Francis Macdonald Cornford, Before and After Socrates (1932).

Chapter II


We have considered the Ionian science of Nature -- the germ from which all European science has since developed -- as marking the achievement of an attitude of mind in which the object has been completely detached from the subject and can be contemplated by thought disengaged from the interests of action. The fruits of this attitude were the first systems of the world that can claim to be rational constructions of reality. We now come to the question, why they did not satisfy the expectations of Socrates. If the thought of these Ionians was genuinely philosophic, if they aimed at an entirely rational picture of the real, why did they disappoint a man whom the world has recognised as a great philosopher and who exalted the reason above all other faculties of man? All our credible authorities -- Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle -- agree in asserting that Socrates, after his youthful disillusionment as to the methods and results of physical inquiry, never discussed such questions as the origin of the world. Xenophon [Memorabilia, I, i, 11-16.] adds some reasons. Did men of [30] science imagine they understood human concerns so well that they could afford to neglect them for the study of things outside man's sphere and beyond his power of discovering the truth? They did not even agree among themselves, but contradicted one another on fundamental points. Did they hope, by studying the heavens, to control the weather; or were they content to know how the wind comes to blow and the rain to fall? Socrates himself, says Xenophon, only discussed human concerns -- what makes men good as individuals or as citizens. Knowledge in this field was the condition of a free and noble character; ignorance left a man no better than a slave.

If Xenophon may be trusted, Socrates rejected the current speculation about Nature on two grounds: it was dogmatic, and it was useless.

The first is the objection of one who is asked to accept what he is confidently told by men who cannot know that what they say is true. These Ionians had described the origin of the world with as much assurance as if they had been there to witness it. One of them was sure that things were ultimately composed of four elements having the four primary qualities; another was equally sure that they were composed of innumerable atoms with no differences of quality. These accounts of the nature of things were a priori [31] speculations, subject to no experimental control and incapable of proof. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, rightly protested against their being made the basis of medical treatment and overriding clinical experience. A fabrication of the reason may be as dangerously false as a fabrication of myth-making imagination. The path of science has, in fact, been strewn with the wreckage of discarded concepts, whose adherents have clung to them with an obstinacy as blind as any theologian's. 'Concerning the gods', said Protagoras, 'I cannot know for certain whether they exist or not, nor what they are like in form. Many things hinder certainty -- the obscurity of the matter and the shortness of man's life.' Socrates would be perfectly justified in saymg the same of atoms. An essential characteristic of Socrates is his clear sense of what can, and what cannot, be known, and of the danger of pretending to knowledge whose grounds have never been examined. Philosophy retains the right to ask the man of science how he came by his concepts and whether they are valid.

The other objection is that these theories are useless. Xenophon betrays that he did not understand what Socrates meant by 'useless'. It was a merit, rather than a fault, in the Ionians that they could study the heavens without hoping to [32] control the weather or to read the fall of kingdoms and the issues of battle in the aspect of the stars. By 'useless' Socrates rather meant useless for what seemed to him man's chief and proper concern -- knowledge of himself and of the right way to live. If I cannot know the beginnings of life in the unrecorded past, I can, Socrates thought, know the end of life here and now.

This shift from the search for beginnings to the search for ends naturally coincides with the shift of interest from external Nature to man. The physical science from which Socrates turned away was not, like modern science, an attempt to formulate laws of Nature, always with an eye to the prediction of future events and with the incidental gain of increased control over natural forces. It took the form of cosmogony, that is, an inquiry how the world came to be as it is; and, secondly, it asked what is the ultimate nature of that material substance of which things, now and always, consist. The answer to these question seemed to lie in the past leading up to the present. Science tried to get back to the beginning of things or to the material principles from which things come into being. The future held out no promise of anything different. But as soon as we turn to consider our own lives, our thoughts are nearly always bent upon the future. The past [33] cannot be changed; and the soundest of instincts bids us keep our backs turned to it and face towards what is coming. In the future lie the ends that we desire and hope to compass by the exercise of will and choice. The future appears as a realm of contingency and freedom, not, like the past, as a closed record of unchangeable necessity.

