English Samgha/Essays/Philosophy

The Challenge of Socrates: A Reflection on Philosophy and the Polis

 Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787.

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787 (Painting in public domain from wikicommons)

by Alexander Rosenthal Pubul*

The clash between Socrates and the city of Athens which leads to his trial and death raises in the most dramatic possible form the fundamental question of the relationship between philosophy and politics.  What is the nature of this conflict? How was it that Socrates who sought virtue and wisdom above all else was perceived as a mortal a threat to Athenian political life and forced to pay with his life?

In point of fact the conflict between Socrates and the Polis is explicable only in terms of the fundamental kinship between Socratic philosophy and the concerns of politics. Socrates did not make the distinction one finds fully developed in Aristotle between the theoretic life (i.e. the philosophical life) and the political life[1]   This contrast with Aristotle is instructive. For him this distinction is rooted in the difference between the moral and theoretical virtues.[2]  The moral virtues being active are proper to the political life while the intellectual virtues are proper to the theoretic life. While both the active and contemplative forms of life have their own goodness, Aristotle will argue for the superiority of the theoretic life on the grounds that the intellect is the distinguishing and highest function of man.  Moreover while active works are chiefly good for further things beyond themselves, leisured pursuits have their own proper excellence. But what is good in itself is inevitably higher than what is good for something else:

…happiness is thought to involve leisure ; for we pursue business in order to have leisure…among practical pursuits displaying the virtues politics and war seem to stand out in nobility and grandeur, yet they are unleisured, and directed to some further end, not chosen for their own sakes; whereas the activity of the intellect is felt to excel in serious worth, consisting as it does in contemplation, and to aim at no end beyond itself…[3]

Had Socrates understood philosophy in this way it might have been possible to virtuously avoid the conflict with the Polis by retreat into a life of solitary speculative activity.  But the famed Socratic paradox that “virtue is knowledge” means that for Socrates that philosophy is centrally focused on an issue central to politics – the problem of virtue or moral excellence (αρετη).  Socrates as we know seeks above all the knowledge of the good life and to admonish others to seek the same:

Most excellent man, are you who are a citizen of Athens, the greatest of cities and the most famous for wisdom and power, not ashamed to care for the acquisition of wealth, and for reputation and honour, when you neither care nor take thought for wisdom, and truth and the perfection of your souls?[4]

For Socrates the intellectual quest for “wisdom and truth” is part and parcel of the effort at the perfection of the soul, for it is by knowledge of the Good that one becomes good. This point is made more explicit in the Protagoras where Socrates argues that “…no one willingly goes after evil or what he thinks to be evil in preference to the good.”[5] Just as evil is a consequence of and basically identical with ignorance, so is virtue logically identical with wisdom. The philosophical life which seeks the knowledge of the Good and the ethical life which acts according to the Good are the same for Socrates. This mean that for the philosophical life will also be one concerned with the central question of the political.

The Political Nature of the Ethical Quest
But why is the ethical life inherently a political life? This assumption is perhaps far from self-evident in our time. Our modern liberalism after all tends to separate the public from the private spheres. Within this framework we may think of the pursuit of the “knowledge of the good” as something relevant for personal and individual life, while politics as concerned with “public matters” – taxation, benefits, foreign policy, rights protection, etc… But does liberalism actually succeed in evading the question of the Good as a political question? As Leo Strauss pointed out the liberal quest for the “open society” where every individual is simply left free within some broad limits to pursue the good however they understand it, does not succeed in evading the question of the good society (i.e. the central question of classical political philosophy), but is in fact merely a particular definition of “the good society.”[6]

At all events the notion that emerged in modernity in which the individual is primary and the Polis secondary was profoundly alien to the Greek mind.  Aristotle who more than any philosopher before him affirms the superiority of the theoretic to the political life, nonetheless sees only the political life – i.e. the life lived within the context of the polis – as properly human. As he famously declares

…man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it…[7]

If man is by nature social and political, it follows that the good life must be cultivated within the cooperative context of the political community – indeed the ethical activity of man is the chief purpose of politics – as Aristotle declares that “…the Good of man must be the end of politics”[8] and “the state was formed not only for the sake of life but rather for the good life…”[9]
Socrates in the same manner entertained no thought that the pursuit of the Good would be a merely private, individual affair without implication for the community. The reason is that “…from virtue…come all other good things to man, both to the individual and to the state [δημοσια].”[10] Politics after all has ethical implications – knowledge of the Good is as requisite for man’s communal as his individual life.

