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work of Socrates Essay

Plato places Socrates as a man who makes the pursuit of knowledge crucial to attaining happiness and essence of the soul. However, this is not done so for the sake of acquiring knowledge. That is to say, that it is not done for the attaining of knowledge in itself. Rather, it is done so for the practical and social result that comes from pursuing knowledge that enriches the soul and eventually the soul of others.

By doing this, Plato posits Socrates as an active participator in the construction of society through his constant reaching out to appeal to his fellow citizens through questioning. This places knowledge as a pre existent ideal that acts as a crucial medium in life. Essentially, the onus for Socrates is that the purpose of the individual and the society is to seek knowledge through the exchange of social relations. However, Socrates also reveals the inequity of following the unknowing masses rather than the man of knowledge and wisdom.

He highlights this in The Trial of Death of Socrates when he claims that: ‘But far more dangerous are the others, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause. The disseminators of this tale are the accusers whom I dread; for their hearers are apt to fancy that such enquirers do not believe in the existence of the gods.

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(Plato, 2000) Essentially, Socrates is speculative and puts forward the notion of the values and truths while others may have him a man of argument and arrogance. However, as we have already realised, Socrates concern is not for knowledge in itself or the status that it may bring or be applied to those that bring it and so the purpose of argumentation is not for the sake of argumentation itself. Neither is it for the purposes of the status and the arrogance that it may afford the esteemed knower.

This is because of the world of ideals in which Socrates places the soul and makes it distinct from the body and its motivations. Essentially, Socrates believes that the body is the source of material and social selfishness, such as greed, ignorance, indulgence, conformity, power translated into the intellectual striving for status. This striving for status can be seen as the pursuit for knowledge in itself as it has no practical use other than to indulge the body. However, Socrates places the soul as being distinct from the body with a will of its own.

Further, this will is immersed within thoughts and ideals, making it long for truth while it exists on earth. This means that for Socrates there is a distinct separation between the soul seeking knowledge through an idealistic plain and the body seeking existence through a material plain. This is given in the death scene in Phaedo, when Socrates states that: ‘A man should be of good cheer about his own soul, if during life he has ignored the pleasures of the body […] but has seriously concerned himself with the pleasures of learning and has adorned his soul with its own ornaments’ (Plato, 2000, b)

This emphasis upon a well defined pursuit in relation to knowledge rather than bodily wants and mores is indicative of the happiness and well being that Socrates states is the requirement of the soul. This underscores an emphasis upon the pursuit of a goal rather than attainment of knowing. However, it also quantifies this pursuit as being social. Socrates clearly believed that the pursuit of knowledge was idealistic as well as beneficial to society. He states this in Crito, saying that ’I am the kind of man who listens to nothing within me but the argument that on reflection seems best to me’ (Plato, 2000a).

This reveals his will to show reality as a social one whereby the inner ’body’ of man is no place for knowledge. Rather, this inner sanctum can only be used on reflection of the knowledge, thoughts and ideas passed over by another. It would seem for Socrates that by listening to the inner sanctum one will learn little of living well. This is because the ideals of the soul can only be found through knowledge, which means using the inner sanctum by way of extending and reflecting upon the values of the society or those put forward by another. However, Socrates puts just as little stock into the collective minds of the ignorant many.

He outlines this by stating to Crito that ‘we should not then think of what the majority will say about us, but what he will say who understands justice and injustice, the one, that is, and the truth itself’ (Plato, 2000, p. 48) . This clearly outlines Socrates belief that the truth could only be found in ideals, which could only be sought through extending knowledge. In the Basic Writings, Chang Tzu outlines his philosophy of well being in relation to the drive for human happiness. He outlines this common pursuit as a quest to find and secure materialistic and physical riches for the body.

It is against this notion that he begins to write his own criticisms and observations before offering an alternative philosophical drive for something less materialistic that incorporates the goal in itself. However, he does not deny that this pursuit is the basis for life. He suggests that this is the practical source of being. Essentially, he suggests that this is the struggle of becoming in life. However, he suggests that this pursuit of happiness is hapless if done without the pursuit overcoming as it is through overcoming, rather than achievement or status, that one can find peace and happiness.

