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The Greeks

The Uses and Misuses of Socrates

Dennis Sansom says we shouldn’t be too quick to pluck philosophers out of their own historical contexts in order to put them into ours.

I want to emphasise the value of caution when using ancient philosophers and texts for contemporary causes. Let us examine how Socrates has been interpreted over the centuries, how he has been used and abused by admirers and critics. We will learn an important lesson: we must be careful in reaching conclusions about ancient and complicated authors – especially ones from whom we do not have any direct authorial sources, such as Socrates, whose words were all written down by others.

Greek Village
Greek Village by Paul Gregory 1977

Histories of Socrates

Socrates was born in Athens in 469 BC, to a stonemason and a midwife. He fought with distinction in the Peloponnesian war against the Spartans, and served on the Athenian boule or council. He married Xanthippe (who was said to be ‘shrewd’), and had three sons late in life. He was not particularly handsome – being bald, fat, squat, and pug-nosed – and his walk was more of a shuffle that an athletic gait; but he was convivial and loquacious, and knew many people with whom he loved to talk about serious intellectual matters. He lived in a suspicious and demoralized city which had suffered defeat in the war, followed by a shortlived Spartan-imposed regime called the Thirty Tyrants, a period marked by collaborators, spies and mutual mistrust, and had become cynical about itself. It was a dangerous time to be asking questions. We have nothing Socrates wrote, and indeed he didn’t trust written philosophy because you could not interrogate it. We mainly know him from the writings of his student Plato. Plato’s early dialogues, Apology, Crito, and Euthyphro are probably close to verbatim accounts of his debates, and several others, such as Meno and Phaedo, are also thought to be close to Socrates’ actual words. Socrates died in 399 BC, at the age of seventy, drinking a court-ordered draught of poison after a controversial trial convicted him of being a threat to Athenian society.

Socrates is one of the most famous and influential thinkers and personalities of world history. But although he never intended to establish his own school of thought or philosophical movement, over the centuries people have used his method of intellectual inquiry and his opinions to justify a myriad of positions in philosophy, religion, politics, and psychological counseling. Early Christian theologians saw him as a precursor to Christian ethics and even Christian martyrdom, since he willingly suffered his sentence rather than trying to escape and so set the example of avoiding the law. The provocative early Christian philosopher Origen found common ground between the lives of Socrates and Jesus, and St Augustine also thought Socrates could help people live the Christian life.

During the Renaissance, Socrates was sometimes considered the ideal person. Erasmus even called him Sancte Socrates – ‘Holy Socrates’. The great humanist writer Montaigne thought Socrates taught us how to die with integrity and composure. In the nineteenth century, the influential but cryptic Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard used Socrates as the epitome of the correct way to use reason and irony to prove eternal truths. Friedrich Nietzsche, by contrast, saw Socrates as the bane of Western civilization, for putting so much emphasis on rational inquiry over emotion, and so suppressing what is really important in Greek culture (to Nietzsche) – the absurd and tragic elements of life.

The existentialist Karl Jaspers says this about how Socrates has been used: “He has been regarded as a humble, God-fearing Christian; a self-assured rationalist; a demonic genius; a prophet of humanity; and sometimes even as a political conspirator, concealing his plan to seize power beneath the mask of the philosopher. He was none of these” (in Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: The Paradigmatic Individuals, ed Hannah Arendt, trans Ralph Manheim, p.18-19, 1962). Indeed, Socrates is not any of these. He is also not what Martha Nussbaum says of him. For Nussbaum, Socrates is the prototypical liberal progressive.

Nussbaum’s Socrates

Martha Nussbaum
Prof. Martha Nussbaum
Photo © Robert Holland 2008 Creative Commons

Nussbaum teaches law and ethics at the University of Chicago, and has become one of the best-known contemporary philosophers. She has written several seminal books, such as The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (2001) and Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (2009). In her books Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1997) and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), she makes an energetic case that a democratic society in which we value openness and respect to all people no matter their political and religious choices or sexual orientation, demands a healthy education in rational inquiry. Therefore she advocates resistance to the influence of the job market upon the curriculum in terms of increasing the vocational aims of university education. In both books, Socratic inquiry provides her model for the kind of education that trains people to be ethically, religiously, and politically open to multicultural society.

