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What Socrates Knew:
Thirty Socratic Theses, Part 1 of 2

Socrates and Xanthippe

7,763 words

Part 1 of 2

Author’s Note:

On August 24th, 1999 I began a lecture course called “What Socrates Knew” with a lecture called “Thirty Socratic Theses.” What follows is a transcription of the first half of the lecture by V.S. The thirty theses are listed below, as are links to the audio of the lecture. 

The “Thirty Socratic Theses” are:

  1. The primary philosophical question is: How should I live? What is the good life?
  2. All human action aims at happiness or well-being (eudaimonia).
  3. Well-being is not necessarily well-feeling, for well-being may require ill-feeling from time to time.
  4. Wisdom and luck are the two causes of well-being.
  5. Wisdom = the ability to make right use of all things.
  6. Wisdom is unconditionally and intrinsically good — all other things that contribute to the good life are merely conditionally and extrinsically good.
  7. Folly is the opposite of wisdom. It may not be unconditionally bad.
  8. Wisdom is not an art or technique. No technique is sufficient for the pursuit of happiness.
  9. Wisdom enlarges the realm of human power and efficacy, pushing back the frontiers of luck.
  10. All human beings intend the good; nobody intentionally does evil.
  11. Good action follows directly upon knowledge of the good.
  12. Evil action happens only out of ignorance of the good.
  13. Virtue is knowledge of the good; vice is ignorance of the good.
  14. The soul is susceptible of structural and dynamic analysis.
  15. The soul has parts (reason, spirit, desire) and these parts can function together in
    harmony (spiritual health) and in disharmony (spiritual disease).
  16. The soul also has a dynamic power: eros. Eros is the soul’s longing for growth toward the good: for completion, self-actualization, and immortality. Eros is the desire for the good of the soul aroused by the beauty of the body.
  17. Each part of the soul has its appropriate erotic object–knowledge, ideals, the necessities of life.
  18. Wisdom produces the inner harmony of the parts of the soul and guides them to their completion.
  19. Philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom = the care of the soul.
  20. Happiness = the harmonious unfolding and actualization of the soul’s powers over time, just as physical health is the harmonious unfolding and actualization of the body’s powers over time.
  21. Wisdom is itself a kind of inner harmony and completion of the soul.
  22. Wisdom both leads to happiness and is part of happiness itself.
  23. Happiness is unconditionally good as well.
  24. Once achieved, happiness as health of the soul, can never be corrupted by external actors; external forces can kill us, but only we can corrupt our souls.
  25. It is better to suffer injustice than to do it.
  26. True politics and true friendship aid the soul in its striving for happiness.
  27. False politics and false friendship (flattery) retard the soul’s striving for happiness.
  28. Freedom is doing what one really wants to do (pursuing happiness).
  29. Doing what one really wants to do is not necessarily the same as doing what one thinks one wants. (We can be ignorant of the good, mistaken about our interests.)
  30. One can be forced to be free.

Audio Version: To listen in a player, click here. To download the mp3, right-click here and choose “save target as.”

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Let’s first talk about the life of Socrates. Socrates died in 399 BC, and he was born approximately 70 years before that, although there is some controversy about the exact year of his birth. His father was a stonecutter or sculptor or mason — the descriptions vary — named Sophroniscus, and his mother was a midwife, according to Socrates, and her name was Phaenarete.

Now, there might be something a little bit fishy about the story of his mother, because Phaenarete means “one who brings excellence to light,” and as a midwife she brought children to light and Socrates claims that as the son of a midwife his purpose is to bring ideas to birth. And so, the son of the person who brings excellence to light, brings ideas to light, and some people have perhaps thought that Socrates just made up his mother’s name or profession for the purposes of the discussion, but that’s purely suppositional.

Anyway, he was not a poor man, by birth at least. His father was a citizen of Athens, and Socrates himself was a soldier. He was a member of the heavy infantry, a hoplite. The Greeks did not have professional soldier classes, although they would sometimes hire mercenaries who were professionals. But the city-states, like Athens, had citizen armies, and the citizens played different roles in the army depending on the amount that they could contribute, and the person who was part of the heavy infantry had to contribute a shield and a spear and helmet and armor, and these things were not cheap. So, Socrates obviously had some money.

