W. K. C. Guthrie, "The Reaction Towards Humanism" (The Sophists and Socrates)" in The Greek Philosophers. London: Methuen, 1950.
We have now reached the second half of the fifth century B.C. Socrates is in middle life, Plato is born or about to be born. (He was born in 427.) It is the time when the reaction against physical speculation set in and philosophers began to direct their thoughts towards human life, the second of the two divisions of philosophy that I mentioned at the beginning. One reason for the change is not far to seek. It was a revolt of common sense against the remoteness and incomprehensibility of the world as the physicists presented it. The ordinary man was confronted with the choice of believing with Parmenides that all motion was illusion and reality an immovable plenum, or else 'saving the phenomena' (as the others had the impudence to call it) by accepting as the only realities atoms-invisible, colourless, scentless, soundless atoms-and void. Neither picture was either comforting or particularly credible. At any rate, if the physicists were to be believed, then what they called the physis or real nature of things was something utterly remote from the world in which we seem to live. If they were right, then the nature of the real world turned out to be of very little consequence to man, who had to deal every day with a world which was quite different.
To understand this attitude, we must of course remind ourselves again of the complete absence of any experimental proof of their assertions, and also of any form of applied science. The physicist of to-day tells me equally that the desk which seems so solid under my typewriter is in fact a whirling maelstrom containing more empty space than solid matter. I may retort that I do not experience it in that way, yet I cannot turn my back on him or conclude that his view of reality is therefore of no consequence to me. We are all only too dismally aware of the practical impact which atomic science may have upon our lives. The Greek was luckier. He could and did turn his back, and it is partly at least to this circumstance that we owe some of the most profound reflections on the nature and purpose of human life.
The reasons for the change were bound to be complex. Athens had become the acknowledged leader of Greece in intellectual as in other matters, so that thinkers from other parts of the Greek world, like Anaxagoras or Protagoras, tended to be attracted into her orbit and to make their homes there. But Athens from the year 431 was engaged in the long and terrible war which was to lead to her downfall thirty years later, and soon after its outbreak suffered all the horrors of the plague. If disinterested scientific inquiry demands, as Aristotle rightly said, at least a minimum of leisure and comfortable material circumstances, then Athens was no longer the place in which it was easy, but rather a city where the problems of human life and conduct were obtruding themselves more and more. Moreover, Athens was a democracy, a democracy small enough to ensure that the participation of all free citizens in her political life was a reality and not merely a question of voting for a political representative every few years. Some offices were filled by lot, and every citizen could feel that he had a good chance of playing an active part in the conduct of the state's affairs. This again fostered an ambition to learn more about the principles underlying political life and the arts which would ensure success in it.
Here however there is no room to be anything but strictly selective, so after that brief reminder that important social and political factors were at work as well, I propose to concentrate on the more philosophical reasons for the change, thus ensuring at least the advantage of a more continuous thread of argument to follow. The reaction away from the investigation of physis is sometimes attributed among other things to what has been called the bankruptcy of physical science, and we have already had a hint of what that phrase means. The basis of physical science in Greece, as we said at the beginning, was the search for permanence or stability, and for an underlying unity, in a universe superficially mutable and unstable, and consisting only of a most confusing plurality. To the ordinary man it must have seemed that the physicists had failed conspicuously. They offered him the choice between Parmenides and the atomists. Either he could accept unity in the world at the price of renouncing belief in everything that seemed to him real and admitting that all his sensations were false; or he could follow those who had given up all idea of a one behind the many and produced a world of nothing but infinite plurality; and not even they would allow the name of reality to the secondary qualities which made up most of the world of his experience, the world that could be seen and heard and smelt and tasted.
The reaction towards humanism is associated with the rise of a new class, the Sophists. It is often pointed out that the Sophists were not a particular philosophical school, but rather a profession. They were itinerant teachers, who made a living out of the new hunger for guidance in practical affairs which arose at this time from the causes I have mentioned: the increasing opportunities of taking part in practical politics, the growing impatience with the natural philosophers, and (one may add) an increasing scepticism about the validity of traditional religious teaching with its crudely anthropomorphic pictures of the gods. The word sophistes ('practitioner of wisdom') had not hitherto carried any derogatory implication. It was in fact the word applied to the seven sages of tradition. It was the unpopularity of the fifth-century Sophists which gave it the colouring that it has borne ever since.
