History The more you know


Socrates was born in 470/469 a.c. from Sofronisco, sculptor, and Fenarete, a midwife. At first, he perhaps practiced his father’s profession, but later he abandoned it to devote himself exclusively to philosophical investigation. Not infrequently he had to resort to the financial help of friends. He married Santippe, who a certain tradition tends to present as a nagging and unbearable woman: it has come to think that Socrates was always in the streets not so much to philosophize as to stay away from Xantippe and his continuous lectures: it seems that Socrates has succeeded in letting everyone reason except Xantippe. From her, he had three children. Socrates never left Athens except for brief military expeditions: in fact, in 432 he participated in the expedition against Potidea, rescuing wounded Alcibiades, and in 424 he fought in Delio alongside Laches during the Athenians’ retreat before the Beoti. Later in 421, he fought at Amphipolis. In 406 in accordance with the principle of the rotation of the offices, he was part of the Pritani, that is the Council group which was responsible for deciding what problems to submit to the Assembly and opposed the illegal proposal to try all the winning generals together in the offshore naval battle Arginuse, because they had not collected the castaways. With this stance, he placed himself in contrast with the Democrats, but in 404, having passed the power in the hands of the oligarchy headed by the Thirty, he refused to obey the order to arrest one of their adversaries, Leo of Salamis.

In 403 the restored democracy, while granting an amnesty, continued to recognize in Socrates a figure hostile to the new order, also due to the relations he had maintained in the past with figures such as Alcibiades and Critias. In 399 Meleto presented an indictment against Socrates, but among his accusers were also Licone and above all Anito, one of the most influential figures of restored democracy. The indictment is as follows: “Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the city and introducing other new deities. He is also guilty of having bribed young people. The death penalty is required”. The prosecutors probably counted on a voluntary exile by Socrates, as had happened in the past for Protagoras or Anaxagoras, but he did not abandon the city and underwent the trial. The majority of the judges voted for the death sentence which was carried out in prison through the administration of hemlock. We can insert Socrates in the sophistical era (although he sided against the sophists) because like the Sophists he became interested in ethical and anthropological problems, putting aside the search for the principle and cosmogony. Socrates never wrote anything and so to reconstruct his thinking we have to resort to other authors. The main sources on the life of Socrates are four 1) Plato 2) Xenophon 3) Aristotle 4) Aristophanes. 1) Plato is certainly the most reliable source: he was a direct disciple of Socrates and with him he always shared the idea of ​​philosophy as a continuous research.

Xenophon is the most banal and least interesting source: the Socrates of Xenophon’s writings is a loyal citizen to tradition, the true interpreter of current values, the essay that aims at the good of his fellow citizens and is obsequious to the city and its divinities. It must immediately be specified that Xenophon was a great general, brave and valiant, but he was certainly not an eagle: his writings themselves are certainly not obvious examples of Greek literature: they are redundant and repetitive. Xenophon also made military campaigns with Socrates and in his writings he exalts its value by saying that he never stood still, he was always in action, he suffered nothing (he even walked on nud on the ice). Xenophon of philosophy cared nothing for him and with Socrates, of whom he was a great friend, he never dealt with philosophical subjects, only military ones: this allows us to understand that Socrates modulated the discourse according to the character he had before him: with a philosopher he spoke of philosophy, with a general of war. 3) The testimony of Aristotle has long been considered the most reliable because Socrates is not charged with symbolic meanings: Aristotle speaks to us in an objective way. However, the Aristotelian testimony has its limits: first, it is the least “artistic” of the 4 and is the only one of a non-contemporary. It must then be said that in Aristotle Socrates we are presented almost as a “robot”: the Socratic philosophy is presented as a succession of arguments and no space is given to philosophizing in public, to open dialogue. 4) Aristophanes is the closest character to Socrates as an age: he presents us with a relatively young Socrates (around 40 years). It should be remembered that Aristophanes was a playwright and it follows that the image he gives us of Socrates is strongly impregnated with sarcastic traits. In “The clouds” he presents it to us as a sophist who studies nature (the opposite of what it actually was), with his head in the clouds. In short, Aristophanes is the only one to give us a strongly negative image of Socrates (in fact Aristophanes was one of the first accusers of Socrates). In reality we must not think that Aristophanes wanted to discredit Socrates or tease him out of malice: after all he was only doing his work as a playwright, which consisted of making people laugh. In reality, with the figure of Socrates he wants to mock not Socrates, but the whole category of philosophers. The testimony of Plato remains the best and the other three must be exploited as support. Plato really knew him well and he was a great philosopher himself: the big limitation is that since he was a philosopher, Plato could have reworked Socrates’ speeches, and that’s exactly what he does as he gets older. “Apologia”, fortunately, remains a youthful dialogue in which Plato describes the process that decreed the condemnation to death of Socrates.