My impression from her use of Socrates is that he is presented as a timeless person whom we can easily transport from fifth century BC Athens, with all of its own history and context, onto a modern twenty-first century university, without any misuse of his particular manner of philosophizing or his definite set of philosophical aims. This is a major problem, about which I will say more in a minute. However, I think she also uses him rightly in certain ways. She says, for instance, “Liberal education in our colleges and universities is, and should be, Socratic, committed to the activation of each student’s independent mind and to the production of a community that can genuinely reason together about a problem, not simply trade claims and counterclaims… We can and should reason together in a Socratic way, and our campuses should prepare us to do so.” (Cultivating Humanity, 1997, p.19) Socratic dialogue with others – in which we pursue a “coherent, contradiction-free account of some central legal and political concepts, concepts such as equality, justice, and law” (p.21) – becomes the paradigm for teaching students how to reason correctly, and this correct way of reasoning critiques both the political right and left.

In Nussbaum’s writings, the right-wingers are social, political conservatives who dogmatically assert their claims and condemn those who disagree. But Socrates demands rational justification, not just certainty of opinion. In Nussbaum’s writings the left – whom she often identifies with ‘postmodern literary theorists’ (for example, in Cultivating Humanity, p.37) – deny the objectivity of truth altogether, and so dismiss the search for truth. By contrast, Socrates shows that the search for the truth is necessary for a tolerant and open society in which people respect each other enough to engage them seriously and intelligently. By persistently challenging assumptions and conventions, and by requiring conceptual clarity and logical consistency, Socratic inquiry asks important questions about human virtue and social justice, and directs us towards shared conclusions about important matters of life which are the basis of a democratic society.

Moreover, because Socrates sought to scrutinize and test the conventions of Athenian society and the dogmatic claims of Athenians about key ethical and social matters, he indeed was, as Nussbaum says “utterly unauthoritarian. [To him] The status of the speaker does not count; only the nature of the argument” (Not for Profit, 2010, pp.50-51). The Socratic dialectic – his method of debating, through dialogue – is no respecter of persons, for the powerful and privileged are as susceptible to logical critique as the person in the street, as Socrates frequently demonstrated. Through the intellectual pursuit to expose logical fallacies in public discourse, we can follow Socrates’ lead and so cultivate a democratic society that is intelligent, respectful, and open to all people.

Refuting Nussbaum

Because Socrates illustrates well the constructive use of critical reasoning and logical scrutiny he is the model of what Nussbaum calls the ‘world citizen’ – the cosmopolitan person who is not dogmatically partisan towards any nation, race, metaphysical viewpoint, or religion, but who is able to dwell among all people, inquiring about their beliefs and practices and learning from each person through engaging in dialectical reasoning. It is here that I think Nussbaum misuses Socrates.

It is true that Socrates was no respecter of persons; but neither did he reject the social, intellectual, and religious traditions that made life meaningful in Athenian society. Contrary to Nussbaum’s vision of him as a world citizen, Socrates appreciated his traditions and relied upon them. For this very reason, Socrates was skeptical and somewhat dismissive of those Sophists who wanted to forget about the traditional meanings and uses of such key ideas as virtue and justice. Rather, Socrates accepted his social setting and sought to make it more intellectually coherent and defensible. Karl Jaspers acknowledges this traditionalism in Socrates: “Though his mercilessly critical questioning may make him seem one of [the Sophists], he never departs from his historical foundations but piously recognizes the laws of the polis and thoughtfully examines their meaning” (Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, p.10). In fact, then, Socrates is more of an Athenian intellectual than Nussbaum’s world citizen. For instance, when Socrates admonished others to ‘know thyself’, and that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, he was not telling them to become whatever they want to become. Rather, he was telling them that to be a good citizen of Athens, a respectable person within the Athenian political life, to contribute to the necessary social institutions of law and marriage, they must genuinely be virtuous people, fully understand what life and society requires of them, and not merely follow conventions. He knew that to be a good citizen, informed and philosophically tested, takes a certain kind of person – one who seeks the truth rather than comfort or conformity. Such a person is possible only in society with a fruitful tradition of ethical, political, and religious inquiry. And even though Socrates often left his conversation partners frustrated and confused with his questions and critiques, his goal was to remove the errors so that they could know the truth of the great values of Athenian society, such as virtue, justice, and beauty.