But he lived a life of poverty, because he didn’t like to work. He spent most of his time lounging around in public places, the market place or gymnasia, talking about philosophy. His wife, who he married rather late in life, was notoriously shrewish. Her name was Xanthippe. Somebody asked him, “Socrates, why do you put up with this woman who is cursing you in public and demanding that you work and things like that?” And he said, “Well, you know, just as some riders will like only the most spirited horses, because it forces them to exercise and maximize their skills, I prefer to live with Xanthippe because she is a real trial. And she doesn’t kill me, she just makes me stronger.” That’s basically the argument.

He had three children, all of them rather late in life. The day of his death his children are described, and a couple of them are just tiny. So, obviously his wife was many years younger than he was, and he was reproducing right up until a couple years before his death. So, it’s clear that he had to have married fairly late in life. Probably around age 50.

We know very little about Socrates’ life before adulthood, but there are rumors that he did travel a bit, he studied philosophy and science with various natural philosophers, and he does confess in one of Plato’s dialogues, the Phaedo set on the day of his death, to have taken a great interest in science or natural philosophy as a youth. By the time he entered middle age, though, he came to a kind of crisis and thought that natural philosophy was really meaningless. That knowing the nature of the stars and why it rained and so forth was all very well and good as a kind of academic or intellectual exercise. There was no sense of applied science at the time. Science was only a purely idle and speculative activity. He actually claimed that studying science made him blind, and it made him forget the things that he already knew, specifically things about how men grew, how human beings grow over time, and that he became less intelligent in some ways than before he studied science.

And so, one of the things that happened in mid-life was that Socrates put aside the natural sciences, and he came to think that it was difficult, if not impossible, for human beings to get the ultimate truth about the cosmos. We can only, at best, tell likely stories, and these likely stories are not that important unless they can contribute to our moral life. And he reoriented philosophy from a theoretical, speculative activity centered around nature to a more practical activity centered around human morality, human life. And the central question is a kind of existential question, which is “How should I live?” “What is the good life?” Not just the “good life” in general, but for me or for each individual.

We know a few other things about Socrates. He was notoriously unattractive. He was an ugly man. He looked like a satyr. I have a statue here that was a representation of Socrates from about the time of his life. He was notorious for having pop eyes, sort of bulging eyes, a flat pug nose, wide, fleshy lips, and a pot belly. So, he did look like the classical Greek descriptions of satyrs, which were horny little mythical beings. But in spite of his ugliness he was extremely charismatic, and people much younger and much handsomer than he was fell in love with him and were quite fascinated by Socrates.

He was renowned for his feats of endurance. He served in three battles, and they were all defeats, as it turned out, for Athens, but he distinguished himself in these defeats anyway. He was especially good at retreating, as it turned out, but there is an art of retreating properly. If you flee headlong, the enemy will try to strike you down, whereas if you retreat in a composed way, casting your glance from side to side, making it clear that you’ve got your wits about you, people will leave you alone, and this is how Socrates retreated. He always had his wits about him.

There’s the description by Alcibiades of Socrates on one of these campaigns that appears in Plato’s Symposium. Socrates started thinking about a philosophical problem early one morning before most people got up, and he stood there in the camp, and the ground was frozen. He walked around in bare feet all the time, except on special occasions. Snow was not a good enough occasion to put shoes on, apparently. The ground was frozen, it was cold, and he stood there before dawn and started thinking. After a while people started stirring, and they started sitting around watching, wondering when he was going to stop this.

It turns out he stood there all day and all the next night, and the next morning he said a prayer as the sun rose and then went off to do his daily business. This is an extraordinary feat, if it’s true, and it shows a sign of enormous self-control. This is the kind of thing that you’ve expect from a yogi, who’s long practiced in controlling the body’s voluntary and involuntary muscles to a degree that most normal human beings simply can’t contemplate. And this would explain, if he had long practice, why he had such endurance under difficult conditions, why he seemed to be so indifferent to heat and cold, why he spent all this time outdoors.

He was also notorious for being able to drink and drink and drink and never get drunk. He could drink anybody under the table and never get drunk. So, there are extraordinary features of the man that need to be explained somehow.

Socrates, when he was in his 40s, became the butt of a play by Aristophanes called Clouds. This was premiered in 424 BC at one of the Great Dionysia, which were religious festivals which included a theater festival, because the theater arose out of religious rites, so as part of these festivals, theater festivals were put on at public expense. At the Greater Dionysia, there were three trilogies of tragedies that were presented, plus three satyr plays and three comedies, and there were contests to determine which were the best. The people who wrote the three tragedies also wrote a satyr play, so the tragedians had the heaviest labor. They had to write four plays for each festival. The comic playwrights only had to write one each.

