““I thank God,” he used to say, “that I was born Greek and not barbarian, freeman and not slave, man and not woman; but above all, that I was born in the age of Socrates,”” (Durant, 1933). Where Socrates ended and where Plato began in the works of the latter has been a long debate among the scholars of philosophy, kindling the questions of whether Plato betrayed Socrates, having traced the sudden shift of perspectives in the written texts. Has Plato gone against the teachings of his master? Has he, in his latter works that was mostly his philosophy which he established while still using Socrates as his mouthpiece, betrayed the philosopher that was behind him, that began the foundation of his thought that has encompassed Western civilization?
This paper will attempt to answer the question, by looking at some of the works from Plato’s earlier collection (the one that taught more “undiluted” Socratic thought) and others from the later collections. It will be looking into the problem through the lens of the notions of wisdom—what was wisdom for Socrates, and what was wisdom for Plato? Is there a difference, and does the difference matter? How does this answer the question of Plato’s “alleged” betrayal? This is what the paper will discuss.
Let us begin by differentiating Socrates’ notion of wisdom as expressed in Plato’s earlier works with Plato’s own ideas about wisdom, seen in the later texts.
“Plato’s Socrates is a relentless questioner, bent on revealing the interlocutor’s ignorance to him. He also insists on his own ignorance, often in explanation of his refusal to answer the questions he raises,” (Benson, 2009). As told in his defense of himself in front of the Athenian jury, Socrates recounts how he has found the oracle’s testimony of him being the wisest of all to be true, and has set it upon himself, as sort of a divine mission, to prove to anyone who thinks himself wise wrong, and to make them aware of their ignorance. He is the gadfly of Athens—attached by the gods to the city he likened to a sluggish horse, and he was the insect that spurred it into action, rousing each and every person of the city to care for the good and to pursue virtue.
“I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something, when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know, so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know,” (Apology, 21 d3-7).
Socrates also denies artisans or craftsmen “truly knowing” something because even if they know their art so much more than he does as a result of specializing in it, it is not “worthwhile knowledge.” The philosopher seeks to learn how to live and, according to the Phaedo, how to die. Knowing how to weave baskets and other crafts does not equate to what Socrates seeks to define as wisdom.
Wisdom, then for Socrates, was the awareness, the self-knowledge of his own ignorance—he was wise because he does not think he knows what he does not know, after realizing how the people of the city such as the statesmen, the orators, or the sophists spoke of justice, virtue, piety, and such like they knew what they really were, when they, in fact, did not, as he had proved by questioning them. Socrates’ philosophy was about humility.
However, does this mean that wisdom is entirely about knowing that you do not know anything? “The ultimate aim of the ‘philosopher’ is not to do things, but to enjoy the vision of a reality to which he grows like as he looks upon it,” (Taylor, 1926). Is this what Socrates was talking about when he talked about wisdom—to be aware of his ignorance, and then what?
Euthyphro ends with him saying “As for me, I will never give up until I know,” (15c). Socrates is a lover of wisdom, and a lover of learning, as he claims in the Phaedrus. The fact that he took it upon himself to prove how wise he actually was in accordance with what the oracle said and establishing his “divine mission,” means he is not satisfied with being aware—he seeks to know, to be enlightened. The real essence of the Socratic ignorance is to recognize that one does not know anything, and that therefore one should seek how to know it. Socrates, in his method of questioning, set a sort of pattern that seems to be a test or criterion on knowing: “Do counter-examples show that the proposed definition contradicts the facts?”
It is then correct to gather that Socrates does not end wisdom with the awareness of not knowing anything, but also attaches the need, the responsibility, to know and seek the answers, to acquire knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
In the Protagoras, wisdom is established as a part of virtue, when the dialogue turned towards whether virtue can be taught in order to maintain the city’s peace. Nobody is blamed for being ill or sick because these are evil afflictions of nature or bad luck, but blame is placed upon injustice, impiety, and other things that can be corrected through practice, training, teaching and learning. This is why the insights of all people about the management of the city matter despite their occupations or social disparity, because wisdom and virtue are taught in public and private life, seen in education, citizenship, the concept of punishment, and responsibilities. There is one thing that exists which all citizens must have for there to be a city—justice, temperance, piety, wisdom… and these all add up to virtue.
The transition from Plato and Socrates, however, can be seen in the Meno, where the “teachability” of virtues is reconsidered. “Virtue is something in the soul and is beneficial; it is knowledge since all the qualities of the soul are neither beneficial nor harmful, but accompanied by wisdom they become harmful and beneficial. This shows that virtue, being beneficial, must be a kind of wisdom. The wise soul directs them right, and the foolish soul wrongly,” (87c).
Wisdom is established as the guiding principle to actions—virtue is in the soul and hence cannot be taught, and since all human activities depend on the soul, which in turn depends on wisdom in order to know what is good, virtue, then, “in whole or in part, is wisdom,” (89a). The growing role of wisdom in the quest of knowledge is evident, as it is no longer merely the knowledge of ignorance or just the vague need to seek an answer.
In the Phaedo, which is one of Plato’s later works, wisdom is related to amneses, which is the reincarnation of the soul, its immortal state traveling the world of forms, being reborn in different bodies and gaining knowledge along the way (which is called innate by the present body it is in, seen in instincts and hypotheses): “The soul investigates by itself as it passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal and unchanging, and being akin to this, it always stays with it whenever it is by itself and can do too; it ceases to stray and remains in the same state as it is in touch with things of the same kind, and its experience is what is called wisdom,” (79a).