The Good in Contention
If both politics and philosophy have the same end – the Good – then how does one account for the clash of the philosophical life represented by Socrates on the one side and the Athenian Polis on the other?  The answer must evidently lie in differing conceptions of the Good. For even the city which seems to disclaim the Good entirely and adopts a purely “realist” notion of power politics as power, nonetheless has a conception of the Good – namely an identification of the Good with power.  The issue at stake is whether the particular conception of the Good defended by the Polis can be sustained under the weight of Socratic questioning, or will it be shown to be only an apparent and not a true Good?

Socratic inquiry aims to discover the answer to the question “what is the good life?” by subjecting all claims concerning wisdom and virtue to the scrutiny of reason, and if they are found wanting to reveal our ignorance in order that the quest may progress. When however the claimant is the political community itself, philosophy is then seen to potentially represent a force which is subversive of the inherited traditions which provide the moral foundations of the society.  “Custom is lord of all” said the Greek poet Pindar, in a phrase famously taken up by Herodotus.  The pre-philosophical social conception of the good is typically tied to ancestral, inherited traditions which philosophy calls into question. [11]

That nearly all human societies intuit that mere custom or tradition lacks a self-sufficient justification for its obligatory force– for how does one reason from the fact that something has been done to the belief that it ought to be done?  In general religious sanctification therefore stands behind custom to provide it with obligatory force. When tradition is associated with the will of God (or the gods) it acquires a special legitimacy.  We might then be tempted to see in Socrates a kind of anticipation of the modern rationalists of the 18th century Enlightenment; a religious skeptic like Voltaire and Diderot who demands that the claims of religion subject themselves to the critical scrutiny of human reason as part of a grand project of social reform.

In fact however in the approach of Socratic inquiry toward religion was entirely different. We find instead a humility and sense of intellectual finitude which contrasts with the project of modern rationalism. When Socrates is asked by Phaedrus if he believes in the myth of Boreas and Oreithyia he responds:

If anyone disbelieves in these [myths], and with a rustic sort of wisdom, undertakes to explain each in accordance with probability, he will need a great deal of leisure. But I have no leisure at all; and the reason my friend is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself…and so I dismiss these matters and accepting the customary belief about them, as I was saying just now, I investigate not these things, but myself…[12]

In short Socrates’ acute awareness of human ignorance and limitations lead him to accept traditional beliefs on matters which he finds himself unable to know or investigate. [13] Socrates also clearly has a religious element in his character as witness by credence he gives to the Delphic oracle which sets him on his philosophical mission, and his belief in a divine Spirit (δαιμων) which guides his moral decisions.

For Socrates however knowledge of one’s ignorance is not valuable merely for the sake of a lazy humility but as a spur to wonder and inquiry. If the individual – or the Polis itself -believes itself to already know the Good what motive will it have to seek out the truth of the matter? As is recorded in the Meno with reference to the point at which the slave-boy becomes aware of his ignorance and is perplexed by the mathematical problem:

Soc: Now by causing him to doubt and giving him the torpedo’s shock, have we done him any harm?
Men: I think not.
Soc:  And we have certainly given him some assistance, it would seem, toward finding out the truth of the matter: for now he will push in the search gladly, as lacking knowledge…[14]

Socrates thus has a ready defense against the position that philosophical inquiry is destructive to the Polis. He would this deny the claim that the political order would be harmed by rational examination of its moral claims or into the foundations of its inherited moral code. For if it should turn out after examination to rest on true foundations confidence in its moral code will be immeasurably strengthened by the transformation of unreflective opinion concerning the Good into knowledge. But if it should be shown to rest on false foundations then it will be rescued from an ignorance concerning the Good from which it could not otherwise have escaped, and it will be spurred onwards to seek the truth concerning the Good.

