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Socrates - Care of the Soul

If the good is the useful or beneficial, then what is useful for ethics? Ethics is practical (but not in Aristotle's arid sense).

Outline of this page ...


Can man become good through Socratic "care of the soul"?

I spend my whole life in going about and persuading you all to give your first and greatest care to the improvement of your souls, and not till you have done that to think of your bodies or your wealth. (Plato, Apology 30a-b, tr. Church, rev. Cumming)

Introduction: what Plato means by 'care of the soul' is not discussed on this page (although for both Plato and Socrates, to 'care for the soul' means to 'become a thoroughly ethical human being'). Here the topic is what the historical Socrates means by 'care of the soul' and its practical application to our life. Plato offers a metaphysical theory about what death is, about the soul's existence prior to its life in the body, and about the soul's immortality (If the soul survives the death of the body, Plato says, "it can have no escape or security from [being judged and punished for being] evil except by becoming as good and wise as it possibly can" while in the body (Phaedo 107c)). But the historical Socrates has no such theories; when we talk about the soul in the context of Socrates' thought we mean the definition of the word 'soul' specific to ethics that Socrates used, namely 'soul' DEF.= 'the ethical aspect of the human mind' or 'man considered as an ethical being'.

Socrates' view (as found in Plato's Apology 40c-41c) is that to think you know what death is -- is to think you know what you do not know, and the same would apply to thinking you know what the soul is in itself. Socrates had no time for such speculations (Phaedrus 229e-230a); he concerned himself only with finding what the good is for man regardless of what death may be (for what death is, is a subject for metaphysical speculation). Socrates' thesis (which must be tested by questioning its meaning and truth, because "discourse of reason" is a virtue both proper and unique to man) is that the good for man is to live in accord with the with the moral excellence (virtue) that is proper to man. In other words, the good for man is the life of rational moral virtue; that is "Socratic ethics", and Socrates' answer to the Delphic precept Know thyself.

Query: which philosopher holds that at death our mind will free itself from the body?

If by 'mind' we mean 'the rational soul' -- is this what Plato means, that the animal part -- i.e. the irrational soul of appetites and impulses -- of man belongs to the body, and that the rational soul is freed from those irrational things, with the body's death? By 'soul' (psyche) does Socrates mean the rational soul only? If Socrates held that moral virtue requires only knowledge, that habit and instinct are not stumbling blocks to moral virtue, then he may well have meant that (because habit and instinct both belong to the irrational, the impulsive animal soul).

To make one's soul as good and wise as possible (Apology 36c)

I went [to each man privately] to do him, as I say, the greatest of benefits [i.e. by showing him that he does not know what he thought he knew (about moral virtue, or, ethical excellence), and therefore that he should seek knowledge of it], and tried to persuade him not to think of his affairs [i.e. care of his body] until he had thought of himself [i.e. of his soul, or, the ethical aspect of himself] and tried to make himself as good and wise as possible, nor to think of the affairs [i.e. material well-being] of Athens until he had thought of Athens herself [i.e. of the ethical well-being and improvement of its citizens (cf. Gorgias 517b)]; and to care for other things in the same manner. (Plato, Apology 36c, tr. Church, rev. Cumming)

Socrates does not study ethics for the sake of giving an academic account (dissertation) of that subject (as Aristotle may have done), but for the sake of becoming as good a human being as possible, which is what he wishes both for himself and for his companions. His method is to test all things in discussion with his companions, because Socrates' standard of truth (Xenophon, Memories of Socrates iv, 6, 1; cf. Plato, Laches 190c) is this: that if a man knows anything, he can explain what he knows to others (Thus knowledge is public and therefore objective).

What is the meaning of the word 'soul' in Greek?

The Greek word psyche is rendered into English by words such as 'soul', 'mind', and 'spirit'. Note that for Socrates 'psyche' is simply the name of a phenomenon (his naive view of language appears to be that all words are the names of objects, if not visible then invisible) -- in this case the phenomenon of the ethical aspect of man.

Unlike Plato and Orphism (and Aristotle who held the very opposite theory to Plato's), Socrates does not speculate about what man's psyche is (for example, whether it is "spirit" or "matter", whether it is mortal or immortal). He only seeks to discover what can be known to man by the natural light of reason alone about his own nature and condition ("Know thyself"), and on that basis and to live the life that is the good for man. Ethics is his interest in philosophy, and it leaves him time for nothing else (Logic, i.e. the tests of reason and experience, is Socrates' tool for discovery in ethics; reason ("wisdom" in a Greek sense) he recognizes is the natural excellence (areté) most proper to man).


Care of the ethical aspect of oneself

The following continues the discussions "Moral virtue is knowledge", the relation between virtue and self-control, and the power of reason and mythology to change man's life.

"Healing the wounded understanding" in ethics

Most of what follows are only my own thoughts at one time and of course no one need find them useful. What is important is to see that with respect to "care of the soul" (i.e. the well-being of the ethical aspect of oneself), there is much to think about. Of the many illnesses of the intellect man must cure himself of, the most pressing are in ethics. Philosophical-logical-conceptual understanding is elusive, confusion not the exception -- but misperception of what it is important to know about our life, what the good is for man (Plato's "no small matter, but how to live"), is ruinous. "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?" (Matthew 16.26)

Summary of this account, which seems to be the view of Plato's very stoic Republic 496a-d (because of the limit to there being a good society) text: You mustn't be upset by ignorance, not by other people's or even by your own (Not to think you know what you don't know is not a lesson that is easily learned, and it is never learned once and for all). Your own ignorance you must remedy. That of others you must ignore: Do not be at war with the world; you cannot make peace with wrong-doing, but you must not let it upset your own peace. What is truly beyond your remedy should also be beyond your concern. See to your own soul (Memorabilia i, 2, 4; Plato, Apology 29e) by replacing your ignorance with understanding, not letting the acts of vicious men -- (the word 'vicious' contrasts with 'virtuous') -- lead you into vice as well (the word 'vice' contrasts 'virtue'). For both Plato and Socrates, 'to care for one's soul' means 'to work to make oneself an ethical human being'.

