Socrates (469-399 BC) was born into a middle-class family in Athens. He inherited a sculpture workshop from his father. His mother was a midwife. Socrates has an ugly face, a small stature, a faltering walk, and a particularly peculiar character. He was a brave and tenacious fighter in the Peloponnesian War, and he lived like a wise man in peacetime, with the responsibility of educating young people. His conversational teaching method also has a wise man style, but he is fundamentally different from the wise man: he never charges tuition, and is more opposed to sophistry and specious rhetoric. He professed to be a man without wisdom but a lover of wisdom, not a wise man. Although there is only one word difference between “lovers of wisdom” and “wise ones”, their meanings are fundamentally different. The former refers to philosophers who seek to determine the truth, and the latter refers to wise men who make money by showing off their knowledge. Philosophy was not a purely speculative private matter for Socrates, but his civic duty to the city. In this sense, he claims to be the holy gadfly who is a symbol of the evil of the times.

Socrates was in an era when Athenian democracy was facing crisis. Citizens went their separate ways. Politicians took the opportunity to sway their lips, form parties for personal gain, incited the people, caused injustice in the trial, and weakened the national power. The weaknesses of Athenian democracy were fully exposed in the Peloponnesian War. In 406 BC, the Athenian navy defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Agiusi. Politicians, however, filed lawsuits against 10 admirals, citing that the bodies of fallen soldiers were not recovered in time, and the Citizens Assembly sentenced nine of them to death. Socrates served as the chairman of the congress. He thought the trial was illegal and voted against it, thus offending the democrats. In 404 BC, the defeated Athenians were forced to accept an oligarchy, and Critias, a pupil of Socrates, was a central figure in the ruling Thirty Oligarchs. Socrates was deeply dissatisfied with their violent rule. The oligarchs ordered Socrates to arrest political opponents, and he would risk capital punishment rather than taking part in their activities. However, after the restoration of democracy, Socrates was regarded as a political enemy of the democrats, accused of “blasphemy” and “corruption of youth”, and despite his justifiable pleas in court, he was still sentenced death penalty. Socrates still discussed philosophical issues with people in prison, and finally died calmly. His last words were: “We still owe Askrepias a rooster, repay this vow, don’t forget it.” Socrates was a great patriot, his political ideals were social justice and social justice. A strong country cannot be understood by partisan politicians. If he opposed the democrats, it was only because he saw the decline of Athenian democracy. There is no reason to think that he was opposed to the democratic principle of “justice to all” proclaimed by Pericles. In fact, Socrates won people’s love with the strength of his integrity.

Socrates set an immortal example for later philosophers with his practice and personality. He does not have any writings, his thoughts are expressed in dialogue with others. People today know his life and thought mainly through the writings of his two students, Xenophanes and Plato. Xenophanes was a historian who recorded Socrates’ words and deeds in four books, The Home Economics, The Apology, The Banquet Collection, and The Memoirs. Most of Plato’s dialogues feature Socrates as the protagonist, but it is generally believed that only his early dialogues basically reflect Socrates’ thoughts, especially the “Apologetics”, “The same chapters of Cree”, and “Eusivero”. Books”, “Lakes” and “Phaedo” record Socrates’ dialogues at trial and in prison as faithful sources.

Knowing yourself

According to the ancients, Socrates was the first to pull philosophy back from heaven to earth. In his early years, Socrates devoted himself to the study of natural philosophy, but to no avail, and finally came to the conclusion that philosophy cannot simply study nature without knowing the usefulness of human affairs, such as the definitions of virtues such as piety, appropriateness, justice, wisdom, and courage. The principles of governance, the quality of rulers, etc. To speculate on the things of heaven without studying these personnel matters is not doing proper work, and those who do not understand personnel matters are worse than slaves. What’s more, the natural philosopher’s approach is wrong. They “look at things with their eyes, or try to grasp them with some sense,” a method of sensory observation that does not help, nor does a method of speculative help. Socrates had high hopes for Anaxagoras’ principle that “the mind is the cause of everything”, but was disappointed in the end. He says:

I looked down, and found that the philosopher did not use the mind at all, and did not regard it as a principle for arranging things, but turned to air, ether, water, and other strange things.

Looking at Socrates’ critique of early natural philosophy, we can see that Socrates’ thought did not completely get rid of the influence of the intellectual trend. He argues that the main reason for philosophical research to shift from nature to personnel is practical considerations. He made the public interest the goal of philosophy and abandoned speculation on the mysteries of nature. Therefore, his thoughts are always limited to the field of moral practice, he is accustomed to the practical actions of social interaction, and has not put forward a complete theory of world outlook and ethics. On the other hand, we must also see that Socrates’ criticism has reached a depth that cannot be reached by the wise mind. He excavated the principle of getting rid of the predicament of natural philosophy within natural philosophy, which is the principle of mind-based principle. He praised Anaxagoras for discovering the principle, while criticizing him for failing to follow through.

