What did Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle Think About Wisdom?

Ancient Greek philosophy was a quest for wisdom. But what exactly did the three greatest ancient Greek philosophers think about it?

Jun 12, 2022By Julian Dutra, BA Philosophy
alcibiades socrates allegory prudence paintings

 

Socrates (469 – 399 B.C.E), Plato (427 – 347 B.C.E), Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.E), and many of their followers understood their own intellectual activity –  the search for wisdom or philosophy – both as theoretical and practical in its aims. Their goals were very different from the goals of contemporary philosophy, to say the least. To better understand that, we need to know what they thought about wisdom and its place in a well-lived life.

 

By the time that Socrates was born, the pre-philosophical tradition of the ancient Greeks, composed by poets and playwrights, had already explored the theme of the well-lived life in some ways, taking inspiration from the Greek myths and other sources available then. The ancient Greek word for happiness, “eudaimonia”, originally signified “being favored by the gods/good spirits”. This fact suggests that originally, human prosperity in ancient Greek culture was thought to rely on the idea  that the gods are in control of our happiness.

 

Greek Society Before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

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Photograph of the sculpture Athena Protects the Young Hero [Diomedes] by Gustav Bläser, 1854.

It was through this perspective that Homer (circa 850 – 750 B.C.E) and Hesiod (c. 750 – 650 B.C.E) delineated models of conduct (or virtue) for their readers and listeners. However, it’s important to note that these models conflict with one another. There was a tension between the individualism of the heroic code in Homer’s work and the more collectivist and work-related values in Hesiod’s work. This tension echoed socio-political events that occurred in ancient Greek societies.

 

At the same moment that pre-Socratic philosophy seemingly reached a point of stagnation, Socrates began to put the question of the good life in the center of his philosophical inquiries. As suggested above, there was already some tension amongst the pre-philosophical ideals regarding what a good life is supposed to be. These types of tensions also resembled the conflict between mythologies in the Greek colonies that incited the first philosophers to inquire about nature. It is possible that this was known by Socrates, who was first attracted to the kind of naturalistic philosophy of his predecessors.

 

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Parmenides, detail from The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-11, via Musei Vaticani.

 

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With Socrates, a new way of thinking about human happiness emerged, in a moment of apparent philosophical stagnation – a way of thinking that will be rationally argued for, not merely represented through art: the idea that human knowledge (or wisdom) is essential to the well-lived human life.

 

From that moment, human action rightly conducted by reason would be considered as the key to happiness – at least amongst philosophers. This line of thought will be articulated in different ways by the main successors of Socrates: first by Plato and then by Plato’s best student, Aristotle. It was also because of this general idea that the schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism developed their theories: they were variations of the socratic idea (so much so that the Stoics recognized Socrates as their direct predecessor).

 

But if we want to better understand this story, we need to start from the beginning. We will see, in very broad lines, what Socrates thought about the good life and the place wisdom takes in it. After that, we will see what Plato and Aristotle thought about the concept of wisdom.

 

Socratic Wisdom: The Importance of Knowledge for a Good Life

socrates bust capitoline museum
Socrates, herm from a Greek original, second half of the 4th century bce; in the Capitoline Museums, Rome.

 

Socrates is considered a paragon of wisdom to this day, even though he didn’t consider himself wise. When the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi said that no one was wiser than Socrates, it only motivated him to engage even more in philosophical debate. This consciousness of his own ignorance propelled him to test the word of the Oracle.

 

In many of his conversations, reconstructed especially in the works of Plato and Xenophon (430 – 354 B.C.E.), we encounter Socrates repeatedly putting the question of the good life in the center of his discussions. That is, he asks his interlocutors and himself: how to live well? However, many other times he addresses other questions, only secondary to this matter. Every reader of the early platonic dialogues knows that Socrates spends a lot of time discussing the virtues of courage or piety, for example.

 

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Allegory of Virtue triumphing over Vice by Filippo Pedrini (1763–1856), via Sotheby’s.

 

Already during Socrates’s lifetime, human virtue (areté, in ancient Greek) was associated with success, even though in the pre-philosophical traditions of ancient Greece, virtue wasn’t considered something completely under human control, and it was common to think that the favor of the gods could not be dismissed. The lives of Achilles and Odysseus, respectively in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, are examples of that. This begins to change with Socrates.

 

If we believe in what Plato says in his early dialogues (which are the main references for the analysis of Socrates’s thought), the relation between virtue and a good life, or at least between virtue and a life of success in some specific activity like war, navigation, or carpentry, wasn’t only suggested to Socrates by elements of his culture, but by his own independent reflection. His analysis is both simple and original: he begins by pondering everyday objects.