There are various ways or methods by which to care for the soul, some philosophical, others religious. First a religious example. "Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven." (Matthew 18.21-22) -- "But if this be so, who can be saved?" -- "For man it is impossible, but for God all things are possible." (ibid. 19.25-26) Jesus calls God "the Father who loves his child", namely mankind. What does he mean by that? Albert Schweitzer says that it is a thought of God's [Isaiah 55.9] which man can no more understand than a goat can understand man's thoughts (Animals do not have eternal questions), but what can be done with this analogy? Jesus spoke in the context of religion, and religious ways of looking at things are sometimes incomprehensible, for faith believes even despite what man sees with his eyes ("the appearances"), and that God is the Father is taken on Jesus' authority. -- (If there were no concept 'mysteries of faith', there would be no category of thought titled 'religion').

From which it appears to follow that man, in the midst of his wrong-doing [sinfulness], must pray for God's grace to amend his life. Prayer is the Christian way or method, because even if it is revealed to man what the will of God is, he will not do it (Paul: "I am a mystery to myself: I do the very things I hate").

In contrast, philosophy is solely rational -- i.e. by the natural light of reason alone -- ways of looking at things, and this was the way Socrates sought. This was not because Socrates was not a religious man (he was). But he made ethics part of philosophy [Diog. L. i, 14, 18], something it had not been before him, and thus a thoroughgoing use of the tests of reason and experience alone, in which there wasn't a place for things that are beyond man's natural understanding. That is the Socratic distinction between what I know and what I don't know, and Socrates sought only what can be known, in ethics.

According to Socrates, the rational solution to the problem of how man should live his life is found in answer to the Delphic precept "Know thyself", because if man knows the specific excellence that is unique and proper to man and lives in accord with it, he will live the life that is the good for man. Because all living things aim for what they perceive to be the good, virtue is knowledge: if man knows what is good, he will do what is good. (But that principle does not say what the specific pious, brave, just, or temperate act is in the particular case: there are limits to know thyself, to knowledge of how to live our life.)

But ethics is practical. You must find the ways of looking at things that help you. Our aim through the study of ethics is, after all, to become good human beings because otherwise the study of ethics is idle (this contra Aristotle's disinterested account of ethics: "Nothing too much" -- nothing to excess in either direction, neither over- nor under-estimating one's own ability -- was a Greek proverb, to which Aristotle gave his own application, although I don't see that pointing out that courage lies between cowardice and foolhardiness, which is a point of grammar which anyone who speaks the language knows, is helpful to ethics). For Albert Schweitzer, love -- that is, reverence for truth and reverence for life and a particular picture of the kingdom of God -- was the way of looking at things that was serviceable to him. But that may not be the way for everyone: in our world the same tree may to different individuals yield good fruit or no fruit or even poisonous fruit.

Socrates' "virtue is knowledge" (Our life must be guided by thoroughgoing use of reason and self-watchfulness to forestall base instincts and reform the bad habits formed in the past through ignorance of the good) is one of the ways of looking at things that I myself use in ethics. Another is Schweitzer's principle that the good is whatever is beneficial to life, the bad whatever harms life. Another is the Gospels', in Augustine's words, "whatever is not done from love is not done as it should be done". The sayings of Epictetus are also very useful to me.

Unserviceable ways of looking at things. Above all: "weakness of the will".

Query: a simple life devoted to virtue and reason.

In ethics, to be like Plato's philosopher, a traveler in the midst of a storm of wrong-doing, sheltering himself behind a wall (Republic 496a-d), but nevertheless a Socratic philosopher guided by thoroughgoing reason as the guide to how man should live his life, is the last hope, disillusioned as I am by man's native condition of ignorance and consequent wrong-doing, I have for my life. (Remember that Stoicism traces itself back to Socrates. The philosopher Plato describes is of course stoic.)

That hope is Christian in its pessimism towards this world, but unchristian in its withdraw from an ethic of active love; so was the early Stoa. But Augustine said of later Stoicism that Marcus Aurelius was a model for Christians (Seaver, Albert Schweitzer: Christian Revolutionary (1944), p. 39-40), detached in his attitude towards this world, but his life dedicated to the public good. (Remember that is was the Roman Stoics who brought to fulfillment the Greek Sophists' notion of "common humanity"; indeed, these Stoics invented the word 'humanity' = 'all human beings, regardless of race or nationality', a word which had no equivalent in the Greek language. It is equivalent to Jesus' teaching that the kingdom of God belongs to all men who do God's will, regardless of their class or race (Luke 4.16-30, 10.25-37): there is only one race for Christianity: the human race. But these two lines of thought did not converge, because in the eyes of the Stoics the Christians were superstitious and in the eyes of the Christians the Stoics were pagans.)

My brother has wronged me

"My brother wrongs me." I don't think he will change, and I don't think you can change that. "But the injustice of it angers me." That I do think you can change.

"My brother ought not to have treated me thus." True: but he must see to that. However he may treat me, I must deal rightly by him. This is what lies with me ... (Epictetus, Discourses iii, 10, tr. Crossley)

... we do worse to ourselves when we do to others the evil that they themselves have done to us. (Marshall, To Every Man a Penny)

The only moral evil that can happen to a man is the evil he does to himself (Apology 41c-d). And returning evil for evil comes at a very high cost -- namely, the cost of making oneself an evil man.

Query: the man of virtue rights the wrongs that are done to him.

"... and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge" (The Merchant of Venice iii, 1). "To benefit one's friends and harm one's enemies" -- that was the mistaken view of moral virtue before the argument of Plato's Republic 335b-335e.

