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The Socratic Legacy or the Cynic Legacy Essay

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Updated: Sep 10th, 2021

Socrates has a unique position in the history of philosophy. On the one hand he is one of the most influential of all philosophers, and on the other one of the most elusive and least known. Further, his historical influence is not itself independent of his elusiveness. Thesis Socratic legacy is based on the ideas of humanity and virtue, morality and good life, and helps to explain human motives and desires driven every personality.

The Socratic legacy understand that the moral life is the best life for the agent thus has the central role of linking Socrates’ intuitions of the pre-eminence of morality with the theory of uniform self-interested motivation which is the foundation of the identification of goodness with knowledge.

Given that centrality, it is surprising how little argumentative support it receives. For instance, at Crito, justice and injustice are described as respectively the health and sickness of the soul; hence, just as it is not worth living with a diseased and corrupted body, so it is not worth living with a diseased and corrupted soul. But that is not an argument1. Even granted that health is an intrinsically desirable and disease an intrinsically undesirable state, the crucial claims that justice is the health of the soul, and injustice its disease, require defense, not mere assertion.

On this theory motivation is uniform, and uniformly self-interested; every agent always aims at what he or she takes to be best for him- or herself, and failure to achieve that aim has to be explained by failure to grasp it properly, that is, by a cognitive defect, not by any defect of motivation. Socrates explains this in Protagoras, on the assumption, which he attributes to people generally, that the agent’s overall interest is to be defined in hedonistic terms, as the life which gives the best available balance of pleasure over distress2.

Given that assumption, it is difficult to explain doing wrong by being overcome by pleasure or by any kind of desire; one must simply have made a mistake in one’s estimation of what would bring the most pleasure. As Socrates says (358d), ‘It is not in human nature to be prepared to go for what you think to be bad in preference to what is good.’3.

Virtue can be given a straightforward interpretation which is compatible with the integrated picture. This is simply that total virtue extends over the whole of life, while ‘courage’, ‘piety’, etc. designate that virtue, not in respect of its total application, but in respect of its application to a restricted area. Similarly, coastal navigation and oceanic navigation are not two sciences, but a single science applied to different situations. They can count as parts of navigation, in that competence in navigation requires mastery of both4. In Meno, then, the practical question of how goodness is acquired leads to a substantive account of goodness as a cognitive state. It is no coincidence that the two other dialogues which begin from that question, either about goodness in general or about a particular virtue, exhibit a similar pattern of development5.

Virtue is knowledge of the agent’ good, in that, given the standing motivation to achieve one’s good, knowledge of what that good is will be necessary if one is to pursue it reliably, and sufficient to guarantee that the pursuit is successful. But that requires that the agent’s good is something distinct from the knowledge which guarantees that one will achieve that good. Socrates used to maintain that ‘no one acts contrary to what is best in the belief that he is doing so, but through error’, a thesis expressed more concisely in the slogan ‘No one goes wrong intentionally’ (oudeis hekōn hamartanei”6.

The knowledge which guarantees the achievement of the good, will be purely instrumental, as the value of medicine is, and derivative from the intrinsic value of what it guarantees, that is, success in life. Socrates regards virtue as intrinsically, not merely instrumentally, valuable, and explicitly treats it as parallel, not to medicine, but to health itself. Virtue is, then, not a means to some independently specifiable condition of life, it is a constituent of it. So, far from its being the case that virtue is worth pursuing because it is a means to a fully worthwhile life (e.g. a life of happiness), the order of explanation is reversed, in that a life is a life worth living either solely or at least primarily in virtue of the fact that it is a life of virtue7.

Socratic legacy has many limitations and conflicting parts. For instance, Socratic legacy states that virtue is knowledge and that virtue is human good. If human good is to be identified with both knowledge and virtue, then that knowledge must have some object other than itself.

Today, the relevance of Socratic legacy is that it explains inner motives and taints driven a person. For instance, is the virtue which reliably produces appropriate conduct in situations of danger, piety the virtue which reliably produces appropriate conduct in relation to the gods, etc, and the virtue in question is the same in every case, namely, the agent’s grasp of his or her good. The theory allows to interpreter the role and importance of knowledge and human existence.

Socrates states that knowledge or wisdom is the only unconditionally good thing, since all other goods, whether goods of fortune or desirable traits of character, are good for the agent only if they are properly used, and they are properly used only if they are directed by wisdom. The significance of this is independent of whether Socrates is represented as adopting that solution in his own person, or merely as proposing it as a theory which ordinary people ought to accept.


  1. Navia, 56.
  2. ibid, 65.
  3. Plato, cited Navia 54.
  4. Navia, 72.
  5. ibid, 65.
  6. Plato, cited Navia 32.
  7. Navia, 82.


Navia, L.E. Socrates: A Life Examined. Prometheus Books 2007.

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