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To a philosophical form,2323 Wehrenpfennig: Verschiedenheit d. eth. Princ. b. d. Hellenen, 1856. the moral consciousness of the Greeks rose, with some distinctness, for the first, through Socrates; before him we find little more than a practical morality expressed in disconnected moral maxims, without further proof or development. Socrates, who speculated less on metaphysical questions than simply on the good, not only bases the moral upon philosophical knowledge, but finds in fact in this knowledge the essence and the highest degree of the moral. To know is the highest virtue, and out of this virtue follow directly and with inner necessity all the others; a contradiction between knowledge and volition is inconceivable; practically, morality manifests itself in the subordinating of the irrational desires to rational knowledge, and especially in obedience to civil laws. Unconscious of the might of evil in the natural man, Socrates conceives the moral essentially only as measured by a rational calculating of outward fitness to ends. His significancy for moral philosophy lies in his calling attention to rational knowledge as the source of the moral, and to the no longer arbitrarily subjectively-determined good as the end of rational effort.
The Greeks occupy themselves very early with the nature of the moral; the most ancient so-called Wise Men are, for the most part, moralists. It was very long, however, before the Greeks reduced their isolatedly-presented, and rather empirically-based, moral maxims to any sort of unity and order. Philosophy proper occupied itself primarily with purely metaphysical questions, and the moral views expressed were, with the earlier philosophers, for the most part, a mere supplement of 70observations and life-rules but loosely connected with their speculations proper.
Socrates was the first who, as it was said, called philosophy from heaven to the sphere of the earth; it is with him essentially moral, and, from merely metaphysical speculations, he turns away with a certain displeasure; even in his consideration of the idea of God, greater prominence is given to the moral phase of the divine activity. With him the knowledge of the good is the chief end of philosophy; but, for the simple reason that here ethics springs exclusively from philosophy, the element of knowledge far outweighs in it the element of the heart. The ethics of Socrates is a coldly rational calculating; it has not, as has Christian ethics, an historical basis and presupposition, but is invented purely à priori. Man is by nature thoroughly good,—is, in his freedom, not simply at first as yet undecided, but he has by nature a decided tendency to the good, just as reason has a natural affinity for the truth. Evil is by no means to be explained from mere volition, but only from error. The human understanding can err, and the act resulting from error is the evil; without error there would be no evil, and it is absolutely impossible that man should not also will that which he has recognized as good. It needs, therefore, only that men be brought to a knowledge of the good, and then they will also act virtuously. The motive to the moral is not love, but knowledge; to instruct is to make better; the philosopher is also the virtuous man, and only the philosopher can practice true virtue; the ignorant man is also immoral. Self-knowledge—the γνῶθι σεαυτόν—is the presupposition of all morality,—not, however, in the sense familiar to Christians, of a knowledge of the heart as inclined to sin, but only in the sense of a knowledge of the logical nature of the thinking spirit; in his dialogues, Socrates does not think of bringing men to a knowledge of their moral guilt,—he simply aims to convince them as to how little they as yet know. Hence ethics is with him a one-sided doctrine of knowledge. There is properly-speaking only one virtue, and this is wisdom, that is, knowledge; and all other virtues are only different forms of this one virtue.2424 Aristotle: Eth. Nic., vi, 13; iii, 6, 7; Eth. Eud., i, 5; vii, 13; Magn. Mor., i, 1, 9; ii, 6; Xen.: Mem., i, 1, 16; iii, 9, 4, 5; iv, 6, 6; Plato: Lach., p. 194 sqq. Apol., p 26; Diog. L., ii, 31.71
Practically, wisdom manifests itself mainly in self-mastery, that is, in governing by knowledge all appetites, dispositions, feelings, and passions. Man must always remain master of himself,—must in all circumstances, however different, always act strictly according to his knowledge and in harmony with himself,—must not let himself be led by unconscious desires; and, inasmuch as a man’s knowledge cannot be taken from him, anti as the changeable movements of feeling are under the control of knowledge, hence man has in this faculty of knowledge also complete happiness, and the wise man is necessarily also happy; and this happiness depends exclusively on himself. Therein consists the freedom of the sage.—Knowledge, virtue, and happiness are consequently not essentially different from each other,—are simply different phases of the same thing. In that Socrates essentially identifies the good with knowledge, he raises it above the arbitrary caprice of the individual subject, seeing that truth is not dependent on the good pleasure of said subject. Thus the good has a validity independently of the individual, and all rational men must recognize the same thing as good. Hence the moral idea has attained to contents of a general and necessary character; and Socrates recognizes the objective significancy of the same, in that he ascribes right wisdom to God alone.2525 Plato: Apol., p. 23.
These general thoughts form the scientific basis of the subsequent currents of philosophy. Socrates himself does not rise beyond them and enter into details. Whenever the question is as to giving to these general thoughts more definite contents, he refers to the laws of the State, in the fulfillincg of which man fulfills the requirements of morality. Hence his morality is merely Greek civic virtue,—has no higher ideal contents. To obey the laws of the State is the sum of all duties; a δίκαιος is the same as a νόμιμος. To do good to one’s friends, and evil to one’s enemies, is a moral requirement,2626 Xen.: Mem., ii, 6, 35. though indeed to suffer wrong is better than to do it,—the doing of evil to one’s enemies being in fact not a wrong, but a legitimate retaliation.2727 Plato: Rep., i, p. 335; Crito, p. 49.
In general the tendency of Socrates is toward a dry, prosaic utilitarianism. His moral views, in so far as they are not idealized by Plato, are devoid of all ideal enthusiasm. And in his 72own moral life he by no means rises beyond ordinary Greek morality; and it required all the superficiality of modern deistic “illuminism,” to undertake to place Socrates as a moral ideal by the side of Christ. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates surpasses all the others in drinking, and even outquaffs the whole company without getting intoxicated himself; and yet even this Platonic Socrates is already considerably idealized. In Xenophon.2828 Mem., iii, 11. he goes with a friend to a hetaera, who is sitting as a model for a painter, and instructs her in the art of enticing men. The manner in which it has been attempted to justify this, is not of the most happy. If, in such a case, Socrates knows of nothing better than to indulge in plays of dialectical skill, evidently his judgment of the matter itself is not very condemnatory. And in other respects his bearing toward lasciviousness,2929 Ibid., i, 3, 14, 15. gives evidence of deep erroneousness of moral consciousness even in the philosopher himself. Of moral and family love, Socrates has, so far as our knowledge of him goes, scarcely a presentiment. When his wife comes, with her child, into the prison, to take leave of her husband after his condemnation to death, Socrates simply turns to his friends, and says dryly, “Let some one, I pray you, take the woman away from here, to her house;” and she is led out by a slave; and in his last long farewell speech to the world, Socrates bestows upon wife and children not a single word. For his virtues, such as they were, he is worthy of praise, but still he manifestly does not rise above mere Greek virtue.
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