Socrates the Rationalist

David_-_The_Death_of_SocratesIn his On Liberty Mill articulates the perils of suppressing the freedom of thought and discourse and mentions the events of Socrates’ apology as one of the most memorable cases of “judicial iniquity” in the history of humanity. Referring to Socrates as “the most virtuous man” and “the head and prototype of all subsequent teachers of virtue”, he says

This acknowledged master of all the eminent thinkers who have since lived…was put to death by his countrymen, after a judicial conviction, for impiety and immorality. Impiety, in denying the gods of the State; indeed his accuser asserted that he believed in no gods at all. Immortality, in being, by his doctrines and instructions, a “corruptor of the youth”. [i]

Yet Mill’s admiration for Socrates appears to find more resolute expression in his argument in favor of the continual and tried expression of those opinions that are true. For he says,

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.[ii]

Indeed, agreeing that Socratic dialectics:

were essentially a negative discussion of the great question of philosophy and life, directed with consummate skill to the purpose of convincing any one who had merely adopted the commonplaces of received opinion that he did not understand the subject—that he as yet attached no definite meaning to the doctrines he professed; in order that, becoming aware of his ignorance, he might be put in the way to obtain a stable belief, resting on a clear apprehension both of the meaning of the doctrines and of their evidence.[iii]

Mill reasons that even if one’s opinion is true—taken from good authority—when assent is lacking in understanding and consideration for the premises from which it is inferred, this truth invariably becomes indistinguishable from mere superstition and is equally vulnerable to its qualms. Indeed, he says, “this is not the way that a truth ought to be held by a rational being”.[iv]

This interpretation is what I hold to be the most widespread and which takes Socrates to mask a rational-cerebral face that emphasizes his steadfast commitment to standing up for what is right and for standing tall against the pressures, risks, and conveniences short of sound judgment. Clearly, Socrates does argue that “no one should ever willingly do wrong, even when wronged or in retaliation” (Crito 49-50), that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology 38a3-4) and that “a good man can never be harmed by a worse man” (Apology 30d). Taken together the point would seem to be that though harm comes in all shapes and sizes and is hence relative, there is no greater harm that can be bestowed on man than that to his “soul” or what most would arguably claim to be his sense of moral justice (Crito 47e-48c)[v]. That a life short of committed inquiry into what is just would be devoid of any true meaning, so that having thereby derived what is just from sound argument, no other man or being can make it such that one is unworthy—a lesser man—other than he himself that begrudges the truth espoused by his own wisdom. It is therefore a fact that Socrates according to his own counsel died an honorable death precisely because his “choice” came at the end of rational deliberation wrought of personal commitment. The pains brought on by socio-politically empowered others ranging from shame, exile, and death would be comparably minimal to the suffering brought on by betrayed principles. This is why Socrates can say:

If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place. … [For], God has especially appointed me to this city, as though it were a large thoroughbred horse which because of its great size is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of some stinging fly. It seems to me that God has attached me to this city to perform the office of such a fly….I suspect, however, that before long you will awake from your drowsing, and in your annoyance you will take Anytus’ advice and finish me off with a single slap, and then you will go on sleeping till the end of your days…. (Apology 30d-31b)

According to this reading Socrates can be shown to be making a point akin to Immanuel Kant. Famous for putting forth an absolutist moral doctrine of duties drawn from the force of reason, and having no recourse to either infer moral wisdom from experience or account for the practical consequences espoused therefrom, Kant has often been portrayed as promulgating a heartless, inhumane set of dictates that befits the spirit of a tyrant or dictator. Yet, in true Aristotelian form, Kant begins his moral discourse asserting that there is “nothing in the world that can be called good without qualification except a good will”[vi]. Though intelligence, wit, judgment and so on could become bad and harmful if the will or one’s character (in its special constitution) were not good; a good will or character remains in tact even when by the advent of dire misfortunes one is “lacking in power to accomplish his purpose”. He says of the first:

It need hardly be mentioned that the sight of a being adorned with no feature of a pure and good will yet enjoying lasting good fortune can never give pleasure to an impartial rational observer[vii],

whilst of the good will he says,

…if with its greatest efforts it should yet achieve nothing, and there should remain only the good will (not, to be sure, a mere wish, but the summoning of all means in our power), then, like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself”.[viii]

Kant’s moral philosophy proper goes behind the observations of common sense[ix] morality giving rise to the grounding of the metaphysics of morals where he famously puts forth his categorical imperative:

Act only according to that maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law (421, p. 38), and its counterpart

Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only. (429, p. 46)

