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The Philosophy of Socrates: Political and Ethical Beliefs

An introduction tothe political and ethical beliefs of the great Greek philosopher Socrates.

Socrates is, in some ways, one of the first true heroes of western civilization. This is because he, as a true hero should, wrestles with the universe and its trials and tribulations as an individual and a human being without constantly looking for supernatural help or validation. Instead, Socrates stressed the need for all people to focus on their true beliefs and methods of thinking, paying particular attention to starting positions and analysing how progress could be made. He believed that the degree of happiness or satisfaction that the individual felt in his life (most ideas were slanted towards men and, while women were not generally specifically excluded, they had to take the form of women-as-men) depended on the virtue of the soul. That virtue in turn depended on the extent to which the soul had progressed towards achieving recognizable and universal positions of virtue.

The problem that people face with this is that, partly through their own inadequacies in thinking, self-understanding and analysis, they do not know what is good or bad. However, since there are some actions and ways of thinking that may be demonstrated as being good (and some as being evil), then it is possible for the individual to embark on a voyage of self-education or education in conjunction with a mentor to understand how he can become more virtuous and, hence, happier.

Since virtue leads unerringly to happiness, once people understand this, they will inevitably and consistently choose the ethical path over the unethical path since they will wish to choose happiness over unhappiness. Clearly, therefore, this method of thinking has political implications. The first of these is that there is the immediate and urgent need to foster methods by which people can improve their thinking through access to information, debate and a social environment that values and rewards personal reflection. Second is the implication of universality: virtue (and indeed vice) is not unique to Athenians or even to Greeks but applies equally to every person in the world. Socrates had no conception of an open or world government, of course, but would have rejected any form of discrimination based on race, creed, sexual predilection or any other criteria which do not in themselves have an ethical component. In other words, a Persian or a barbarian is just as capable of becoming virtuous in just the same way that an Athenian could and should be encouraged to do so to increase the total happiness of human society.

Inevitably, therefore, these ideas challenged the existing power relations in Athenian society and the ruling classes would reject outright the idea of universality since, if it were accepted, it would mean their own legitimacy as rulers would disappear and so too would their power, money and status. The result is plain: Socrates died for his beliefs.

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