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Life of the Famous Philosopher, Term Paper Example

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1.

The idea that an “unexamined life is not worth living” was at the heart of Socrates’ philosophical views. Socrates came from a tradition of the Sophists, who spent much of their time and effort on concerns relating to the natural world, the nature of the universe, and the nature of existence itself. The Sophists took the position that they were possessors of wisdom, and much of their writing (what little exists, anyway) is concerned with demonstrating how wise they were. Such demonstrations included sophist explanations for the universe, and the Sophists were expert at using language in complicated, and even tricky, ways to get their points across.

Socrates rejected many of the Sophist’s ideas, and showed little concern for trying to understand the nature of the universe or the natural world. Socrates was, instead, concerned with self-knowledge. Where “sophistry” projects the idea that knowledge hs been acquired and can be shared, Socrates was instead a “philosopher,” meaning, in essence, a seeker of wisdom. Socrates often professed his own ignorance; he was not concerned with convincing the eorld that he had all the answers. He was, instead, interested in the quest for knowledge, and he belived that this quest for knowledge must involve looking inward and examining one’s own soul.

2.

Where the sophists were concerned with the natural world, Socrates was largely concerned with human beings. He did, in fact, reject the philosophical study of the natural world as ultimately meaningless. The only truth and knowledge about which Socrates was concerned was found by looking inward and examining the human soul. In this context, Socrates’ primary concerns were related to matters of virtue and morality.

Later writers, from early Christian thinkers to philosophers like Nietzsche, would reject Socrates’ ideas about morality, often for very different reasons. Socrates believed that the moral character of a person was the most important thing about that person; he believed it was better to have evil done to oneself than to do evil. Nietzsche rejected this idea, positing that it showed a sense of weakness that was in direct opposition to Nietzsche’s own ideas about the superiority of the ubermensch.

Some early Christian writers rejected Socrates’ ideas for very different reasons. Although it could be said that some of Socrates’ ideas seemed to align well with Christian ideals about morality, Socrates often claimed to be fundamentally ignorant. This profession of ignorance was taken literally by some writers, who agreed that Socrates was ignorant and thus rejected his teachings. This is somewhat ironic, in the sense that Socrates adhered to a sense of morality that was not unlike the professed Christian ideals about loving the neighbor and other moral precepts.

3.

Some philosophical and religious constructs that reject the study of or focus on the natural world lead followers to entirely reject almost all activity involving the natural world. Such followers may go so far s to reject all human interaction based on the idea that everything about the natural world is an illusion, and therefore not worth anything. Socrates seemed to have a strong sense that there was a natural world and a spiritual world, and those who wrote about him typically portrayed him as someone who believed in at least some form of god or gods. Socrates himself spoke of the interaction with the Delphic oracle, and professed to a belief in god and the spirit world.

Despite the fact that Socrates rejected the importance of the natural world and the understanding of the universe as a philosophical pursuit, he did not reject human interaction. This separated him from some other philosophers and religious adherents who equated the rejection of the natural world with a rejection of human interaction as well. Socrates, by contrast, appeared to value human interaction above all else. He was not known to have written down any of his teachings, and is characterized as someone who went so far as to reject the idea of writing down teachings as writing down his ideas would, in effect, make them lifeless. Socrates compared the written word to paintings that portrayed people. The images in the paintings may look like real people, but they could not be interrogated or otherwise spoken with.

Socrates favored conversation, interaction, and language as his sole mode of teaching (and, apparently of being taught). Socrates seemed interested in drawing people out by having conversations with them and asking them questions. This was his means of teaching them, it seems, as through such conversations he could get people to examine their own ideas in ways that they may not have done before. At the same time, Socrates enjoyed such interactions for what he could learn as well. This approach is perfectly in keeping with his professions of ignorance; even though it was clear that he was considered to be a wise man, he was not interested in one-way communication where he took on the role of a teacher, but was instead interested in two-way communication where he could both teach and learn at the same time.

4.

The sophists viewed language as “not only the fundamental tool of human communication but the building material by which human reality is established” (p169). In this context, it is easy to understand why the use of language was at the heart of sophistry, and why some who considered themselves to be sophists or philosophers or teachers became masters of the language. For many of these linguistic masters, language could be used to perform trickery or to convincingly convey ideas or beliefs that may have been of little real value. As Socrates saw it, much of this use of language was detrimental, and was more about impressing listeners with tricky word-play than it was about seeking or sharing knowledge or wisdom.

Ironically, Socrates was as capable of such linguistic trickery as any of the sophists. He could, according to those who wrote about him, convince listeners that bad ideas were actually good, or that good ideas were bad. He was known to confuse those with whom he interacted at times, though those who were confused by Socrates’ language and speaking may have only been demonstrating their own shortcomings or failures to understand him.