Ethics is practical

Ethics is practical. And to the end of becoming a good human being, the doctrine that "ethical demands are independent of their consequences" (Kant's categorical imperative, Wittgenstein's TLP 6.422) is not helpful (if indeed it is a true account of ethics in any way at all -- for ethics is, after all, a use of reason ['ethics' = 'philosophical reflection about how man should live his life'], and if ethics were not then ethics would not be a part of philosophy: Socrates in contrast to Kant: reason as the guide to life versus an irrational "conscience" blown about by the wind). But, on the contrary, to take into account the consequences for yourself -- i.e. for the care of your soul -- of what you do, even when what you do is to help other life -- is necessary. For example, although it is important to ask: "What will be the consequences if I do not practice thoroughgoing compassion? What kind of human being will I be? Is that the kind of human being I want to be -- i.e. will I be a good human being?" -- on the other hand, I must also ask what the consequences of a thoroughgoing compassion will be for the care of my own soul.

How could ethics not take into account the facts of the case, given that man lives (acts) in the world of facts (and not only of his delusions). Socrates puts all claims to knowledge to the tests of reasoning and experience. That is the Socratic method of question and cross-question (dialectic), its tests for refuting a claim to know.

Note: the rest of this section was preliminary and it is a bit muddled. The relation between self-control self-watchfulness isn't made as clear as it ought to be.

Dostoyevsky: "even suffering requires enlightenment", if the sufferer is to benefit from it. Love is active, love is self-sacrifice, but not every self-sacrifice is wise: you must understand what you are doing and the consequences it will have for the condition of your own soul (In this context, the teaching must be remembered: Love thy neighbor as thyself, not more than thyself). For example, Wittgenstein failed as a schoolteacher to poor village children, and as his letters to Russell show, what he tried to do was harmful to him, making him a worse rather than a better human being, or he would not have written in the compassionless way that he did about the villagers.

Again. Ethics is practical. Therefore to take into account, when trying to control yourself, the consequences that not controlling yourself will have -- not on others -- but on yourself can be useful to becoming a good human being. For example, if I recall my own shame at my behavior when I become angry and impatient, losing my temper; because such an act of losing my self-control unsettles the entire day: I never recover my peace of mind afterwards: because I am fully aware that I have done something shameful.

Where is happiness (i.e. the good for man) found?

This is what I think, that self-control is happiness for man, loss of self-control is unhappiness. And to this peace of mind testifies. So it is best not to think about my unrepentant brother; if he wrongs me -- "he must see to that" (Epictetus). I must see to myself, to the care of my own soul. The notion that virtue is "will power" rather than knowledge is unserviceable. Set it aside. And the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of is not dawning even as we speak (Luke 17.20-21): my life is likely to be long, and I am not ever going to become perfect in "will power", and so it is best to set that notion aside and think only of the rational care of my soul. And that may simply mean taking no notice of my brother's wrong-doing and the injustice done to me -- not for his sake, for he does not benefit from it (although I must forgive him his ignorance, just as I must ask forgiveness of others for my own ignorance) -- but for my own sake, for the sake of my self-control and my consequent self-respect. (Self-respect is not only vanity, although it is at times that too.)

On the other hand, it is not there

"... self-control is happiness for man." Not without wisdom -- i.e. knowledge of the good -- it isn't. This is why Socrates says that the good for man (or happiness) is rational (the way of life of reason) moral virtue. One must know what the good is for man, and then self-control will be superfluous, for no one knowingly does evil (but only if mistaken about the good). That is the philosophical meaning of 'happiness', namely life in accord with the specific excellence that is proper to man. And it may contrast with --

Happiness as a state of mind

The Lord called me into existence out of nothingness, and keeps me in existence. I came into this world with nothing, and I will leave this world with nothing. The Lord has given, and the Lord will take back (Job 1.21). If we are unable to say, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away" about every part of our strange existence, I think many things will be unbearable.

The trouble with happiness as a state of mind: it is as variable as the clouds, as e.g. between gratitude for all one has been given and lament for all one has not. And while peace of mind can be a blessing (Philippians 4.7), where it is complacency towards wrong-doing it is a curse.

Epictetus' motto

No man is free who is not master of himself. (Epictetus, Fragment, tr. Crossley)

"... if a man will have only these two words at heart, and heed them carefully by ruling and watching over himself, he will for the most part fall into no sin [wrong-doing] ..." He meant the words ... "Bear and Forbear" (Epictetus quoted by Aulus Gellius, tr. Crossley)

The ignorant man ... never looks to himself for benefit or harm, but to the world outside himself. (Epictetus, Manual 48, tr. Matheson)


Who can teach ethics?

Because ethics is practical, we learn from many sources, we take wisdom [what works] wherever we find it, pushing nothing away from us, philosophy, religion, Socrates, Jesus, the Stoics ... wherever what is serviceable is to be found. For our aim is not to become "learned in goodness" merely (even if virtue were not knowledge and that were possible), but to become good men.

Jesus according to Albert Schweitzer

[By its study of the life of Jesus, historical theology hoped to free him from centuries of ecclesiastical doctrine and bring him "as a Teacher and Savior" straight into our own time, but] it could not keep Him in our time, but had to let Him go.... He does not stay; He passes by our time and returns to His own. (p. 399) [Jesus] was not a teacher, not a casuist; He was an imperious ruler. [The historically conditioned titles which men have given him] have become for us [only] historical parables. We can find no designation which expresses what He is for us. (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, tr. Montgomery (1910), p. 403)

[Jesus] has no answer for the question, "Tell us Thy name in our speech and for our day!" (ibid. p. 312)

Jesus did not make fine moral distinctions, but instead drew a general picture. Which is what Schweitzer also did with the idea "reverence for life".

And now we are confronted by the fact that he shared the outlook of an age long past, which is to us mistaken and unacceptable.

Both Johannes Weiss and I have suffered severely through the compulsion which truth laid upon us to put forward something which was bound to offend Christian faith.

