Wisdom or Utility: Search for Motives in Plato's Works
Truth, for many people, is simple – it is what conforms with fact or reality. Philosophy is concerned with what is true in the world, using many methods to search for the truth. Motivation for the search for truth can be pared down to wisdom and utility. Wisdom is the main goal of philosophy, as philosophy is named after wisdom, with the Greek words philo and sophia meaning love of wisdom. Utility came with wisdom, as the wisdom acquired by the philosophers was intended to be used for physical science, politics, or education. Descartes and Socrates search for truth in similar ways, though they have different motives for their search. Both philosophers use reason to determine what cannot be true in order to find what is true, though they have different methods. Socrates believes that someone has to acknowledge their own ignorance before they are considered wise. To be able to be on a continuous quest for absolute knowledge and wisdom, one has to claim ignorance. Descartes also seeks absolute knowledge, but believes that to seek truth, one has to doubt everything.
Descartes’ motive for the search for truth is utility, as he is a scientist and mathematician. In his treatise, Discourse on Method, Descartes develops an a priori method to discover infallible knowledge. Descartes made a series of observations about how logic used in philosophy is too abstract and that it has no utility, writing “I thought it necessary to seek some other method that comprehended the advantages of these three while being exempt from their defects.” 1 The a priori method uses a set of rules that resemble mathematical proofs to find truth that is beyond doubt. The first rule is to not accept anything as true unless it is evident2; demonstrated by the statement that the temperature outside is sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit according to the thermometer. The second rule is to divide any problem into a greater number of parts to make the analysis simpler3; which can be shown by breaking an essay down into an introduction, supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. The third rule is to start with the simplest of tasks and progress up to larger and more complex tasks4; which can be demonstrated by learning to walk as a baby. When someone is young, they are immobile, only able to move their arms, legs and head; then they can roll over and roll back; then they can crawl; then stand, holding on to something; then walk a step or two, and then they can walk without restrictions. The fourth and last rule is to constantly review progress to ensure that nothing has been left out5; which can be compared to reviewing a paper before it is due. Descartes’ rules are also called his method of doubt, because they are designed to prove what is true beyond doubt.
Descartes developed his method of doubt so that he could use his findings in the pursuit of truth in science. He discussed how the logic and algebra used before him is too conceptual, and not useful enough for him, writing “…they extend only to matters that are very abstract and seem to be of no utility.” 6 Descartes’ goal in pursuing truth is to be able to use it in his studies, or for other people to use it in their studies. Any claim that is not infallible to Descartes’ method of doubt is untrue, and therefore of no use to Descartes.
Socrates values wisdom in the search for truth, but he intends to use what he learns to live justly as a type of moral utility. He views virtue as fundamental, and considers philosophy as an examination of one’s virtue. The main themes of many of Plato’s works about Socrates have similar themes of how he uses wisdom to connect to the reality and the rest of the world.
The Euthyphro is set before Socrates’ trial for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens, and outlines a typical philosophical discussion conducted with Socrates. Euthyphro, a priest, and Socrates have a philosophical debate about piety, in which they attempt to define piety. The dialogue is intended to demonstrate the method that Socrates employs in his search for truth and wisdom. Socrates reacts to Euthyphro’s assertion of the definition of impiety, and asks him to explain the meaning of impiety. Through continually questioning Euthyphro’s answers and assertions, Socrates and Euthyphro introduce several definitions of piety that eventually contradict. Euthyphro didn’t understand what he was talking about when he was having the conversation with Socrates. In order to avoid talking more with Socrates, he said that “[he] was in a hurry to go somewhere, and it [was] time for [him] to go away.” 7 Euthyphro and Socrates’ conversation gives an example of the nature of philosophical discussions, especially the ones Socrates participates in. The reluctance of Euthyphro to continue the discussion shows the general attitude towards philosophy during that time. Philosophers liked philosophy, but that was about it.
The theme of using philosophical reason to gain knowledge continues in the Allegory of the Cave, which discusses connecting to reality through the use of philosophical reasoning. The cave represents the people who believe that knowledge comes solely from empirical evidence, as they believe only what they see. People who believe that empirical evidence guarantees knowledge are represented by the shadows, because they see only shadows of truth. The guessing game played by the prisoners shows how someone can never be a master of a subject when they only have knowledge in the empirical realm. An escaped prisoner represents the philosopher, as he seeks knowledge outside of the cave of empirical evidence. The prisoners reaction to the returned prisoner demonstrates how many people are scared of philosophical truths and do not trust philosophers because of that fear. Plato’s goal in writing the Allegory of the Cave was that knowledge gained through empirical evidence is only opinion, and real knowledge, wisdom, is gained through philosophical reasoning.
The Apology of Socrates was written by Plato, Socrates’ student, and is an account of the defense speech Socrates makes at the trial in which he is accused of not believing in the Athenian gods, inventing new deities or daemonia, and corrupting the youth of Athens with his ideals. Socrates discusses his accusations, but advocates for himself and his philosophical style more than defending himself from the allegations. He said that he believes that his role as a philosopher is to help people gain his kind of wisdom, by questioning people regarding their own knowledge, and showing them that wisdom extends past knowledge to the acceptance of ignorance. Socrates associates wisdom with good and ignorance with evil, and bolster’s his argument with the claim that no one knowingly does evil. His key claim is that if everyone is wise in their own way, they cannot do evil, as evil deeds are the result of ignorance. According to Socrates’ defense speech, leading a philosophical life is the most direct way of overcoming evil, so it is an important moral duty. The Apology demonstrates Socrates’ intention to use his wisdom for moral utility.
Socrates was considered to be more of a controversial thinker than Descartes, which is why he got in trouble for his views. His trial and conviction was less about corrupting the youth of Athens and more about making the wrong people angry by calling them ignorant. Socrates’ brand of philosophy was more esoteric than Descartes, and only other philosophers understood his methods. People who didn’t understand his methods got angry or frustrated like Euthyphro or Meletus in the Apology of Socrates. Unless one was a philosophical thinker, they would not. Descartes tried to make his philosophy more available and easier to understand so his fellow analytical thinkers could use it in their work, continuing with the theme of utility. Socrates and Descartes had completely different motives for their search, but similar methods. Descartes uses science and mathematical proofs in his method of doubt, and Socrates uses complete and profound arguments. Both philosophers have a way of eliminating doubt and producing infallible truth, but they just go about it in a different manner.
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