The sophists largely rejected the idea of moral truth, and instead adhered to a sense of moral relativism. In so doing, they employed the linguistic trickery for which they were known to express this belief in an absence of moral standards. Socrates rejected this notion; although he was capable of employing the same sort of linguistic gymnastics as the sophists, he used his skills to express his belief in morality and virtue. In order to explore his ideas about morality and virtue, Socrates sought to examine and understand what these terms actually meant, both to him and to those with whom he interacted. This was a part of his ongoing quest to examine his own soul and self, and to prompt others to engage in the same sort of self-examination.

5.

Socrates’ primary form of philosophical interaction was the dialogue. Although the speech he gave in Plato’s Apology demonstrated that (at least according to Plato) Socrates was quite capable of speaking about his own ideas and beliefs at length, this was not how he usually chose to interact with people. Instead, Socrates was known for asking questions of people, and for professing his own ignorance in an effort to draw people out about their own beliefs and ideas. At the heart of most of his dialogues were the notions of morality and virtue. In an effort to engage those with whom he had dialogues, he would ask them to express their views on the meanings of words and ideas related to morality and virtue. These dialogues would begin with those he interrogated and questioned offering their own definitions of such words and ideas, which Socrates would then question and challenge. In this manner, Socrates prompted people to really assess their own beliefs and to consider the true definitions of moral and virtuous concepts and ideals.

Socrates’ “ignorance” was a “pedagogical device” (p181) that allowed him to engage those with whom he had dialogues. In one sense, this ignorance was real; Socrates did not profess to have all the answers (or, really, any answers) the philosophical questions he posed. At the same time, however, it is clear that Socrates did have some firmly-held beliefs, and this professed ignorance was often merely a means to prompt others to speak more fully and openly about their own ideas. By claiming to be ignorant, those with whom he spoke were forced to elaborate more fully on their own ideas, and in so doing, Socrates hoped to prompt them to consider or re-examine their own beliefs.

6.

Socrates recognized that language had multiple uses, For many people, language was simply a means of interacting in meaningless ways. This is what we might today call “small talk,” wherein those engaged in conversation might inquire about the health of another, or comment on the weather, or otherwise engage in conversation that did not really mean anything or accomplish anything. There are instances in some of the writings about Socrates wherein he engages in this same sort of small talk, but generally Socrates was concerned with using language to share ideas and to more fully develop his own and others’ understanding of the meaning of words and ideas. Socrates’ dialogues often took the form of the elenchus, which was a form of interrogation.

In this context, Socrates was concerned with the notion that words have meaning, and that it was important to examine and understand the words and ideas people used and expressed. The nature of “small talk” employed language that was ultimately meaningless; in essence, it was nothing more than noise. By using the process or construct of the elenchus, Socrates hoped to prompt people to examine the meanings of the words and ideas they expressed. Socrates likened himself to a midwife; he saw his role not as someone who imparts his own ideas to other people, but as someone who helps people metaphorically “give birth” to their own ideas. When these ideas were poorly formed or poorly expressed, Socrates would challenge the speaker, often forcing him to admit his own failure to truly understand the ideas he claimed to be discussing.

7.

The notion that Socrates was “ignorant” is at the heart of his entire philosophical worldview. It seems to be a contradiction or an enigma; if he was so “ignorant,” why was Socrates so revered by so many? It is clear that this “ignorance” is much more complex than what we might typically think of when considering the idea of ignorance. Socrates was very obviously brilliant, and was possessed of an unusual combination of pride and humility. Socrates considered himself to be wise, and fairly bragged that the Delphic Oracle had professed that Socrates was the wisest of men. At the same time, Socrates’ own sense of his wisdom, and of the nature of wisdom itself, is built around the idea that true wisdom comes from the realization that one does not know everything. Those who would claim to know all there is to know –or at least, to know all there is to know that is important and worth knowing- would, by definition, have no need to continue on a quest for knowledge.

Socrates, by contrast to this worldview, viewed the quest for knowledge as the most important human endeavor. It was the fact that he recognized the importance of the constant quest for knowledge that underpinned his own sense that he was, in fact, a wise man. That is the ultimate contradiction at the core of Socrates’ philosophy: he was wise not because he knew so much, but because he recognized that he knew so little.

This perspective informed everything about how Socrates viewed the world, and about how he determined what was, and what was not, of philosophical value and importance. Socrates did not entirely reject the significance or value of learning about the sciences or other aspects of the natural world; these pursuits were, however, only valuable to the extent that they supported the quest for self-knowledge that was at the heart of Socrates’ philosophical views. Socrates did not place great value on the nature of imparted information, but instead believed that the most valuable knowledge came from self-examination and self-understanding. This view is what drove his tendency towards engaging others in the process of elenchus, as it forced them to consider and examine their own beliefs and knowledge.

