Socrates, one of ancient Athens’ most famous (or perhaps infamous) residents, lived a life
centered around the belief in the existence of a set of higher moral truths. It was a search for
these absolute truths that set the course his life would take. In fact, it was his faith in an ultimate
reality that allowed him to face life, and finally death, unflinchingly.
Socrates first goes about proving the existence of this ultimate reality in his dialogue with
Euthyphro, a lawyer and holy man with a reputation for wisdom. By the end of the Euthyphro
Socrates has drawn the conclusion that one cannot know the exact definition of holiness for the
very reason that holiness is one of the higher forms that is unknowable in its purest form to a
person still trapped inside his body. In the course of his arguments, he addresses some important
points concerning the nature of holiness. His most provocative and revealing question asks “Is
the holy approved by the gods because it’s holy, or is it holy because it’s approved?” Euthyphro himself is eventually enticed to admit that holiness is holy because it is holy, not because the gods say it is. This admission helps to validate Socrates’ belief in higher truths, which in turn sets up his next point: all men are theoretically capable of achieving goodness. He
is able to make this assertion because he has forced Euthyphro to agree to the existence of the
ultimate reality, which includes goodness. The consequence of this admission from an ethical
standpoint is that all men are capable of being reformed because everyone is inherently good.
However, one must be led to recollect what goodness is so that one can then be good. This
seems to imply that perhaps guilty men should not be put to death after all, a point which if
accepted as truth, would have important consequences in his upcoming trial.
On the day of the trial as laid out in the Apology, Socrates makes the bold statement to
his accusers that “Neither Meletus nor Anytus can do me any harm at all; they would not have
the power, because I do not believe that the of God permits a better man to be harmed by a
worse.” This statement may seem quite rash and arrogant, but Socrates continues
developing a convincing rationale for his claim. In fact, his argument begins within
the declaration itself.
The land Socrates inhabited was a very devout, some might say superstitious one, and the
Homeric tradition of gods and goddesses was state religion. When Socrates makes the claim that
the “law of God” does not allow for the good to be harmed by the bad, he is invoking the highest
order of validity possible upon his belief. Whether through divine protection from punishment,
divine retribution towards the bad, or posthumous reward for those who suffered for being good, Socrates tells his persecutors that the gods were on the side of the good, and, therefore, his side.
While the jury probably perceived his argument as applying to the Homeric tradition (and it is
likely that this was his intention) Socrates was considered to be an Atheistic person, and it is
probable that the “law of God” to which he referred actually meant the universe itself, where
goodness was among the highest essences, and where an almost karma-like force balanced the
universe, rewarding good and punishing evil.
Socrates furthers his argument by stating that though a bad man can banish a good man
to or condemn him to die, these are not “great calamities” in the life of the good man. This again ties into his belief in an ultimate reality. By Socrates’ definition, a man who is good is in touch with the higher truths, of which goodness is among the pinnacle. Therefore, a man who is good would not stand to lose much by either death or banishment. Socrates throws the jury’s threats back in their faces by claiming that they would only be harming themselves by convicting him.
Socrates first point is that the jury would be committing a grave injustice by condemning
an innocent man to die. Secondly, he adds, they would be robbing themselves of a God given
blessing upon their city. He states, “It seems to me that God has attached me to this city...You
will not easily find another like me...” By punishing him, they are merely
punishing themselves. Thus, when the verdict comes in guilty and the sentence death, Socrates
is not found to be highly concerned.
Not comprehending Socrates’ stoicism about his impending demise, his disciples engage
him in a final dialogue to try and understand how he can face death so calmly. In Plato’s work,
the Phaedo, Socrates claims that death is in fact the culmination of his life’s efforts. He states,
“...those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own
accord preparing themselves for death.” He goes on to support this claim by
pointing out that philosophers do not greatly desire earthly wealth and goods, but instead focus
on matters of soul. His disciples in turn, are led to accept that “...the philosopher frees his soul
from association with the body (so far as possible) in a way that other men don’t.”
Continuing his argument, Socrates says that the soul can best perceive reality without the
clouding effect of bodily senses and his disciples readily agree. Therefore, he reasons, the soul
of a philosopher should seek to free itself from the bonds of bodily captivity.