It is precisely in this dialogue that the difference between Socrates and the sophists strongly emerges: the sophists gave refined and elegant speeches, but totally devoid of truth: for them the important thing was to speak well, to have a good effect on the ears of the listeners. For Socrates, on the other hand, what matters most is the truth: he proclaims himself incapable of responding to such elegant and well-formulated (but false) speeches. Socrates, while not holding a refined oration, says the truth: the criticism of the sophists will then be taken up by Plato himself. The sophists aimed to amaze the listener, since they were convinced that the truth did not exist (especially Gorgia. Socrates does not deliver a speech (like the sophists) to defend himself in court, but sets up a dialogue of response and response: it is from the speech that the truth comes to light (Plato will say that the discourse between two or more individuals is like the clash between two stones from which the flame of knowledge is born.) Socrates’ oratory style is meager, dry and almost familiar, modulated according to the The starting point of the Socratic discourse is the so-called “Socratic irony”, that is the total self-reduction, “I do not know, you know”. Thus also “Apologia” begins: the question “what is x ? “and the interlocutor falls into the trap and responds, feeling superior to Socrates. Socrates, as we have said speaking of Xenophon, speaks of arguments known to the interlocutor: for example if he speaks with a general he will ask him” what is it courage? “That will answer, for example, saying that courage is never backing down. Then Socrates will intervene by saying that this is not courage, but madness. Criticism becomes an incentive for the interlocutor to provide a second, more articulated answer: the game can go on for a long time and often remain open This method is called “maieutic”: Socrates used to say that he did the same job as his mother, who was a midwife: she gave birth to women, he gave birth to souls, and how midwives evaluate whether the baby is “good”, so Socrates assesses whether ideas, definitions are good. Not all interlocutors were intelligent and recognized their mistakes: they often preferred to avoid Socrates. Socrates was also referred to as a “torpedo” by an interlocutor as the meeting with Socrates it is shocking because it overturns the conceptions of those who were convinced they knew and showed that in reality they did not know. Socrates himself compared himself to a big man who stimulates the horse: he stimulated men to reason. Socrates, with the self-depreciation process, claims to know nothing, while he claims that the sophists know everything: he says that perhaps the education he imparts is useless compared to the sophistry, but it is certainly more important. The calumnies against Socrates began when he called himself wise because the oracle of Delphi had told him that he was the wisest of men. He had been shocked by this affirmation and could not believe it: then he started traveling around Athens to see if he actually found people more knowledgeable than he. So he went to those who thought themselves wise: politicians, poets, artisans. Socrates noticed that all three categories were convinced they knew, but in reality they knew nothing: politicians were the worst of all, not as politicians (Socrates himself, if he wanted to, was a politician because he carried out his activity in public) but because they are not able to teach their knowledge: a true scholar must explain what he knows: even the best politicians (Pericles) do not know how to transmit their knowledge. The same was true for the poets, who starting from Homer were considered wise and educators: Socrates blames them both because they say absurdity, and because theirs is not a knowledge, but a form of “inspired madness”: it was the divinity who spoke for their mouth. The least worse turned out to be the artisans, who at least knew how to do different things of public utility: theirs is a “techno”, that is a practical wisdom. But even the artisans had their flaws: they were competent in their field, but they were presumptuous because they were convinced that their knowledge was universal and unlimited, rather than limited. Moreover they acted without thinking and pondering. Socrates came to the conclusion that the Delphic oracle was right: he himself is the wisest, knowing he does not know. His should not be interpreted as an attitude of renouncing the search for truth, but as a sign of intellectual modesty: it is precisely the fact of being aware of one’s own knowledge that drives man to strive to reach knowledge; if you are convinced that you already know everything, you will not try to improve. Among the various accusations that are made against Socrates there is also that of bribing young people in the square making them worse: he replies to this accusation saying that he would have no reason to do so. In fact, if he corrupted young people he would end up living in a city of corrupt youth, which would backfire against himself. The so-called “ethical intellectualism” of Socrates must certainly be remembered: according to him, no one can do evil knowing that he is actually doing it: no one could ever hurt himself voluntarily. A robber robs not thinking of doing harm, but of doing good: it is an intellectual mistake to think well of what is bad. It is a typically