From Socrates To Sartre; #2; Virtue is Knowledge
. . . . .. .. .. .. No one must have any private property whatsoever except what is absolutely necessary. Secondly, no one must have any lodging or storehouse at all, which is not open to all comers. They must live in common, attending in messes as if they were in the field. They alone of all in the city do not have any dealings with gold or silver or even touch them or come under the same roof with them.
What is being described here? Is this a description of an ascetic religious order or of a communist group in training for a secret mission or is it a science fiction account of a society of the future preparing for a space war? It is actually Plato's account of the Republic, his ideal republic. Plato, the philosopher of ancient Athens, is the most celebrated, honored, revered, and adored of any philosopher who was ever lived. He lived 24 centuries ago in the fourth century before Christ, and all through history since then, the praise of Plato has been expressed in figures of speech which compete with one another in their eloquence. He is said to be the greatest of the philosophers which Western civilization has ever produced. He is said to be the father of Western philosophy, the son of the god Apollo, a sublime dramatist and poet with a vision of beauty which embraces all human life, a mystic who
before Christ and Saint Paul beheld a transcendent realm of spirit, of goodness, love and beauty. And he is said to be the greatest of the moralists and social philosophers of all time. The famous British philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, said of Plato, the history of Western philosophy is only a set of footnotes to Plato. And the great American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, said of Plato, Plato is philosophy and philosophy Plato, and he also said, out of Plato, come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought. Aside from the great achievements of his philosophy, Plato's life exhibits many tragic conflicts and deep frustrations, which arose from the larger tragedy which developed and overcame Athens herself, her defeat in war, and the subsequent decline of the great civilization which was Athens.
To understand Plato, we must place him in his culture and in his time. He is born into 5th century Athens in 427 BC, and he died in 347 BC when he was 80 years old. He was born at the end of what is called the Golden Age of Athens, or sometimes called the Age of Pericles, who was its statesman ruler. The Golden Age of Athens, the Age of Pericles, which lasted from 445 to 431 BC, has come to be the very symbol of perfection in human civilized life. It may be said that the Western world has had a long standing love affair with Athens of the Golden Age. We feel closer to Athens as our ideal and model than to any other city in all of human history except possibly Jerusalem. But our relationship to Jerusalem is not as an ideal city, but it is only a devotion to the great persons who lived there and to the sacred events that happened there. Why the long love affair with the Golden Age of ancient Athens?
She is our ideal as a democracy, and as a city devoted to human excellence in mind and body and to the humane cultivation of the art of living, and we empathize with her in her tragic defeat. By the 5th century BC, Athens had become a democracy, as the culmination of a long struggle between a small number of land-owning families of the aristocracy and great numbers of the poor. Pericles with great skill maintain political rights for all, for the aristocracy and for commoners for rich and for poor, although not for slaves. He was elected annually as the first citizen of the state. Pericles extended and consolidated the empire of the Athenian city-state. While strengthening within Athens the new political doctrine of egalitarianism, of equal rights for all under the law. Most of the prominent and influential citizens of Athens were democratic or had become democratic in their political views.
The poor were held to be as virtuous and as capable as the rich. The Greek playwright Eschylus wrote in one of his famous plays, Justus shines in houses grimy with smoke, and the philosopher protagonist said, anyone who was just and reverent is qualified to give advice on public affairs. The state had a constitution and a supreme court, which had a jury system of 6,000 jurors divided into panels, and which formed the basis of Athenian democracy. All citizens were equal under the law, equal in educational opportunity, and in political life, to direct democratic debate and voting. There was freedom of speech and humane treatment of aliens and slaves. In the age of Pericles there was full employment, and great material prosperity through trade and domestic industry. The city government was viewed as coming close to being a model of justice, and Athenians felt intense loyalty for the city itself.
The years 445 to 41 to 31 BC were years of peace and internal improvements. Under Pericles Athens was made beautiful by vast building projects. Historians of comparative civilization say, no other city was ever so adorned by temples, public buildings, and works of art. Today the remains of temples and public buildings adorned by magnificent sculptures and statuary still stand. Outstanding among these are the Partonon, which was the chief temple of Athens, dedicated to Athena of the Goddess of Wisdom, whose huge gold and ivory statue was carved under the direction of the sculptor Phidius. The Partonon and the Propelia, the Great Entrance Hall, were among the set of public buildings high on a rock cliff, called the Acropolis, overlooking the city. Pericles attracted to Athens the intellectually and the artistically gifted of all parts of Greece.
