the inquiry should not be partial
and superficial, but complete, radical and searching.
There is no more impressive figure in ancient history than that of Socrates, and
his trial and death, as a martyr to truth, have deeply touched the consciousness
of the world. Born about 470 B.C., this teacher is identified with the most
illustrious period of Hellenic life. He came forth, at a time when Grecian
manhood and patriotism were beginning to decline, as the champion of virtue and
the advocate of all that is highest and best in humanity.
Socrates of Athens (469-399) marks an epoch in the history of philosophy. He was
neither savant nor wandering teacher. He belonged to no school. He was simply a
man of the people. He was taught by Prodicus, but he was uninfluenced by any
past philosophy. What he was, was due to himself. With the exception of one or
two solitary expeditions he was never out of Athens. Little is known of his
early life. He was the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and Phaenarete, a
midwife. Pie was brought up to his father's calling. His manner of teaching was
conversational and popular, drawing illustrations from common life. Pie
frequented the market-place and the gymnasium, where he discoursed to the young
men on the significance and aim of life, seeking to convince them of their
ignorance and to awake within their breasts the yearning for knowledge.
Convinced that the amelioration of the State could only proceed from a sound and
thorough instruction of the young, he became the first moral philosopher.
According to Xenophon, he was the model of every virtue, just and temperate,
brave in the field of battle as well as in the drinking booth. He was the enemy
of all frivolity and selfishness, yet he was full of patience and self-command.
A characteristic feature of his personality was the demonic element
(δαιμόνιον), which he claimed to possess— a fine deep, divining instinct by
which he professed to be able to discern the tendencies of life and even to
foretell future events. In circumstances in which there was not
sufficient knowledge for certain decision, Socrates believed that he heard
within himself the daimonion, counselling or warning him by its inner voice. His
enemies saw in this personal claim a denial of the national gods and an attempt
to set himself up as a divinity.
Aristophanes, a champion of the ancestral worship, has invested Socrates with
ridicule in his poem The Clouds, and has defamed him as a Sophist.
His striking though unattractive personal appearance, together with his peculiar
gait and mean garb, has made him the butt of Athenian comedy.
In his 70th year Socrates became a martyr to his convictions. He was charged
with refusing to recognise the national gods and perverting the minds of the
youth. In a simple but eloquent speech he repelled these charges. He refused to
save himself by flight. After twenty days of intercourse with his friends in
prison, he drank the cup of poison appointed by the State and died in the year
Socrates has left no writings. To Xenophon and to Plato we are indebted for a
knowledge of his life and teaching. Xenophon is the more historical in his
account, Plato the more philosophical; the latter of whom, chiefly in the
Banquet, has invested his name with undying lustre.
The life and philosophy of Socrates are inseparable. Yet he was not simply a
good man who sought to influence others for good. He based conduct on knowledge.
"Virtue is knowledge." Without knowledge there can be no morality—hence the
first thing to strive after is wisdom.
The scepticism of the Sophists forms the starting-point of the philosophy of
Socrates. All he knows is that he knows nothing. He turns with impatience from
nature. "The trees," he says, "can teach me nothing." He who studies man has
no time to investigate material things. We can never know what is the origin and
end of the world, but we can know what we ourselves ought to be. What is the
meaning and aim of life? What is the
highest good of the soul?—to know that is the only real and profitable
knowledge. 'Man, know thyself.' To know oneself is the one pursuit worthy of
man, the beginning of all morality, the sum of all philosophy. The philosophy of
Socrates is thus of a purely ethical nature, and his main doctrine may be summed
up in the saying, "Virtue is knowledge, vice is ignorance."
For, after all, knowledge is the principal thing. All life and conduct come back
to that. Let a man know what he ought to do, and nothing else is needed. For
surely a man will not willingly do what he knows to be against his true
interests. Socrates therefore aims at producing knowledge, not of course for its
own sake, but because he believes that it is the ground and secret of all right
conduct. Rightly understand what is implied in these words "virtue is
knowledge," and you will see, says Socrates, that it involves important
(1) What is done without insight does not deserve the predicate "good":
whereas what is done knowingly must always be good. If it were possible it would
be better that one should do wrong knowingly than that one should do wrong
unknowingly; for, in the first case, virtue would only be temporarily injured;
in the second, virtue would be wanting altogether.
(2) From the principle that "virtue is knowledge" may also be deduced the
further position that "Happiness or well-being is the necessary result of
virtue." The intelligent man knows and therefore does what is good for him; he
must therefore through his doings become happy also. Virtue, as knowledge of the
good, must always bring in its train its appropriate consequences.
(3) From the same principle a still further deduction may be made, viz., that
all virtue is one and the same, the excellence of each good quality just
consisting in the knowing what ought or ought not to be done.
(4) Still again, the same principle implies that everyone can attain to virtue
by aspiration and practice.
Goodness can be taught, because it is a matter of knowledge. Were virtue not
knowledge, we could not be instructed in it, nor would we be capable of
advancing from one stage to another.
Socrates went about seeking to convince men not so much of sin as of ignorance.