To me, however, Jesus remains what he was. Not for a single moment have I had to struggle for my conviction that in him is the supreme spiritual and religious authority, though his expectation of the speedy advent of a supernatural Kingdom of God was not fulfilled, and we cannot make it our own. ("The Conception of the Kingdom of God in the Transformation of Eschatology, an Epilogue by Albert Schweitzer" (tr. J.R. Coates) in E.N. Mozley's The Theology of Albert Schweitzer for Christian Inquirers (1950), p. 104)

Once freed from history (One possible view of this)

But -- in my view -- what Schweitzer calls here an "offense to Christian faith" is only offensive to dogma, to an ancient and Medieval world-picture and to the theology of Catholic and conservative Reformed Christianity, a world-picture which no longer belongs to us. It is not offensive to the good for man, for by returning Jesus to the historical age to which he belongs, Jesus is freed to emerge as a help toward the good for man (for Schweitzer, even as a companion in our work). Seen within his historical context, his life is mere history and dead to us, for we cannot share the apocalyptical (messianic) eschatology of the Jewish prophets, nor John the baptizer's announcement of the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.

But Jesus' description of the ethical kingdom of God, a kingdom founded not on nationalist power but on universal love -- (The kingdom of God does not belong to the members of a nation (race, tribe, clan) or religion, but instead to all those, and only to those, who do the will of God, which is to love God, who is everything good and true, with one's whole heart, and to love one's neighbor as one loves oneself, regardless of which nation or religion one's neighbor belongs to) -- for which Jesus lived and died, once freed from eschatology, can still be alive for men and women, as it was for Albert Schweitzer.

What a great grace it is to be able to seal with our own life our ideals. (Maximilian Kolbe)

That is, I would say, of course what the Lord did on the Cross.

Reverence for Reason

My own thought was that it was Catholic Christianity that took the teaching of Jesus away from me by turning Jesus into the Incarnation of God and replacing his kingdom of God with a Heaven to which souls go at death; it was Schweitzer's reverence for reason and his historical-critical theology that gave Jesus back to me. But not, of course, as an object of faith -- for who is the Jesus of the historical-critical theology, a theology that has no place for the supernatural, and, further, as to the historical Jesus, if one pericope may be myth, then so may all the others, and "the historical Jesus" become nothing more than hypotheses?

But so it must be if all things are to be subject to natural reason alone, even the very historicity of Jesus must be questioned. But Schweitzer quotes Paul's "For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth" and places those words in the context of the Reverence for Truth, which must be the foremost motto of all who search philosophy or religion.

And likewise, we do not share Socrates' world-picture with respect to Apollo's oracle at Delphi nor with respect to his daemon, nor do we live in the ancient city-state of Athens nor in any place like it. To us that is mere history. But Socrates' vision of life lived according to the thoroughgoing use of natural reason, once freed from history, can still show us the path to "Know thyself" and thereby to the good for man.

And likewise with Epictetus, for we cannot share his extreme Stoicism: for no one believes that merely by changing one's attitude toward every type of wrong that may be inflicted on one, e.g. rape and torture, one may overcome all fear and suffering, which was the view of most of the Greek Stoics. It is true that only to do wrong, not to be wronged is unethical, as Socrates says in Plato's Apology (41c-d), but it hardly follows from this that one's attitude can make one indifferent to extreme misfortune. Nor can we share Epictetus' pantheism, no more than we can share Jesus' theism (in a rational way, of course, because Jesus' world-picture belongs to faith) -- Their pictures of a benevolent Father are both incomprehensible to us, given our full experience of this world. But nonetheless Epictetus' words and vision of a life of bearing and forbearance based on devotion only to the good can still be a light in the darkness for us.

[His philosophy is] a work which is imbued with an unshakeable confidence -- worthy of Socrates himself -- in the power of that which has once been recognized as good ... (Oskar Kraus, Albert Schweitzer: his work and his philosophy [1925], tr. E.G. McCalman (1944), p. 30)

There is only one "the good" for man always and everywhere (for example, murder and exploitation, rape, and torture are always wrong-doing, whereas kindness, instruction and learning and conscientiousness in one's work are always good), because man is man always and everywhere, but there are many guides to it. Again, ethics is practical.

It is hard for me to set aside the bad habit of allowing myself to be angered by the ignorance and injustice that surrounds us -- because I think: But aren't I justified in my anger at it! If only I were half as outraged by my own ignorance and injustice, I might get somewhere.

Wittgenstein gave Drury a copy of Samuel Johnson's Prayers and Meditations, in which are found "Johnson's repeated appeal that he might have grace to amend his life" (Recollections p. 94-95). But Wittgenstein also said to Drury, "There is nothing I dislike so much as a sponger" (ibid. p. 124). Would he have approved if the "sponger" had prayed for the "grace to amend his life" but nonetheless had not changed his way of life, as Samuel Johnson had not changed his own way of life? (The distinction of cases seems to me arbitrary.) We don't have to do what is wrong because we are "weak". We must think things though, not to utter words into the air, asking for help as if we were helpless. Because we are not: man has been endowed by nature with the ability to keep watch (forethought) over his base instincts and bad habits -- and therefore the ability to control and amend them.

Amending one's life is a right that belongs to human nature. It is the right to change, and no right is more fundamental to man.

Can man become good through [the] Socratic [notion] "care of the soul"? At the very least he has a rational chance. But if becoming a good man is a question of "grace" or "strength of will" -- i.e. of the irrational -- then I wonder if there is even a chance (For myself, my experience of the world shows me that there is certainly not).

One can say, as Paul says (Rom. 7.15) "I am a mystery to myself. I do the very things I hate." But that gets us no further. Paul blames our very nature as human beings (the flesh is weak and temptation great) for this, but must it be so? Must the body have more power over the life of man than his mind? That the body is more powerful is neither a logical nor a real necessity.

... then I might get somewhere, in my self-control. Not only saying I know, but as it were also believing I know -- i.e. but also believing what I say. (That is a very strange form of expression. Here you really could say, "I say I know, but I don't believe it, because I believe that I know something better [something else].")