Finally Socrates argues, there are things which we as humans comprehend which we can
neither see nor hear. For example, about goodness and justice he asks, “Have you ever seen any
of these things with your eyes,” to which Simmias replies “Certainly not.” Hinting
at what would become the basis for Plato’s “Theory of Forms,” Socrates claims that it is the soul
itself that perceives these intangibles. Therefore, he claims, a person will best be able to realize
the ultimate reality by looking at the world through the eyes of the soul, while neglecting other
sensory inputs to the best of one’s ability.
Having convinced his disciples to assent to the fact that only the soul is capable of full
knowledge of the ultimate reality and that philosophers spend their lives trying to become as
close to the soul as possible to achieve such knowledge, Socrates asserts that death itself is what
philosophers have been striving for all along. Since death brings full knowledge, and
philosophers seek full knowledge, it stands to reason that philosophers should not fear death, but
should, on the contrary, embrace it. Socrates himself sums it up like this; “...if a man has trained
himself throughout life to live in a state as close as possible to death, would it not be ridiculous
for him to be distressed when death comes to him?”
After Socrates’ execution, his student Plato went a step further and created what came to be
known as the “Theory of Forms.” His purpose in doing so was to create an organized
arrangement of the universe as he assumed it to be. Plato’s theory is based on his belief in the
dual nature of human beings: that all people have a body, and then a soul/mind combination
known as the psyché. His ultimate reality was also broken up into two distinct worlds: the World
of Appearance, and the World of Forms.
The bodily nature of human beings fall into the World of Appearance, in a
subcategory known as particulars. Particulars are all tangible: that is, real people,
real chairs, real earth. The other subset in the World of Appearance is known as shadows or
images. These are representations of particulars such as a picture of a tree or a sculpture of a
human being. They are real but only exist as imitations of actual objects themselves.
The human psyché on the other hand falls into Plato’s World of Forms. The World of
Forms is a world beyond man’s daily existence, analogous perhaps to infinity or heaven. It is
here that all intangible realities dwell. The first species of form is the Lower Forms. These are
the essences of the particulars themselves. All chairs are endowed with chair-ness, all horses
with horse-ness, and all people with people-ness. The essence of the particulars is latent
knowledge within one’s psyché. For instance, once one sees a chair, one does not have to see
every other chair in the world to know another chair when one sees it. This was the basis for
Plato’s belief in the Lower Forms. They are intangible essences that a person is still somehow
able to grasp and understand without learning them.
The Higher Forms work much the same way, although they are even more intangible and
hidden deeper within the human psyché. The Higher Forms represent the ultimate truths in the
universe, things such as justice, goodness, and holiness. Again, people do not need to be taught
what is just and what is good, they just know. Still these forms are the most difficult to fully
comprehend, and Socrates himself believed that such understanding could only be achieved
through the separation of the soul from the body after death.
Plato created the Theory of Forms after listening to what Socrates had said about the
relationship between full knowledge and death, which in turn brings one back to Plato’s belief in
the psyché, which he supposed to contain full knowledge of the universe from a previous
existence. Returning to Socrates statement about the gods believing in holiness rather than
creating it themselves, Plato was trying to reconcile the existence of things which were not on the
same plane of reality as people or even gods. To him, the duality of the universe aligned
perfectly with the duality of man, and it was man’s dual nature that allowed him to perceive
things that only existed in an ephemeral world. It was also man’s dual nature that allowed him to
recollect those higher forms of which his psyché was already aware. This in turn led to the
development of Plato’s ethical theory based on the four forms. Since he believed that all people
had the knowledge of good and justice inside of them, Plato decided that a life should be based
upon knowing and attaining these higher ideals. His thought was “To know the good, is to the
good.” Therefore, if people are able to recollect the good, they will in turn become good.
The Theory of Forms would then seem to be an optimistic way of looking at the universe, where
everyone has the chance to learn and become good.
Despite the moral consequences of this theory, one has to ask if the forms actually
achieve what Plato set out to accomplish. His ideas are plausible ones. While they may seem
nonsensical to some in a day of science and empirical data, what he said is true. Some
things just are, and people know them without being taught. Plato’s theory offers a valid
explanation for the existence of things beyond one’s ability to perceive them by tying the entire universe into his belief in a natural duality between tangibles and intangibles.
It was this dual nature of humans, a limited body and a limitless soul, that carried
Socrates through life, and finally into death. The quest for absolute truths created the foundation
for his long and impoverished life. Yet, as in his own theory, it was through his death that
his full knowledge came forth and was passed on to his disciples. He had achieved the
nearest form of perfect wisdom possible at the bank of the River Styx, affirming that he had been
living life with one foot already in the grave.
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