Moral discourse is meaningful only for a rational being for whom moral dictates can be understood to provide substantive guides for human behavior. In other words, if a person does not already recognize herself to be in a position to define and guide her behavior above and beyond what she may perceive to be the consequent of natural events on her moral inquiry is rendered futile. Kant distinguishes between a “world of sense” and a “world of understanding”. The former refers to the concept of sense that “enables us to know objects as they affect us, while what they are in themselves remains unknown to us” so that we may acquire “knowledge of appearance but are “blinded” to the advent of knowing things as they are in themselves. (p. 68). Once this distinction is made, it follows that we must also admit that there is something beyond or behind these appearances but that we cannot know them. By implication the distinction between a “world of sense” and “world of understanding” becomes apparent. With regards to self, one may acquire knowledge of his empirical self by way of the appearance of his nature and affects of such appearances on his consciousness; yet, behind this empirical self there must be the non-empirical self, which Kant calls the ego (p. 69). The empirical self belongs to the world of senses, whilst the non-empirical self or ego belongs to that inner world of understanding which is pure activity. The empirical self as a consequent of being subject to causal laws of affection is heteronymous, whilst the ego can not think of the “causality of his will” except under the idea of freedom. For, Kant writes, “independence from the determining cause of the world of sense is freedom” which is “inseparably connected with the concept of autonomy which is in turn inseparably bound by the universal principle of morality from which rational beings ground all actions” (p. 70). This means that because within the world of understanding causality is will, and this is the backbone to the causality of natural laws within the world of sense, it follows that the legislator of my will must be the laws of understanding or Reason which act as imperatives upon me accordingly as directives that must and should be put into effect within the world of sense.

Similarly Socrates claims “that wealth does not bring virtue but virtue makes all other things good for you” (Apology 30b)[x] and finds fault with his jurors for being altogether preoccupied with matters pertaining to wealth, reputation and honor; paying no heed nor warning for the status of their soul (Apology 29e). Conjointly, these pivotal moral philosophers claim that that individual whose will is determined or defined by its adherence to a moral law or duty constitutes good moral character. There is no reason greater or extraneous to the conclusions drawn from moral deliberation itself to determine or direct the course of one’s life. Socrates submits himself to the dictates of his (human) wisdom seeking no ulterior motive[xi], superior or ultra reason or Authority to ground his choice. Put differently, all human beings are rational beings such that a truly morally virtuous act would presuppose a conscious act of choosing not for the sake of something that falls outside of the rule comprised by it (i.e. consequences of the act itself, and/or ulterior motives for acting such like fame and social acceptance) but in virtue of that very rule. Therefore, rationality is that from which all thinking subjects claim their autonomy and determine the fate of their own lives. To rob myself or any fellow rational being of the right to determine the fate of their own life, irrespective of the nobility of the reasons behind it, would be to reduce others to a fate under the auspice of extraneous control. Hence, even if one were to act rightly, this would be short of moral integrity precisely because it would be morally vacuous. There is no doubt that Socrates must have believed that the elenctic method must and should aim at “awakening others from their moral slumbers” such that they might assume the responsibility for their own moral directives. The forum for the pursuit of the open and liberal engagement in public discourse, however incongruent with the running morality or current political affairs would, as Mill noted, have to presuppose the freedom of expression.

[i]. Mill, On Liberty, 24-5.

[ii]. Ibid., 35.

[iii]. Ibid. 43.

[iv]. Ibid.

[v]. In the Crito it is imperative that Socrates have Crito admit that “popular opinion” is untrustworthy and hence that they must submit to no lesser authority than “the expert in right and wrong who represents the actual truth,” and that a life short of living honorably and rightly is unworthy.

[vi] Kant, Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, 393.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., 394.

[ix]. Referencing the title of the First Section of Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals Lewis Whitebeck says “gemeine Vernunfterkenntnis is one of several expressions that Kant uses which may sometimes best be translated as “common sense”. Kant is very strict in his censure of those who appeal to common sense as an arbiter in philosophical disputes, yet he accepts it as a starting point, especially in ethics….it just means “what everyone knows” about morality.” See page 9.

[x]. I have relied on the translation offered by Burnyeat who contests the standard English version (‘wealth does not bring goodness [virtue], but goodness [virtue] brings wealth and every other blessing’) of this passage. Burnyeat, “Apology 30b 2-4: Socrates, Money, and the Grammar of gignesthai”.

[xi]. A religious rendition of The Figure of Socrates would aim to accommodate the practice of the Socratic method with extrarational appeals to the daimonion—divine sign—which from early life dissuaded Socrates from actions that would have a harmful end, and his reverential respect for transtraditional omnibenevolent and omniscient gods whose authority is beyond reproach.


Except from The Pedagogic Mission: An Engagement With Ancient Greek Philosophical Practices, Rowman and Littlefield, Lexington Series.


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