"How to care for the soul?" Of methods there are many. For example. On the wall of the room where I write, I have placed a copy of a painting by Jeans Jacques Henner titled "Alsatian Girl" (The copy is from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where I long ago once lived). Henner, like Albert Schweitzer, was from Alsace, as was one of my rather distant ancestors; I would guess that the girl is about ten years old -- and now I come to the point: Every time I look up from my desk I see that painting and am reminded that I must never say anything that I would be ashamed to have a child hear me say. For instance, muttering "blue" language when there's a lot of aggro caused by (my attitude toward) events in our life, a bad habit I formed in the time of ignorance of the good which I want to cure myself of (This is a way of caring for the soul). The painting is a help to self-watchfulness, saying: always behave as if a child were watching you, for if you do you will never do anything you need be ashamed of.

If I don't watch over myself, if I don't stay "recollected", then the bad habits formed in the time of ignorance take the helm -- and take the ship of state right over the falls at the edges of the earth. (There are all too many days when I wish that, like St. Peter, I could say 'I don't know the man' only three times; today e.g. there have been twelve so far.)

"... and we are both sinful men walking before the Lord, among the sins and dangers of this life. It is by our evil that God leads us into good; we sin ... and to any but the brutish man his sins are the beginning of wisdom. God has warned you by this crime ... and if there shall follow no repentance, no improvement, no return to Him ..." (R.L. Stevenson, The Merry Men (1882), Chapter 5)

"... are the beginning of wisdom" (Can we say: from one's sins one learns, or should learn, humility = self-knowledge?) -- Is that equivalent to saying that "Virtue is knowledge"? In this case it would be self-knowledge gained in "the school of life". But which part of "Know thyself" would this be -- to know thyself as man or to know thyself as an individual man, or both? But the only question for ethics is: does that view of man, that "There is evil in his very nature that causes man to sin, but yet by that very sin he learns to amend his life, i.e. to set his life on the path of what is good." Is that view serviceable -- i.e. can it help man to become an ethical human being?

Or is it rather only an example of descriptive ethics (here as much theological as scientific)? By reflecting on your wrong-doing (as in "your own actions have made you shudder with disgust"), you must see that you must repent of your wrong-doing, i.e. resolve to amend your life toward good-doing rather than evil-doing .... Yes, but does that tell one how, i.e. by what method, to bring about the end of "improvement, return to godliness"?

"... it was for the sake of sinners that I was handed over to death, that they might return to the truth and sin no more ..." (Mark, following 16.14, known to St. Jerome)

In the case of the Lord there is something akin to question and answer, as when he say, "Give ear and try to understand": Think about what I say to you and what is therefore the good for mankind. In Socrates' life there are examples, patterns to follow.

... set before your mind the thought, "What would Socrates ... have done?" and you will not fail ... (Epictetus, Manual 33, tr. Matheson)


The forgiveness of ignorance

Forgive me my ignorance just as I forgive others their ignorance.

Now that is a prayer a philosopher might pray, if philosophers pray philosophically. And, of course, by 'just as' we certainly do not mean 'only to the extent that', for we ask to be judged with greater wisdom than we ourselves manage towards others. [Ignorance and responsibility for wrong-doing.]

It should be noted that the usual translation (the one ordinarily used when the Lord's Prayer is recited in worship) makes it sound milder than it really is. In the text of Matthew it runs not "as we forgive them that trespass against us" but "as we have forgiven" (Matthew 6.12). What is required [by God for the forgiveness of our sins] is [for us] to have forgiven [those who need our forgiveness], not just the sentiment of being willing to forgive. (The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity [1950-51] (1968), ed. Neuenschwander, tr. Garrard, p. 126)

Then it must be:

Forgive me my ignorance as I have forgiven others their ignorance.

But I ask, Does not our forgiveness of the ignorance of others amount to this: to not allowing ourselves to be upset, our self-control disturbed, by the ignorance of others? "Bear and forbear." But that is a philosophical attitude; it is not kindness, for it is done only for the good of our own peace of mind, for the self-respect that is found in self-control. (Needless to say, if each of us were held to account for his ignorance -- and the harm that we have done because of it, things would go very badly indeed for all of us.)

Is it logically possible to forgive unintentional wrong-doing? Well, what do we want to do with the ill-defined word 'forgive'? If someone does not think that what they has done to you is wrong, then what would you forgive? Their ignorance? But then isn't what they have done best regarded as a natural phenomenon like a damaging thunder storm, not as an offense to be forgiven, but nonetheless something to be wary of.

This story is told about Socrates, that when a man did not respond to his greeting, someone asked if Socrates was not offended by this rudeness. Socrates answered, "If I met a man in poorer health than my own, should I be offended." (Xenophon, Memories of Socrates iii, 13, 1)

When you are going to meet any one ... set before your mind the thought, "What would Socrates or Zeno [the Stoic] have done?" and you will not fail to make proper use of the occasion. (Epictetus, Manual 33, tr. Matheson)

Each man has limitations to which he is blind. If only we were able to see ourselves with the same critical eye with which we think we see the limitations of others (the "speck in our neighbor's eye"), then we might succeed in getting somewhere (cf. Matthew 7.1-5) in amending our own life.

Assessing one's motives -- by asking What is the most noble reason for doing this? What is the most ignoble reason for doing this? It needn't be one way or the other, but it is an interesting way of looking at motives. Another question is, Am I doing this for someone else's sake or for my own (mourning e.g.)

The Silent Saints

If Christian is as Christian does, that is, if we use the word 'Christian' as an adjective, then there are many, many saints whose names we will never know, whose pictures we will never see in the newspaper, to whom regardless of their religion or nationality, the kingdom of God belongs, because as the Lord taught, the kingdom of God belongs to all those who do God's will to love what is good and true and to love one's neighbor as oneself in a neighborhood without boundaries.

