Socrates: Political Ideas

Life and Teachings of Socrates:

Socrates was the most celebrated philosopher and intellectual giant of pre-Plato Greece. He saw the light of this world on 469 B.C. and left this mortal world on 399 B.C. His philosophical, political and legal thoughts earned him a great fame. Even Karl Marx highly spoke of him. He came from a family of Athenian sculptors or stone masons.

Since his father was a sculptor, he devoted to the craft. But in his later life he seriously studied philosophy. His devotion to philosophy, historians say, was not abrupt. Socrates first studied, with all seriousness, physical sciences and this could not satisfy his urge for knowledge, because the physical sciences, in his opinion, contained only mechanical explanation about matter and phenomena.

He ardently desired to enter into the deep of everything and this urge led him to study philosophy. He found that physical sciences, says Barker, only gave a mechanical explanation of how things were made, and what he wanted was a teleological explanation, showing why they are and what is their raison d’ etre.

Socrates spent his entire life in the study of philosophical and political problems and related issues.

He discussed these problems with the ordinary members of society and tried to convince them of the inner meaning of various social and philosophical issues. Socrates was chiefly a philosopher. But at the same time he showed keen interest in the affairs of state, politics and law.

He was a man of great courage and never hesitated to defy the order of the tyrannical ruler. The then rulers of Athens thought his lessons harmful and he was prevented from preaching further and his lessons were banned.

Socrates was against the acceptance of financial remuneration in exchange for giving lessons. We know that the Sophists introduced this system. He thought that taking of fees for lessons was tantamount to prosti­tution. This indicates how selfless a man Socrates was. Socrates scrupulously adhered to this principle though his family was in great financial crisis.

Socrates was severely penalized for preaching and upholding progressive ideas. He was charged of “corrupting the youth” and impious. The indictment against him was “Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing the other, new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded his death. The Athenian Court of 501 judges sentenced him to death penalty by a majority of 80 votes.”

Like many other Greek philosophers the views of Socrates are not available in written form. He talked with his pupils, friends and opponents. Which were later on noted by them in the form of notes? The best sources of Socrates’s ideas are Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle.

Political Ideas of Socrates:

Socrates, in his analysis of political and philosophical problems and issues, applied the method of dialectic, and in this respect he departed from the Sophists who arranged the different topics in a systematic way and then discussed them.

Socrates, on the other hand, adopted the question-answer method. Needless to say, his disciple Plato also followed him.

In the view of Socrates ethics and politics are closely connected with each other. Without politics ethics carries no value, and without ethics politics becomes harmful. “The highest of all virtues is the political art which includes statecraft and makes men good politicians and public officials.”

Almost similar opinion was made by Aristotle. In other words, Socrates thought that the purpose of politics was not to capture power, nor it was an art how to remain in power. Political ethics make good and proper citizens. Both public and private persons must learn the art of political ethics.

Socrates also discussed the concept of law. He divided law into unwritten divine law and written human law. He cautioned us by pointing out that there was no discrepancy between these two sets of laws.

Justice was the root of all the laws. If a law is not justified by justice, it is useless. If anything is not approved by justice it cannot be legal. To be precise, Socrates gave priority to justice in his thought system and in this respect Socrates followed his predecessors.

Socrates dealt with a popular and at the same time important concept of politics popularly known as allegiance to law. He devised the theory of concord which means the citizens must show allegiance and obedience to law. Interpreting Socrates’s allegiance to law, Xenophon, the most reliable interpreter of Socrates’s view, says—”A Republic that is obedient to laws is happy in peace and invincible in war. Moreover, you know that concord is a great happiness in a state.” Socrates admitted the diversities among the citizens and differences of opinion.

But notwith­standing they must unanimously obey the laws. He thought that without unquali­fied ‘obedience to law there could not be unity and integrity in the Republic. His exaltation of law-abidingness did not rule out the importance and necessity of criticism. Laws, not in conformity with justice, might invite criticism.

Socrates was a great supporter of philosopher-king. He did not like democracy, oligarchy, hereditary aristocracy and tyranny. Only a philosopher-king, he thought, could serve the purpose of the polis.

Socrates gave a brief classification of government which runs as follows. Rule of men over the unwilling mass was to him a tyranny. Property qualification for office was for him a plutocracy.

It was democracy when all people were allowed to participate in the government. Socrates recommended only the rule of the wise. All other forms of government, in his opinion, were unsuitable.

Socrates had viewed the concept of rule from a different angle. The purpose of the ruler should not be to acquire pleasure or to satisfy personal whims and wishes, but to ensure the welfare of the common people. The ruler must keep a watch upon the needs of the people and he should never try to fulfil his own needs.