Yet though one cannot call them a particular philosophical school, they had certain definite points in common. One was the essentially practical nature of their teaching, which they described as the inculcation of arete. We have already discussed the meaning of this word, whose practical import is illustrated by the story of the Sophist Hippias, who, as a sort of living advertisement of his powers, appeared at the Olympic Games wearing nothing which he had not made himself, down to the ring on his finger.
Secondly, the Sophists shared something which may more properly be called a philosophical attitude, namely a common scepticism, a mistrust of the possibility of absolute knowledge. This was a natural result of the impasse to which, it seemed, natural philosophy had come. Knowledge depends on two things: the possession of faculties capable of bringing us into touch with reality, and the existence of a stable reality to be known. As instruments of knowledge, the senses had now been severely treated, and so far nothing had been put in their place; and faith in the unity and stability of the Universe had been undermined, without, as yet, the emergence of the idea that there might be a permanent and knowable reality outside and beyond the physical world.
The lifeblood of philosophy is controversy. Once its first beginnings are past, any new development usually represents a reaction from previous thought. This is true of the greatest of the Greeks-Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. That is why it is worth spending some time, as we are doing, on their immediate predecessors in order to understand the springs of their own thought, and for the same purpose it is particularly important to grasp the point that we have come to now, that moral and political philosophy first arose in Greece (which means that it first arose. in Europe) in an atmosphere of scepticism. It was this scepticism which Socrates and his successors made it their life-work to combat. In the physical field Democritus had said that the sensations of sweet and bitter, hot and cold, were only conventional terms. They did not correspond to anything real. For this reason what seemed sweet to me might seem bitter to you, or to myself if I were unwell, and the same water might seem warm to one of my hands and cold to the other. It was all a matter of the temporary arrangement of the atoms in our bodies and their reaction to the equally temporary combination in the so-called sensible object. The transference to the field of morals was only too easy, and was first made about this time, indeed, if later tradition is to be trusted, by an Athenian named Archelaus, a pupil of Anaxagoras. If hot and cold, sweet and bitter, have no existence in nature but are simply a matter of how we feel at the time, then, it was argued, must we not suppose that justice and injustice, right and wrong, have an equally subjective and unreal existence? There can be in nature no absolute principles governing the relations between man and man. It is all a question of how you look at it.
The sceptical standpoint of the Sophists may be illustrated by quotations from the two best-known and most influential of their number, Gorgias and Protagoras. The favourite title for a natural philosopher to give to his work had been 'On Nature (physis) or the Existent'. In deliberate parody of the many works with this title, Gorgias wrote a book to which he gave the name 'On Nature, or the Nonexistent', and in it he set out to prove three things: (a) that nothing exists; (b) that if anything did exist, we could not know it; (c) that if we could know anything, we could not communicate it to our neighbour.
Protagoras expressed his views on religion thus: 'Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what form they are; for there are many obstacles to such knowledge, including the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.' He was also the author of the famous dictum: 'Man is the measure of all things', the meaning of which was~if we may trust Plato's interpretation-that the way things appear to one man is the truth for him, and the way they appear to another is the truth for him. Neither can convict the other of error, for if one sees things in one way, then that is the way they are for him, though they may be different for his neighbour. Truth is purely relative. Protagoras, however, allowed room for conventional views of truth and morals by adding that although no one opinion is truer than another, one opinion may be better than another. If to the eye of a man with jaundice all things appear yellow, they really are yellow for him, and no man has the right to tell him they are not. But it is worth while for a doctor to change that man's world by altering the state of his body so that things will cease to be yellow for him. Similarly if any man sincerely believes that it is good to steal, then that statement is true for him so long as he believes it. But the great majority for whom it both seems and is bad, ought to endeavour to change the state of his mind and lead it to beliefs which are not indeed truer, but better. The test by truth or falsehood is abandoned, and replaced by the pragmatic test.
