What is a Neo-Socratic?

This blog is called Neo-Socratic. Why? What’s in the name? To answer this, I will start with some background on the term “Socratic.”

Ancient Greece is generally considered to be the birth place of Western philosophy. The Greek root φιλοσοφία (philosophia) of the English term “philosophy” literally means “love of wisdom.”

As far as I know, the term philosophia was coined by Socrates to refer to an approach to intellectual inquiry and rhetoric that Socrates first demonstrated to the people of Athens. Socrates, in my opinion, has the best claim of anybody to being the father of Western philosophy. Socrates was the progenitor of the Socratic line of philosophers, including most importantly Socrates, Socrates’ student Plato, and Plato’s student Aristotle. As far as I understand, the Socratic line of philosophers were the first, seminal practitioners of the discipline of philosophy as the Western scholarly world knows it today. No other school of philosophers have been more influential in the development of Western scholarly thought.

We know the thought of Socrates mainly through the writings of Plato and Xenophon, which contain retellings of many philosophical debates which Socrates allegedly participated in. It is widely suspected that Plato made up some of the debates he wrote about, using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own views. There is less suspicion that Xenophon did this, because Plato was a philosopher, whereas Xenophon was a historian. Both writers were friends of Socrates, and the view of Socrates which both writers present is fairly rosy.

Socrates’ approach to philosophy was a first draft which subsequent approaches have improved upon in numerous ways. However, I regard Socrates’ philosophy as continuing to be a fresh and valuable wellspring which offers bold challenges even to modern thought. By reading Socrates I am taken to a place of ignorance where I feel called to re-examine fundamental assumptions.

I would describe Socrates’ project as primarily destructive in nature. Socrates developed the Socratic method of using questions to uncover incoherencies in people’s beliefs and deficiencies in people’s ability to articulate their own assumptions. This slash and burn rhetorical technique has the effect of creating room for new intellectual growth.

Socrates was largely not a systematic theorizer. We can contrast Socrates with Aristotle, who wrote extensive and complex theoretical dissertations which have provided foundations for much subsequent Western thought. Aristotle carried out a positive project of attempting to discover and articulate many true propositions through the method of reason or philosophy, following the way initially paved by Socrates.

Socrates did, however, do some “positive” work of arguing in favor of certain perspectives, as well as his “negative” work of destroying misconceptions.

Socrates’ biggest area of philosophical concern seems to have been the area of morals or ethics. Socrates was very concerned with the question of how one should live. Many of the debates he engages in are ethical debates wherein he attempts to persuade his colleagues that some behavior they regard as ethical is unethical, or that some behavior they regard as non-advantageous is advantageous.

I think we can most easily get a sense of Socrates’ moral views by examining what has been reported to us about his life and his behavior.

Socrates lived a life of poverty. His primary activity was philosophy, and he did not charge money for his philosophical engagements with people. As such he was largely without income. He lived primarily off of charity.

Socrates claimed to be very happy with his life. He derived fulfillment and the gratitude and admiration of others from his philosophical activity. He lived in a relative state of physical deprivation, frequently being exposed to the elements and living off of simple food in modest quantities. According to him, being used to this way of living, it did not bother him and he enjoyed a subjective sense of comfort in life.

Socrates did not charge for his philosophical activity, he explains, because if he did then he would not get to choose who to do philosophy with, and he would need to do philosophy with wealthy people who might not be his favorite people.

Emulating these details of how Socrates lived is not part of my conception of what it is to be a neo-Socratic. Let me explain my conception of what it is to be a neo-Socratic.

Neo-Socratic. A philosopher, a seeker of the truth, who does not obediently follow tradition or popular opinion, but who aims to follow only reason and intuition. Who seeks to reveal falsehood and incoherence for what it is. Who seeks accurate moral discernment, between right and wrong, good and bad, advantageous and disadvantageous, etc. Who seeks to actually live a moral life and to be a moral example to others.

With this conception I aim to describe, as well as I can in a few sentence fragments and with my limited wisdom, what is most centrally good and valuable about the Socratic philosophical spirit.

Many philosophers, of course, meet this definition without calling themselves neo-Socratic. The term “neo-Socratic” is not a widely used term. I’m not aware of any philosophers besides me who are alive today and call themselves neo-Socratics. Regardless, I believe that the Socratic spirit is alive and quite well today in many, many philosophers. Perhaps, even, this is more so today than it has ever been in the past.