During this particular year, two of the three plays had Socrates as a central figure, and both were making fun of him. Clouds came in dead last. It was voted third place out of three. Aristophanes got the last laugh though, because of all the ancient comedies, only plays by Aristophanes survive to this day, so history has rendered a different judgment about the value of the plays that beat him out.

This is the earliest representation we have of Socrates around 424 BC. All of Plato’s dialogues were written after Socrates’ death in 399 BC.

Xenophon, who was another student and friend of Socrates, wrote a number of Socratic works, but all of these were written after Socrates’ death as well. But the Clouds is the only work written during Socrates’ life, and it’s a very unflattering work. It portrays Socrates as a sophist and as a student of nature.

I need to say a little bit about the sophists and the natural philosophers to provide some background here.

Natural philosophy for the ancient Greeks was basically what we would call science today, and the ancient Greek natural philosophers tried to give rational and materialistic explanations for virtually everything, including all the phenomena that had been traditionally accounted for by appeals to deities, gods, spirits, and so forth. And so, the project of the natural philosophers was a project of disenchanting the world, getting rid of ghosts and mystical, spiritual powers and replacing them with mechanistic, scientific explanations. So, there was a tendency for the natural philosophers to be branded as atheists, and there was some good reason for that. Most of them had no belief in any conventionally known divinities. If you sort of prodded them, they would say, “Well, you know, the ultimate material stuff of the cosmos, be it water or air or fire, that’s what we call the divine,” But it’s a notion of the divine that’s entirely foreign to any traditional notion, and it’s distinct from traditional divinities in the fact that it doesn’t have any intelligence. And even if it did have any intelligence it doesn’t care about human beings. So, they make no difference to human beings, these gods of the natural philosophers.

Now, one of the things that characterized the natural philosophers was the very strong and careful distinction that they would make between what was natural and what was conventional, what happens by nature and what happens by custom or convention.

The natural philosophers really were the people who introduced this distinction between nature and convention into human thinking. Before ancient Greek natural philosophy, there were notions of order that did not distinguish between natural order and humanly created order. So, for instance, in China there’s this notion of tao, the way of things, the way things have always been. There’s a kind of descriptive quality—it’s the way things have always been—but there’s a kind of normative quality that goes along with it, too. Namely, the way they’ve always been, and the way they ought to be. It would make perfect sense to talk about the tao of ducks and geese or bears and the tao of human cities and human institutions and so forth. There is no distinction between nature and culture.

The Egyptians had the notion of maat, which is sometimes translated as justice, but it really is again equivalent to this notion of tao. It’s just the immemorial way of things. The way they always have been, the way they ought to be, and it applies both to human actions and to natural actions or patterns or natural orders.

There are a number of words in Hebrew that basically have this meaning and they can be translated as “the way of things.” For instance, sometimes they talk about “the way of women,” which means menstruation, but it can also be used to describe what we would call “the American way.” You know, how we do things around here. Or how the Canaanites did things over there.

But one process is natural, the other conventional, but the same concept denotes both.

The Greeks were that way too. They had a concept nomos, which is sometimes translated as law or custom. For the early Greeks, it would refer to natural processes as well, so you could talk about the nomos of the stingray or the nomos of geese migrating back and forth or the nomos of the Athenians or the Spartans or the Egyptians. Nomoi is the plural.

There was no distinction made between nature and convention, and yet nature and convention are clearly distinct. Nature is always the same, and the early natural philosophers believed that natural order was eternal and cyclical. It always repeated, always happened the same way, and this was true over time and from place to place.

For instance, geese north of the Rio Grande and south of the Rio Grande have the same patterns. They live the same way. But when you look at human beings north and south of the Rio Grande, they live in very different ways. Why is that? Why is there this enormous variability in human patterns of behavior from place to place? And you could also raise the question in terms of time. Why is there such an enormous variation in human behavior from one time to the next. One hundred years ago in the United States, attitudes about dating and mating and things like that were very different from how they are today, and these kinds of transformations were simply not the kinds of things you’d expect in nature.

So, the early Greek natural philosophers really made thematic a distinction that had always been there just waiting to be made between how things are by nature and how things are by convention or culture. Since the natural philosophers tended to identify nature with what’s good, they tended to look upon the world of convention with a certain amount of disdain. These things are ephemeral; they’re variable; you can’t bank on them; you can’t count on them. You have to trust nature, which is eternal, immutable, and just rolls on in its cyclical patterns forever.

What that tended to do was alienate the students of nature from the cities they lived in, and it tended to lead them to regard ordinary people with a certain amount of patronizing cynicism. “These poor blokes who believe all these silly conventions.”

