Socratic Creed vs. Plato’s Theory of Knowledge

Table of Content

The Synonymy of Truths and Ideas
Allyson Hansen
Introduction to Philosophy
Mark Eleveld
13 March, 2013

A modern philosopher studies “the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence” according to the Free Online Dictionary and many Americans. However, if you asked a philosopher to define the word ‘philosopher,’ he or she might say that a philosopher is a lover of wisdom. The word philosophy itself is derived from the Greek word ?????????, or philosophia using the English alphabet.

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The term philosophia can be translated as “love of wisdom.” Philosophers, including Socrates, believe that the mind should be educated in all aspects. Socrates was a passionate philosopher who truly loved wisdom. However, philosophy predates Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes. The philosophers before Socrates studied arche, which means “stuff.” Their focus was metaphysics, or the study of the physical world.

The study of physical objects like the Earth and Sun was used in an attempt to define reality. Socrates, however, focused on ethics instead of metaphysics and arche. He sought to uncover the deeper meaning of life rather than studying the physical world. Socrates’ ideas clashed with those of the Athenian population, making him a perceived threat to the state. The Sophists, who were the first paid teachers, disliked Socrates and his unintentional teachings. They taught relativism, or the technique of winning arguments.

Socrates, a well-known philosopher and war hero in various Athenian wars, firmly believed in the presence of everlasting and immutable truths like love, beauty, justice, and virtue. He opposed relativism and advocated for a universal hierarchy of values applicable to all individuals. Despite his fame, Socrates did not personally record his studies or writings, resulting in others writing about him instead. As time passed, numerous works on Socrates became fragmented (Encyclop? dia Britannica).

The primary sources for knowledge about Socrates are Aristophanes, a playwright, Xenophon, a historian, and Plato, a philosopher. Aristophanes wrote Clouds, a play that satirizes Socrates. Aristophanes used the character of Socrates to symbolize certain intellectual trends in Athens at the time, including the study of language and nature and the amorality and atheism associated with these pursuits (Encyclopedia Britannica). In contrast, Xenophon was a supporter of Socrates and depicted his intelligence and personal convictions in a positive light through dialogues he wrote.

It has been suggested that the majority of Xenophon’s writing about Socrates was heavily influenced by Plato’s work, making it unreliable and discredited (Encyclop? dia Britannica). Similarly, Plato also wrote dialogues and his portrayal of Socrates is generally believed to be the most accurate and original. All our knowledge about Socrates comes from Plato’s dialogues, as Plato started studying philosophy while he followed Socrates in the Athenian agora.

Plato, a student of Socrates, learned from him without any formal payment. Afterward, Plato founded his own school called the Academy where he instructed on different subjects such as philosophy, religion, and mathematics. However, the reliability of Plato’s depiction of Socrates remains uncertain. The Encyclopædia Britannica states that in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is not presented as an active participant or firsthand witness but rather as a fabricator of fictional stories inspired by possibly real situations.

Socrates is likened to Jesus and Plato to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as characters in their respective stories. Just like the parables of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Plato’s dialogues also aim to teach lessons, although their factual accuracy is uncertain. None of these authors were actual witnesses to the events they wrote about. Plato’s writings feature Socratic philosophy through the character of Socrates, as well as other philosophies not originally held by Socrates. The historical Socrates’ beliefs and statements are expanded upon by Plato in his works. According to the Encyclop? dia Britannica, Plato uses Socrates as a medium to present his own ideas alongside those of Socrates. In his writing, Plato deliberately shapes the narrative to reflect his own perspective. The Apology, one of Plato’s dialogues, recounts the trial of Socrates by the state; although not a direct transcript, it is Plato’s interpretation and Socrates is the sole voice in the narrative.

His accusers consist of Meletus, a poet; Anytus, a laborer and politician; and Lycon, an orator. The state views Socrates as a threat because of his unique perspectives and his assertion of being the wisest individual in Athens. Even before any accusations are brought against him, two aspects of the Socratic belief system become evident. Socrates was previously informed by the Delphic oracle that he was the wisest person (Redfield par. 20e), and he employs this information to justify his reputation.

According to Socrates, he only understood the truth after conversing with a wise man. Socrates asserts, “I am truly more knowledgeable than this person. Perhaps both of us are devoid of any substantial knowledge, but this individual wrongly believes that they possess knowledge, whereas I, understanding my own ignorance, do not claim to know. Therefore, it appeared that I possessed more wisdom than them, as I recognized that what I did not know, I did not pretend to know” (Redfield par. 21b). Socrates went on to question others presumed to be wise and arrived at the same conclusion.

The first element of the Socratic creed was the realization that he knew what he did not know. Another significant aspect was the phrase “know thyself,” which was inscribed above the entrance to the oracle at Delphi. Socrates strongly related to this inscription as he dedicated his life to self-knowledge and the study of human nature. Hence, “know thyself” also became part of the Socratic creed. Additionally, after examining his reputation, Socrates faced three charges voiced by Meletus, his accuser.