If a ruler pays more attention to the furtherance of his own interests he should be punished. Ascendency to power, in the opinion of Socrates, is not automatic at all. The above noted qualifications must be satisfied.

Related with the concept of justice is equality and Socrates greatly emphasized it. Equality is a political virtue and it is the utmost duty of the wise ruler to ensure it. A polis must be based on equality.

Violation of equality would result in disorder, chaos and disruption of normal activities of the polis. Socrates’s equality is geometrical equality. “By geometrical equality Socrates means political justice and equity or right judgment in terms of political virtue as distinct from simple numerical or arithmetical equality”.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle:

It is generally observed that the political thought of ancient Greece and particularly of Socrates created a positive and far-reaching impact upon the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.

It is, therefore, necessary, to throw light on how Socrates influenced Plato and Aristotle in forming and propagating their philosophical and political concepts. Socrates (469-399 B.C.) “Is one of the most remarkable far-famed charac­ters in the intellectual history of mankind.

For over two and a half millennia there has been a ring of glory about his name and aura of enigma surrounding his personality” (V. S. Nersesyants—Political Thought of Ancient Greece, p. 93). This was Socrates. Even Karl Marx highly eulogised him.

Though Socrates was not chiefly a political thinker or politician he dealt with a number of subjects, which may conveniently be included into the subject-matter of politics or political philosophy. His main concerns were law, justice and polis. His method of analysis was dialectic. Dialectic is question and answer form. The discussion about any subject could proceed until a final opinion was arrived at he held discussions with his disciples.

If we study the political ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle we shall find that Socrates created a tremendous impact upon the latter two giants of Greek philoso­phy.

Maxey says ‘In Plato Socrates lived again. Not in the sense that the pupil was an unvarying facsimile of the master, not even in the sense that Plato was the literary and philosophic executor of the great querist, but rather in the sense that the mind and soul of Plato so completely absorbed in the thought and spirit of his teacher as to inspire his own soaring genius to create a sublimer Socrates than ever trod the bustling streets of Athens’ (p. 39). Tine writings, intellect, logic and above all the thought of Socrates created a great influence upon Plato. What we call the thought system of Plato is of “genuine Socratic origin”. Maxey also says that how much of Plato’s philosophy is original cannot be said assertively.

V. S. Nersesyants has written: “The ideas of Socrates, particularly his emphasis on the law as the criterion for classification of the forms of government, the contrast between monarchy and tyranny, and others exerted a considerable influence on the subsequent political theories of ancient thinkers, above all Plato, Aristotle and Polibius and through them various politico-legal doctrines of the Middle Ages and modern times.

Socrates’s views on democracy influenced both Plato and Aristotle. He did not consider democracy as a desirable form of government on the grounds that incompetent officials are appointed to run the administration of democratic state.

Another reason is common people have no ability to participate in the state affairs. Socrates also advocated the concept of Philosopher-King. Both these views of Socrates were accepted by Plato.

Socrates’s classification of government or constitution influenced Aristotle. Though Aristotle followed Socrates in classifying constitution his criteria were different from those of Socrates.

Socrates introduced a new concept which may be called ethical politics. We find its reappearance in Plato and Aristotle. Without ethics politics is bound to contami­nate the whole society. For an ideal or good and well-ordered state both ethics and politics must travel hand in hand. It may be ethical politics or political ethics. However, both Plato and Aristotle took this idea from Socrates.

The very foundation of their ideal state was ethics. Socrates and Plato both believed that officials of public services must be moral and ethical persons. Aristotle also held the same view.

These three persons were unanimous about that, without good and ideal politicians, citizens cannot be good and moral. “Socrates is traditionally regarded as the founder of theoretical ethics which paved the way for Plato’s and Aristotle’s logical and political conceptions” (Nersesyants).

Though Socrates’s thought and philosophy had a direct and positive influence upon Plato and Aristotle, it cannot be said that they were the carbon copies of Socrates. There is no doubt that both Plato and Aristotle were great and original thinkers.

These three great Greek philosophers built up the fabric of political philosophy with the help of the experience of Greek city-state, but the thought systems of Plato and Aristotle are really comprehensive.

Plato’s ideal state’s main concern is justice, but it deals with many other aspects which are not available in Socrates.

Aristotle borrowed his classification of government or constitution from Socrates. But there is a difference. His classification deals with the comparative aspect of politics which is still remembered by-students of political science. Aristotle’s views on revolution and polity still deserve special mention.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were no doubt the great apostles of Greek philosophy. Socrates laid the foundation of many concepts especially dialectic and pitfalls of democracy. Even today these constitute important parts of political thought.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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