Socrates and the Search for Wisdom

One of the most admirable characteristics of humans is their desire for and willingness to share information. Those with expert understanding of things, ideas, and processes were highly respected in society throughout human history, and many devoted their lives to seeking knowledge. As a result, it became necessary at some time to investigate the concept of wisdom itself. For decades, mankind have attempted to examine the nature of wisdom and to define it. Socrates, a Greek philosopher, was one of the renowned intellectuals who investigated this topic. This topic continues to be of great importance as many before him and after him tried to present their own understanding of the concept of knowledge. This essay looks into Socrates idea of knowledge and why he thought it was so important. It then goes on to evaluate Socrates arguments whereby this author agrees with Socrates’ view that it is the knowledge of the good that is necessary for humans to live a virtuous life.

Much of what is known of Socrates philosophy was not written by himself but is based on what other authors composed of him. He was however known for engaging in many verbal disputes, and many authors used his ideas to bring across their own philosophical views. Nonetheless, a comparison of the various authors who cited his arguments in their works can show with substantial probability, the real Socrates. Socrates was of the opinion that wisdom and virtue are identical, i.e., wisdom is virtue and virtue is wisdom. He believed that in every undertaking, humans are always searching for happiness. Everyone wants to be happy and doing what they clearly know is not right would only make them feel miserable, and they would only end up unhappy. The undesirable effects such decisions or actions would eventually have on their lives would become the genesis of unhappiness for that individual. Therefore, individuals who do wrong take such actions because at that certain moment, they thought what they were doing was actually the right thing. To Socrates, ignorance is akin to being immoral. Lack of virtue can, therefore, be attributed to the person's ignorance about what is right and what could have been. This can be seen in this statement by Socrates “when people don't recognize something bad as bad, it's not that they're desiring something bad; they desire what they take to be good, even though in actual fact it's bad. And this means that people who fail to recognize something bad as bad, and take it to be good, are obviously desiring something good, aren't they?” (Plato and Waterfield 109).

In his definition of wisdom, Socrates, therefore, provides two categories of knowledge. The first he termed as moral wisdom which he described as the knowing what is good and bad, i.e., Knowledge of virtue, as well as, virtues. The other he referred as expert wisdom which comprises of specialized skills and craftsmanship. To him, moral wisdom is superior among the two since expert wisdom does not cater for happiness which is the ‘most important thing’ in life. According to Brickhouse and Smith (103), what is good “is good simply in virtue of its contribution to one's happiness.” An individual who applies moral wisdom knows how to appropriately apply other resources, including expert knowledge, to eventually gain happiness. Put simply, only moral wisdom, which involves knowledge of virtue, would enable an individual to optimize all other resources available to them.

All writings about Socrates portray a man who was in constant search for knowledge. Gulley (2), states that "his inquiries were directed to the establishing of general definitions of virtues” and thus he developed a methodology for pursuing knowledge. The procedure involved finding an individual, mostly one who claims to be an expert in the field Socrates was interested in, and discussing with him, or her, what an appropriate definition for the topic would be. Socrates did this through a “dialectical method in the general sense of a conversational method, one which proceeds by question and answer, and elicits admissions from an interlocutor” (Gulley 4). They would engage in a back and forth with his dialogue partner which would normally take place either in a private home or at Athens market square. During these debates, other people were also allowed to contribute their views and input on the topic.

It is not knowledge alone but knowledge of what is good that can give humans an advantage rather than cause harm. Humans are free to do whatever they want. This freedom allows individuals to take control of their lives, make their own decisions, and live their lives in whatever way they deem right. The concept of freedom also means that an individual can choose whatever they base their thoughts on. Knowledge and awareness of the things around us means that an individual can decide what is right and beneficial to them. Through knowledge, we gain the freedom to determine what is right and wrong, which is bad and good. Consequently, through knowledge and how it enables one to exercise their freedom, individuals can choose what is good and beneficial, and attain a life of virtue.

To elaborate, there are things such as beauty and wealth that can be both beneficial and harmful to people. They can be viewed as beneficial if they lead to happiness but still be seen as bad if they cause harm. People have different ways of viewing the same thing depending on the importance they attach to that thing (Reshotko 64). For instance, coffee has a pleasant taste, but it only lasts a few minutes. Although it has a pleasant taste, coffee is by no means a significant part of each person’s life. It can, therefore, be concluded that coffee does not deserve serious concern since it is an experience that only lasts a few minutes.

On the other hand, there are qualities like justice, moderation and intelligence that all humans value and consider as good for them. The ability to be virtuous comes from the knowledge of what is right and wrong. The knowledge of whether one's actions are good or bad, their actions are right or wrong, arises from the fact that they are living a virtuous life. As an example everyone sense meaning in the lives of heroes and all the people who live their lives in high ideals. This is evidence that “to desire beautiful things is to desire good things.”(Denise, White, and Peterfreund 28). Indeed there are individuals who may desire things that are not good. This could be because they may not know that these things are bad or they may desire for them to be good even if they are aware they are not. On the other hand, those who desire good things do not live for temporary pleasures or satisfaction but have deeply entrenched values, live virtuous lives through knowledge, which they will hold throughout their lives.

Just as Socrates argued, ‘knowledge is virtue and virtue is knowledge’. One can only determine whether the next person is living a virtuous life if they have knowledge of what is good and what is bad. Therefore Socrates argument that knowledge affords humans a meaningful life is correct as one needs to know good in order to know how to live well. Knowledge and virtue coexist and depend on each other.

Works Cited

Brickhouse, Thomas C, and Nicholas D Smith. Plato's Socrates. New York u.a.: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994.

Denise, Theodore Cullom, Nicholas P White, and Sheldon Paul Peterfreund. Great Traditions In Ethics. Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005.

Gulley, Norman. The Philosophy Of Socrates. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Plato., and Robin Waterfield. Meno And Other Dialogues. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Reshotko, Naomi. Socratic Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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