In literature they repeated the great Greek dramatists, Sophocles, Escolis, and Euripides. In architecture and sculpture there were Phidius and Nestocles. In philosophy there were Zeno and Axagaris, the Sophists, and Socrates. In history there were the great historians, Herodotus, and Thucydides. There were brilliant achievements in all fields of culture, science, and medicine. The historian Thucydides writes that Pericles, in his famous oration of the first year of the war, said of the Athenians, we are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness. Pericles moderate policy in time ran into opposition by extremists on both the aristocratic right and the democratic left, but a strong sense of loyalty to Athens unified her politically when war broke out in the spring of 431 BC, the famous Peloponnesian war with Sparta. At this time most of the communities of Greece were under the leadership of either the Athenian
Empire, which was democratic, commercial, and industrial, or the Spartan Empire, which was authoritarian, militaristic, and agricultural. The war, as it developed, became clearly a struggle between Athenian democracy and the military authoritarianism of Sparta, ruled by a military elite with absolute unchecked political power. In the second year of the war, a plague broke out in Athens, which was overcrowded, and without medical knowledge to control the plague, and which was increasingly impoverished. We in the United States at the present time cannot help identifying with the plight of democratic Athens against her enemy Sparta because of our own struggle against militarism and against totalitarianism throughout the 20th century. Both authoritarian ancient Sparta and modern totalitarian governments are examples of political absolutism, the rule by a single person or by a small elite group with absolute unchecked
political power. Democratic Athens finally surrendered to Sparta in 404 BC, where upon a revolution was staged by the aristocrats who conducted a vicious reign of terror, now known to us as the rule of the Thirty. Among the leaders of this reign of terror were comedies who was Plato's uncle and cryteous who was Plato's cousin. They represented the rich and noble families who had been virtually impoverished and destroyed by the long years of war waged by democratic Athens. When democracy was restored and the rule of the Thirty brought to an end, the philosopher's Socrates was tried by Athenian jury and was sentenced to death. What do we know of Plato's life during the long war with Sparta? Plato was born three years after the war with Sparta began. He had never known the peace and glory of the golden age of Pericles.
He was the son of aristocratic parents. His father was descended from the last King of Athens. His mother was a descendant of Solon, the aristocratic law giver and reformer who had written the Constitution for Athenian democracy. Both sides of his family were related to noble and wealthy landowners of Athens, who sympathies during the war increasingly opposed the floundering of the democratic governments. Plato was brought up to think of democracy as a form of corruption in governments, and he believed that an armed counter-revolution appeared to be the only solution to the weakness of Athens against the power and strength of Sparta. And he also believed that his relatives, such as comedies and criteria, would be able to bring about a new political order and that Socrates could provide its philosophy. Plato was 28 years old at the time of the trial of Socrates, which is perhaps the most famous trial in all of history.
Plato had been studying with Socrates for eight years as his student, although he had known Socrates as a friend of the family since his earliest childhood. In the dramatic dialogue called the apology, Plato presents Socrates' own speech and his defense at his trial. Plato's account of the trial is believed to be substantially accurate. Plato was present to the trial of his teacher, and he circulated his own account of the trial after he had taken place in order to combat other accounts of the trial which were unfriendly to the cause of Socrates. What were the charges which the Athenians brought against Socrates? He was charged with atheism, with impiety, with speaking against the gods, and he was also charged with corrupting the youth of Athens. In fact, however, the real charges were unmentionable because in an effort to put an end to the bitter hatreds, developed in Athens during the war, the government had banned
any public mention of specific war crimes. But the actual crimes of Socrates, which the Athenians wished to charge him with or unable to mention, were that Socrates were the aid of his friends, comedies and critious, and of his favorite pupil, Alcibiades, who was perhaps the greatest traitor that Athens had ever had, had conspired to bring about a counter-revolution against the Athenian democracy during the war, and that Socrates was continuing to incite the noble young men of Athens to revolt against the democratic government, even now after the end of the war and the defeat of Athens in 404. The purpose of the trial was to frighten Socrates away from Athens, so that he would not continue by his philosophizing in public places to weaken the morale of the exhaustive democracy by his constant criticisms of it.
The Athenians had no desire to impose a death sentence upon him, nor do they wish to make a martyr of him, as Plato himself brings out in the apology. Socrates could have avoided death by leaving Athens before the trial began, as was customary at that time when a quibble in a trial appeared to be doubtful. Moreover, even if he had not left before the trial, he would have been acquitted if he had shown any deference to the democratic feelings of the public and of the jury, or if at least he had not openly shown his contempt for them. He would have been acquitted despite the contempt which has speech exhibited for the Athenian public and for democracy, if he had proposed when requested a moderate fine for himself. And finally, in the absence of any of these means, by which he would have avoided the death sentence, he could easily have escaped after his sentence, since he was detained for a month before he had to drink the Hamlock, and no one would have blamed him for escaping. But Socrates will not compromise with his view that he has been the benefactor of the
Athenian public. To escape or to propose any penalty or fine, however trivial, would be to admit guilt. Moreover, when his friends begged him to allow them to arrange the escape, he argues that it would be legally and morally wrong to escape, since every citizen of a state has entered into a social contract to obey its laws. And he also argues that individuals who disobey the laws of their own society tear away at the foundation of group life. Socrates, in his speech, takes his stand upon the abstract principles of his philosophy. This is his apology, his defense of himself. It is for the truth of his philosophy that he is willing to die. It is for the truth of his philosophy that he will not consent to be conciliatory, to the judges or to the jury, or to suggest a milder punishment than death, thus he forces them to put him to death. But what was this philosophy for which he chose to die, rather than to renounce it?