Socrates is said to be corrupting the youth, as stated by Redfield par. 24d. In response, Socrates accuses Meletus of being a criminal. Socrates claims that it is a crime to bring someone to trial based on false accusations about a subject he is not truly interested in, as mentioned in Redfield par. 24c. Socrates also highlights Meletus’s claim that he alone corrupts the youth by filling their minds with falsehoods and teaching them that knowledge is more valuable than riches or social position.

Socrates challenges Meletus’ claim that every Athenian, except for Socrates himself, benefits the youth. He argues that it is impossible for him to be the sole corrupter of the young. To illustrate his point, Socrates uses the analogy of a horse trainer; just as only qualified trainers can educate horses effectively, not everyone except Socrates has the ability to educate the youth. Meletus accuses Socrates of worshipping false Gods, but Socrates feigns confusion and forces Meletus to revise his accusation. Meletus then charges Socrates with being an atheist because he does not worship any Gods recognized by the state. Socrates defends himself by stating that his ignorance of the state Gods should not be deemed a crime. Ignorance is merely a lack of knowledge which can be rectified through explanation and should not be punished by the state.

The court’s justice would result in Socrates being told of his ignorance and released (Redfield par. 25d). Instead of mounting a defense, Socrates places the state on trial. This naming choice by Plato for The Apology holds significance since Socrates never apologizes or expresses remorse, but he does defend his reputation and studies; the Greek term for defense is apologia (Encyclop? dia Britannica). Plato employs this form of wordplay to portray the conflicting objectives of the trial participants in The Apology, but neither party achieves the fulfillment they seek.

The court does not receive an apology from Socrates or a promise that he will cease his philosophy, but instead he is given the choice between abandoning his philosophy or facing execution. Socrates opts for death due to his belief in the Socratic creed’s third element: “An unexamined life is not worth living” (Redfield par. 37e). Socrates would rather not exist at all than lead a life devoid of self-exploration. Another significant dialogue by Plato is The Republic.

In The Republic, Socrates extensively explores the concept of justice, questioning others on how they would define it. Notably, Plato employs the allegory of the cave in book seven as a means for Socrates to compare the real with the unreal. Within this cave, prisoners have spent their entire lives bound and facing a wall. Behind them lies the entrance to a vast cave, illuminated by a perpetually burning fire. The prisoners perceive distorted shadows and distorted voices, mistaking them for reality.

Plato’s theory posits that the shadows and distorted sounds are erroneously perceived as the authentic forms and language of objects and individuals. This theory is based on the notion that sensory observations may not consistently depict reality accurately. Ideas, according to this theory, possess greater veracity while the physical world is deemed unreal. In this framework, falsehoods, rumors, conjectures, speculation, and opinions are regarded as the least real aspects, followed by the physical realm. Nonetheless, numerous individuals still hold onto the belief that tangibility in the physical world renders it more genuine.

Empiricists believe that knowledge can only be acquired through personal experience and that individuals are born without any prior knowledge. In opposition to this belief, Plato argues against it by pointing out the potential for sensory deception. He acknowledges that certain individuals, like the blind, solely rely on sound to perceive their surroundings; however, this perception does not accurately represent reality. Plato recognizes the unreliability of our senses. Nevertheless, he asserts that mathematical forms and logical sequences provide a slightly more accurate understanding of reality as they do not depend on sensory perception.

According to Plato, the physical world is a departure from reality as one moves towards the realm of ideas. Plato posits that ideas are intrinsic and resides in the Perfect Realm of Forms. When not occupying a living entity, all souls exist in this realm and acquire comprehensive knowledge. Upon returning to the earthly realm, individuals spend their entire lives attempting to regain the knowledge possessed by their soul in the Perfect Realm of Forms. The source of people’s ideas can be traced back to this realm, where concepts such as love, beauty, justice, and virtue are everlasting and unchanging.

Ideas and truths are eternal and unchanging. Love, virtue, beauty, and justice are both Socratic truths and Plato’s ideas. Socrates and Plato consider “truth” and “idea” to be synonymous. Pre-Socratic Philosophers believe in metaphysics, while Socrates focuses on self-exploration. Plato argues that “reality” and the physical world are the least real. In The Apology, Socrates values ideals over life. Plato agrees with this perspective. The Socratic creed also supports Plato’s theory.

Socrates possesses knowledge of what he lacks, unlike the majority of individuals who claim knowledge derived from the physical world. Socrates rejects the idea that truths are discovered within the physical world and instead believes in the existence of ideas. Consequently, he is capable of discerning what remains unknowable. Additionally, Socrates and Plato share corresponding definitions of falsehoods and entities with minimal reality. Socrates perceives lies as transient entities, for instance, those taught in rhetoric, whereas Plato views lies as entities with the least degree of reality.

The Socratic Creed is likely similar to Plato’s theory of knowledge because Socrates, a character created by Plato, is the central figure in the Apology, which is a fictional representation rather than an actual dialogue. Additionally, since Plato was informally taught by Socrates, it can be assumed that they share some common beliefs.

Sources: “Socrates.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2013. Reeve, C.D.C.Republic Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004.Print.Redfield, James.Apology of Socrates.

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