Socrates on virtue and the cosmic order

Steven asked:

Is it true that Socrates was chiefly concerned with ethics?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I was almost not going to answer this because at first sight the question seems so dumb. Saying that Socrates was ‘chiefly concerned with ethics’ is like saying that Einstein was ‘chiefly concerned with science’. Sure, Einstein was concerned with other things too, like world peace, the fate of the Jewish people, etc. But, yes, science was definitely his thing. Duh!

Then I thought, no, this is wrong. Socrates wasn’t concerned with ethics. Not as we understand that term, through the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Greeks had no concept of a duty of loving kindness to the stranger. There is no place for altruism, although central to Greek world view was courageous self-sacrifice in battle: a good death.

It was ‘goodness’ in the sense of doing things well, that the Greeks were after. Aristotle in his Ethics gives a masterful analysis of the moral psychology of living well, as a human being should live, using all one’s powers of reason and judgement, following a well-forged path of habituation in always seeking — without any sense of inner struggle — to make the ‘right’ choice.

The Greek word is arete, which we translate by the wishy-washy term ‘virtue’ but which to the Greeks meant so much more. In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates challenges the young aristocrat Meno to give a definition of ‘arete’. The whole dialogue is about trying and failing to define ‘arete’, and yet, as a demonstration with a slave boy ‘proving’ (with a bit of help) a geometrical theorem shows, we must somehow know what arete is — otherwise, how would we be able to judge that the various proposed definitions are wrong?

What is arete? That’s one question. How do we ‘somehow know’ what it is, even if we can’t confidently say?

The arete of an archer is what gives him or her the ability to reliably hit the bulls eye. If you don’t have arete, your arrows will go all over the place. Similarly (mutatis mutandis) with the swordsman, the potter, the carpenter, and any other skill you can think of. Aristotle likes the simile of the archer, because it vividly calls to mind what we are trying to do when we make an ethical judgement. And we don’t always ‘hit the target’!

The arete of a human being is, simply, to live well. Justice, temperance, courage are all involved, and all, somehow, constitute a ‘unity’ according to Socrates. You can’t have one without the other. But why these? Why is it so great to be just rather than unjust, temperate rather than intemperate, courageous rather than cowardly?

To my knowledge, Plato states the answer explicitly just once in his dialogues, in the Gorgias where Socrates is debating with Callicles, student of the great sophist Gorgias. It’s a powerful answer. His concept is mind-blowing in its immensity:

… wise men tell us, Callicles, that heaven and earth and gods and men are held together by communion and friendship, by orderliness, temperance, and justice; and that is the reason, my friend, why they call the whole of this world by the name of order, not of disorder or dissoluteness. Now you, as it seems to me, do not give proper attention to this, for all your cleverness, but have failed to observe the great power of geometrical equality amongst both gods and men: you hold that self-advantage is what one ought to practice, because you neglect geometry.

Don’t get it? First, you need to remember that Plato often uses allegories, so don’t be confused with all the talk of ‘gods’. This is about the cosmos (Greek word), the order that constitutes the universe, and a human being’s place in this order. There is no way, thought Socrates, to grasp what is ultimately real, that does not lead by a straight path to an understanding of how we should live, as self-moving elements in this universal order.

In simple terms, ethics and grasping the ultimate nature of reality, cannot be separate things. Ethics and metaphysics are one and the same.

And here’s the rub. If you revisit Socrates’ immense idea, with the monotheistic mindset, you get a ‘take’ on metaphysics that turns the whole subject upside down. That take was offered by the 20th century philosopher writing in the phenomenological tradition, Emmanuel Levinas, in his magnum opus Totality and Infinity.

Read that book, and let your mind be blown.

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