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Character Analysis of Socrates, Essay Example

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Any analysis concerning the character of Socrates can be structured according to two opposing views that existed in regards to the man viewed as the founder of philosophy. On the one hand, from the perspective of his students, Socrates embodied a form of life that was dedicated to a love of wisdom (the etymology of philosophy) and a commitment to the truth against the prejudices and stereotypes of public opinion. On the other hand, by his opponents, particularly those in positions of political power (as evidenced by their sentencing of Socrates to death), the philosopher’s actions were synonymous with the threat to the stability of the social structure and its basic social normativities. As a teacher of radical inquiry Socrates was perceived as both a man whose approach to life was a danger to the political and state apparatus. By analyzing both of these points of view in terms of Socrates’ character, it can be concluded that both these portrayals of the philosopher are in fact true. An analysis of Socrates’ character discloses that this was a man who, with his commitments to a possibility of the universality of human truth, challenged the mores of a society that were based on an unreflective approach to human existence.

In line with this thesis, of the utmost importance is the notion of Socrates as a teacher. Socrates was not only committed on an individual level to truth, but also on a more communal and social level, insofar as he developed his views through dialogue. Namely, the figure of Socrates did not correspond to an isolated ascetic, meditating on truth and wisdom from a location entirely isolated from society. Rather, Socrates developed his discourse on a radically immanent level, conversing on the streets of Athens with all those who would engage in him with dialogue. Socrates’ discourse served a didactic function, as it demonstrated to those who spoke with him a methodology with which to uncover hidden assumptions and prejudices in one’s own belief system. Examples of Socrates’ teaching ability are, of course, prevalent throughout Plato’s writings, such as in the Euthyphro, when the Socratic style of questioning uncovers the inconsistencies of his interlocutor Euthyphro’s world view. Hence Euthyphro states that, in a discourse on holiness and piety, “what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious.” (Plato, 10) Yet Socrates reveals the incongruity of this thesis, by stating the following: “if that which is holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and is loved because it is holy…(you) offer an attribute only, and not the essence.” (Plato, 11-12) Namely, Socrates shows the incompleteness of Euthyphro’s argument. Euthyphro is unable to define holiness itself, but can only relate it to love. But this begs the question of why something is loved: Euthyphro’s argument possesses a fundamental circularity. Socrates’ teaching ability is demonstrated in his rigorous deployment of logical reasoning, an ability which cuts through half-hearted arguments. At the same time, it becomes clear why such a character trait is dangerous to the state: it is based upon a deep reflection that does not merely take rhetorical statements at face value, but instead challenges their internal lack of logic.

In this sense, one can understand why Socrates should not have been put to death. This is because the challenging of presuppositions in a given discourse is merely exposing someone else’s flawed logic. In essence, Socrates’ method only challenges one to “know oneself” and understand the root cause for one’s opinions. Hence, Socrates describes his work in the Apology as to “fulfil the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men.” (Plato, 31) Yet this same searching into other men is the very reason Socrates was put to death: the notion that men do not want their fundamental viewpoints and belief systems disturbed. Such a disturbance causes them to re-evaluate their own individual existence. Socrates was therefore put to death for the very same reason why he should not be put to death: for merely asking human beings to reflect on their own lives.

This is furthermore underscored in Socrates’ general attitude towards his own life and the life of his community. In the Crito, he states that his forays into philosophical reasoning are not intended “to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours.” (Plato, 32) Socrates’ attitude towards his own actions is essentially an emphasis on their philanthropic quality: to incite society to question its own fundamental presuppositions. It is only through this self-reflection that a positive change is possible. By discarding stereotypes that are untenable, Socrates displays the character trait of a radical self-criticism, a self-criticism which he feels is needed for any society to be fundamentally intelligent. Socrates’ attitude towards life is defined by this desire to encourage society to reflect. Yet precisely because this amounts to a fundamental change in how society views itself, one can understand the danger of this approach from the standpoint of those in power.

This notion also shows itself in Socrates’ general character in terms of what motivates him.  In the Meno, he expresses this motivation in somewhat abstract terms, quoting Homer: “he alone has understanding; but the rest are flitting shades’; and he and his virtue in like manner will be a reality among shadows.” (Plato, 92) In essence, Socrates understands that his utopian visions of society’s radical self-questioning of itself are untenable: there will always remain “shadows”, as opposed to the light of truth. However, Socrates’ true motivation lies precisely in the attempt to inaugurate a true reality amidst these shadows, despite the apparently impossible nature of this goal. An instance of such “reality among shadows” is an instance of truth amidst lies, which ultimately serves as an example to others.

Hence, Socrates’ character is above all defined by a commitment to truth. However, this commitment does not realize itself on an individual or subjective level, but rather only through a social dialogue. Socrates engages his fellow citizens, forcing them to question their presuppositions. This at the same time makes him a dangerous man to the authorities. Whereas Socrates on some level understands the impossibility of his task, he nevertheless dedicates himself to it, as evidenced by his constant engagement with others in a search for truth and, also, as evidenced by his death at the hands of a hegemonic ruling class that did not want its fragile foundations questioned.

Works Cited

Plato. Five Great Dialogues of Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Claremont, CA: Coyote Canyon Press, 2009.

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