Socrates, recounting his experiences in the passage I quoted from the Phaedo, tells how he caught at the suggestion that the world was the work of intelligence, and hoped to find that Anaxagoras would explain how the order of things was designed for the best. Physical speculation, he thought, could be transformed into a significant and intelligible account, if men of science would look in the other direction and consider the world, not as a realm of mechanical necessity, but as a process towards an end -- an end that was good, and therefore an object of rational design. This passage contains a forecast of Plato's system of the world; but Socrates himself did not feel equal to the task of transforming the science of Nature. He only prepared the way by concentrating attention upon human life, a field in which the question of the ends we are to live for is paramount.

This question -- what is the end of life ? -- is one that, then as now, was rarely asked. When a man [34] becomes a doctor, he has settled that his business is to cure the sick. Thenceforward he lives mostly by routine. When he has to pause and think what to do next, he thinks about means, not about the value of the end. He does not ask: ' Ought this patient to be cured, or would it be better if he died? What is the value of health, or of life itself, in comparison with other valuable things?' Nor does the tradesman pause to ask: 'Ought I to get more money? What is the value of riches?' So we go on from day to day, contriving means to settled ends, without raising the question whether the ends are worth living for. That is precisely the question Socrates did raise, and forced others to consider, thereby causing a good deal of discomfort. Taking life as a whole, he asked which of the ends we pursue are really and intrinsically valuable, not mere means to something else we think desirable. Is there some one end of life that is alone worthy of desire?

Now it would not be hard to convince a tradesman that money is not an end in itself. He would agree that he wants money for the sake of something else that he might call pleasure or happiness. And a doctor might admit that health is valuable only as a condition of happiness. In that way human happiness emerges as a common end, to which other aims are subordinate. But [35] what is happiness? From Socrates' time onwards, this was the chief question debated by the Schools. The philosophers saw that mankind might be roughly classified under three types, according as they identified happiness with pleasure, with social success, honour, and fame, or with knowledge and wisdom. The debate turned on the relative claims of these three main objects of pursuit. Could any one of them by itself constitute happiness, and if so, which one? Or were they all constituents in a perfect life; and, if so, how were they to be related to one another? We are now concerned with Socrates' solution of this problem.

Socrates held that happiness was, to be found in what he called the perfection of the soul -- 'making one's soul as good as possible' -- and that all other ends which men desire were strictly of no value in themselves. If they were worth pursuing at all, they were so only as means to the perfection of the soul. In Plato's Apology, which is no doubt faithful in spirit and substance to the speech actually made by Socrates in his own defence, Socrates refuses to accept acquittal at the price of giving up the search after wisdom and the mission which he describes as follows:

If you should offer to acquit me on these terms, my answer would be: 'Athenians, I hold you in much [36] affection and esteem; but I will obey heaven rather than you, and, so long as breath and strength are in me, I will never cease from seeking wisdom or from exhorting you and pointing out the truth to any of you whom I may chance to meet, in my accustomed words: My good friend, you are a citizen of Athens, a great city famous for wisdom and strength; are you not ashamed to spend so much trouble upon heaping up riches and honour and reputation, while you care nothing for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul? And if he protests that he does care for these things, I shall not at once release him and go my way; I shall question and cross-examine and test him, and if I think he does not possess the virtue he affects, I shall reproach him for holding the most precious things cheap and worthless things dear. This I shall do to everyone whom I meet, young or old, citizen or stranger, but especially to you, my fellow-citizens, inasmuch as you are my own people. For be assured that such is heaven's command; and I believe that no better piece of fortune has ever befallen you in Athens than my enlistment in the service of heaven. For I have no other business but to go about persuading you all, both young and old, to care less for your bodies and your wealth than for the perfection of your souls, and to make that your first concern, and telling you that goodness does not come from wealth, but it is goodness that makes wealth or anything else, in public or in private life, a thing of value for man. If by saying this I am demoralising the young men, so much the worse; but if it is asserted [37] that I have anything else to say, then that is not true. Therefore, Athenians', I should conclude, 'you may listen to Anytus or not; you may acquit me or not; for I shall not change my ways, though I were to die a thousand deaths'.

