Socrates the Unwise

Socrates famously argued that we achieve the good life only through the rigorous practice of philosophy.

Most of the premises in Socrates’ argument have proven to be false or at least highly contentious. Through philosophical reflection and dialogue, he came to believe that the soul survives death. Thus, we should be deeply concerned with its’ health, which is wholly a matter of leading a life of virtue. Therefore, the good person cannot be harmed, because the single-minded pursuit of virtue is ultimately all that matters.

He also seems to have thought that reality is structured according to a system of divinely-inspired values accessible only through philosophical discourse.

Each of these claims seemed manifestly implausible to Socrates’ contemporaries and they seem equally implausible today. Is there anything that can be rescued from Socrates’ argument without first rescuing his flawed metaphysics?

Far from being certain about his beliefs, Socrates claimed he lacked wisdom except for the wisdom in acknowledging what he doesn’t know. We must live with the constant acknowledgement that what we think is true might be false. This anti-dogmatism is central to Socrates’ character and his understanding of the nature of wisdom. This modesty and commitment to further inquiry is very appealing to philosophers for whom everything is open to question (except of course their pet theories.)

Yet, Socrates held the beliefs listed above with such commitment that he was willing to die rather than repudiate them. He believed that one must act rigorously in accordance with one’s beliefs without compromise even though those beliefs might turn out be false. True, he was able to defend his beliefs against the contentions of his interlocutors. But, for Socrates, that wasn’t sufficient to make him wise though it was sufficient make him dead.

Perhaps the way of philosophy is that we act with courage even in the face of uncertainty. “Act as if one is certain but be open to changing one’s beliefs when confronted with the stronger argument” seems to be his message for how to live. Socrates seemed to have thought that claims worked out through rigorous dialogue and logical analysis would yield warranted, action-guiding principles despite their incompleteness or openness to refutation. Such tentative wisdom is not the wisdom of the Gods, he pointed out, but it’s the best we limited humans can do.

Thus, he acknowledged being quite uncertain about the nature of death although he refused even modest concessions to avoid it.

But that seems careless. Does the fact you can twist interlocuters in logical circles really provide warrant for a belief that can get you killed? For Socrates it was the pursuit of truth and virtue that really matters above all, even more than his life. But this seems to depend on his view that care for the soul—for one’s capacity to reason–which he believed survives death is the most important value. That was among the most questionable of his beliefs.

Socrates was right. He was more courageous than wise.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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