Socrates The Sophists philosopher. The contribution to political philosophy of Socrates and of his pupil Plato must be viewed in the above light. They believed that these new and corrosive doctrines were responsible for the disintegration of Greek society, which was taking place all around them.
To prevent this, society had to be pulled together again by recalling men to a belief in those great truths which made a virtuous life possible. Men had to be made to see that virtue is knowledge. This was their purpose. Nothing comes closer to the center of political philosophy than this struggle between truth and opinion, between the doctrines of Plato and those of the Sophists.
Does the security of truth outweigh the unleashed energies and freedom of opinion? This question is far from solved, but wherever it has been present, political philosophy has had its greatest meaning. Certainly this’ is true of the struggle between British empiricism and German idealism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and of the present struggle between East and West.
In seeking this objective, Socrates (470-399 B.C.) led the way for those that followed. About Socrates little is actually known of his method and of those views described below we can speak with some certainty. But little else can be definitely ascribed to him.
He wrote nothing because he never believed writing to be necessary. The people and the problems in which he was interested were right at hand. He wished to promote the well-being of Athens, but this could better be done by personal exhortation than by closeting himself with books and writing paraphernalia.
To understand and appreciate Socrates you must picture him talking in the market place to anyone willing to answer his questions. You can even picture him as his worst critics did, and you will still find him to be one of history’s truly great figures. One such picture has been recounted by Catlin.
The son of a sculptor and a professional midwife, ugly as a satyr with the waddling gait of a waterfowl, he [Socrates] was primarily a bore, even if a sincere one. Never at home looking after his family or his vocation ( scandalmongers said he was a bigamist), he was, as it were, a frequenter of coffee-houses who boasted of seldom going into the country.
A coffee-house politician, his habit was to buttonhole people, to whom he had scarcely been introduced, in the market place, and pertinaciously to ask them inconvenient and discourteous questions. Anyone, soldier, prostitute, priest was a fit subject for his inquisitive curiosity.
A heavy drinker, he could be guaranteed to drink the rest of his boon friends under the table. Even Aristophanes was hardly more complimentary. Socrates appeared in his plays as sardonic and irreverent, smart but gloomy, full of himself and of fantastic ideas.
Socrates appears in truth to have been a meddlesome fellow. Yet for all this, he and those who were his pupils contributed more to our intellectual traditions than any who preceded or followed them. Impressed by the political and ethical anarchy of his day, Socrates taught that beneath the variety and confusion of laws and customs general and universal rules of morality might be found.
He realized it was impossible to restore the old ideals and beliefs of the Greeks, and agreed with the Sophists that conceptions of right must be subjected to the scrutiny of individual reason and not rest upon religion or upon traditional customs.
But he believed that fundamental principles of right and justice might be discovered, that man was naturally social, that the state was a necessary and desirable result of human needs, and that its laws, if based upon wisdom, would correspond to universal reason.
He demanded political education, attacked the rampant democracy of his time, with its theory of equality among men and its choice of officials by lot, and proposed that the state be governed by an aristocracy of intelligence.
In teaching these doctrines he employed a method later associated with his name the now famous Socratic method. Having gathered a group of friends about him, Socrates, after a few pleasantries, would introduce into the conversation an unresolved question.
He might begin by asking if it were not better to be a great bad man than a small good man? Having posed the question, he would then plead his inability to answer it. This mock profession of ignorance led his hearers to propose views of their own. With their views now in the open, Socrates could proceed to the business at hand questioning the consequences of these views.
Professing not to be as sophisticated as his friends, Socrates would test these proposals with simple analogies, usually involving carpenters, shoemakers, or the like. Initial inquiries would suggest further questions, until after hours of discussion the problem would finally be circumscribed.
And there would emerge from the discussion what Aristotle later called a universal definition or essence of the problem.This keen insistence on clear definition and logical thought did much to stamp Socrates as the godfather of political philosophy and the founder of speculative ethics.