Here is an example from his trial. After Socrates is convicted unjustly on trumped-up charges of ‘corrupting the youth’ (through questioning traditional values) and ‘introducing new gods’, Crito and other friends come to the prison to bribe the guards and help him escape, not wanting a horrible injustice to be done. However, Socrates refuses to go. He tells Crito and the others that Athens has given him every good thing he owned and loved, and if he rejected the court’s judgment against him to escape to another country, he would undermine the faith of Athens’s citizens in their state. He says to Crito:

“Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? Also to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and either to be persuaded, or if not persuaded, to be obeyed?”
(Plato, Apology)

This is not Nussbaum’s world citizen who must sever their intellectual pursuits from the traditions of their nation and their metaphysical inheritances, including their religious teachings and practices. So instead of maintaining that the finely-tuned analytical method of inquiry that Socrates mastered was designed for a global cosmopolitan person who has dismissed the relevance of intellectual and ethical traditions, it is more accurate to say that Socrates wanted to educate the Athenians to be the very best Athenians they could be. That involved a form of democracy in which all property-owning men could and should contribute to the cultural and moral life of the city. This is not the form of democracy Nussbaum promotes, which involves a diverse society without intellectual and political borders, incorporating an intellectual ethos that calls on us to refrain from relying upon religious or philosophical traditions.

Socrates & Religion

I want to give one more illustration showing that Socrates is not what Nussbaum claims him to be. The short dialogue Euthyphro is one of Plato’s most famous and lucid demonstrations of Socratic dialectic. It is also a perplexing book, because it does not give a direct answer to the question that initiates the dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro.

The story starts with a chance meeting of the two in the court where Socrates is being charged with impiety (for corrupting the youth and rejecting the traditional gods). Euthyphro is there to bring a charge of murder against his own father, believing it the right or pious thing to do. An intense dialogue starts between them over the essence of piety. After several failed attempts to define piety, in which Socrates shows that Euthyphro is logically inconsistent in his definitions, Euthyphro says that a pious (or holy, or good) action is the same as one that is loved by all the gods. In reply, Socrates puts to him one of the most famous dilemmas in the history of philosophy, known ever since as the Euthyphro dilemma.

The dilemma is this: is an action pious because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is pious? If the former, then a good or pious action is whatever the gods want, perhaps including actions we might ordinarily think of as decidedly bad. If the latter, then a good or pious action can be defined without reference to the gods at all. According to many contemporary philosophers, including James Rachels in The Elements of Moral Philosophy (1986), the dialogue proves we don’t need God to know what is right and good, and consequently that theology has nothing meaningful to say to ethics. However, although Socrates does not give a final answer to the question, the point of the dialogue is not that there is no answer, or that we should divorce ethics from a theological tradition, but that we need better definitions of piety than the ones Euthyphro offered. In other words, Socrates was not just interested in arguing semantics with Euthyphro: he wanted to know the essence of piety, and to know it truthfully, because this is very important to know, for Socrates just as for any other conscientious Athenian. Piety is what a good Athenian seeks, even in a demoralized and self-deprecating time. Therefore, because the relationship between theology and ethics is important for the integrity of Athenian culture, the philosophical pursuit of clarifying it through Socratic dialogue must take place.


My intention has not been to reject Nussbaum’s notion of the world citizen. In fact I favor the idea that we should encourage students to travel the world and learn from other cultures. My intention has been to show how her misuse of Socrates illustrates an important principle when it comes to interpreting ancient texts. We must be cautious. It is not that Nussbaum and others are wrong to rely on the Socratic method to advance the ideal of a progressive education. But to then assume she can use Socrates as a transcultural and transtemporal authority to justify her approach, is to lift Socrates out of his context and place him too smoothly into hers. That move is the mistake. Instead of conforming ancient philosophers and texts to our own ideals and goals so that we can use them as authorities to support our own agendas, we must understand them on their own terms in their own times.

© Dr Dennis Sansom 2022

Dennis Sansom is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Samford University, in Birmingham, Alabama.

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