What came about as a consequence of natural philosophy was another school of thought known as the sophists. The sophists were very worldly philosophers. They were rather uninterested in the nitty, gritty study of nature. The sophists were not interested in debating theories about how the rain was made or how the thunder was made, but they did accept the basic worldview of the natural philosophers. There was a difference between nature and convention, that nature’s what is good and convention is pretty much worthless.

But they were practical men, and so they asked themselves what is the practical meaning of the discovery of the difference between the natural and the cultural. And the answer is this: human beings, to be guided by nature, should be guided by their desires, because those are the most natural things about us, they thought. When it comes to satisfying our desires in a society, well, that means we need to understand the conventions of society, but since these conventions are worthless, we can be quite cavalier and manipulative in their use in order to gratify ourselves. So, the sophists taught a philosophy of getting ahead by means that were unscrupulous. They thought that morality was merely conventional. It was for suckers; so was religion. The only thing natural were their desires, and certain psychological characteristics of human beings that could be manipulated in order to persuade them, in order to gain power over them and so forth.

Socrates is shown in the Clouds as being both a natural philosopher and a sophist, yet it’s clear that by the end of his life he was neither. He was an enemy of both the natural philosophers and the sophists. He turned away from the study of nature, because it made him blind, he said. Blind to how men grow and how they live. He also turned away from mere rhetoric, mere manipulation, mere sophistry towards a different conception of persuasion. What underlies this turn is the discovery of a new concept: the notion of what is right by nature.

As soon as the distinction was made between nature and convention, morality was immediately put in the convention column, because morals differ from time to time and place to place. So, they can’t be natural. Nature doesn’t really have a moral law. It just has the law of the struggle for survival, the struggle for dominance. It’s an amoral realm according to the early Greeks. This licensed the behavior of the sophists, their amorality.

What Socrates came to believe in was the existence of something that is right by nature, objective standards, if you will, of right. This gave a foundation for a serious-minded pursuit of knowledge about what’s right by nature, which reorients philosophy away from mere frivolous and theoretical concern with why the rain falls or the ultimate stuff of matter and orients it towards the question “what’s the good life for man?” This is the first question.

The second page here is a list of Socratic theses that I would like to discuss throughout this course.

This long story gets us to the first Socratic thesis, which is that the primary philosophical question is “how should I live?” It’s a moral question. It’s a question of “ought.” It’s a question of the good, and it’s also a very existential question in the sense that it’s concerned with the individual. How should I live? There’s a concrete concern here, which is something that Socrates as he’s portrayed in Aristophanes’ Clouds and something that the earlier Greek philosophers had simply had no sense of. An interest in concrete, individual life. The sophists, of course, were interested in that, but the early philosophers weren’t.

Now, the second thesis is enormously important and we’ll have ample opportunity to discuss and debate this. Socrates believed that all human action aimed at happiness or well-being. “Happiness” is the general translation. But the Greek word is eudaimonia, and what is eudaimonia?

Eudaimonia is, I think, best translated as well-being. The reason for that is thesis three: well-being is not necessarily well-feeling, if you will. There’s a difference between feeling good and being good. The difference is made clearest in this way: well-being may require ill-feeling from time to time. What does that mean? Let’s give an example. You come home, and you discover that your beloved father is dead. Now, if you were to feel good about that, that’s not a sign of well-being. That’s a sign of disorder, sickness in the soul, because there are certain things in the world that you shouldn’t feel good about. If your soul is in a state of well-being or health then in those circumstances where bad or negative feelings are required those are the feelings you’re going to have. So, feeling bad is sometimes a sign of being good in a more fundamental way, and so there’s a difference between happiness understood as well-being and simply feeling good.

We’re going to go into this in much more detail later when we get to the discussion with Callicles and Gorgias, because Callicles is a hedonist. He defines the good as the pleasurable and Socrates has a whole battery of arguments that just crushes this thesis of hedonism, so we’re going to be able to deal with this at greater length.

The fourth thesis here is that wisdom and luck are the two causes of well-being. Now, he never states this as I’ve stated it in the dialogues, but there’s reason to believe that this is his viewpoint. I can show you how I can tease this out of the Euthydemus.

What is wisdom? Well, wisdom for Plato is this: it’s the ability to make right use of all things. This definition has two very important components. The notion of “right use” and the notion of “all things.”