By 'the perfection of the soul' Socrates meant, I believe, what we might call spiritual perfection. In this he saw man's proper concern; and if he put aside speculations about the origin and constitution of the world as 'useless', he meant that knowledge of these things, even if it could be gained, would not throw light on the nature of spiritual perfection or on the means of attaining to it. For that purpose knowledge of a different kind was needed -- namely, a direct insight (of which every man was capable) into the value of the various things we desire. This is the knowledge which Socrates identified with goodness in the famous paradox usually translated 'Virtue is knowledge'. From another point of view, this knowledge may be called 'self-knowledge' -- the recognition of that self or soul in each of us whose perfection is the true end of life. Socrates' claim to rank among the greatest philosophers rests upon his discovery of this soul and of a morality of spiritual aspiration, to take the place of the current morality of social constraint.

In order to appreciate the significance of these [38] discoveries, we must glance here at the movement of thought associated with Socrates' contemporaries and rivals, the Sophists. The Sophists were not a school; they were individual teachers of very various types. But we find scattered utterances of one or another Sophist, which fit together as elements in a philosophy of life characteristic of this period in Greek thought, especially at Athens. We might call it, I would suggest, the philosophy of adolescence. Let us pursue the analogy I put forward earlier, between the growth of early philosophic speculation and the development of the individual mind in childhood and youth. We thought of the earliest science of Nature as the culmination of an agelong process. The birth of science marked the moment when man succeeded in detaching his own nature from the world outside. Resigning the pathetic dream of controlling an environment animated by powers and passions akin to his own, he found out that he knew much less about the world than he had imagined; and the keenest intellects were inspired with a fresh curiosity to penetrate the hidden reality of things in themselves. Absorbed in the interest of the object, man forgot to think about himself. There is something in this outward-looking curiosity that recalls the divine wonder in the eyes of a child, when [39] you make the most of a little information about variable stars, or electrons, or the circulation of the blood. From this standpoint, we might regard pre-Socratic science as the childhood of the new form of thought. The sixth-century Ionians had reached a stage analogous to the attitude of a child's mind from (say) the age of six to the beginning of adolescence. In that period of our lives we have given up the solipsism of the newborn infant, and have ceased to believe that fairy tales are literally true. The normal child is then not only interested in things for practical purposes, but genuinely curious and capable of wonder about things in themselves. He has a power of enjoying knowledge for its own sake, until this enjoyment is killed by what is known as education. In the child, too, this curiosity is looking outwards, self-forgetful. Conduct offers no field for independent speculation. Life is ordered by the authority of nurses and parents; and, however much naughtiness there may be, some authority is normally accepted as infallible.

Childhood ends in the most revolutionary crisis of human life -- adolescence. What I would now suggest is that adolescence corresponds to the second phase of Greek philosophy -- the age of the Sophists.

During adolescence, (say) from fourteen to [40] twenty, the youth is engaged in a second effort of detachment, more conscious and much more painful than the infant's detachment of the self from the outer world. He becomes self-conscious in a new way. It is now his central concern to detach his individual self from his parents and the family group, and from every other social group claiming to dominate his will and warp his personality. The individual has to find himself as a moral being who must learn to stand upon his own feet, as a man. That he should succeed in this effort of detachment is of vital importance; and it might seem that the chief end of education should be to help him through it, with the least damage to himself and to the society of which he must remain a member. The education we actually offer seems rather to run counter to this aim. The boy is set to learn many things that might satisfy disinterested curiosity, if curiosity had not given place to a more urgent need; and he is surrounded by the almost overwhelming pressure of a group of contemporaries demanding absolute conformity to a standard that he ought to outgrow. The result is a reaction against all authority which is unnecessarily violent.

