The Socratic Project: The Perfection of the Soul

This is an essay that I wrote quite a few years ago.  It was written for students first encountering Socrates.  While I think it could be more nuanced, accurate, and better composed, I maintain it contains some valuable insights from Socrates that are relevant now.  Those insights belong to him, not me. 


If one can assume scholarly belief about the order of Plato’s writings, and separate the early from the later, and thereby also assume that the earlier dialogs exhibit what is likely the closes thing we have to what the historical Socrates believed, we can surmise what is the project of Socrates, the Socratic method, and Socrates’ exhortation to philosophy as a way of life that brings together his project and his method. This essay will focus on the project of Socrates, which is to attempt a generalization regarding what drove Socrates’ interest in philosophy, and why he did philosophy the way he did. Hence, to some degree this essay is logically prior to those involving the Socratic method and his exhortation to philosophy that is most clearly exhibited in Apology.[1]

A most concise understanding of the project of Socrates would be that of the perfection of the soul. A simple enough reply, but for Socrates this was a rich ideal that positively projected the philosopher toward a life of contemplation toward the values of truth, beauty[2], and goodness, and negatively slaked off the dogmas, presumptions and arrogances of popular opinion and the actions of the many. In other words, to perfect the soul – to be a philosopher – meant an understanding of, and a closeness to, values that are cardinal, values that are themselves the only values that could be considered ends in themselves. When we consider other values cherished by the average Athenian, such as wealth, power, and prestige, the Socratic shift in value could be seen as nothing other than an affront to popular opinion. This would be similar to the ways in which some Americans eschew capital gain, and forceful power with the values of living simply and wisely; to those who pursue capital wealth and bodily or militaristic might, such a reinterpretation of such values are often taken as an insult to a supposed American way of life. The force of the affront is even more acute when if we then also emphasize that this is not just a way of being or living, but is perfecting life and the soul. Even more, if we consider Socrates’ suggestion that “those who practice philosophy in the proper manner [are practicing] for dying and death”[3] we recognize instantly an additional affront to worldly values.[4] The point to all this is that such worldly values really cannot be considered ends in themselves. To be wealthy for its own sake is clearly absurd. Looking past the simple idea that wealth is good for buying goods and services, those goods and services still seem to be toward something else. Do we have things simply to have them? No. We have things for other reasons. Can we say a reason is pleasure, and that pleasure is an end in itself? This might be true but consider that even pleasure seems to be toward something else, and this something must be happiness. So, if wealth and power and geared toward happiness we will be in a terrible position if for some reason our wealth and power dissipates, as so often does happen with the vicissitudes of life. As Socrates argues, the only ends really worth pursuing are those that cannot be effected by such vicissitudes. Even health is not certain, for even if we pursue a healthy lifestyle, personal sickness or political upheaval may wreck our bodies as prisoners of war know. So if we perfect ourselves in any way, Socrates argues, it must be that part of us that cannot be altered by changes outside us. This may be what led Socrates to that momentous shift in philosophy that is the discovery of the soul.

Before considering the perfecting of the soul we need to delimit what he means by soul. First, soul in the Socratic sense is not in any way what popular new age spirituality, or even some forms of Christianity supposes soul to be. This understanding of soul is also closely related to what the Greeks considered Psyche, a vaporous second self that runs along with the body and that remains after death. While Socrates does not seem to disbelieve this understanding of soul, he locates a soul that is properly speaking prior to Psyche, and this is Nous. Nous for Socrates is the immortal part of the soul that, we might conclude, perfects Psyche, so that there are two levels of perfection occurring. At the first level is the perfection of nous, and at the second is psyche. I would not thereby conclude that there are multiple layers to our being, one of body, one of psyche, and one of nous. I think this is an indefensibly complicated metaphysical construct. But if we simply run with this picture for heuristic purposes it will hopefully serve us well.

