The Concept of Virtue

For many, the concept of virtue has centered on the heroic code—a soldier going into battle to save the lives of innocent townspeople would be given the purple heart for his valiant actions and virtuous deeds.  For Socrates, the concept of virtue has nothing to do with the ideology of honor and personal courage and instead features a search for wisdom, aside from such human emotions as fear, passion, and pain.  It is because of this that I will argue that Socrates’ concept of virtue is not infallible based upon the very nature of misaligned example that he lectures.

To begin with, Plato’s Phaedo, specifically lines 68-69, begins with Socrates relegating the concept of virtue to a man who studies philosophy.  These men “are in training for dying, and they fear death least of all men” (line 68).  They have yearned for the attainment of wisdom the entirety of their lives and have a succinct understanding of what it would mean to be separated from their body.  More importantly, these men share something in common with the grieving: they have a firm conviction that they will find wisdom and understanding in the underworld, and would go there, without regret and without compromise because they cannot fear what they seek to understand.  This, for Socrates, is an impossibility based upon the very nature of attaining wisdom.

With this being the case, any man “you see resenting death was not a lover of wisdom but a lover of the body, and also a lover of wealth or of honors, either or both” (line 68b-c).  Even men who are brave on the exterior do not have the sensibilities of the philosopher and will face death with fear.  This determines that “it is fear and terror that make all men brave, except the philosophers.  However, it is illogical to be brave through fear and cowardice” (line 68d).  In many ways, there is no logical reason for any sort of exchange and indeed “the only valid currency for which all these things (pleasure, pain, fear) should be exchanged is wisdom” (line 69).  Philosophers do not possess bravery for they have nothing to fear.

For Socrates, no man faces death without fear, unless he studies philosophy, and therefore seeks to gain wisdom.  A man that studies philosophy is someone who seeks to free himself from the bodily limitation that hinders him from finding true knowledge. Self-sacrifice implies these ideas; the body is merely a physical hindrance to attain real knowledge. Sacrificing one’s body to attain knowledge is something that could be regarded as a virtuous act. A virtuous act done without wisdom is acting without thinking and is therefore, a type of popular virtue as opposed to thinking before acting or acting with wisdom, which is a form of true virtue. This was the reasoning behind Socrates' acceptance of death. Socrates explained that “he is firmly convinced that he will not find pure knowledge anywhere except there” (line 68-b).

Based on the discussion between Simmias and Socrates, a philosopher is in search of true knowledge, which could only be achieved in the afterlife because the body limits the soul. With this in mind, it implies that true knowledge is not found in the material world, but it could be achieved once a person dies. The body seems to be a hindrance that prevents man/philosopher from being virtuous. It could be derived from the fact that the body has several needs and limitations. For example, the body needs to sleep, eat, and drink, which could distract the attainment of knowledge and therefore, prevent a person from attaining true virtue.

Looking closely at certain virtues would enlighten this perspective better. For instance, respect for others is a tradition. People learned to respect others through imitation of their elders’ actions or through indoctrination, cultural traditions or as imposed by someone with authority. Respect is acquired through habit; this is considered as a form of popular virtue, while disrespect is a form of vice. In popular virtue, the person acts virtuously without understanding. True virtue is acting with wisdom, although wisdom could not be perfected because of bodily limitation, through philosophy, Socrates implies that one could get closer to it.

Overall, in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates’ concept of virtue is hardly irrefutable.  At the beginning of his argument, he compares the philosopher to the grieving man, because both would view death in the same light: that only in their own deaths would they find the answers that they might be seeking.  While Socrates is right that those who grieve might look upon their own deaths as the answer to some lost solution, they are hardly similar to the philosopher who would understand the significance behind sacrificing one’s soul in a personal quest for wisdom and knowledge.  The grieving man could be unafraid of death for a number of other reasons without being virtuous. For that matter, how would facing death without fear or confusion be a sound explanation for anything?  Socrates’ arguments are hard to challenge but it is also hard to prove because it is concerned about virtues that could be achieved by the soul which are abstract concepts.


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