Wisdom is not simply the ability to use things. That is what Plato called art or techne, the ability to use things, to manipulate things, to get things done, to use tools, for instance, to build things, to change things. This is what art is. Every art, every craft is an ability to transform the world in some way. Yet no art and no craft is wisdom. Why is that? Because there’s a difference between use and right use. One of Plato’s views is that the ability to use something does not automatically confer the ability to use it rightly. You can be terribly efficient in some technical ability or other, you could be an excellent surgeon, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the skills to use your abilities rightly. The skills do not apply themselves. They need to be applied. And the knowledge that gives you the ability to apply those things rightly is what he means by wisdom.

Now, what about extremely comprehensive kinds of ability. Plato talks about different kinds of arts and how they can be hierarchically arranged. So, for instance, there are certain kinds of arts that are very basic and there are others that he calls architectonic. What is an architectonic art? Well, it’s an art that supervises many other sub-arts. So, for instance, the art of politics is a kind of architectonic art, because what it does is it supervises all the arts and all the crafts in the city. Politicians can outlaw certain things, regulate certain things; they can affect orderings and prioritizings of all the different professions, arts, crafts that exist. So, there’s a kind of controlling art there.

Is this the same as wisdom? No. Even the ability to use a lot of things is not the ability to use a lot of things or all things rightly. As you well know, politicians, even extremely powerful politicians, in fact primarily powerful politicians, are often plagued by moral problems. Stalin is a good example. Stalin certainly possessed the architectonic art. He controlled all aspects of life for a vast number of people. Yet that comprehensive, technical skill that he could exercise did not necessarily lead him to act rightly. In fact, it gave him the ability to act wrongly on a colossal scale.

So, wisdom is necessarily involved with the notion of right use. The rightness is intrinsic to it. If you take away the right, you don’t have wisdom, and this is why for Plato moral philosophy is central, because his very notion of wisdom has an intrinsically moral component. Wisdom can’t be wisdom without knowledge of the right or the good.


Now, the notion of “all things” indicates that there’s a kind of comprehensiveness here. What would a contrast be to the right use of all things? Well, I want the right use of some things. For instance, the difference between a mere technical skill and what we would call a profession today is that the professions come with a kind of moral mission built into them. If you become a doctor or a lawyer or a minister or a teacher, the assumption is that there are certain ethical canons that guide your activity and make sure that the skills that you have are used to produce a good end. Let’s put it this way: a surgeon isn’t just a person who cuts open bodies and sews them up. A torturer can do the same thing. What differentiates the surgeon from the torturer is not the skill, the simple physical manipulation of flesh, but it’s the end to which those skills are directed. All the professions have built into them an orientation towards the good.

By becoming a duly constituted doctor or lawyer, you are taking on a certain component of moral wisdom as part of your job description. That’s the idea at least. Lawyers, of course, are greatly relieved to hear this speech, and doctors too, because oftentimes they wonder about themselves. There is a reason why, for instance, there is a traditional kind of prestige associated with the professions that is not associated, say, with simply being a business person. Why is that? Because the skills of business managers and salesmen and people like that are purely technical skills. There’s nothing about the job description of being a businessman or a salesman or a manager that implies that by being a good businessman or salesman or manager you’re being a good person or doing good in the larger sense. You could be a very good businessman selling crap, shoddy products. The people who run Time-Warner. They’re very good businessmen, but they put out a lot of crappy stuff that if you totaled it up, the effects that they have on the world, it’s probably negative. The people who make violent video games and movies that desensitize people to violence and things like that. These people can be very good businessmen and make lots of money, but they’re not necessarily doing anything good, whereas a profession has an intrinsic directedness to do good.

But to be a professional is not to be a wise person, because there’s a narrowness to professional ethics. This is one thing that I found very interesting watching a debate that was done when they were going to separate the Lakeberg Siamese twins. This happened about a decade ago now. These little Siamese twin girls were born, I think in Philadelphia, and on Nightline there was a discussion of the operation, the procedure that would separate them. They had a surgeon, who was a very skilled surgeon and clearly an ethical individual. He was on there. And they had some medical ethicists and people like that. My mother was calling me up and gave me her opinion, too. It was very interesting, because my mother knows nothing about surgery, but she had just as articulate an opinion about the larger moral issues raised by this as the doctor himself. There are certain circumstances where a person just simply armed with their professional set of ethics will encounter larger questions that he can’t really deal with just as a professional, and he finds themselves calling upon moral philosophers or my mom or pundits and newspaper columnists for guidance.

The surgeon wanted to do no harm, and under normal circumstances he didn’t have to. But in this circumstance his professional ethics were sort of flummoxed, and he was just as at sea as everybody else talking about this, and there was a lot of debate. It was very interesting.