Chang Tzu rejects the pursuit of happiness as being found in the goal as it is through the through quest that the reality of the soul of man becomes clear in his narrative of life. That is to say, that through his pursuit of attaining the supposedly good things in life the path leads him to ‘stupidity, worry, bitterness and callousness‘ (Tzu, 1996). Essentially, Chang Tzu outlines the futility of existence and the indifference of any measure of the pursuit. This is put forward as all action ultimately leads to death and so the goal of happiness is never achieved in the attainment of the goal.

Rather, all that occurs is more futile and ultimately meaningless action. It is with the notion of inactivity that Chang Tzu turns by way of reconciliation to this futility. He states that: ‘I take inaction to be true happiness, but ordinary people think it is a bitter thing. I say: the highest happiness has no happiness; the highest praise has no praise. The world can’t decide what is right and what is wrong. And yet inaction can decide this. The highest happiness, keeping alive – only inaction can get you close to this! ’ (Tzu, 1996)

In this extract, Tzu outlines his core notion of happiness through the futility of a goal. This lack of meaning is somewhat indicative of a lack of eternity. However, by way of reconciliation he states that through the lack of activity one can then perceive the meaningful relations in the world that constitute keeping alive. This is done through an observation of the world and through one’s own perception and thought. Speaking of the values and traits of the world and the people in it, Tzu states that there is little point in extolling such things and making them the means by which we live.

Rather, he states clearly that it is enough that we have them. By making such values a pursuit, we are therefore denying our being. As a basis for existence and both the given and inactive relationship between ourselves and the world, Tzu states that ‘without them we would not exist; without us they would have nothing to take hold of’ (33). In epistemological terms, this means that Tzu believes that these traits are already existent in us and our world and that such values and traits are not arrived at through our actions so there is little point in pursuing them.

Rather, we act on the basis of these values and traits regardless of our purpose. Therefore, we cannot attain anything in our actions other than traits that we perhaps would not like. Tzu reconciles this with a difference between life and knowledge. He uses this in the example of the cook. In this tale, he reveals that by using knowledge one can attain a certain being, which in his example of the cook is the knowledge of carving and preparing the carcass of an ox. From this, he then reveals that what is attained is an overcoming rather than goal.

What is overcome is the pursuit of the knowledge and skill required to carve the meat of the ox. On attaining this knowledge and skill, the cook is then no longer acting or pursuing. Rather, he now goes about his business guided by spiritual purpose and precision, as if inactive. And through such inactivity, the cook has found spiritual happiness in his inactivity. This underscores Tzu’s practical role of pursuing knowledge. Essentially, the pursuit is to master an art. However, the attainment of the knowledge and skill required for the art is simply done by way of overcoming the goal.

Once the pursuit arrives at overcoming rather than attainment, then the inactivity required for spiritual happiness is realised. However, if one were to give themselves over to the values of the world in the pursuit of ever greater knowledge, one will give themselves over to the futile pursuit of limitless knowledge. From this analysis we can see that the spiritual and the soulful form as the philosophical basis of happiness for the two philosophers. Further, both reject material attainment and social status.

Whereas Socrates rejects goals related to bodily desire and status, so Tzu rejects the attainment of material goals. However, Plato indulges the pursuit of knowledge through social and intellectual participation. This contrasts somewhat with Tzu, who splits the limitlessness of knowledge from the limited role in overcoming the skills required in for ones inactive spiritual life. Socrates’ idea of living well concerns caring for the soul by living as far apart from the needs and desires of the body as possible.

This is similar to Tzu’s notion of spiritual well being as living as far away from the pursuit of physical and material happiness as is possible. However, Tzu does not indulge the pursuit of greater knowledge here. A good social and individual life for Socrates involves the pursuit of knowledge, the elimination of ignorance and the recognition between the body and the soul through rejecting an identity to the body. For Tzu the pursuit of knowledge pertains only to one’s own being and to pursue knowledge any further is to indulge the futility of life.

Essentially, to pursue knowledge beyond one’s own is to attempt to overcome something that is insurmountable. This is where Socrates and Tzu are fundamentally opposed. Whereas the former believes that this is the active and necessary quest of the soul in terms of idealistic goal, the latter believes it to be futile path to spiritual suffering that never attains what it sets out to achieve.


Plato (2000a) The Trial and Death of Socrates Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Plato, (2000b) Phaedo Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Chuang Tzu (1996) Basic Writings New York: Columbia University Press

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