The main points which he himself brings out, as Plato recounts his speech at the trial are these. First, the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing. He says this because the famous oracle at the shrine of Apollo at Delphi had said that no man living was wiser than Socrates. So says Socrates to the jury, I wanted to test what the oracle had said in order to prove that it was false. And so first I went to the statesman, he says, in his speech, and I found that those whose reputation for wisdom was the very highest were, in fact, the most lacking in wisdom. And I knew, said Socrates, that I was wiser than the statesman, because at least I knew that I knew nothing. And then he said I went to the poets to see if some of the poets were not wiser than I. But I soon found out that they create their poetry, not by wisdom, but by inspiration, like prophets who say many fine things, but understand nothing of what they say. But the poets thought that they were the wisest of men, in all other matters too, because
of their poetry. And then he said I went to the craftsman, to the artisans, and I found out that they indeed know many fine things that I did not know, like how to build ships or how to make shoes. But like the poets, they believe themselves to be wis and matters of the greatest importance because of the skill that they had in their own craft, such as shoemaking. It's tended to diminish the real knowledge that they did have, and so is Socrates I concluded after discovering that wisdom cannot be found among the statesman, among the poets of the craftsman, that what the oracle at Delphi meant was, not that Socrates is wise, but that he at least knows that he really knows nothing. Socrates' second philosophic point in his apology is that the improvement of the soul, the careful wisdom and truth, what he calls the tendons of the soul, is the highest good. Not until you have pursued wisdom and truth, he says, ought you to think of money or fame or prestige or of the body.
Wealth does not bring excellence, he says, but from excellence comes wealth and every other good thing. This is why I go about, he says, persuading old and young alike, not to be concerned with yourselves or with your properties, but first and foremost, to care about the improvement of your soul. This is Socrates is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, then I am indeed a mischievous person. And if anyone says that I teach anything else, he lies. Socrates' third point is to say to the Athenians, that if you condemn me, you will sin against the gods who have given me to you. I am a gadfly, he says, whom God gave to the state, the state of Athens, which is like a great and noble horse, sluggish and slow in its motions because of its great size, and the horse needs to be stirred into life by my sting. This is why all day and in all places I am always a lighting upon you to sting you, to arouse and to reproach you.
You will not easily find another like me, he says, and therefore I would advise you to spare me. The fourth and the most important point in Socrates' speech is the philosophic principle that virtue is knowledge. According to this principle that virtue is knowledge, to know the good is to do the good. Evil, wrongdoing or vice, these are due to the lack of knowledge to ignorance and to nothing else. If virtue is knowledge and if to know the good is to do the good, then wrongdoing comes only from failure to know what is good. And so in a famous line, Socrates says, no one does evil voluntarily. That is, knowing the good, no man would voluntarily choose evil. But do we not often say, I acted against my better judgment, or I really knew better. According to Socrates, this is absurd, because if you really did know better, if you
really understood the right thing to do, you would have done it. If you really had better judgment than you used, you would have acted on it and not against it. Socrates insists that when one does an evil act, it is always with the thought that it will bring one some good, some benefit. A thief knows that stealing is wrong, but he steals the gold ring anyway, believing that it will impress his girlfriend and will bring him sexual pleasure. So also, people spend their lives striving for power or prestige or wealth, thinking that one of these is good and will make them happy. But they do not know what is good. They do not know that these are not good and will not bring them happiness. One needs to know human nature, the true nature of human beings, in order to know what is good for humans and what will bring you happiness. And so, how to live and what to strive for. And not to examine this, not to delve into this, never to know what is the good, what is the good for human beings, is to live a life of endless striving to achieve but never
finding happiness. Such a life, he calls, unexamined. And in one of his most famous lines, Socrates declares that, the unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates' view of virtue, of what is right and what is good, may be called a rationalistic moral philosophy. A rationalistic moral philosophy is a philosophic view which claims that reason or rationality is the exclusive or the dominant factor in moral conduct. It is as Socrates himself says, the claim that to know the good is to do the good. Do you agree that to know the good is to do it? Most moderns do not agree. They would not agree that even if I possess a true knowledge of human nature, of how to live, of what to strive for, of what will bring me happiness, that there is any assurance
that with this knowledge of what is good, I will act upon it and do the good. We moderns have learned too much about all the non-rational forces in human personality, which combat reason and which reason has to contend with, instincts, emotions, passions and drives, to which reason is always taking second place. The Latin poet Avid said, we know and approve the better course, but follow the worse. And that is for Freud and for contemporary psychiatry. There is the unconscious which is a seething cauldron of powerful desires against which reason is weak if not utterly helpless. These were the main points of the socratic philosophy that appeared at the trial. The outcome of the trial is, of course, the sentencing of Socrates to drink the poison hemlock, and this he does in the presence of his sorrowing friends who had come in a final effort to persuade him to escape.