Christian-Catholic attitude that one can choose between good and evil without distinction. Thus Socrates introducing ethical intellectualism proves that he acted for the good of his city. Socrates has discovered the modern concept of soul (yuch): previously it meant “vital breath”, what makes things live; the term yuch then assumed the meaning of “image in Hades”, a weakened existence. For the Orfics it meant “demon”. From Socrates to the present day the soul has become our self: we identify ourselves with the soul. According to Socrates we can divide the goods and the evils into three categories a) of the soul b) of the body c) of the outside. The body is the instrument as well as the prison of the soul. Money, for example, is an external good. In some situations it seems that Socrates (and even Plato) rejects material and body goods, choosing those of the soul; on other occasions it seems that both can be accepted. Socrates, for example, does not seem to despise wine. This ambiguity between the goods of the body and the goods of the soul can be explained by affirming that goods are all goods until they come into conflict with others: the search for physical pleasure becomes bad when it is placed before the search for intellectual pleasure. This is true not only for goods, but also for the relationship between soul and body: the body for Socrates and Plato should not be despised, rather it should be appreciated because it serves the soul. For Christianity wealth is bad, for Socrates and Plato it is a good as long as it does not enter into conflict with other goods. The Socratic concept of injustice is interesting: it does not harm those who suffer it, but those who commit it. Justice in fact gives a sense of inner pleasure and those who are unjust lose this pleasure, while those who suffer injustice continue to experience it. This also applies to Plato. Among the things that Socrates says he does not know is the knowledge of the afterlife, of what is there after death (Plato will say he can prove the existence of an afterlife). For him it is not that if you live a just life you will be rewarded: you are already satisfied by living rightly, the happiness that you feel because you are right is already a sort of prize: Socrates says that maybe there could be an afterlife, but he does not know it . Among the various accusations made there was also that of atheism and impiety: Socrates in fact believed in demons, which he proclaimed “sons of gods”. He shows that it is a wrong accusation saying that if he believes in demons who are children of gods, it is obvious that he also believes in gods: for there to be a son (demon), there must also be the father and mother (the other deities ) But what was this demon? We have two divergent testimonies: for Plato he was a sort of guardian angel – a personal conscience that intervened whenever Socrates was about to make a mistake: it would be a sort of “privileged help” that not everyone has: only good people. It is a divine gift for the good. It is as if the divinity participated in human life. For Xenophon instead the demon is an entity that pushes him to act in certain ways: Xenophon intends to anchor Socrates strongly to the belief in a divine order and in a divine intervention in human life. For Socrates the important thing is not to live, but to live well: when our soul is healthy, just, then we are fine too. Still Xenophon in the “Memorable Sayings” summarizes the proof of the existence of God formulated by Socrates in these terms: what is not the work of chance postulates an intelligent cause, with particular regard to the human body which has a non-random organized structure. Because of its origin, man is considered superior to all other animals and is the object of God’s interest, as can also be deduced from the possibility of knowing his projects on man by resorting to the art of divination. It should be noted that the Socratic God (understood as a finalizing intelligence) is a sort of elevation to an absolute entity of the human psyche. Many have noticed that the accusers did not actually want to sentence him to death, but simply to silence him. But Socrates cannot accept being silenced: his destiny is to go around talking to people. Living well for Socrates means carrying out this activity and not refusing to be guilty meant not losing meaning to his life. Since he was already old and had only a few years of life left, he might as well end it, but not give up his ideals. While Plato’s research will go into another dimension, that of Socrates remains firmly anchored to the earthly world: its mission is to make citizens understand what they are doing. In Socrates there is also a rejection of politics (which we will also find in Plato): he points out that he himself had had several problems with politics: first the oligarchists had been thrown against him, and now the democrats (in the accusation) to the detriment of Socrates one can see political instances: he was an aristocrat and the democrats wanted to punish him). Despite having problems with politics, Socrates does not say that it should be abolished. Before the execution of the death penalty, Socrates had been presented with the possibility of escaping from prison, but he had refused: in fact in him there was the utmost respect for the law, which should not be broken under any circumstances. The law can be criticized, but not broken: in the face of