Plato is very evident here, and Socrates as a person and philosopher is relegated into the role of being the mouthpiece for Plato’s established philosophy, as the Phaedo is among one of his far more mature works. Wisdom became a kind of cleansing or purification—the separation of the soul from the body (the process that is called death), its independence from the pleasures that riddle the physical body and the way it hinders the soul from acquiring the truth.
In talking about the right kind of virtue and the virtues that can be pretended or imitated (such as people having courage to withstand a certain pleasure only because they are afraid to lose or compromise another sort of pleasure), Socrates says: “I fear this is not the right exchange to attach virtue, to exchange pleasures for pleasures, pains for pains and fears for fears, the greater for the less like coins, but that the only valid currency for which all these things should be exchanged is wisdom. With this we have real courage and moderation and justice, and, in a word, true virtue, with wisdom, whether pleasures and fears and all such things be present or absent,” (69a).
“…that real virtue is not a business of exchanging pleasures and pains against one another. Wisdom is the true ‘coin of the realm’ for which everything else must be exchanged, and it is only when accompanied by it that our so-called ‘virtues’ are genuine goodness,” (Taylor, 1926).
In the Republic, Plato strays further from the Socratic notion of the philosopher, that is, one who is not endowed with any special ability or authority, by establishing the Platonic utopia. In his republic, there are three kinds of citizens which he explains through the myth of metals: the guardians, who have gold in them, the auxiliaries, who have silver, and craftsmen, who have bronze. Naturally, those who have gold in them are the rulers of the city. These rulers are chosen through a special criterion and follow a very strict way of living—they need to be older, strong, wise, and completely lack the will to do anything that will harm the city. They are not to eat or drink from any gold utensils, and generally, they should not have any contact with anything that may corrupt the soul. Furthermore, there is to be no intermingling of the classes, especially the guardians—the best guardian men are to mate with the best guardian women to produce similar offspring. It doesn’t matter whether the guardians are happy or unhappy with their lives, since their whole life is for the benefit of the city.
As a reaction towards the democracy of Athens, Plato establishes a totalitarian rule in his republic: “…death of his master filled him with a scorn for democracy, and hatred for the mob—it led him to a Catonic resolve that democracy must be destroyed, to be replaced by the rule of the wise and the best. It became the absorbing problem of his life to find a method whereby the wisest and the best might be discovered and even enabled and persuaded to rule,” (Durant, 1933).
This leads to his philosopher king, one who becomes such by being a member of the guardian class. The philosopher is the only possibility in which such a city can happen, because it will never be possible until the philosopher becomes the king. This here is Plato’s glorification of the philosopher: Philosophers love and pursue all wisdom, and are the only ones who recognize and find pleasure in what is behind the multiplicity of appearances, which is the Form.
Furthermore, in his analogy of the sun, the line, and the cave, the philosopher-king is given more gratification. The sun illuminates the notion of the Form of the Good which is the philosopher-king’s ultimate object of desire. The line illustrates the levels of cognitive ability that human beings are capable of, which the philosopher-king will only be the only one ever to reach it. In the allegory of the cave, one prisoner among others is dragged out of the cave they were imprisoned in, takes time adjusting to the new environment, and is finally able to see the sun, which is the Form of the Good. Being able to see the Form is reaching the highest stage of cognition: understanding. He is now able to understand all Forms, and he is the philosopher who is fit to rule.
Wisdom, for Plato, seems to be monopolized—in his city, wisdom, or at least the highest form of wisdom, belongs to the guardian class alone. The ultimate expression of wisdom and being able to cross off all four rungs of the lines that represent cognitive activity is a feat that only the true philosopher can achieve. In contrast to Socrates’ philosopher, one who is aware of his ignorance, Plato’s philosopher is above most of the people, superior in every sense.
The question remains, then: did Plato, in establishing a different kind of philosopher betray Socrates by utilizing his character as a mouthpiece for the assertion of his philosophy? Let’s look at it this way: Socrates did not give much elaborate discussion on wisdom and the philosopher. He talks about himself when he talks about the philosopher—he is a philosopher, a lover of learning, seeking answers and asking questions and, is most importantly, the wise person who is wise because he is aware of his own ignorance. Plato draws up this philosopher, one who is equipped with almost divine qualities, but when stripped down in actually the same with Socrates’ philosopher—he knows that he knows nothing and therefore he seeks answers to his questions, and lives his life nearly but not quite being able to see the Forms, understanding that death is the ultimate way to be able to be with the Forms.
Hence, my answer is no, Plato did not betray Socrates. Socrates may have remained the mouthpiece for Plato’s works because the latter was continuing and giving depth the philosophy of the former. Socratic wisdom may vary from the Platonic wisdom, but wisdom is embodied in the philosopher, and Socrates’ philosopher is not that different from Plato’s.
“Plato’s thought encompassed the world—Newton, Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus bowed before Plato. And yet Plato was the result of Socrates; the greatest system if ideas is the result of the great master of questioning and self-interrogation. Behind Plato, above Plato, stands Socrates. Behind encompassing thought stands the destruction of tyranny of thought. Being the successful mind stands the self-revelation of ignorance and emptiness. The Socratic questioning is an act of the mind unknown in the whole Platonic system, an act in which the energy of the consciousness seeks to make tangible contact with the unconscious structures of human nature—instinct, emotion, and ordinary mental activities. Plato is the result of the concrete search for inner virtue embodied in the life and comportment of Socrates. Behind Plato is the immensity of Socrates.” (Durant, 1933).
Plato continued Socrates, and gave a wider scope beyond the ethics of Socrates’ philosophy—in this sense, Plato was not the betrayer of his master, rather the greatness that purported his foundations into the world.
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