This Socratic position however rests on at least two assumptions. First that human reason is in fact competent to discern the truth concerning the Good – a view which balances Socratic humility.  Secondly it presumes that there is a truth concerning the Good.  To discover this would require scrutinizing the claims of the Polis concerning the nature of the Political Good. But what was this prevailing conception against which Socrates felt he needed to contend?

The Rhetor-Statesman or the Philosopher-Statesman?
In Athens, as a deliberative democracy, power was acquired most of all through the art of persuasion – rhetoric – and the statesman was above all things a rhetor. This meant a premium was placed on the skills the Sophists taught – the art of persuasive rhetoric. That the Sophists were central to the development of the Athenian ideal of education is beyond question.[15] To be properly trained in rhetoric required a broad education in the science of argumentation (dialectic) and the beauty of language (poetry). It required also a knowledge of history, politics, and cultures so that one could speak to any audience knowledgeably about any theme. Also needed would be a knowledge of human passions and how they are aroused and assuaged. Even the natural sciences and mathematics were not neglected by the Sophists in their education.

The Socratic questioning of this Sophistic education ideal related to the end of this education? What is the value of rhetoric? Gorgias seeks to impress Socrates by noting that this art “…in itself comprises practically all powers at once!”[16]He provides examples of how with the power bestowed on rhetoric it can do what all other skills can do – for it can for example persuade the patient better than the doctor, and the same with all other skills”So great, so strange is the power of this art.”[17] His student Polus awed by the limitless power to which rhetoric seems to give access:

Are they [the orators] not like the despots, in putting to death anyone they please, and depriving anyone of his property, and expelling them from cities as they may see fit?[18]

The presumption of course which Socrates will challenge is that power and not virtue is the aim of politics.[19] Socrates defends his position that “…to do wrong is the greatest of evils”[20]by appealing to the hierarchy of property, body, and soul with the latter the highest.  Injustice which is to the soul what disease is to the body is the greatest of evils, just as justice is the greatest good, and so those who make themselves unjust inflict the greatest evil on themselves. It is worse clearly for Socrates, to do that to suffer wrong.[21] If this is so then by analogy the philosophy is like the medicine of the soul, since it brings the knowledge which cures the soul – it of its disease – injustice. But when then is rhetoric?

One is now in a position to understand Socrates’ playful analogy between rhetoric and cooking which brings back into focus the central distinction between the pleasant and the Good.  The rhetor is to the soul what the cook is to the body – one who brings pleasure without necessarily bringing health. Socrates’s opinion of rhetoric is already made clear when he says that “I sum up its substance in the name flattery [22]  Just as the cook aims to please the body without being necessarily concerned with its health, so the sophist or rhetor gives pleasure to the hearers without necessarily seeking the true good of the soul.   The debate therefore is about whether pleasure and the Good are identical or can be distinguished.  This comes out in the discussion with Callicles will later defend the identity of the pleasant and the Good. [23]  However under the relentless cross examination of Socrates, Callicles is compelled reluctantly to admit the distinction.[24]  This establishes the possibility that the pleasure produced by rhetoric can be only an apparent good.

The failure to distinguish pleasure from the Good lies from the Socratic perspective at the root of the whole conflict between Socrates and the Athenian polity.  The people in their generality will far prefer the pleasing flattery of the rhetor to the philosopher’s instruction, just as they will prefer the cook who brings the body pleasure even at the cost of health, to the doctor who brings the body health even at the cost of some pain. Unable to discern the distinction between the apparent Good brought by the rhetor and the true Good sought by the philosopher, they will resist the latter – or even seek to destroy him. As Socrates prophecies “.  “I shall be like a doctor tried by a bench of children on a charge brought by a cook.”[25]