Wisdom has a kind of comprehensive capacity to make right use of things whereas the ethics of a profession is very delimited, and oftentimes you’ll find extraordinary circumstances where ethical, well-meaning professionals simply can’t decide the matter, and they go and ask other people. They go ask philosophers.

The assumption is that there is a kind of knowledge of right use that is more comprehensive, and this is what Plato means by wisdom in the most proper sense. It’s a comprehensive knowledge of how to make use of everything rightly.

Now, thesis number six is that wisdom is unconditionally and intrinsically good. All other things are merely conditionally and extrinsically good. What does that mean? Well, it’s this. To be unconditionally and intrinsically good is to always be good in virtue of one’s nature, whereas to be extrinsically and conditionally good is to be good only on the condition of being used rightly.

Plato’s view is that nothing is intrinsically good or bad in this world except for wisdom. Everything else is either good or bad depending on the use to which it is put, and this is a sobering and strange thought when you start figuring out all the implications. It means, for instance, that many of the things we would consider intrinsically good really aren’t. When you ask people, “What are the components of a good life?” People will say, “Ideally, I’d like to be beautiful, rich, and famous.” And the response is, “Well, there are lots of beautiful, rich, and famous people who are miserably unhappy. Why is that?” Princess Diana was my favorite example. She still is. She was more than average in her attractiveness; she was certainly very rich; she was very famous; and she was obviously very unhappy. And why was she so unhappy given all the advantages that fate or luck had dealt her? Because she didn’t have the ability to use those advantages well to conduce to her own happiness. And she was spending huge amounts of money on psychics and colonic irrigation trying to get it out of her by hook or by crook. The poor woman spent thousands and thousands of pounds on massage therapies and psychics and crystals and every pop New Age nonsense that you could possibly imagine to make herself happy.

And what was she depending on? She was looking for some kind of art or technique for happiness. I was going to bring you a copy of Aquarius, the local New Age shopper type newspaper, which is very interesting, and it’s filled with ads. I was flipping through this once and not only were there people offering you shiatsu and yoga classes, but they were saying that these were the keys to well-being. There are certain technical skills that these people have that if you learn them you will become a happy, self-actualized person. This is the obsession of Americans, and it’s not just the people who pick up the New Age newspapers. People who are going to therapy, people who are going on hikes, people are searching for happiness, and they go to professionals who claim to have certain technical skills that will lead them to happiness.

But Plato’s answer to that is simple. No technique, no art will lead you to happiness unless you’ve got the wisdom to use it rightly, and none of these things come with that built in. None of them are self-applying. They all need an external supplement, and that external supplement is knowledge of how to make right use of them, which is what philosophy pursues. Wisdom.

Now, folly is the opposite of wisdom. This is point number seven. And folly may not be unconditionally bad. It might be the case that even folly can be conducive to happiness. There’s a fellow who came to a couple philosophy cafes. He had a terrible car accident. He had reconstructive surgery. And now he looks back on it, and he says, “This was the best thing that ever happened to him.” And I asked him when he said that, “Would you recommend it to other people?” He said, “No, I wouldn’t recommend it!” But it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him because it forced him to make changes in his life that made him end up a much happier person.

So, Plato gives us an account of happiness that would make perfect sense out of these strange alchemical transmutations of dross into gold, if you will. Because many people do find that the things that are supposedly intrinsically good, like money or fame, are the worst things that ever happened to them. How many people have been ruined by winning lotteries? A book should be written about it. You hear all these stories, and a book should be written about it. By contrast, many people have enormously benefited by losing a lot of money. People who have been cocooned all their life in wealth suddenly have had to face reality for the first time when they were broke and enjoyed the thrill of actually living for the first time.

So, the things that convention says are intrinsically good are not intrinsically good. They’re only good if they’re used rightly. And with things by convention regarded as intrinsically bad are not intrinsically bad. They’re only bad if they’re not used rightly. Even being a fool can be manipulated properly and be used to your benefit. What’s the clearest example of that? Well, learning from your folly. You blunder foolishly into a mistake and if you can take that folly and, if you will, wisely use it you can come out a much wiser person. William Blake talked about this. How we are saved by our sins and follies, but only if we use them rightly.

Number eight we’ve already talked about. Wisdom is not an art or technique. No technique is sufficient for the pursuit of happiness. That doesn’t mean that techniques are entirely useless, but they are not sufficient. They require the supplement of wisdom to use them properly.