The irreverent scepticism of the Sophists affected the hitherto unchallenged sanction of law, which was based on a belief in its divine Origin. The earliest makers of constitutions, like Lycurgus the legendary founder of Sparta, were believed to have been inspired by Apollo, and it was still customary for law-givers to apply to his oracle at Delphi and obtain, if not its advice, at least its sanction for their own plans. This religious foundation for law was now being undermined not only by the atheistical trend of natural philosophy, which the Sophists took up with such zest, but also by external circumstances such as the increasing contact of the Greeks with foreign countries and the great body of contemporary law-making connected with the foundation of colonies. The Sophists were the children of their age. The first taught them the fundamental differences which might exist between the laws and customs of peoples living in different climes. As for the second, it was difficult to believe that constitutions came from heaven when one's own friends (or still worse, one's political enemies) were on the commission which drew them up. Protagoras himself was on the commission sent out in 443 B.C. to draft a constitution for the new Athenian colony of Thurii in South Italy. It is not surprising that he became the first promulgator of that theory of the origin of law which we now know as the social contract. He said that for their own protection from wild creatures and for the advancement of their standard of living men had at an early stage been obliged to band themselves together into communities. Hitherto they had had neither moral standards nor laws, but life in societies was found to be impossible if the standards of the jungle prevailed, and so, by slow and painful degrees, they learned the necessity of laws and conventions whereby the stronger pledge themselves not to attack and rob the weak simply because they are the stronger.(1)
Given this initial premise, that laws and moral codes were not divine in origin but man-made and imperfect, it was possible to draw widely differing practical conclusions. Protagoras himself said that they had come into being because they were necessary. He championed the social contract therefore and urged submission to the laws. Other more radical Sophists repudiated it, and maintained the natural right of the stronger to have his way. Different conclusions might be drawn, but the premise was the same for all. All alike took their stand on the complete absence of absolute values and standards, whether based on theological considerations or not. All human action was regarded by the Sophists as based on experience alone and dictated by nothing but expediency. Right and wrong, wisdom, justice and goodness, were nothing but names, even though it might be argued that it was sometimes prudent to act as if they were more.
Into this world of thought came SOCRATES. This is the outlook which seemed to him at once intellectually mistaken and morally harmful, and which he made it his life-work to combat.(2)
Socrates is probably best known for the famous dictum which is usually translated 'Virtue is knowledge', and to find out what this means makes as good an approach as any to the centre of his teaching. It is best understood historically, that is, by relating it to the problems which previous and contemporary thought, and the circumstances of his time, had forced on his attention, and which he was doing his best to solve.
We know now that the word 'virtue' attaches false associations to the Greek arete, which meant primarily efficiency at a particular task. We have also seen that the opponents against whom Socrates's teaching was aimed claimed two things: (a) that they themselves could teach or impart arete, (b) that knowledge, at least knowledge which could be shared, was a chimera. There was no such thing. By equating arete with knowledge, therefore, Socrates's statement takes on the aspect of a deliberate challenge, which we can only recapture by thinking ourselves back to the times in which he lived.
One of the things about Socrates which irritated the sensible, practical Athenian was that he would insist on turning the talk to such humble and apparently irrelevant people as shoemakers and carpenters, when what they wanted to learn about was what constituted political ability or whether there was such a thing as moral obligation. If you want to be a good shoemaker, he said, the first thing necessary is to know what a shoe is and what it is meant for. It is no use trying to decide on the best sort of tools and material to use and the best methods of using them unless you have first formed in your mind a clear and detailed idea of what it is you are setting out to produce and what function it will have to perform. To use the Greek word, the arete of a shoemaker depended first and foremost on the possession of this knowledge. He ought to be able to describe in clear terms the nature of the thing he intended to make, and his definition should include a statement of the use to which it was to be put. It was quite natural to speak of the arete of a shoemaker, just as one could also speak of the arete of a general or statesman. In no such case did the word have any necessary connexion with the moral aspect of their activities as our word 'virtue' would suggest. It meant that in them which made them good at their particular job, and by taking first the humble examples of the useful crafts, it was not difficult for Socrates to show that in each case the acquisition of this capacity depended on knowledge and that the first and most necessary knowledge was knowledge in each case of the end in view- what the man was setting out to do. Given a proper understanding of the end, the understanding of the means to be adopted could follow, but not otherwise. In every instance, therefore, arete depended first on having a definite job to do, and secondly on a thorough knowledge of what the job was and what it aimed at effecting. If then (he proceeded) there is any legitimate sense in which we can talk about arete unqualified, as the Sophists were professing to teach it- that is, efficiency in living for any man as such- it follows that there must be an end or function which all alike, as human beings, have to perform. The first task therefore, if we are to acquire this universal human virtue, is to discover what the function of man is.