8.

Socrates’ views on the nature of good and evil were somewhat complex and challenging. There are, according to Socrates and the philosophers of his day, a number of ways of ,looking at good and evil, and of understanding the moral underpinnings of good and evil behavior. According to one view it is possible, for example, to know that something is bad or evil, but to undertake such an action anyway. As Socrates saw it, however, this was impossible. The only way someone could act in an evil manner was if that person was mentally confused about what was actually right or wrong. In the Socratic view, “evil is never the result of one’s conscious decision to do evil with knowledge of what is evil”(p227). In this sense, evil actions arise when the actor is “intellectually weak” (p227), not because the actor is purposefully engaging in evil deeds. In this context, then, Socrates rejects the notion of “sin,” which is, in short, the commission of some action or deed that the person committing it knows to be evil but does anyway. Virtue and morality arise from the knowledge gained through self-examination, while bad and evil arise from ignorance and a failure to adequately examine one’s own self or soul.

9.

This perspective on the nature of good and evil, and on what drives good behavior and bad behavior, is at the core of Socrates’ philosophy. Socrates believed it was impossible for someone who was truly wise to engage in evil, just as it was impossible for someone who was not wise to behave in a virtuous or moral manner. The nature of wisdom, as viewed by Socrates, was gained by a difficult, ongoing, and never-ending process of self-examination and efforts to understand and know the self. This wisdom, which was the only sort of wisdom Socrates valued, would mean that those who possessed it would be incapable of engaging in evil. If someone who appeared to be wise engaged in evil acts, this did not mean that the person was truly wise and chose to behave in an evil manner. It meant, instead, that the person was not truly wise, and that he had failed to engage in a level of self-examination necessary to overcome evil and to be a virtuous person.

In the Aristotelian view, a stupid person might “indentify the good with a moment of pleasure, a piece of gold, some senseless pastime, the acquisition of fame and power, and other such useless things” (p229). Aristotle further differentiates between those who commit evil deeds without realizing that what they are doing is evil, and those who commit evil deeds with the full knowledge that their actions are bad. Although Aristotle appears to differ with Socrates on the nature of evil (at least as manifested in terms of human behavior, which is really the only thing that concerns Socrates), Aristotle admits in the end that some measure of ignorance must underlie the commission of evil acts; in this sense, then, he more or less agrees with Socrates.

10.

Despite the fact that Socrates reached the end of his life because he was handed a death sentence by the Athenian court, he was generally of an optimistic nature. As he offered his apologia to the court, Socrates did not demonstrate any fear of death, nor did he make any effort to plead for his life (at least not in a manner that was inconsistent with his lifelong philosophical teachings and beliefs). As Socrates saw it, death likely meant one of two things: either it was a finality, of his spirit would somehow continue to exist after death. Either of these options was pleasing to Socrates, as neither of them presented a possible unpleasant situation. If death was merely oblivion, then Socrates would no longer exist, and therefore would not care that he was no longer alive. If his spirit somehow continued to exist after death, that meant that the quest for knowledge that had filled his life would, in some form or another, continue. Socrates did not claim to know whether one or the other of these two possibilities was more likely; just as he had with every other aspect of life, Socrates professed his own ignorance where the matter of death was concerned.

Even if his spirit did continue to exist after death, Socrates did not claim to know what form that existence would take. The act of discovering the nature of a post-death experience, then, would simply be another opportunity to learn something new, a prospect that pleased Socrates greatly. His idea of a positive afterlife was built on the notion that he could interrogate the great figures of history, from military leaders to politicians to philosophers. In essence, Socrates’ idea of “heaven” would be to simply continue his quest for wisdom for eternity.

The sense of optimism Socrates displayed at his trial was nothing new; he was (at least as portrayed in most accounts) an optimistic person. As was the case with much of his worldview, Socrates’ views on the nature of philosophy and the search for wisdom were seemingly contradictory, at least on the surface. Although he viewed the quest for wisdom as a process that had no end, he still saw value in pursuing wisdom. The lack of an end-point in the quest for wisdom was not frustrating to Socrates; it was, in fact, what drove him and motivated him. Socrates found great value in the process of the elenchus and in interrogating people about their beliefs and ideas. By clarifying the definitions of words and ideas it was possible to gain a better understanding of their meaning and value. The fact that this process was a never-ending pursuit is exactly why Socrates treasured it and attempted to share it with all those he came in contact with.

Work Cited

Navia, Luis E. Socratic Testimonies. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002. Print.

 

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