Website owner:  James Miller

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On the teachings of Socrates

   Many years ago I started reading some of Plato's works in which 
   Socrates as the main character engages in a dialogue with one 
   or two other people concerning some philosophical question.  By 
   using a dialectic process of question and answer a conclusion 
   is arrived at.  These works were presumably intended by Plato 
   to reveal the beliefs and ideas of Socrates.  I was reading 
   them with great eagerness since Socrates is of such great 
   renown as a wise man.  I expected to find great and profound 
   ideas.  I was very impressed by the dialectic style of argument 
   used by Socrates and was reading the works very carefully when 
   I suddenly found myself shocked and dumbfounded by a conclusion 
   he had come to.  He had concluded that wrong actions arise from 
   ignorance.  I couldn't believe what I had read.  I thought I 
   must have read it wrong, understood him wrong.  I thought, 
   "Surely he doesn't really believe that.  How could any man with 
   any knowledge of human nature believe anything as absurd as 
   that?"  But, no I hadn't read him wrong.  That is what he 
   asserted.  Buddha, who lived at around the same time as 
   Socrates, possibly a bit before, asserted the same idea.  Both 
   asserted that man's evil and wrong actions arise out of 
   ignorance.  Socrates asserted that no man knowingly does evil, 
   that no man is really bad.  I still find it hard to believe 
   that intelligent men could assert an idea so obviously 
   incorrect.  People do certainly knowingly do wrong.  It happens 
   all the time.  What causes them to do wrong?  They may be 
   tempted by base appetites, by lust or greed, to do wrong.  They 
   may do what they know to be wrong from cowardice, fear, or 
   intimidation.  They may be bribed by money or gifts into some 
   perversion of justice or wrong deed.  Lying, deceiving, 
   corruption is part of the world we live in and people don't do 
   these things innocently.  They know what they are doing.  A 
   great many people don't take goodness, virtue, right conduct, 
   right actions very seriously.  They are not strongly committed 
   to virtuous action. They are not lovers of righteousness and 
   goodness.  They do wrong very easily without giving a lot of 
   thought to it.  They develop habits of acting wrongly and their 
   consciences may become dulled so they no longer think much 
   about it.  Wrong action in general doesn't stem from ignorance, 
   lack of knowledge.  It stems from a basic disposition that 
   doesn't value virtue and goodness, a disposition not strongly 
   inclined towards doing right, where  temptation pulls on them 
   and there is no restraining force.  Or it may stem from a 
   disposition simply inclined toward evil.  It is true that a 
   thinking man in pursuit of Wisdom, Understanding, Truth, 
   Goodness and Virtue may become convinced of the importance of 
   always doing the right thing, of always acting right.  But more 
   than knowledge is involved in preventing wrong action.  Will, 
   resolve, seriousness, commitment are also involved.  Values are 
   involved.  A love of Goodness, a belief in Goodness, an 
   appreciation of the importance of Goodness.  This whole 
   question of what causes people to do wrong is very important 
   because if a person does wrong through ignorance he can't be 
   blamed, can't be held accountable.  To do wrong out of 
   ignorance is not blameworthy.  To do wrong knowingly is 
   blameworthy.  Thus for a person with the idea that wrong doing 
   comes from ignorance, the concept of sin wouldn't exist.  The 
   wrong action might be termed a spiritual error but it can't be 
   called a sin because he doesn't realize it is wrong.  With 
   Christianity we have a God who has explicity decreed what is 
   right and wrong.  Here the issue is clearer.  We are not 
   dependent on an inner voice, on conscience, for our knowledge 
   of right and wrong.  We have been told explicitly.  With the 
   Bible the concept of sin becomes very clear.  It is 
   transgression against God's law.  After discovering that 
   Socrates believed that wrong actions are caused by ignorance my 
   opinion of him dropped drastically and I lost interest in him.  
   I read quite a few of the works of Plato and wasn't very 
   impressed by him either.  I felt that he was just far too 
   visionary, impractical, far too removed from reality.  Often he 
   just didn't make much sense.  There is a Greek philosopher, 
   however, that I did develop a great respect for.  It is 
   Aristotle.  He was wrong on a number of things but I consider 
   him a great and profound thinker.  I have been very impressed 
   by many things that he wrote.  I credit him with great insights 
   on many things.

   May 2009              

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