Now I would not say that from the records of Socrates's teaching which we have in the writings of his pupils (for he himself wrote nothing, believing that the only thing of value was the living interchange of ideas by question and answer between two people in personal contact) we find the answer to this primary question of the universal end or aim of human life. Its absence from his teaching was, I should say, one reason which made the more positive Plato feel it his duty not only to reproduce his master's teaching but to carry it a stage further. It is in keeping with Socrates's character that the answer should not be there. He was accustomed to say that he did not himself know anything, and that the only way in which he was wiser than other men was that he was conscious of his own ignorance, while they were not. The essence of the Socratic method is to convince the interlocutor that whereas he thought he knew something, in fact he does not. The conviction of iguorance is a necessary first step to the acquisition of knowledge, for no one is going to seek knowledge on any subject if he is under the delusion that he already possesses it. People complained that his conversation had the numbing effect of an electric shock.(3) Since he regarded it as his mission in life to go around convincing people of their ignorance, it is not surprising that he was unpopular, nor can we wholly blame the Athenians
- tragic though their mistake was- for confusing him with the Sophists and venting on him the odium which the Sophists had aroused. They held that knowledge was impossible; he demonstrated to everybody that they knew nothing. In fact the difference was profound; for the action of Socrates was based on a passionate belief that knowledge was possible, but that the debris of half-thought-out and misleading ideas which filled most men's minds must be cleared away before the search for it could begin. What he set before men, in strong opposition to sophistic scepticism, was 'an ideal of knowledge unattained'.(4) Once they had perceived the way to the goal, he was ready to seek it with them, and all philosophy was summed up for him in this idea of the 'common search'. Neither his companion nor he himself knew the truth yet, but if only the other could be persuaded that this was so, they might set out together with good hope of finding it. True Socraticism represents first and foremost an attitude of mind, an intellectual humility easily mistaken for arrogance, since the true Socratic is convinced of the ignorance not only of himself but of all mankind. This rather than any body of positive doctrine is the contribution of Socrates.
To return, then, to his insistence that if we wish to acquire arete, an essential preliminary is to discover and define the aim or function of man: we will not now expect to find that end or function neatly defined in any cut-and-dried way by Socrates himself. His mission was to make men aware of the necessity, and to suggest a method by which the required definition might be sought, so that he himself as well as his fellow-seekers might set about finding it.
In the confusion of ethical thought which was a mark of his time, one fact stood out for him as particularly mischievous. Men's talk was interlarded with a great variety of general terms, especially terms intended to be descriptive of ethical notions-justice, temperance, courage and so forth. I started, says Socrates, in my innocence, by supposing that they knew what these words meant, since they used them so freely, and I set out full of hope that they would tell me, who did not know. When he questioned them, however, he found that none of them could give him a proper explanation. Perhaps in the light of the Sophists' teaching it ought to be supposed that these terms had indeed no meaning; but if so, men ought to be stopped from using them. If on the other hand they have any permanent significance, then the men who use them ought to be able to say what it is. You cannot talk about acting wisely, justly or well unless you know what wisdom, justice and goodness are. If, as Socrates suspected, different people using the same words mean different things by them, they are talking at cross-purposes and only confusion can result. The confusion will be at once intellectual and moral. Intellectually, discussion with a man who is using his terms in a different sense from you can lead nowhere- except possibly to a quarrel; and morally, when the terms in question stand for ethical notions, nothing but anarchy can result. This double side of the problem, moral and intellectual, was what Socrates wished to express by saying that virtue is knowledge. So clear moreover was his own mind and steadfast his character that it seemed to him self-evident that if men could be brought to see this truth they would automatically choose the right. All that was necessary was to make them take the trouble to find out what the right is. Hence his second famous saying, that no one does wrong willingly. If virtue is knowledge, vice is only due to ignorance.
How then are we to set about acquiring this knowledge of what virtue, justice, etc., are? Socrates, as I have said, was prepared to suggest a method, both for others and himself. The knowledge is obtained in two stages, referred to by Aristotle when he says that Socrates can justly claim the credit for two things, inductive argument and general definition. These somewhat dry logical terms, which would certainly have surprised Socrates himself, do not sound as if they had much connexion with morals, but for Socrates the connexion was vital. The first stage is to collect instances to which it is agreed by both fellow-seekers that the name 'justice' (if justice is the quarry) can be applied. Then the collected examples of just actions are examined to discover in them some common quality by virtue of which they bear that name. This common quality, or more likely a group or nexus of common qualities, constitutes their essence as just acts. It is in fact, abstracted from the accidental properties of time and circumstance which belong to each of the just acts individually, the definition of justice. Thus the inductive argument is, as its Greek name signifies, a 'leading-on' of the mind from individual instances, assembled and regarded collectively, to a comprehension of their common definition.