Now in Greek society, after the Persian wars of the first quarter of the fifth century, we can observe, with admirable clearness, an analogous [41] effort of the individual to detach himself from the social group -- the city and its traditional customs. Until that time, the claim of authority to regulate the citizen's conduct had not been explicitly challenged. However much or little individual conduct conformed in fact to the customs and laws of society, it had been tacitly acknowledged that those customs and laws embodied an absolute obligation, beyond dispute. But in the time of Socrates some of the Sophists began to cast doubt on this basic assumption with a daring which seemed to conservative minds to threaten the whole structure of society.

Take, for example, a recently discovered fragment of the Sophist Antiphon, which draws a significant contrast between the laws of the state and the law of Nature. The law of Nature is declared to be the principle of self-preservation -- that each individual should seek after what is advantageous to life and consequently pleasant. The laws of the state, on the other hand, enjoin behaviour that is unpleasant and therefore unnatural. Such laws are contrary to Nature, which is the true standard of right. On what does their professed authority rest? On nothing more than convention. Legal rules were originally created by human agreement, and they are not naturally binding on posterity who were not parties to the [42] covenant. The practical conclusion is that, whereas the laws of Nature cannot be evaded, the laws of society should be obeyed only when there is a risk of being found out and punished. Nature will always find you out; but, with luck or cunning on your side, society may not.

The contrast between the law of Nature and human law appears here for the first time. It is only now that the Greek mind clearly perceives that social laws are not divine institutions operating with inevitable sanctions like the penalties of transgressing against natural law. The theory of social contract is announced. Individuals, it is alleged, were originally free to seek each man his own self-preservation, pleasure, and self-interest. For some reason, perhaps for the advantage of mutual protection against hostile groups, a number of individuals agreed to surrender their freedom. But the laws they made have no other source of obligation. The naturally strong man is like a lion entangled in a net of prohibition and constraint. He has a natural right to break loose, if he can, as Gulliver threw off the Lilliputian bonds, and go forth in his strength to claim the lion's share. [This view of the natural right of the stronger is stated with great force by Callicles, the young man of the world in Plato's Gorgias, p. 482 ff.] [43]

In this philosophy of individual self-assertion parents will recognise something analogous to the spirit of adolescent reaction against the authority of the home. It will not surprise them that the Sophists found eager listeners among the youths who attended their lectures and debates. In the Greek city there were no secondary schools. After adolescence, the state itself was regarded as the educational institution which shaped the young citizen. What it taught him was the established law, a precious legacy of ancestral, or even divine, wisdom. In this public school the only masters were the elder citizens; and in their ears such an utterance as Antiphon's was no less outrageous than it would sound to the public-school master of to-day. To the boys, on the other hand, it would come as an equally welcome expression of the rebellion against those stupid rules.

What was Socrates' attitude towards this philosophy of adolescence? In the popular mind he was simply confused with the Sophists. Aristophanes and the other comedians had fostered the misconception. At the age of seventy he was tried and condemned for 'not recognising the gods of Athens' and for 'demoralising the young men'. Were these charges entirely false, or do they represent some truth far more profound than [44] the superficial sense they bore in the mouths of his accusers?

Socrates was ready to converse with anyone; but above all he welcomed the company of the adolescent young. They found in him exactly what youth needs in this phase of reaction -- a man whose proved courage they could respect and admire, and whose subtle intellect was always at the service of the youthful passion for argument. He would never silence their crude questionings with the superior tone of adult experience; he wanted to know all that was going on in their minds, and positively encouraged them to think for themselves on every subject, and especially about right and wrong. He always said, with manifest candour, that he was himself an inquirer, who knew nothing and had nothing . to teach, but regarded every question as an open question. And behind the play of humorous intelligence, they felt the presence of an extraordinary personality, calm and secure in the possession of a mysterious wisdom. Here was one who had found the secret of life, and achieved in his own character a balance and harmony which nothing could disturb. His time was always at the disposal of anyone who would set about discovering that secret for himself -- above all, the youth whose obscure but pressing need was [45] to achieve the freedom of self-ruling manhood.