"... God has His secret saints; and as we can never read what goes on in the hearts of those we meet, it is our duty to treat them as holier than ourselves, whose faults we know." (Marshall, A Thread of Scarlet (1959), or, Satan and Cardinal Campbell, xxv, 2)

Well, we imagine we know our own faults, but I doubt I know the half of it. "It seems that some men have nothing to offer God except their hatred of their fellow men" (I have forgotten who said this). Why would this be? -- I think because it is so difficult to see oneself, to as it were physically stand outside oneself to look at oneself. Here is a sound rule: for every criticism you make of someone else, make two of yourself. That may quench the hatred in you that takes the form of judging-against rather than forgiving others -- because it is not as easy to find things to be critical of in oneself as it is to find them in others. Because in the words of Plutarch: "... and, possibly, if it were a thing obvious and easy for every man to know himself, the precept had not passed for an oracle". Plato has Socrates say in Phaedrus 230a "I study myself to know what manner of being I am". What manner of man am I? Is that a question I myself can answer? don't all men think the worst of themselves -- and yet not the worst enough? (The words 'spoiled brat' come to mind.) "It seems some men have nothing to offer their fellow man but their self-righteousness." Indeed, we are living in The Age of the Self-righteous Non-entity, tearing down, tearing down whatever is incomprehensible to himself.

"Come back!" the Caterpillar called after her. "I've something important to say! .... Keep your temper." Remember: it's not only you who suffer from the presumption of others -- others also suffer from your presumption. If you could see yourself as in a mirror, for if you wish to criticise something the best place to have it is before your eyes, not in back of them.

For man to do justice, he would need to see through the eyes of God, which of course he cannot do. Why? Because man knows only relative points of reference, not God's absolute point. (Well, that is the analogy, but it is a religious picture, not an hypothesis.)

It's not given to man to judge other men. Man can judge deeds, ideologies (if he takes care to know what they are), but that is all that is given to him, for he is not God (cf. CV p. 86: "How God judges a man is something we cannot imagine at all"). That picture is, I think, the depth of Jesus' commandment not to judge. ("No one has the right to judge someone else, because no one knows what anyone else suffers or has to do about it. No one but God alone." To judge someone is to suffer from the delusion that one is oneself God; it is profoundly to not know oneself, not to know one's own and every other human being's limits.)

The Bible was made for man, not man for the Bible. And this is related to "Go and learn the meaning of, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repent" (Matthew 9.13).

Note.--I came, not you came. And this I think is the meaning to "go and learn" -- (because Jesus' words always require thinking to be understood) -- that as to us, our judgments must be guided by the words of Augustine: "Whatever is not done as an act of love is not done as it should be done." Those are not words of judgment, but of mercy.


But what does that mean - 'to forgive'?

It's hard to know what 'forgiveness' would mean. Words and feelings seem unsound criteria.

According to Schweitzer's account, only one thing is required for our wrong-doing to be forgiven, which has been told us by John the Baptizer and Jesus: We must forgive those who have wronged us. But what exactly is required? Just try to say what is meant by 'forgiveness'.

And so like Plato in the Euthyphro I am looking for a universal standard that will tell me what I must do in any particular case. In some cases, e.g. in the forgiveness of debt, if someone owes you a sum of money, it seems easy to say what the forgiveness of a debt would be. In other cases you would not return harm for harm-done. Not seeking revenge. Remaining silent. Bear and forbear. But what if there is nothing whatever that you can do? Well, at the very least, however, can't you refuse to follow a line of thought, not dwelling on the wrong and condemning the wrong-doer? We might mean many things by 'forgiveness', answerable to the context of our question.

Is there a universal standard, an essence of forgiveness? For the logic of language question, sometimes it is not a question of clear versus unclear, but simply of undefined language.

One way to forgive -- i.e. one meaning we might give the word 'forgive' -- might be to amend one's own life by becoming more merciful, less concerned with "what is fair". I am looking for some other criterion of 'forgiveness', something other than words (which are too easily mouth honor, shallow breath) and sentiment (which waxes and wanes, all too variable).

Forgiveness if wrong-doing is ignorance. How does one forgive ignorance, for if we take a man's ignorance into account, then are we forgiving him or simply not holding him accountable for his wrong-doing? What would we mean by 'forgive ignorance'?

What must be done to 'forgive'? Must we invite the one who has wronged us to visit us at home? Must we be willing to hold discourse with him? When the pope visited his would-have-been murderer in prison he said after the visit that he had forgiven that man. But he did he call for that man's immediate release from prison. Do I doubt the sincerity of the pope? No, I don't doubt that. But I am looking for some other criterion of 'forgiveness', something other than words or sentiments.

It's hard to know what forgiving someone who has cruelly wronged us would be. What must we do to forgive such a one, but yet we dare to ask God to forgive us for our own wrong-doing.

If someone betrays our trust, what does it mean to say that we have forgiven that person -- that we are willing to trust them again, that we no longer distrust them? That does not seem to be the answer to that question.

What do we expect from someone we have wronged -- what are we calling 'being forgiven'? If we ask for others' forgiveness, need their forgiveness take the form of a reciprocal act?

"Others' sins you see, but not your own, for them you place behind your back." (Tolstoy, Quench the Spark, tr. unnamed)

And that is important, I think, because would it not be far easier to forgive others their wrong-doing if we were as pained by our own wrong-doing as we are by theirs?

When Jesus speaks of our God in his dying moments, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing," [Luke 23.34] I wonder which one comes first -- requesting forgiveness [or] making excuses for his tormentors. (Jenco, Bound to Forgive (1995), Chapter 4, p. 49)

Maybe there are not two acts here, one coming before or after the other, but only one: to forgive is to "make excuses".


Socratic philosophy contrasted with Christianity: wrong-doing is ignorance contrasted with the forgiveness of sins

And so I ask how it can be that the only requirement to enter the kingdom of God or to belong to the kingdom of God is to ask forgiveness and to have forgiven others their wrong-doing, and I asked how is it possible to forgive, and I thought it was very strange that only this is required, because what has Jesus' gospel of love got to do with that? Well, maybe because it is only love that can forgive sins. But how is one to love those who have wronged one or indeed may still be wronging one? How can one love those one is the victim of, love those who kick you even as they are kicking you -- how is this possible? And yet what else can forgive except love? Nothing.

