The Theosophical Forum – April 1947

SOCRATES — Ingo Burmester

Socrates, the Greek teacher-philosopher, effectively spread many new philosophical concepts, which have been influential down to our own times. The reasons for this influence are not far to seek. They lie in the originality and the inspired quality of his thought and of his methods of teaching.

In his personal life Socrates achieved a marvelous measure of physical and mental control. Initially he had a strong, though ugly, body. Whether natural or developed, he showed an unusual disregard for physical hardships. Both his physical and moral courage are evidenced by records of his military career and later by his attacks on current Athenian governmental abuses. Most of his life (470 to 399 b.c.) was spent in his native Athens.

What we know of Socrates is uncertain. He wrote nothing himself but there is plenty of information available about him, even though most of it is of a contradictory nature. Aside from numerous minor references placing him historically, the real nature of the man and his philosophy are gleaned from three authors. Aristophanes, the poet, caricatured him in his "Clouds." Xenophanes, a disciple and devoted admirer, wrote at length in defense of his memory. But Xenophanes did not truly understand the philosophy of Socrates, so his plaudits do not make a good basis for a real analysis of the philosophy. Most of what we know about Socrates comes from the "Dialogues" of Plato, who was a pupil. Most authorities think that the naturalness of Plato's treatment of the Socratic theme makes it more than likely that he attributed much to Socrates which was in reality highly colored by his own ideas. Whatever is the case, there have been attributed to Socrates, by interpreting and checking the obtainable data, a definite historical background and a derivative or original philosophy.

Socrates claimed no origin for his beliefs except himself and his guiding daemon. However, because he spent a lifetime talking with and teaching a great many of the inhabitants of Athens, including many of the best minds of the time, it can be considered that he absorbed many ideas through his associations.

He consecrated his life to teaching, to awakening a moral consciousness (an awareness of real moral content and value), and to the effort to stimulate the impulse in people to seek self-knowledge. He was started on this path by the guiding and impelling force of mystical experiences. The power in the experiences consisted of what he called a daemon. This entity instructed by informing him of what he must not do; otherwise it allowed him free rein. One such injunction was to refrain from politics. Socrates believed this guidance to come from a divine, all-knowing, ethical source. He obeyed it implicitly, so it must be conceded that he did not consider the possibility of its being a keen conscience, subject to the limitations of such a function. Whatever is the case, it led to his death and a great antipathy to his immediate memory.

In accord with the trend of his times, Socrates' teachings and teaching were based on moderation and reason. He believed that the souls of all men have garnered knowledge somewhere, apart from their present body, and that the mind of that soul, with help, could be made to remember. In light of this, he introduced the Socratic Method of teaching. To be fair, Zeno, a pupil of Parmenides, used it first; but Socrates developed the method and illustrated its full usefulness. Socrates asserted that his wisdom lay in that he knew nothing; that all men knew nothing; that knowledge was obtainable, but that up to date only divinity was knowledge. The Socratic method is the asking of leading, pointed questions for the purpose of eliciting answers that will lead the student to a truth without the teacher's having imparted any information. This hinges on the ability of the teacher to ask the right questions. Today this method is generally considered appropriate only to dialectical discussion — such points as pertain only to the logical association of already established fact or opinion — but is unsuited for the discovery of factual data.

The doctrine expounded by Socrates does not appear to be grounded on any basic, initial, philosophic ideas. This is because his method of teaching demanded that he approach each prospective student differently, and consequently he arrived at seemingly opposed conclusions. Socrates did affect many excellent minds of his day, and so we must conclude that his philosophy had a fundamental grounding. Otherwise it would never have satisfied some of the questions prevalent in that era. Let's put it this way: Socrates tried to and did establish an approach to knowledge. Had he not been able to excuse and defend such an approach by satisfying previous philosophical controversies, his own premises would never have been granted.

Socrates' main doctrine was that knowledge, aside from its objective aspects, such as apparent utility, has a subjective side. He considered this idea primarily with regard to ethical questions. True knowledge regarding them was only established when they could be defined. This doctrine has received much philosophical attention. This is because it raised many questions not previously considered. As an example: true knowledge, for the Sophist, was information that had utility. Socrates opposed the Sophists and defeated this idea on many occasions. This was his reasoning: to inquire about existence, we must have ideas of this existence. These ideas are garnered, by inductive methods, from our surroundings. The validity of these ideas can not be surely established till we know the nature of the entity holding them. So man must first seek to know himself. This knowledge of self affords concepts from which to deduce the real nature of the idea. He believed that no one ever wittingly acts wrongly. So then, to act right, with knowledge, is virtue. Knowledge is virtue. There is but one knowledge, so there is but one virtue and it leads to happiness.

He applied this doctrine to the moral and ethical concepts of the time. Socrates' endeavor was to find a permanent, true code of behavior and so insure the welfare of all. But in doing this he did two other things: he incurred the animosity and hatred of those too lazy to think; and worse, he attacked the state by attacking the maxims and ritual of its religion. He was impeached, and rather than retract and stop his teaching, he sentenced himself to death. Another cause for his impeachment has been suggested: it is that he was divulging secret information of the Orphic Mysteries. This act was punishable by death.

Till the time he drank the Hemlock Cup, he believed that he was an emissary of God; had a responsibility to the world which he could not shirk. He must teach people what he knew and make them wish to search for knowledge for its sake alone. Socrates had a marked effect on the present. His theory of knowledge has fashioned and altered all succeeding philosophy and consequently the course of all peoples contemporaneous with that philosophy.

The Theosophical Forum