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Topic #B20

Xenophon, Memoirs of Socrates 3.8, 3.9, 4.6


24 October 2001
Scribes: Aaron Walton and Zoe Nudell


These minutes were spoken on 26 October.



It is said by some that Socrates doesn’t have doctrines.  Although it is perhaps difficult to say what he is committed to since he wrote nothing down and his views are related to us only by the reports of others, some take this to mean that Socrates didn’t write because he didn’t know what he believed.  Hutchinson finds this too skeptical a view as there are other ancient philosophers such as Carneades, who also didn’t write anything down.  Like Socrates, Carneades had a student who wrote down his views, and yet no one seems to contest these reports as uncertain.  There are also modern analogues of this type of philosopher who does not write.  In fact several of these are employed at Ivy League institutions and though they have not written down their ideas this is not to say that they are not generally understood and respected. 


         Hutchinson’s opinion is that we do have two authors, Xenophon and Plato, who put us is a good position to know Socrates’ thought.  These men were both close to Socrates for several decades of his life.  Their accounts are for the most part complimentary rather than contradictory, and between the two of them we have quite a comprehensive picture of Socrates’ thoughts.  In Xenophon 3.9 we do seem to have at least a “thumbnail sketch” of Socrates’ doctrines.  The themes covered are involved with Socrates’ usual focus on leadership, personal development, and rising to our ideals.  Socrates stressed the importance of certain types of knowledge and analysis.  3.8 is a schematic conversation where Aristippus is trying to trap Socrates in question and answer.  Initially, Aristippus asks “do you know anything that is good?”  Socrates immediately sees the direction Aristippus is steering the conversation in, and answers that good is not universal, but is a relational property. It is inadequate to say a thing is good; it has to be good for some end.


         Aristippus’ next tack was to ask about “the fine”, and he enquired whether “the fine” was the same as “the good”.  Hutchinson mentioned that “the fine” is in certain translations understood as the “the beautiful”.  In any case it is from the Greek word “kalos” as in calisthenics, and means something that looks good.  However, it can also apply to a person’s inner qualities.  In this way it becomes a term of moral approbation. 


         The next question from Aristippus was: “are things that are fine like one another?” Elaborating, he asked Socrates to consider a dung basket.  Socrates insisted that a dung basket is fine and a golden shield is contemptible, if the former carries out its function well and the latter does not.  Hence, like goodness, fineness is also a relational quality; a thing is only fine relative to how well it fulfills its function.  Socrates continues this theme in a humorous fashion in Xenophon’s Symposium, where he enters into a beauty contest with a much better looking man.  Socrates finds himself more beautiful, on the grounds that with his bulging eyes he can see in more directions, on his fleshy lips a kiss is more easily planted.  In other words the function of his body, not its aesthetic appearance is the criterion for beauty.


         The final question we are asked to consider in 3.8 is “is the good different from the beneficial?”  Socrates says they are not.   Xenophon turns this abstract idea into a concrete example; a house is good and benefits its owner if it performs its functions well.  A good house needs only to keep the owner comfortable in all seasons and keep his possessions safe.  Similarly, practical considerations are paramount in selecting a location for a temple.  A temple is to be located so that it is out of the way but also in a spot such that the passerby might be in a reverent frame of mind as he or she comes upon it.  This reminded Hutchinson of the Pythagorean Acousmata which states that one should be in a devoted state of mind to enter a temple, and should not enter for any reasons that are not premeditated, purposeful, and appropriately religious.  For this reason it would not be right to have a temple around any unlikely corner as – what if one was in a black temper thinking impure thoughts and suddenly happened upon such a sacred place?  Many religions, Hutchinson said, have guidelines for situating their places of worship.  We may take Socrates’ concern about the placement of temples as another indication that he was a very religious person. 


         In 3.9 is a discussion of envy, a topic not addressed by Plato.  Hutchinson told us that Athenian society, like our own, was very competitive; people were constantly comparing themselves to one another and looking to the famous for both an ideal and a mark to surpass.  Turning to the dialogue, we were made aware of the paradoxical situation in which people were moved to empathy by others’ distress, and yet were angered at their success.   According to Socrates such a conflict in feeling can only happen to foolish people.  Therefore, most people must be foolish since most of us feel envy.  Socrates’ apparent low opinion of humanity in this example reminded Hutchinson of Diogenes the cynic who, fifty years later, often wandered around public areas shining his lantern in peoples faces saying he was “looking for an honest man”.  This expresses the conviction that the number of people with their intellectual stuff together – who are not off their rockers conceptually or otherwise, is very low”.  Socrates had an optimistic opinion of what people could aspire to but a pessimistic opinion of what people around him in the flesh could actually achieve.


         Hutchinson next addressed the topic of leisure.  He said the word “leisure”, is derived from the Greek word “skolai”. “Scholar” also comes from “skolai” because to have leisure time is to find oneself in the position to have nothing better to do than involve oneself in a free wide-ranging research project.  Hutchinson stressed that the common conception of leisure is paradoxical because although leisure is supposed to mean time in which one does nothing, most of the time you will find people doing things in their “leisure” time.  Leisure, instead of being the cessation of activity, becomes any activity one does instead of another.  The true conception of leisure, then, is having the freedom to select an activity as opposed to being necessarily engaged in it.  Furthermore, it is the freedom to substitute a “better” activity for one that is less good.  Thus, people who gossip or watch silly tv are not at leisure, since they are substituting a worse activity for a better one! 


         The idea that those who hold scepters are not kings and rulers is an example of an apparently paradoxical statement that is nevertheless supported by Socrates.  Socrates believes that authority rests in wisdom and knowledge, not symbols of power.  A crown on a person’s head does not indicate that he actually has the wisdom to make kingly decisions.  Just because one has the power to raise an army and make war on another nation does not necessarily mean that one knows whether or not one should make war at all. This theme of who has knowledge and who does not and what we know and do not know, is a favourite of Socrates’.  Another of Socrates’ favourite and highly interpreted ideas is that justice and all other moral virtues are equal to wisdom.


         Another paradoxical statement of Socrates’ is that what one does and what one knows are the same.  Most of us, and Aristotle as well, would not agree that this is the case.  For example, sometimes we know what we should do but are fearful.  Socrates says it never happens that we know what to do and don’t do it.  He supports this claim with yet another controversial idea, that there is no such thing as weakness of will.  The phenomenon that most people call “temptation” does not actually exist.  What is happening is not that we are tempted away from what we know is right; rather, we are reassessing, perhaps only temporarily, what we think is right.  Hence, the problem lies, not in temptation but in knowing what is right.  For example, say we “know” we should get some work done before night.  It gets late, we aren’t finished and yet we decide to quit – and have a beer instead.  Most would read this situation as a fall into temptation.  The motivation to have a beer became greater than the motivation to keep working even though we knew we ought to finish.  Socrates might say, however, that we decided to quit and have a beer because upon reassessing the situation, the possibility of our having a nervous breakdown and never finishing seemed to indicate that the “right” lay in having a beer and relaxing. 


         Perhaps these reassessments are poor ones but the problem lies in not knowing what to do, not in not doing it.  Hence the actual skill to be developed to live a good life and do the right thing is the skill of thinking.