Superficial readers of the early dialogues sometimes carry away the impression that Socrates laid traps for his opponents and argued for victory. Since Plato himself condemns this practice of 'Eristic' -- verbal contention without regard for truth -- he cannot have meant to represent it as characteristic of Socrates. A careful reader will notice that Socrates plays tricks of this sort only when he is exposing the pretensions of professional rhetoricians and debaters or of others who claimed some superior wisdom. Such men cannot be brought to co-operate in the search for truth; they think they already possess the truth or something that will do as well. The wise man can only fight them with their own weapons and so convince their young admirers that verbal cleverness is not wisdom. His method in talking with young men is different. He begins by puzzling them in order that they may see how little they really understand, and be ready to seek the truth in his company. Once the genuine search has begun, he always treats the other party to the conversation as a companion and ally, not as an opponent.

Socrates said that he knew nothing that could be taught to anyone else. At the same time he [46] declared that human perfection lies in the knowledge of good and evil. Why cannot this knowledge be taught, like knowledge of other kinds? Because all that another person can teach me is that such and such things are believed to be good, such and such actions are believed to be right, by some external authority or by society itself. Information of this sort can be conveyed by instruction; indeed, it forms the whole substance of moral education as commonly practised. But it is not whatSocrates called knowledge. I shall not know that this or that is good or right until I can see it directly for myself; and, as soon as I can see it for myself, that knowledge will put out of court what I am told that other people believe or think they believe. Knowledge of values, in fact, is a matter of direct insight, like seeing that the sky is blue, the grass green. It does not consist of pieces of information that can be handed from one mind to another. In the last resort, every individual must see and judge for himself what it is good for him to do. The individual, if he is to be a complete man, must become morally autonomous, and take his own life into his own control.

This is a responsibility that no individual can escape. He can indeed, once for all, accept some external authority, and thenceforward treat that [47] authority as responsible for what it tells him to do. But he remains responsible for his original choice of an authority to be obeyed. Socrates held that the judge within each of us cannot depute his functions to another. A man perfect in self-knowledge can tell when his own vision of what is good is clear; he cannot see into another's mind and tell whether his vision is clear.

This view presupposes that every human soul possesses the necessary power of immediate insight or perception of good and evil. As with the bodily eye, the soul's vision may be clouded and dim, and it may be deceived by false appearances. Pleasure, for instance, is constantly mistaken for good when it is not really good. But when the eye of the soul does see straight and clearly, then there is no appeal from its decision. In the field of conduct, education (after the necessary tutelage of childhood) is not teaching; it is opening the eye of the soul, and clearing its vision from the distorting mists of prejudice, and from the conceit of knowledge which is really no more than second-hand opinion.

It is not surprising that the elder citizens of Athens, when they learnt (perhaps from disagreeable encounters with their own adolescent sons) that Socrates encouraged the young to call in question every moral precept, saw no [48] difference between his doctrine and Antiphon's and concluded that he was demoralising the young men. If we take our own word 'de-moralise' in its literal sense, the charge was true. To tell the young that, in order to gain the full freedom of manhood, they must question every received maxim of conduct and aim at judging every moral question for themselves, is to demoralise them in the sense of cutting away every moral prop and buttress with which parents and society have so studiously environed their childhood. Socrates was, in fact, undermining the morality of social constraint -- that morality of obedience to authority and of conformity to custom, which has held together human groups of whatever size, from the family to the nation, throughout the whole history of the race. Or rather, he was going beyond this morality of constraint and prohibition to a morality of a different type, in the same way that the Sermon on the Mount goes beyond the law delivered on Sinai. The spring of this new morality lies within the soul itself. It may be called the morality of aspiration to spiritual perfection. If spiritual perfection be taken as the end of life and the secret of happiness, and if every human soul can see its own good, then action cannot be governed by any code of rules imposed from without. Whether such rules are valid in [49] any actual case is a question that can be decided only by the sincere and dispassionate verdict of the individual soul.

