A critique on Socrates

By Patrick Huang, Contributing Writer ||

It is without a doubt that philosophy owes its origin to Socratic thinking and Socrates’ methods of seeking the truth. The term philosophy is a conventional saying to describe a particular activity in which only philosophers partake. In the time of Socrates, the purpose of inventing philosophy was to provide a mean for purgation and purification of the souls. Due to the fact that philosophy has undertaken a long and complex process of evolution, I will limit my discussion to its meaning in 500 BC.

In order to understand the influence of philosophy in our life, though scarcely any, it is more than necessary to first look at its origin — that is, to look at Socrates’ own explanation of philosophy. Socrates created his philosophical system on the basis of three facts, or rather propositions. He strongly believed in the existence of innate knowledge in minds, of absolute truth, and of souls as independent objects from the bodies. Two of these beliefs — innate knowledge and absolute truth—become indispensable elements in modern philosophy; his argument over souls, however, grows increasingly untenable because of its absurdity.

I must own that although many of Socrates’ arguments by analogy are somewhat unpersuasive, his dialectical method and the crude method of deduction are highly admirable. Making conjectures and constantly questioning possibilities through the use of a process of deduction to arrive at conclusions are unprecedented compared to those who came before him and used religion as a mean to explain the unexplainable. The idea of reasoning played an important part in Socrates’ ways of seeking the truth.

In Phaedo, we can see his disgust and hate for passions, human wants, and, ultimately, the body. He saw emotions as a great evil for dulling the faculty of reasoning and desires of human beings as the only source of all conflicts. His aversion to sentiments, however, was contradictory because he himself had desire: the desire to seek the truth after death, if not before. Without this desire it is not probable for him to have the motivation to see what he has been striving for his whole life. According to Jean Jacques Rousseau, our wants make passions possible, and passions are powerful forces that drive us to covet knowledge because “it is impossible to conceive why a man exempt from fears and desires should take the trouble to reason.”

Socrates went on to trace the origin of emotions and finally concluded that the bodies were the ultimate evil. He associated bodies with power and money or anything pertaining to society. To some degree, his argument was more or less the same as Rousseau’s, who also thought civilization was a great mischief. But to a larger extent, their beliefs diverged by virtue of completely opposite views on the importance of bodies. The reason for Socrates’s contempt for the bodies is due to his excessive idolatry of immortality of the souls. The bodies should be free from any charges and we should ascribe Socrates’ extreme view to the greater evil of society, which in 500 BC was under the influence of paganism.

Socrates created a method of building up evidence by the excessive use of preposterous analogy. One example might not suffice but I should let my argument suffer from superficiality and ignorance. In his argument over an eternal circle of life and death, I find it inconveniently absurd. He first propounded a question: “Are not all things which have opposites generated out of their opposites?” before proceeding and listing examples — weaker generated from stronger, just generated from unjust, cold generated from hot, and so on. He eventually drew the conclusion that life was generated out of death and vice versa, so there must be an eternal circle that is transparent but omnipresent. Regardless of the absurdity of this analogy, it is confusing as to the deduction. The criteria for justice and injustice, weakness and strength, cold and hot depends entirely on our sense and preference. For example, we generally prefer a person who has high reputation and respect to be a just man; we prefer a wintry day to be called cold. We create the standard for these things, and of course our power has limitations. Life and death, for example, are beyond our power to control. They are the magnificent masterpiece of nature. Socrates was unreasonable enough to make connections between our products with nature’s products. The problem of his deduction lies in the problem of his connection between things.

There are many things we can learn from Socrates and many things we should discard according to our tastes and purposes. His greatness is unparalleled in the sense that he dared to break the fetter of tradition and pointed a right path for the future generations from whose fruitful works we should enjoy the benefits for our lives.

Patrick Huang is a contributing writer. Email him at zhuang@fandm.edu.

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