And that is very different from dismissing something as ignorance by saying that someone doesn't know any better, because that is treating that person as if he were simply a natural phenomena like the elements of weather rather than as a human being -- i.e. as a moral agent ("ethical personality") -- and that is not forgiveness, because citing ignorance is denying that a human being is a moral agent, knowing both good and evil and choosing between them -- but instead is only wise or ignorant, because no one chooses wrong-doing unless he believes it to be right-doing: no one intentionally does harm to his soul. (And, yes, those are both ways of looking at our life. And both have consequences for the way man lives his life, e.g. sin may be punished, but it is folly to punish ignorance as if it were a moral fault rather than to replace it with wisdom. And the world is a very different place if a community selects one viewpoint rather than the other.)

Which view is more serviceable, I couldn't always say, but there is a great divide between Socratic philosophy and Christian religion here.

"... but if vice is ignorance, then who shall be held accountable for his wrong-doing?" Then don't ask about the source or cause of wrong-doing, but simply forgive the wrong that has been done you just as you ask to be forgiven for your own wrong-doing (despite that if vice is ignorance, then how can you yourself be held accountable for your wrong-doing? And yet you do hold yourself accountable and you do hold others accountable).

In Christianity there is a contrast between the spirit of this world and the Spirit of the Lord. The Socratic philosophy's contrast between knowledge of the good (moral virtue) and ignorance of the good (moral vice) is not equivalent to this, because the difference between the kingdom of God and "this world and all it loves" is eminently clear to us, whereas what the good is for man, the exact limits of moral virtue and vice, is often only too unclear.


"Philosophy cannot improve your life"

Note: words that follow "Query" are search queries that were misdirected to pages of this site, and to which I am responding here.

A related query is "Is studying philosophy important to human life?", which arises when philosophy's Socratic origins are forgotten.

Query: care for the soul is all that matters. Socrates.

What does the query mean by the word 'soul'? If it means the rationally ethical aspect of a human being, the 'Socratic mind', then Yes, Socrates said that. (But, according to the nineteenth century scholar Eduard Zeller, if it means the picture of the soul as a thing immortal as Orphism and Plato mean, then No, because the latter is foreign to Socrates' way of thinking.)

Query: the Apology, Socrates, health of the body.

That the health of the body is secondary to the health of the soul (Apology 30a-b) is the foundation of all Socrates' ethical thought. But although secondary, the body cannot be neglected either (Memorabilia i, 2, 4), even if for no other reason than that control of its passions is an essential part of caring for the soul.

Socratic ethics and death

... if the soul is really immortal, what care should be taken of her, not only in respect of the portion of time which is called life, but of eternity! And the danger of neglecting her from that point of view does indeed appear to be awful. (Phaedo 107c, tr. Jowett)

That is Plato's view, but for Socratic ethics ("no small matter, but how to live"), whether there is an afterlife or not -- which is something Socrates doesn't think he knows (Apology 40c-41c) -- does not affect ethics: the good for man is to live in accord with the specific excellence that is proper to man, and if man lives that way, then he lives the life of the good man -- i.e. of one who himself does no wrong even in return if he is wronged by others -- and therefore who has nothing to fear "either in life or after death" (ibid. 41c-d). (In the Crito, Plato argues that Socrates' death sentence does not refute the wisdom of Socrates' life.)

Query: "if the soul is immortal we must care for it not only in respect this time which we call life but ..."

"... And the danger of neglecting her from that point of view does indeed appear to be awful." But what is more awful is the materialist view that care of the soul is not of much importance, because "this time which we call life" is the only time [existence] our soul will ever have. And that is the danger of Plato's view, that the materialist will draw that conclusion from it. In contrast, Socrates' ethics is independent of whether there is an afterlife or not; care of the soul is the only life proper to man, who is a being endowed with reason and, knowing good and evil, is endowed with the ability to seek and find what is the good for him.

Query: care of the soul. Plato.

Is the Platonic the same as Socratic care of the soul? What one must do is the same -- but the end towards which one does it is not. Maybe, and no: No, because to Socrates' way of life it makes no difference whether death is simply a sleep without dreams or the beginning of an afterlife. Socrates did not live in order to die, as Plato says the philosopher does live (Phaedo 67e-68a).

Query: philosophers who don't agree that there is a soul.

But in Socratic language, 'soul' = 'mind', and the question is thus what happens to the soul at death, not whether man has a soul (immortal or otherwise).

Query: the improvement of the soul, the care for wisdom or truth, is the highest good.

But these acts are the same according to both Socrates and Plato: care for wisdom is care for (i.e. improvement of) the soul, and contrariwise, neglect of wisdom is harmful to the soul.

The garden, and the soul

Query: Socrates tend your soul.

Voltaire: tend (i.e. work in) your garden. Socrates: attend to your soul before and above all else.

Query: Voltaire: "Let us take care of the garden" (Candide) versus Socrates: "Let us take care of our soul"?

What is the relationship? The philosopher in Plato's Republic 496a-d desires, as it were, to "tend the garden" of the whole Greek city-state, but he concludes that, because he finds himself in the midst of men intent only on viciousness, he must either perish at their hands or withdraw into himself like a traveler sheltering from a storm, and there try to preserve himself as an ethical human being; that seems to him all he can do to "take care of his soul". But most men can tend a small garden, or, in the words of Albert Schweitzer: one can create about oneself a small village of the kingdom of God, however small -- and one's possibilities may be very small indeed -- that village may be. And creating that village ("taking care of one's garden") is "taking care of one's soul".

These are two parts of what we mean by 'the good man' (in contrast to 'the bad [evil] man'): the personal and the social [politics] -- and these two parts are the inseparable parts of ethics: the garden and the soul.

Query: Socrates wants people to think about good and evil. Virtue is knowledge of good and bad.

Knowledge both "in the abstract" and of particular good or evil actions? But what is knowledge of the good in the abstract -- is it anything other than a definition of the word 'good' (i.e. a description of the use of that word in ethics)? but how would we define 'good' and 'evil' except by pointing to examples and their counter-examples?