The ninth point is that wisdom enlarges the realm of human power and efficacy, pushing back the frontiers of luck. Again, there are two causes of well-being: luck and wisdom. Plato recognizes that luck is an irreducible component in happiness. You can never entirely master it. You can be the best person in the world, you can be the most together person, the most decent, the most moral, the most wise person, and if that meteor lands on top of your house that’s the end of you. It doesn’t make you bullet-proof. Bad luck will wipe you out. So, we do have to have a certain component of luck to attain well-being.

Plato is very clear, though, that it requires surprisingly little if you understand well-being properly. It requires surprisingly little luck. Surprisingly little external equipment is necessary for attaining well-being. Such that someone like Socrates who lived a life of voluntary poverty was a superbly happy person whereas people who had much more equipment, external things, were very unhappy. So, it requires very little, but you still have to have external things, and these external things are in part furnished by simple circumstance. Fate, luck, whatever.

But the hallmark of being a fool is depending upon luck and not making provision to try to take as much control as you possibly can over your life. There’s a crack: The lottery: it’s just a tax on fools. Because people who play the lottery are depending on luck.

Well, it’s not harmful, I suppose, if you occasionally put a dollar down for the $100 million dollar Powerball jackpot, but the fact of the matter is that when you look at it, it is rather irrational, in that people would be better off, if you’re making a rational or objective calculation of risks, taking that dollar and buying lightning insurance than they would buying that lottery ticket. But the fact is they want that money and they don’t want to be hit by lightning, so they’re going to spend it on the lottery ticket instead. That’s just the way human beings are, and they are certainly people who are prize fools and spend all their earnings on lottery tickets.

Depending upon luck, just hoping that you’re going to have what they call “dumb luck” and end up in a fool’s paradise, really is a sign of folly, and the extent to which one is wise is the extent to which one tries to take as much control as possible over one’s existence and push back the Empire of Fortune and its control over one’s life.

Socrates also makes a number of claims that sound very, very pollyannaish and optimistic and silly. Like number ten: all human beings intend the good. No one intentionally does evil. Now this is hard to swallow. Is it really the case that Jeffrey Dahmer was intending to do good? Isn’t it the case that there are examples of human beings who seem to be sort of demonically evil? Sort of Iago types, who know what’s good and want to trample upon it precisely it is good. Isn’t that the case?

Well, Socrates says no. All human beings intend the good. What explains all the evil in the world? Well, because although we’re searching for the good and intend to do the good we’re often, in fact we’re almost always, mistaken about what the good really is.

So, the very structure of human action is always directed towards the good. Given any set of options that you have, human beings will try to choose the best option as they see it. So, Jeffrey Dahmer could have stayed home and watched TV; he could have visited a sick friend; he could have gone to the library; he could have gone to the movies; but of all the options available he chose to lure people back to his apartment and kill them and eat them. Why is that? Because he thought that was in some way the best use of his time. Now, he was terribly mistaken about that. This is why this proviso that we always choose the good as we see it is so important, because the fact is that we see things often wrongly. We’re often quite deluded about what we see as good, but we still choose that thing that we see to be the best.

Those people who said, “I know what’s good, but I just don’t want to do it. I know it’s good to give money to charity, but I just want to spend it on beer.” I’ve heard people say that. My response is, “Well, what you’re really saying is this. I know that people say it’s ‘good’ to give money to charity, but I don’t really believe that. Because if you really believed it, you wouldn’t just be spending it on self-indulgence.” A lot of people will say that they know certain things, but they really don’t know in the sense that they wholeheartedly believe it to be true.

But Socrates says, “If you know something to be good, you will do it. If you are mistaken about that thing, you’ll do something that’s not good. You’ll do an evil thing only under the guise of good.” You only do evil, he says, out of ignorance of the good.

This is an enormously important claim. It’s controversial. And we’ll have plenty of opportunity to kick it around and debate it. We’ll look at Aristotle’s critique of this, and I’ll try to show that Aristotle ultimately gives in to Socrates, even though he tries to criticize him.

Numbers twelve and thirteen are just different versions of number eleven. Evil action only happens out of ignorance of the good and virtue is knowledge of the good, vice is ignorance of the good.

When you talk about a virtuous person or an excellent person, we’re simply saying that they have a certain amount of knowledge of the good. When we’re talking about vicious people, we’re talking about people who are somehow systematically deluded about where their own good lies.