To discover a new principle of morality, and to proclaim it without fear or compromise, is to incur the resentment of society living by the morality whose limitations are to be broken down. It is also to incur the risk of being misunderstood by hearers who are already chafing at those limits, but may not be capable of grasping the new principle in its positive implications. Certainly it is dangerous to say: 'Do that which is right in your own eyes', because some of your hearers will run away with the notion that you mean: 'Do just as you please'; and will not grasp the all-important proviso: 'But first make sure that your eyes see with perfect clearness what is really good'. If that condition is satisfied, if you see the truth and act upon it -- as you must, when you really see it -- you will find happiness possessing your own soul; but you may find that doing what you know to be right may be anything but pleasant; it may cost you poverty and suffering and, if you cannot avoid a conflict with society, imprisonment and death. If the condition is not satisfied, you may become a self-seeking sensualist and, if your egoism is allied, with power, an enemy of mankind, a wolf whom [50] society has every right to destroy. Then you will have lost your own soul and not found happiness, though you may have reached the heights of power which the world thinks most enviable.

I can now define more clearly what I meant by saying that the achievement of Socrates was the discovery of the soul. When he told the Athenians that the only thing in life worth caring for was not wealth or social distinction, but the soul, he was using language which sounded very strange to their ears. [Cf. J. Burnet, The Socratic doctrine of the Soul, Essays and Addresses (1929), p. 126.] The ordinary Athenian thought of his soul -- his psyche -- as an airy unsubstantial wraith or double of his body, a shadow that, at the moment of death, might flit away to some dismal Hades bordering on non-existence, or perhaps escape as a breath to be dissipated like smoke in the air. If he spoke of his 'self', he meant his body, the warm and living seat of consciousness -- a consciousness that was doomed to fade with the waning faculties of age and to perish with the body at death. To tell him that his chief concern was to care for his 'soul' and its perfection, was like telling him to neglect his substance and cherish his shadow.

Socrates' discovery was that the true self is not the body but the soul. And by the soul he [51] meant the seat of that faculty of insight which can know good from evil and infallibly choose the good. Self-knowledge implies the recognition of this true self. Self-examination is a discipline constantly needed to distinguish its judgment from the promptings of other elements in our nature, closely attached to the body and its distracting interests. Self-rule is the rule of the true self over those other elements -- an absolute autocracy of the soul. For this inner judge of good and evil is also a ruler. The true self is a faculty, not only of intuitive insight, but of will -- a will that can override all other desires for pleasure and seeming happiness. The soul which sees what is really good infallibly desires the good it has discerned. Socrates held that this desire of the enlightened soul is so strong that it cannot fail to overpower all the other desires whose objects the true self sees to be illusory.

This is the meaning of the Socratic paradoxes: 'Virtue is knowledge', 'No one does wrong wittingly'. People commonly say: 'I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't help doing it'. Socrates replies: That is never really the truth. You may have known that other people think what you did was bad, or that you had been told it was bad; but if you had known for yourself it was bad, you would not have done it. Your fault was [52] a failure of insight. You did not see the good; you were misled by some pleasure which seemed good at the moment. If you had seen the good you would also have willed it, and acted accordingly. No one does wrong against his true will, when once that will has been directed to its object, the good, by a genuine and clear vision. The special name given to the true self in the later writings of Plato and in Aristotle is nous, a word commonly translated by 'reason'. To modern ears 'spirit' is a less misleading term, because 'reason' suggests a faculty that thinks but does not also will. Plato and Aristotle regard this spirit as distinct from the psyche, which is inseparably associated with the body and perishes with the death of the body. For the perfection of the spirit the Greeks used the ordinary word for 'goodness', arete, and this had better not be translated by 'virtue'. 'Virtue', at all times, means conformity to current ideals of conduct. The virtuous man is he who does what the rest of society approves. The Socratic philosophy dismisses this conformity under the name of 'popular virtue'. Plato puts the virtue of 'the. respectable citizen' on the same level with the unremitting pursuit of duty characteristic of bees, ants, and other social insects. This is not what Socrates meant by 'goodness'. The whole [53] content of his mission was to supersede the childish morality of blameless conformity by an ideal of spiritual manhood rising above the commonly acknowledged bounds of human capacity. This was to substitute for a morality of attainable virtue, such as the world respects and rewards, a morality aspiring to a perfection unattainable I save by a few men whom the world has rejected while they lived, and only learnt too late to worship as heroic or divine. Such a man was Socrates.