It is Plato, who is the first to offer the view of Socrates as a martyr, in the line with which Plato ends another one of his dialogues, called the Fido, in which he says, and that was the end of our friend, who was, we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest, and the most righteous man. There are many who have come to think of the martyrdom of Socrates as the secular counterpart of the martyrdom of Christ. The analogy with Christ is that the best among us, the wisest, the noblest, the purest, the most righteous, is put to death by us, but this is only one of the many interpretations that have been made of Socrates' trial and death. By contrast with seeing Socrates as a martyr, there are those philosophers who see Socrates' trial and death as representing the hostility toward philosophy and toward philosophers
by the ignorant masses in a democracy. Another interpretation is made by political scientists, who see Socrates' trial and death as expressing the power of the state over the individual and his freedom of inquiry. So another interpretation is that of the sociologists, who see Socrates' philosophy as a mask for his defense of aristocracy against Athenian democracy. Which of these interpretations do you find the most appropriate? Is Socrates' moderate for his purity? Is he hated for his intelligence? Is he destroyed in his free individuality by the oppressive power of the state? There is he a masked defender of aristocracy who came into conflict with a democratic government. After the death of Socrates in 399 BC, Plato left Athens with some of his close friends, not only out of sorrow for his teacher, but also because he too might be in danger from the democratic government of Athens.
The most important event in his travels was his going to Syracuse, a wealthy and independent Greek city in the Mediterranean. The brother-in-law of the king of Syracuse, Diane, became completely devoted to Plato and his philosophy. There is a story that the king became enraged with Plato's influence upon Diane and ordered Plato's soul into slavery. Plato, however, was ransomed by a friend and managed to return to Athens. On his return to Athens, Plato purchased some property outside the city walls in a place known as the grove of academia. Where Plato started his famous school, which has come to be called the Academy, and where for the remaining 40 years of his life he taught and wrote many of his great works. The Academy was a school and an institute for a philosophic and scientific research. His students were young men and women of the noble classes from all over Greece who were intending to have a political career.
The Academy was the direct forerunner of the medieval and the modern university. For 900 years, the Academy was the outstanding school in the world. After 20 years there, in which Plato taught and wrote many of his great philosophic works, at the age of 60, he returned to Syracuse at the request of Diane. The king of Syracuse had died, and Diane saw a chance for Plato to educate in philosophy the new young king Dionysus II. And Diane wrote to Plato, now, if ever, is there a good chance that your own ideal can be realized and true philosophy and power over a great dominion be united in the same person? Here, as we shall see, is the concept of the philosopher king, of the philosopher who becomes king, or of the king who learns philosophy.
This is a platonic concept of vast influence throughout Western history. But Plato's return to Syracuse proved again to be a failure, and he returned to Athens and to the Academy, where he continued teaching until the age of 80 when in 348 BC he died. In the book called the Republic, Plato offered a blueprint for an ideal government of an ideal society. What was this philosopher's conception of the best kind of society and the best kind of government? This is the question which we have foreshadowed, and to which we will now turn. Pre-recorded in the studios of the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting.
- From Socrates To Sartre
- Episode Number
- Virtue is Knowledge
- Producing Organization
- Maryland Public Television
- Contributing Organization
- Maryland Public Television (Owings Mills, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- #2: Plato 1: The Death of Socrates - Virtue is Knowledge From Athens' Golden Age to the defeat of democratic Athens by authoritarian Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The Socratic Philosophy. The trial and death of Socrates (399 B.C.) Plato and the counter-revolutionary politics of defeated Athens.
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- Media type
- Moving Image
Copyright Holder: MPT
Host: Thelma Z. Lavine, Ph.D.
Producing Organization: Maryland Public Television
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Maryland Public Television
Identifier: 36570.0 (MPT)
Format: Digital Betacam
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- Chicago: “From Socrates To Sartre; #2; Virtue is Knowledge,” 1978-06-22, Maryland Public Television, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 4, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-394-977sr7cd.
- MLA: “From Socrates To Sartre; #2; Virtue is Knowledge.” 1978-06-22. Maryland Public Television, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 4, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-394-977sr7cd>.
- APA: From Socrates To Sartre; #2; Virtue is Knowledge. Boston, MA: Maryland Public Television, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-394-977sr7cd