Let’s go to number fourteen. “The soul is susceptible of structural and dynamic analysis.” What does that mean? Structural analysis means you can break something down into its parts, and dynamic analysis means that it has certain forces that expend themselves or express themselves in time, and you can look at those forces over time as well as sort of timeless structures, a cross-section, if you will, of the soul.

Now, fifteen is the structural analysis, if you will. “The soul has parts.” And he calls them reason, spirit, and desire, and “these parts can function together in harmony, which is what we call spiritual health, and in disharmony, which is spiritual disease.” So, there are parts of the soul, and we’ll go into that in much more detail later, and the parts can function together harmoniously or disharmoniously in a way that’s strictly analogous to the parts of the body. The parts of the body, the limbs and organs and tissues of the body, are differentiated yet the can function together in a harmonious or a disharmonious way. We call the harmonious functioning of the body health and disharmony in the parts illness.

Sixteen: “The soul also has a dynamic power,” and Plato calls this eros or love. He has many descriptions of this. We’ll look at a couple passages from the Symposium where he describes this in the next lecture. Eros is the soul’s longing for growth towards the good. It’s a longing for completion, for self-actualization, and ultimately, he’s going to argue, for immortality. The soul not only wants to have the good, its own good, but it wants to have it forever. This is the inner meaning of love for Plato. Eros is the desire for the good of the soul, which is aroused by the beauty of the body. So, beauty, and physical beauty in particular, arouses eros, but ultimately what it is directed towards is something beyond the beautiful and beyond the physical, which is the good of the soul and not of the body.

Seventeen: “Each part of the soul has its appropriate erotic object: knowledge, ideals, the necessities of life, different objects of the parts of the soul.” So, the rational part of the soul has an erotic longing, if you will, for knowledge, and when it knows, it feels complete and satisfied. The desires of the soul have an erotic need for what are called the necessities of life. These are the things that make desire feel completed. The spirited part of the soul longs for the ideal. It feels complete when it possesses ideals or pursues them.

Number eighteen is important: “Wisdom produces the inner harmony of the parts of the soul and guides them to their completion.” So, wisdom introduces a proper ordering of the parts of the soul, statically, if you will, and also guides this sort of on-going process of self-actualization to its conclusion. This is the proper role of wisdom in relationship to happiness. When you get to this state of both self-actualization and inner harmony, what you have achieved is happiness, well-being, which is what we’re all searching for.

Now, philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom. It literally means “love of wisdom,” and “love” has to be understood as pursuing it, not necessarily having it. Philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom is the equivalent, therefore, for Plato, to the care of the soul, the guiding of the soul to its proper end, the introduction of the proper harmony of its parts. So, philosophy, as the pursuit of wisdom, is the care of the soul or the pursuit of happiness, if you will.

This is why philosophy is important. Plato argues we’re all pursuing happiness, and philosophy is that thing without which we cannot reliably gain the happiness we seek. We can hope to luck out, but it’s foolish to depend entirely upon luck. Therefore, we have to deliberately pursue wisdom as a way of taking greater control over this process, and we’re already in the process, and we always-already want that goal. So, what Plato makes clear is what is necessary to achieve the goal: Wisdom. And that is what philosophy is pursuing.

So, we should all be pursuing philosophy. It’s a very simple argument.


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  1. Reb Stuart
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    This is a terrific lecture. Thanks for posting. CC Radio is great, too.

  2. twochairs
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much Greg. This type of material is what first drew me to Counter Currents, and eventually white nationalism. It is inspiring and restorative, after the nonsense the previous week.

  3. JimB
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    “10. All human beings intend the good; nobody intentionally does evil.”
    “12. Evil action happens only out of ignorance of the good.”
    “28. Freedom is doing what one really wants to do (pursuing happiness).”
    “30. One can be forced to be free.”

    Socrates must’ve been on some powerful dope when he came up with these. Either that, or he was extremely naive at the time he imagined them true.

    • K
      Posted December 15, 2017 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

      dat hemlock, yo

    • Richard Edmonds
      Posted December 17, 2017 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      I agree. I came to a stop when I read this:

      “10. All human beings intend the good; nobody intentionally does evil.”

      To give one obvious counter-example: the Ted Bundy’s of this world know very well that the crimes that they commit are evil and wicked.

      • P.T. O'Talryn
        Posted December 24, 2017 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

        Everyone should know Socrates and this is a very good introduction to him, but the fault of Socrates should be obvious: he denies free will. If everyone merely does what he thinks is best, he can never choose otherwise. We are left tumbling down the determinism hill and must (if we think it best) realize that we can neither truly help nor hurt anyone, not even ourselves.

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