“Know thyself” is the motto of the Temple of Delphi. Socrates demanded to study man himself first, and study nature by examining man’s own mind. He believes that the human mind already contains some principles that are consistent with the world’s original principles, and advocates that these internal principles should be found in the mind first, and then the external world will be defined in accordance with these principles. He used an analogy to say that those who look directly at the sun will damage their eyes, and it is better to look at the sun through its shadow on the water. In the same way, the soul is the medium through which man perceives external things. Socrates said that in order for the soul not to be blinded, it is necessary to turn to the principles within the soul to discover the truth of things. He says:

In any case, I first identify a principle which I consider to be the soundest, and then assume that whatever appears to conform to this principle, whether in cause or otherwise, is true; What is inconsistent with it is not true.

virtue is knowledge

What, then, is this principle in the soul? Socrates said that this principle is virtue (arete). “Virtue” refers to the art of living a good life or doing good deeds, and it is the most noble of all arts. He sees this as a principle that everyone can learn, or know with certainty. In this sense, he equates virtue with knowledge. “Virtue is knowledge” and “Knowing yourself” are two principles that echo each other: a person’s knowledge of himself is knowledge about virtue. He explained this: if a person claims to know a thing is good, but does not realize it, it just shows that he does not really know the good (good) of the thing, he does not knowledge about the matter. On the contrary, a person who knows what is good is bound to do good; knowing good without doing good is self-contradictory and therefore impossible. Socrates believed that all evil is done without knowing the good. Aristotle summed up Socrates’ assertion that “no one intends to do evil”: “If men do not believe that a thing is the best thing, they will not do it; if they It did so out of ignorance.”

The main purpose of Socrates’s proposition that “virtue is knowledge” is to emphasize the unity of knowledge and action, and the unity of truth and goodness. He did not take into account the complex theoretical distinctions that would not arise until later times, he simply practiced the truths that he recognized. It can be said that Socrates’ moral practice is the best explanation of “virtue is knowledge”. When he was sentenced to capital punishment, he had many choices in his life: he could pay a ransom in exchange for his life, and his friends were willing to pay the ransom on his behalf; he could also take his wife and children to court to plead for mercy, and use women and children to intercede. Emotional jury; on the eve of his execution, his friends arranged a way for him to escape. But he believes that these actions are injustices that contradict the law, and that he can no longer do injustices after knowing what justice is. He would rather suffer injustice than do injustice. For he was punished for his injustice out of ignorance, and if he did injustice he did it voluntarily. He paid the price of his life for the truth that “virtue is knowledge” and “no one does evil intentionally”.

Socratic method

Socrates differs from the wise in that he does not impart knowledge, but only talks to people. Because he admits that he knows nothing and can only approach the truth through dialogue. Admitting one’s ignorance is the wisdom of Socrates. It is said that the priests of the Temple of Delphi passed down oracles that no one was wiser than Socrates. In order to verify the oracle, Socrates, who knew he was not wise, began to investigate the wisdom of what people call a wise man. He talked successively with politicians, poets and artisans. He found that politicians were self-righteous, but in fact knew nothing, “found that the most famous people are the stupidest”; he also found that “poets write poetry not by wisdom but by inspiration”; finally, he found that artisans ” Because they are good at craftsmanship, they think they have wisdom in other important issues, and this shortcoming drowns out their wisdom.” Socrates then realized that others are not wise but think they are wise, and he admits that he is not wise, which is why he is wiser than others.

Socratic ignorance is sincere attitude. It is neither a hard-to-play trap nor a wise and foolish ridicule. Without sincere ignorance, there can be no sincere exploration of knowledge, and an attitude of ignorance is a key link in implementing Socratic dialogue. We can analyze its role from two aspects. First, admitting that he is an ignorant learner allows Socrates to ask questions in dialogue without answering them, turning learning into an active process of constantly exploring new knowledge. Second, the attitude of acknowledging one’s ignorance puts both sides of the interlocutor on an equal footing. Socrates’ dialogue is not a teacher’s instruction, nor a wise man’s show. He neither predestines a principle and then justifies it; nor does he first come up with an answer and then do everything possible to lead the other party to that answer. Of course, Socratic ignorance is just an attitude, and the questions he asks and the cross-examination of others’ answers contain a certain insight that shows his wisdom. What is commendable is that he did not turn his insights and knowledge into conclusions and creeds, they were just a catalyst for dialogue.

Socrates compares his method to the “midwifery” practiced by his mother, and there are some parallels between the two: Socrates does not announce the correct answer to the question during the dialogue, just as the midwife’s task is to help the mother give birth , she herself is not fertile; the interlocutor’s denial of her own prejudices is like the labor pains before childbirth, which is a must for every person who obtains the truth; the result of the dialogue is that the interlocutor discovers the truth in his own heart, just as A mother produces new life from within herself.

The Socratic method, which allows the interlocutor to discover the results of the truth himself, reflects a feature of the Greek view of truth. The Greek word for “truth” (a-letheia) contains a negative prefix “not” and the verb root “to be blinded”. According to research, when Parmenides used the word “truth” for the first time, he had already expressed the meaning of “removing concealment”. The truth to which the Socratic method is directed also has this meaning. He believed that there is truth in the soul of every human being, but prejudice and falsehood, accepted without examination, obscured the existing truth. The function of retort is to remove deceit, but not to create truth. Once the delusion is removed, the truth will be revealed in the soul, without the need for others to teach what truth is.

Originally published in “A Brief History of Western Philosophy (Revised Edition)” Peking University Press, 2012 edition.

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