Questions such as this are what Socrates "wants people to think about". (The reason Plato seeks a "definition of good in the abstract" -- i.e. an absolute or essential definition -- is that he seeks a universal standard of judgment in ethics, so that he always knows "how to go on" (PI § 123), i.e. what to do, in any particular case. But he does not find one.)

Query: Plato's Apology, death, relation to care for soul.
Query: death and care of the soul. Socrates.

Plato writes that he himself is convinced "by these stories" (Gorgias 526d-e) -- i.e. by the myths he recounts -- that the soul comes to judgment after death, but he says that even if someone is unconvinced by them, the way of life he describes (which is the way of life of Socrates) is the way we should live our life -- although it "is plainly of benefit also in the other world" (ibid. 527a-b). For Socrates, the good for man in this life is the same regardless of whether there is or is not an afterlife in that afterlife a last judgment -- and about an afterlife, according to Socrates man does not know if there is or is not one, nor if there is one what its nature is (Apology 40c-41c), and any man who thinks he knows thinks that he knows what he does not know. And therefore despite Plato's statement that this way of life is "plainly of benefit" in the afterlife, Socrates would not claim to know whether it is or is not; and the form of expression which Plato uses, namely, "... know this of a truth -- that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death" (ibid. 41c-d, tr. Jowett), is either of eccentric meaning ("Given that the only evil that can happen to a man is for the man himself to do evil, then no evil can happen to a good man") or inconsistent with the previously stated Socratic cardinal principal of not thinking one knows what one does not know (e.g. ibid. 22d-e and 29a).

That is, in any case, one way of responding to these queries, but not the only way; it depends on a particular way of looking at Socrates, not the only possible way.

Query: how is philosophy a way of the soul in the Apology?

If by 'soul' we mean man in his ethical aspect -- [There are many ways to be interested in a phenomenon (PI § 108), e.g. in the phenomenon of man [man's soul: thoughts, emotions, dreams], many viewpoints from which to look at it] -- then the way of life of a philosopher [i.e. Socrates' way of life], being the ethical life for man par excellence, is the wisest path for the soul to take.

Query: shift in your thinking about ethics.

That is what I think we must do: shift away from the notions of "weakness of the will" and the "remedy of the helpless" -- i.e. the help [grace or favor] of gods -- towards virtue is knowledge gained by reasoning [i.e. self-control with its source in knowledge of the good]; this shift is not in our metaphysics but only in our way of looking at our life. (Which way is most useful to someone who wants to become a fully ethical human being -- i.e. to live the life that is the good both for man and for each individual given his individual limits?)

Whether that change is helpfully compared to a Gestalt shift, I don't know. But given how elemental the change is to one's whole way of thinking about ethics when one shifts from Kantian to Socratic ethics, it is maybe as apt to compare that shift to a Gestalt shift as it is to compare the shift from the old way of thinking about language in philosophy to (what I have called) "Wittgenstein's logic of language" to a Gestalt shift.

Query: what is the difference between virtue and knowledge?
Query: virtue is knowledge. Socrates.

These (sc. 'virtue' and 'knowledge') are different concepts, and, as most of us were schooled to think, not inter-connected -- and indeed not connected at all, virtue being a question of "conscience" or "willing", full stop, knowledge having nothing to do with it. The old view, the view of Socrates, is quite foreign to the spirit of the age (for centuries now), and quite forgotten. [Normally by the word 'virtuousness' we mean deeds rather than knowledge, but that is a nominal definition (types of definition).]

... we are all miserable sinners, put here for a moment, knowing the good, choosing the evil, standing naked and ashamed in the eye of God. (R.L. Stevenson, Prince Otto iii, 2)

Comment: although it is true that each of us has much wrong-doing to ask forgiveness for, I do not believe the character in that novella's account of our life to be useful ("knowing good, choosing the evil"). Because although that is indeed a possible way to look at our wrong-doing, it is not serviceable to ethics to look at our wrong-doing that way -- i.e. it does not in any way show us how we may amend our lives to stop doing what is evil -- whereas the aim of curing ourselves of ignorance does. Looked at from the virtue is knowledge point of view, no one willingly chooses to do evil unless he believes that he is actually doing good (and he believes this because his ignorance, which has its source in misology (i.e. lack of confidence in reason), allows him to think there is a justification where, if he reasoned things out, he would see/know that there is none).

Query: Wittgenstein, philosophy cannot improve your life.

When Wittgenstein stood under the clouds [Aristophanes, The Clouds circa lines 330-357] they formed themselves into a donkey (to indicate the nature of the man standing below them), sometimes. I think we are, as I wrote before, "prisoners of our own thought-worlds", each of us trapped in his own thought-world such that normally we cannot break out to think a new thought, and in this particular instance Wittgenstein -- who was indeed in logic of language able to break out, i.e. to think new thoughts (revise concepts) -- was no better off than anyone else, the prisoner of a preconception ("but if I am convinced" [PI § 52]). Contra Wittgenstein's world-view, which elevates the irrational above the rational, Socratic philosophy is the way of life of thoroughgoing reason applied to man's life; it is Socrates' legacy to those who will receive it; and unlike whinging about the presumed-irrationality-of-ethics or the grace of God, it does have the power to change men's lives. It can show man how to amend his life by thinking questions in ethics through to the very end.

Query: the rational soul guides the human being to the good and ethical.

To the extent that the soul is rational. Because it is rational to seek to know the good; and indeed man has no other tool but reason with which to do this. (Sometimes, as the query suggests, the practical good -- i.e. good for something, as a shoe may or may not be for protecting the feet -- is contrasted with the ethical good -- i.e. moral virtue.) But the human soul is not fully rational but is instead subject to habits and instincts (both of which impulses are often bad [evil]), and that is why ignorance (i.e. absence of knowledge of the good) is not the only obstacle to virtue; although knowledge is essential to virtue, self-control is also needed.


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