Nous as soul is really insight. Insight into what? As insight – an inner-seeing – it is that capacity of a perfect seeing of things as they really are, of recognizing truth, beauty, and goodness. Nous is therefore intellect, and intellect and insight are mutually inclusive capacities. It in incumbent at this point to draw a vital distinction, and one to which Socrates often alludes. If I tell you that 2+2=4, and you believe it, and you can rehearse my words so that you can tell other people that 2+2=4 and you can also, upon request, declare that 4 is the correct answer to the problem 2+2=x, you are in the realm of correct belief, but it is belief all the same. Socrates, however, makes an important philosophical distinction between belief, or doxa, and episteme, which is knowledge. It is one thing to correctly believe that 2+2=4, that stealing is wrong, or that truth is good, but is best to see that these statements are so. This seeing is the insight of which Socrates speaks.

But the perfecting of the soul is not so much gaining something as much as it is clearing.[5] Perfecting of the soul is really a clearing and an opening. It is a clearing of presumptions, prejudices, conventions, and opinions – all those forms of doxa that infiltrate our judgments and that come to us through worldly interactions, for better or worse. Realize that neither Socrates nor any philosopher would admit that all popular opinion is false and bad. The point is that even when we believe what is true we are not seeing how and why it is true. Consider for moment the process of Googling for information versus attaining it through experience. Only a fool would surmise that finding information on the internet is epistemologically equal to experiencing it first hand or gaining the capacity for demonstration.[6] It is not that Googling or believing what is true is bad. It is just that it is a different kind of experience to what is true than what Socrates is calling nous or insight, or, rightly speaking, wisdom and knowledge, and that episteme is ultimately superior to doxa, and is therefore the proper aim of the philosopher.

Allowing for an openness to the true, good, and beautiful, which is a clearing in much the way that clearing away brush and debris from a landscape allows you to see the land better, is on the way to the perfection of the soul; it allows an openness to that excellence which in Greek is called arête, and which, for Socrates is a higher order virtue because it is direct insight into truth, beauty, and goodness. If we consider virtue in the ordinary Greek sense, or even the ordinary sense in our culture, virtue is merely playing a social role with excellence. We say “silence is a virtue” for instance to indicate a kind of etiquette in certain circumstances. Arête as excellent virtue on the other hand is an inner excellence. It is not following the rules of convention, as it were. This distinction must be understood, for it is integral to Socrates’ project.

To conclude this treatment of Socrates’ project, which is perfection of the soul, we still need investigate how this is done – the method Socrates employs – and how this perfection of the soul is implicated into a larger understanding of philosophy and living philosophically. The Socratic method, which is the use of irony and dialog is also immediately implicated into what might be considered Socratic philosophy more generally. I address both of these, method and the exhortation to philosophy in separate essays.

[1] This refers to the work by Plato, The Apology, considered by most scholars to be a faithful account of Socrates speeches before the Athenian juries, and therefore it is also considered to be an early dialog.

[2] Socrates means the very essence of the beautiful, as all beautiful things participate in beauty itself.

[3] Phaedo, 64a Phaedo is considered a middle dialog, but I am of the opinion that this particular belief is consisten with Socrates thoughts about death, while the more precise thoughts about the afterlife are Plato’s. It is good to consider that Socrates was agnostic about the afterlife (cf. Apology, Crito) while Plato had an afterlife consistent with his metaphysics.

[4] This point is made clearly in Apology, 36b: “…I have deliberately not led a quiet life but have neglected what occupies most people: wealth, household affairs, the position of general or public orator or the other offices, the political clubs and factions that exist in the city…”

[5] We might also consider here the Platonic, possibly Socratic, idea that knowledge is really recollecting. See Phaedo, 72e and Meno, 81b ff. It is more likely that this is more Platonic than Socratic, given the dates of these dialogs, which locate them in his middle period, where Socrates’ voice gives way to Plato’s.

[6] In philosophy demonstration is that capacity to show how and why it is true. It would be showing how 2+2=4 is true by taking two sets of two things, putting them together and counting a total of four.

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