The fault which Socrates found with the victims of his tireless questioning was that they thought it sufficient to perform the first stage only, i.e. to mention a few scattered instances and say 'This and that are justice.' The type is summed up in Euthyphro, who in Plato's dialogue of that name is represented as conversing with Socrates about the meaning of piety, the topic having cropped up in connexion with the fact that Euthyphro has been moved by what he considers a sense of duty to prosecute his own father for manslaughter. Asked what meaning he attaches to the word 'piety', he replies, 'Piety is what I am doing now.' To his companion in another dialogue Socrates says, 'I only asked you for one thing, virtue, but you have given me a whole swarm of virtues.' He was trying to make them see that even if there are many and various examples of right action, yet they must all have one common quality or character by reason of which they are called right. If not, the word is meaningless.
That was the aim of the importunate questions which made him so unpopular-to get from the swarm of virtues to the definition of the one thing, virtue. It sounds like an exercise in logic, but was in fact the only way in which it seemed possible to Socrates to combat the subversive moral effects of Sophistic teaching. Those men who, in answer to such questions as 'What is piety?' reply 'What I am doing now' are just the men who would say that the only rule of conduct is to decide on the spur of the moment what is most advantageous. Of rules in the accepted sense, universally applicable principles, there are none. The logical fallacy led directly to moral anarchy.
Socrates paid the penalty of being ahead of his time. His clear and direct thinking was classed with that of the very Sophists against whom his irony had been aimed, and he was charged by two reactionary citizens with corrupting young men and not believing in the city's gods. It must be admitted that the most famous of his pupils and associates had not done him credit. One was Alcibiades, about whom no more need be said. Another was Critias, the bitter and revengeful oligarch who came back from exile into power after the fall of Athens in 404, and was largely responsible for the bloody purge which took place under the so-called Thirty Tyrants, of whom he was the most violent and extreme. Socrates's accusers demanded the death-penalty. According to Athenian custom, it was open to him to suggest a lighter sentence, the judges being left to choose between the two. His own suggestion, however, was that he should be given the freedom of the city as a public benefactor. In any case, he said, he had no money to pay an adequate fine. At the earnest instigation of Plato and others of his friends he offered a fine which they would pay, but would give no undertaking to cease his 'corrupting' activities, on the grounds that to him they were more important than life itself. This left the judges little choice, and he was sent to prison to await execution. Once more his friends appeared, this time with a plan which would have made his escape easy. It is probable that many, if not most, of those who disapproved of him had no wish to see him die, and would have been more than content if he could have been persuaded to leave Athens and live quietly somewhere else. He replied however that he had all his life enjoyed the benefits which the laws of Athens conferred on her citizens, and now that those same laws saw fit that he should die, it would be both unjust and ungrateful for him to evade their decision. Besides, who could tell that he was not going to a far better existence than that which he had known hitherto? In this serene frame of mind he drank the hemlock in the year 399 B.C., at the age of seventy.
The end of Socrates made such a deep impression on one of his young friends that it set the seal on his reluctance to engage in the political life for which his birth and talents seemed to have marked him out. Disillusioned in any case by the condition to which his city was reduced and the excesses of its latest rulers, Plato decided that the state which could put such a man to death was not one in which he could play any active part. Instead, he devoted himself to the writing of those amazing dialogues in which he gives a lifelike picture of his master, and develops, confirms, and enlarges his teaching ii' words put into the mouth of that great-souled man himself. There is much more that could be said about Socrates, but his thought is so closely connected with Plato's, and the dividing line between them so hard to discern with any clearness, that I shall stop at this point talking about Socrates alone and for himself. As we go on to discuss Plato, it is inevitable that we should from time to time be brought back to various aspects of the message of Socrates, and I think it is thus, in connexion with the further fruits of Plato's meditation upon them, that they can best be introduced.
1. I am assuming that the myth told by Protagoras in Plato's dialogue of that name is truly mythical in the sense that the divine apparatus can be stripped away without any loss to the serious message which he intends to convey. No significance is to be attached to the fact that conscience and a sense of justice are there said to have been implanted in men at the orders of Zeus. This is perhaps not universally agreed, but not only is the mythical nature of the exposition insisted upon (and reflected in the fairy-tale beginning: 'Once upon a time'), but any other interpretation would be inconsistent with Protagoras's views on religion as stated elsewhere.
2. For an understanding of Socrates, the excellent article of Professor R. Hackforth in Philosophy, vol. VIII (1933) is especially to be recommended.
3. Lest any reader be taken aback by this simile, on the grounds that the Greeks knew nothing of electricity, I had better explain that the object of comparison was the stingray (Greek narke'), a fish which paralyzes its victims by an electrical discharge. The homely flat-nosed face of the philosopher added point to the likeness.
4. Hackforth, l.c.