an unjust law we must not break it, but we must fight to make it change. Socrates states that it was his duty to change the law and that if he failed, it was right for him to die. The Athenians are convinced that they got rid of Socrates having physically eliminated him, but in reality to get rid of them completely they would have had to “kill him philosophically”, beat him in words. In reality they wanted to shut him up, but they had the opposite effect: Plato, in fact, who was intent on devoting himself to political life, will be upset by the master’s condemnation and will devote himself to philosophy. In Socrates there is a vague idea of ​​divine providence, but not a collective one, but an individual one: the divinity helps only the best. The conclusion of the Apology is very famous, in which Socrates addresses his disciples before being executed: “But now it is time to leave: I to death, you to life. Those of us who walk to a higher goal are obscure to anyone: not to my god. ” In the “Symposium” of PlatoPlatone Alcibiades states that Socrates does not resemble any of the men of the past and present: he is a new figure. He is not interested in politics, but does not disdain it, does not reject feasts, but does not identify himself with it (in the “Symposium” all the guests fall asleep, Socrates does not). Let us now focus more on the discursive technique of Socrates: the refutation is the technique that demonstrates the inconsistency of the knowledge of one’s interlocutors. But to arrive at this result we must start from the question and answer method. “What is justice?” May be the starting point for the debate: asking this or any other question of this kind means asking for the definition of the things in question, which however must be valid for all particular cases. In this sense, Socrates’ research has been interpreted by Aristotle as a search for the universal, in the context of concepts and moral problems. Socrates’ interlocutors prove incapable of responding correctly to the question either because they underestimate Socrates (who claims to be inferior) and because they respond by citing particular cases, rather than the universal definition. We have already mentioned the case of the question “What is courage?”: To answer “never indignit” is wrong, as well as to say “to attack the enemy”: one can also be courageous in dealing with a disease or a question: a correct definition must cover all possible cases. In its negative function, the question and answer method is characterized as a refutation, that is, demonstration of the falsehood or contradiction of the answers given by the interlocutor. The effects produced by the exercise of this method are compared to those of the marine torpedo, which numbs those it touches. In the face of the refutation one can react by refusing it, as do various interlocutors of Socrates. But, if it is accepted, it can free itself from the false opinions one has on the various subjects and therefore act as a form of purification. The situation, which results from the refutation, is called aporia, that is literally situation with no way out. It consists in realizing that the attempts made so far to respond to a particular problem have led to a blind alley. But in this new situation, free from false knowledge and above all from the presumption of knowing, one can go about searching for true knowledge, trying new ways that can lead to it. In this new orientation the question and answer method can perform a positive function. It is compared to the function performed by the maieutics, capable of giving birth to everyone, through appropriately directed questions, the truth, of which each is pregnant. Socrates incessantly insists on making his interlocutors converge in the admission of a fundamental point: in order to know how to act well, that is virtuously, in a given area, it is necessary to possess the knowledge that makes them capable of this. To this result he arrives through the analogy with the techniques: the good craftsman who knows how to carry out his activity well possesses a knowledge that can guide him to this result. The same thing must be true in the ethical-political sphere: this is the crux of the famous thesis that virtue is science. This thesis leads to some consequences. First, those who know what is good and therefore also what is good for him cannot but do it. The good is endowed with an indisputable power of attraction. This does not mean that Socrates disregards the importance of passions and emotions in human life, but only that in every area of ​​human life the only instrument capable of directing towards correct behavior is recognized in knowledge. Socrates’ ethical position should not be confused with forms of ascetic rigor. Instead it can be defined as a form of eudemonism, because it sets the pursuit of happiness as its fundamental objective (in Greek eudaimonia). It is knowledge that is able to perform a correct calculation of the same pleasures, measuring the pleasant or painful consequences that they can cause. This is knowledge, of which Socrates declares not to be in possession, but precisely for this reason it is the knowledge he pursues. It makes no sense then to distinguish the various virtues clearly from each other: virtue is one, as only one is the knowledge in which they are summarized: knowing what is good and what is bad.


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