If however one then accepts the Socratic argument – that the good of the soul (virtue) is the true aim of politics rather than power and pleasure, it follows that the polis will require someone to pursue the knowledge of the Good. If that is true it is the philosopher who seeks this knowledge and not the rhetor who is the truly political man.  As Socrates notes to his most formidable opponent Callicles:

I think I am one of the few, not to say the only one, in Athens who attempts the true art of statesmanship, and the only man of the present time who manages affairs of state : the speeches I make from time to time are not aimed at gratification, but at the best instead of what is most pleasant…[26]

So far then from accepting the Aristotelian distinction between the political and the philosophical life, it turns out that for Socrates the only truly political life is the philosophical life!


[1] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. (Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press, 1999). H. Rackham trans –cf. the discussion in Book X, 1177aff.  I am using Loeb Translations for all the classical texts. These including of Aristotle also the Politics (H. Rackham trans., first print in 1932) and of Plato the Protagoras (W.R.M. Lamb trans, first print 1924), Meno (same volume), The Apology (trans. Harold North Fowler,first print 1914), the Phaedrus(same volume.) and the Gorgias (W.R.M. Lamb first print 1925). Subsequent references will simply give the text, chapter and Bekker number for Aristotle or Stephanus number for Plato. Items in of quotes in brackets are added by the author.
[2] Ibid. Book II, 1103
[3] Ibid. Book X. 1177b
[4] Plato. The Apology. 29e-30a
[5] Plato. Protagoras.358d
[6] Cf. Leo Strauss’s First Lecture on Meno (Spring Semester 1966)
https://leostrausscenter.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/courses/01%20Plato%27s%20Meno%201%20-%201966-03-29.mp3 (Accessed January 3, 2015). For more on Strauss’s views of modern liberalism cf. “Relativism” in Thomas Pangle (ed.) Classical Political Rationalism.(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989): 13-26.
[7] Aristotle. Politics. 1253a
[8] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. I.ii.7-8
[9] Aristotle. Politics. III. 1280a
[10] Plato. The Apology. 30b
[11]For a discussion of the Good as the ancestral custom cf. Leo Strauss. Natural Right and History. Especially chapter III(University of Chicago Press, Copyright 1953).
[12] Plato. Phaedrus.229e-230a
[13] For more on Socrates’ religious views see W. K.C. Guthrie. Socrates.(London: Cambridge University Press, 1971):155ff
[14] Plato. Meno. 84d
[15] Werner Jaeger. Paideia : The Ideal of Greek Culture, Vol. I (Oxford University Press, 1962):298ff
[16] Plato. Gorgias, 456a
[17] Ibid. Gorgias, 456c
[18] Ibid, 466c
[19] For an excellent discussion of this and many other aspects of the Gorgias see Werner Jaeger. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Vol II.(New York: Oxford University Press, 1943):126-159
[20] Plato. Gorgias,469b
[21] Ibid.469C – see also 477c and following.
[22] Ibid. 463b-c
[23] Ibid.495a
[24] Ibid. 500e
[25] Plato. Gorgias. 521e
[26] Ibid. 521d



*Alexander S. Rosenthal-Pubul, MA, PhD, an online Teaching Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and the Director of the Petrarch Institute, he received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Princeton University in 1994 and his PhD in Philosophy from the Katholieke Universisteit Leuven in 2005. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities including Loyola College (Maryland), and Catholic University of America (CUA), the University of Glasgow, and Johns Hopkins University where he served as Assistant Director of the Center for Governmental Studies. He has taught at many levels from high school and undergraduate students, to adult learners from government and the private sector.  His research interests include medieval and renaissance thought, European intellectual history, and political philosophy. Among his publications is his book Crown Under Law: Richard Hooker, John Locke, and the Ascent of Modern Constitutionalism which concerns the intellectual origins of modern constitutionalism focusing on John Locke and Richard Hooker and their interaction with the medieval and renaissance tradition. He founded the Petrarch Institute to bring to a wider audience his long experience helping students to apply the timeless wisdom of the classical texts.


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