Sin is error. He who does a bad action does it from a mistaken judgment.
Everyone believes that he is really doing the good, i.e. the advantageous. Hence
to show men their ignorance is the first step towards right actions.
What is called the "irony" of Socrates is his manner of affecting ignorance in
the presence of the seeming wise in order to bring them to the confession of
their want of knowledge. His object was not to lead to scepticism. He claimed to
follow his mother's profession and to help those in labour with new ideas to
bring them to the birth. Hence he adopted the dialectic method, the method of
questioning. His philosophy is a philosophy of dialogue. It develops itself in
conversation. Feigning to be as anxious to instruct himself as others, Socrates
brings his companion step by step to unfold into clearer and ever less
contradictory statements the thoughts which were lying latent within him.
Aristotle ascribes to Socrates the merit of introducing the inductive
method,—the method of searching for general definitions based upon particular
instances,—the forming of judgments from a number of analogous cases. This
subordination of the particular under the general, which we call the inductive
method, becomes the future law of logic, and the process adopted by the sciences
to establish general conceptions from comparison of facts.
While Socrates confined his philosophy within the bounds of practical life and
conceived of it mainly as a system of ethics, passing over all questions
concerning nature and being with seeming indifference, he at the same time
professes a teleological view of nature, recognising wisdom in the arrangement
and adaptation of the
world. Where knowledge cannot reach Socrates seems to put forth a faith in
Providence, falling back on his daimonion for inspiration when insight fails.
Xenophon has represented Socrates as employing the argument from design to prove
the existence of God: he cannot, however, decide how far his opinions on the
subject differed from those of the popular religion.
But by the testimony of his principal disciples, the whole life of Socrates was
permeated by the thought of God. His ethics everywhere run up into religion.
Every moral duty found a religious sanction. Every act of wrong was an act of
impiety. It is not to be understood by this that he had a reasoned theology or
that he aimed at any new doctrinal statement of belief. He had no ambition to
start a new sect or any desire to reform the Greek religion. Sometimes he seems
to dwell within the old limits with contentment, but he rejects as incredible
the stories of blood and deceit and lust with which Greek mythology was
disfigured. He believes God to be unchangeably good, and if he seems at times to
accept lower divinities who minister to men of their bounty, it is because the
Supreme Being manifests Himself in the world and particularly in men, and may be
conceived as dwelling also in beings wiser and more powerful than men.
Still it is no mere impersonal diffusion. There is a central Divine Life in whom
all things live, who upholds all things and by whom all things subsist. He has
been called the father of the design argument, which proceeds from the order in
the world and in the physical and mental organism of man to a supernal reason.
The whole world, in his view, owes its existence and place to mind (Xen. Mem.
iv. 8 ff.). And in the make of man the same order is discernible. His body is a
system of contrivances, bespeaking utility and delight as ends. The mind, by its
very supremacy in man, is a proof of God's presence in the universe. Man is a
sharer of the Divine nature. Though his essential nature is enshrined in a body
can execute the behests of the mind, he moves amongst the other creatures as a
god (Xen. Mem. I. iv. 14; cp. Plato's Rep. vi. and Phaedrus).
Of Socrates' view of the place of the conscience in life it is more difficult to
speak. We have already seen how in his own life he acknowledged a 'Divine
Something,' which seemed to take the form of a warning inner voice. But while he
affirms the existence of this 'sign' in his own case, he seems to regard it as
peculiar to himself, and not in the possession of all men.
Still his whole teaching did imply that not he only but all men had the power of
discerning between right and wrong, and that only he was a virtuous man who
followed the dictates of his own insight and knowledge.
With regard to the immortality of the soul it is difficult to know what his
views exactly were. Whenever the subject is touched it is impossible to exclude
from the mind the marvellous picture in the Phaedo. But it is improbable that
Socrates held the definite opinions on this question attributed to him by Plato.
He conceives of death as a long sleep, and falls back upon the recognition of
the Divine will, assured that no evil can befall the good man either in life or
death. His absolute truthfulness seems to hinder him from asserting more than
this, and he makes no attempt to veil his ignorance in figures of speech. In
general it may be said that he did not profess knowledge with regard to the
soul's immortality, but he cherished the belief. He closes his apology with the
sublime words, "But now the time has come and we must go hence: I to die, and
you to live. Whether life or death is better is known to God, and to God only."
The philosophy of Socrates is best judged in the light of the influence which he
exerted upon the Platonic and Aristotelian systems of thought. Regarding his
philosophy as a body of doctrine, three things stand out: (1) It contains a
reform in philosophic method; (2) it affords the first inquiry into the
conditions of knowledge; and
(3) it lays the foundations of ethical science. But great as were these
contributions to philosophy, greater far was the influence which Socrates
exerted by his life. His rectitude of character, his humility and courage, his
faith and piety, and, above all, his calm acceptance of condemnation and death,
have encircled the figure of Socrates with a halo of reverence which history has
accorded to few.
