Socrates and High-Mindedness
Aristotle’s definition of the virtue of high-mindedness in Nichomachean Ethics, and of what constitutes the excess and deficiency of this virtue, poses a problem when applied to Socrates’ in Plato’s Apology. On one hand, Socrates is high-minded when he accepts his death sentence, despite believing that he is serving an important function in Athens, and because he advises people without charging a fee. On the other hand, Socrates shows timidity because he does not spread his beliefs in public affairs or make distinctions between the rich and poor, which would be characteristics of the small-souled person. Aristotle’s criteria for high-mindedness gives us pause as to whether Socrates is consistently virtuous. During his defense speech, Socrates displays both the characteristics of high-mindedness and small-souledness, indicating a flaw in Aristotle’s definition of the virtue, since according to Aristotle, one cannot be virtuous and deficient of a virtue at the same time.
Socrates fits the definition of high-mindedness because he does not spare his life, despite believing that he does not deserve the death penalty. Even though he believes he was given a divine role to play in making Athens a better place, Socrates understands that the best thing for him to do is to accept his death sentence. He thinks that because he is “superior to the majority of men”, supplicating the jury by bringing in family members and begging for acquittal would be considered a disgrace (Plato 35a). He does not argue against his death sentence because getting condemned for standing by his beliefs would be a greater honor than being remembered for performing “pitiful dramatics in court” (Plato 35b). Aristotle’s definition of high-mindedness applies in this case because Socrates does not necessarily believe that the death sentence is what he deserves, but rather that it is a more honorable option than begging for mercy. According to Aristotle, there is “no honour worthy of total virtue” (Aristotle 1124a 7-8). By avoiding the disgrace of begging for mercy, Socrates is able to aim closer at the honor that he is worthy of. Aristotle also states that the great-souled person will not spare his life when facing great dangers (Aristotle 1124b 7-8). Socrates does not think his life is so great that he needs to save it. He tells the judges after his death sentence that he is still convinced he neither wronged anyone nor wronged himself (Plato 37b), yet he does not spare his life, because it is not worth being disgraceful by arguing for a different punishment.
Socrates’ willingness to help others without asking for payment in return is yet another reason why Socrates would fit Aristotle’s definition of high-mindedness. The high-minded person asks for nothing, or almost nothing, but is willing to help others readily (Aristotle 1124b 17-18). Socrates fits this statement because he argues that he does not “undertake to teach people and charge a fee for it” (Plato 19d). Spreading his beliefs is Socrates benefiting others, but he does not ask for anything in return. He questions others for the sake of stirring up the city because that is what he believes he was placed in the city to do. The high-minded person is also one whose “possessions are noble but unprofitable” (Aristotle 1125a 12). Socrates does not have many possessions, living in great poverty, since he does not charge for his occupation of questioning people to show them that they are not wise (Plato 23b). He is self-sufficient because he does not need material possessions to keep spreading his beliefs.
At the same time, however, Socrates would considered small-souled because he did not strive for greater honor by spreading his beliefs in public affairs. The small-souled person is someone who “deprives himself of what he is worthy of” and is similar to the timid rather than foolish person (Aristotle 1125a 22, 24-25). Socrates only goes around advising people in private affairs but refuses to venture out in public to advise the entire city because he believes he would have died a long time ago if he had tried taking part in public affairs (Plato 31c-e). Trying to advise the city by taking part in politics would have been foolish, because if he had died, Socrates would not have been able to spread his beliefs to anyone. Socrates took a more moderate approach by intervening only in private affairs, so he would not be considered vain, since the vain person is foolish for being ignorant of their worth (Aristotle 1125a 28). Taking this more moderate approach, however, would be considered small-souled and timid, because the small-souled person should have “striven for the things of which he was worthy” (Aristotle 1124b 26-27). There is a problem in this situation, because whether Socrates chose to advise the public or not, he would have been acting either foolishly or timidly. It seems that hitting the mean would be impossible, but Aristotle acknowledges that it is sometimes better to lean towards one excess than the other. In this case, acting foolishly would be closer to hitting the mean of high-mindedness because smallness of soul is more opposed to high-mindedness than vanity (Aristotle 1125a 32-3). Although Socrates did serve in public life twice, he did not actively spread his beliefs like he does in private affairs. When he served on the Hall during the Thirty, Socrates simply left when he and the rest of the Hall was ordered to bring in Leon from Salamis to be executed, something he considered unjust (Plato 32c-d). He was able to stay true to his beliefs of what he considered right and wrong by not participating, but he did not stay in public life to save Leon’s life or keep spreading his beliefs.
Another indication of Socrates missing the mark of high-mindedness is that he is equally ready to question anyone, whether they are rich or poor (Plato 33b). According to Aristotle, the high-minded person should be “dignified in his behavior towards people of distinction or the well-off, but unassuming towards people at the middle level” (Aristotle 1124b 18-20). Socrates does not distinguish between those who are well-off and those who are not. He uses the same method of questioning for everyone as long as they are willing to listen and is not interested in hierarchy. Superiority over the rich would be considered by Aristotle to be impressive, but superiority over the poor would not mean anything because it is easy (Aristotle 1124b 22-23). Since Socrates is exhibiting the same behavior to people of all types, he does not fit this definition of high-mindedness. He does not make a distinction between the poor and the rich; rather, he only differentiates between people who are willing to listen or not. Furthermore, Socrates tells the jury that he is accustomed to spending time at the marketplace by the bankers’ tables (Plato 17c). This shows that he spent more of his time interacting with the masses rather than with people of distinction or the well-off. Socrates is not unassuming towards those who are not distinguished, a characteristic of the high-minded person. This is another indication of him acting in a small-souled manner.
Many of the actions that Socrates describes during his defense speech and his acceptance of the death sentence would be considered high-minded; however, his actions are not always consistent, because some of them would be classified as small-souled. According to Aristotle, virtue is a kind of mean or target to reach, and any missing of the mark would be vice (Aristotle 1106b 25-27). This poses a problem for Aristotle because high-mindedness would be considered virtuous, but at the same time, Socrates exhibits a vice by acting small-souled. It would not be possible to be truly virtuous if one displays both virtuous and vicious actions because virtue and vice are opposites. The contradiction between Aristotle’s beliefs and Socrates’ actions lies in Aristotle’s definition of high-mindedness because Socrates fits into both the mean and the deficiency of this virtue when it appears that he is not consistently virtuous.
The high-minded person is one who “thinks himself worthy of great things – and is indeed worthy of them” (Aristotle 1123b 2-3). Although Socrates meets the criteria for this Aristotelian definition of high-mindedness, he displays small-souledness at the same time when he does not intervene in public affairs to spread his beliefs. Socrates consistently hitting the mean and missing the mark by acting both high-minded and small-souled presents a problem for Aristotle’s definition of the virtue of high-mindedness because one cannot be high-minded and small-souled at the same time.
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Aristotle’s definition of the virtue of high-mindedness in Nichomachean Ethics, and of what constitutes the excess and deficiency of this virtue, poses a problem when applied to Socrates’ in Plato’s […]