The narrative of his trial is one of the most dramatic in all literature, and
the closing scenes of Plato's Phaedo is unequalled for pathos and sublimity by
anything that ever Plato wrote. "His last words were: 'Crito, I owe a cock to
Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?' 'The debt shall be paid,' said Crito;
'Is there anything else?' There was no answer to this question, but in a
minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes
were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend: concerning whom I may truly say,
that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and
greatest and best."
Socrates founded no special school of philosophy, though he gave a
starting-point to several lines of thought. The strong personality and original
teaching of the man forced the intellectual activity of the times into new
channels. He gave a fresh impulse to reflection which ultimately prepared the
way for these systems in which Greek philosophy culminates. It is the fate of a
great teacher to be inadequately interpreted by his immediate successors, and
the richer and more many-sided his teaching is, the more is it likely to be
broken up by those who come after. Socrates was no exception to this law, and
his various followers seized each upon a fragment of his doctrine and elevated
it into a principle. It will not be necessary to dwell at any length upon these
imperfect Socratists, as they have been called. But, in particular, mention must
be made of three schools—the Cynic, the Cyrenaic and the Megaric—in which the
different sides of Socrates' teaching with regard to conduct were represented.
In the Cynic and Cyrenaic schools we have the first expression of two opposing
types of ethical theory which have continued to find supporters even to our own
day. What is the highest good? What is the end of life? asked Socrates. Is it
virtue or is it happiness? In the hands of Socrates these were harmonized, for
virtue being knowledge a man will always seek that which is for his ultimate
good. But the question arose, which Socrates did not definitely answer—Is virtue
an end in itself or is it to be sought merely for the sake of happiness?
1. The Cynics, of whom Antisthenes is the chief representative, emphasized
virtue for its own sake. The virtuous man is self-sufficient. The supreme object
of man, says Antisthenes, is a virtuous life. But the ideal of virtue is freedom
from all desire—the complete withdrawal of the individual within himself. The
truly wise man is independent of everything—of marriage, society and station. He
needs neither wealth, honour, nor pleasure.
The later Cynics despised all knowledge and sank to a condition of shameless
sloth and beggary. Not till long after, in the age of the Stoics, did cynicism
revive and regain its prestige.
2. The Cyrenaic school, which was the antithesis of the Cynic, sought the
essence of life in pleasure. Aristippus, its founder, set forth as the principle
of life, that a man must not be the slave but the master of circumstances, if he
would lead a happy life. Pleasure is indeed the aim, but it must be pleasure in
its highest forms. Nothing is bad or shameful which ensures real enjoyment. To
the attainment of happiness, however, discrimination, moderation and spiritual
culture are necessary. It must be admitted that the theory of Aristippus was
more in consonance with the teaching of
Socrates than of the Cynics, which it opposed. His idea of self-mastery was not
mutilation, but use. The Cynic sought to starve desire, but in so doing was in
danger of reducing life to barrenness. The Cyrenaic believed in gratifying
desire within limits, ruled by a quantitative measure of happiness. In theory
this conception seemed to present the truest ideal of self-realization—the
Socratic idea of "using the world without abusing it." Yet, in its ultimate
analysis, it really made pleasure and not virtue the end of life, and in
practice it led to the most selfish interpretations.
Of the other hedonists, Theodorus declared that the highest thing in life is the
joy arising from the ability, in all the relations of life, to be guided by a
Hegesias regarded the absence of pain as the only worthy goal of the wise man,
while Annicerus thought that withdrawal from society is impossible, and that,
therefore, the true aim is to take as much enjoyment out of life as can be got.
3. The Megaric school, in which an attempt was made to combine the Cynic and
Cyrenaic principle, was founded by Euclid of Megara. The idea of the good is the
same thing ethically as that of being is physically. Only that which is
self-existent, self-identical is good; while all change and variety are only
The true good is not sensuous, but intellectual. Truth and reason are the only
real. Man is at his best when he is faithful to those highest elements within
The good is immutable: it is insight, reason, God. It alone exists. Euclid of
Megara deserves to be remembered for his identification of Goodness with life.
His system is the connecting-link between Socrates and Plato. The school of
Megara, which Stilpo made famous, continued its activities for some time, but it
was ultimately eclipsed by the schools of Plato and Aristotle. As Cynicism led
to Stoicism and Cyrenaic hedonism to Epicureanism, so the later Megarics
prepared the way for Scepticism.
The imperfect Socratics grew up side by side, and there is little continuity of
development in their teaching. They fell largely into the arid discussions of
the Sophists, and beyond a few pretentious moral maxims and some feeble
witticisms, little of worth has been preserved. The pride of poverty and
contempt of life became their dominant characteristics, and the typical figure
of Cynicism is Diogenes in his tub wandering about Greece denouncing luxury and
preaching independence of life's necessities. It is to Plato that we must look
for the true successor of Socrates. In contrast to these imperfect followers we
learn to appreciate the more the one true disciple, who entered into the spirit
of his master's teaching and brought to their richest fruition and fullest
expansion those seeds of thought and life which Socrates had sown.
Greek Philosophy. The Sophists
Greek Philosophy. Plato