 

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Allegory of the divine wisdom, by Luca Giordano, 1685, via the National Gallery.

 

This is why we see Socrates repeatedly speaking of tools and domestic utensils in the early platonic dialogues. Take knives as one example. For Socrates, the virtue of a knife is, obviously, to cut well. To do this, it needs to have some specific characteristics, like being sharp, having an adequate weight and providing a good grip, and so forth. It’s because of this specific set of characteristics that the knife can do what it is supposed to do well (or virtuously). That is, it’s because of the presence of these characteristics that it can perform with excellence the proper function (ergon) that is the end (telos), or purpose, of it. Absent these characteristics, a knife cannot be any good.

 

We can apply the same rationale to living beings. A good horse or a good dog are those that have the specific set of characteristics that enables them to fulfill the fullest expression of their potential as horses and dogs. The specific set of characteristics varies, of course, according to the nature of each thing. The main thing to note here is that this general thought pattern could be applied to humans too.

 

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Alcibades being taught by Socrates by François-André Vincent, 1776, via Wikimedia.

 

That’s exactly what Socrates did. To summarize a long story, we can say that Socrates tried to answer the question of the good life starting from these considerations. For him, all human activities are conducted by reason or, as the ancient philosophers usually said, by the soul. More than that, Socrates thought that we are motivated to do what, at any time, appears to be good according to our minds (this thesis is known today as Socratic intellectualism).

 

However, it’s evident that what seems to be good to us and what in fact is good for us are not always the same. For Socrates, that means that we can only act well, even in our own interest, when we have the knowledge of how to act well, that is, when we possess the knowledge of how things are, what is good, what to do to obtain and preserve these things, how to best utilize them, how to avoid what is bad, and so forth.

 

That means that it is only when we know what is good, without error, that we can confidently act to obtain that good. Hence, human excellence is an excellence of the mind. That is a state where the mind is in possession of knowledge. That state of the mind is also what Socrates calls wisdom (sophia).

 

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Socrates debating, detail from The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-11, via Musei Vaticani

 

The exact nature of wisdom and its relation with eudaimonia in Socrates’ ethics is a matter of academic dispute to this day. This subject is too vast to discuss in this article. What is important to notice is that, taking into consideration what has just been said about wisdom, many questions are left unanswered. In fact, that’s a constant feature of Socratic philosophy. It’s not clear, for example, if Socrates thought that any specific domain (or domains) of knowledge should have priority above others.

 

As I noted above, he spends a lot of time talking about virtue, and virtue is a kind of knowledge for him. Should we learn about the specific virtues before any other knowledge? Are they any good in isolation or only when we grasp all of the virtues that they become truly good? Some other passages suggest that Socrates thought about what we ordinarily think of as goods, like money and health (see Plato’s Euthydemus, 208e, and Menon, 88a-c), as good. Apparently, Socrates thought that even these things are the subjects of specific kinds of knowledge. But we can’t know if he thought that this knowledge is to be searched for before or after we acquire others.

 

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Socrates drinking the hemlock by Antonio Zucchi, 1767, via the National Trust Collection

 

One thing we can know for sure: Socrates was aware of our cognitive limitations as humans. He never thought that we can be wise – that is, completely wise, with our minds being in the possession of all possible knowledge. In his opinion, that is something that only the gods can achieve. Every knowledge we can acquire is only provisional and fallible. And not only that, but we also cannot know everything. All we can do is to keep searching, keep revising our concepts and conclusions. That is, all we can do is to search for wisdom or, in other words, to philosophize.

 

Platonic Wisdom: The Virtue of Philosophers in the Ideal City-state

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Bust of Plato, via the Wellcome Collection.

 

Socrates’s pupil Plato, of course, was also interested in epistemology and stated the practical importance of knowledge for human beings. The allegory of the cave is not meant to encourage ignorance, after all.  Here, however, I’ll only briefly explore what Plato has to say about wisdom in his most famous dialogue, the Republic.

 

Like Socrates, Plato also was interested in thinking about the relation between areté and eudaimonia as a way to answer the question of the good life. However, not only does he not consider wisdom as the main virtue, but he also conceptualizes it completely differently. Plato traces a distinction between wisdom and knowledge almost like Socrates. But, for Plato, wisdom is something different than the state where the mind has perfect knowledge of everything.

 

plato diogenes bloemaert painting
Plato mocked by Diogenes by Hendrick Bloemaert, 1625-30, via the Sammlung Pinakothek

 

It’s important to consider his psychological theory first if we want to understand his concept of wisdom and its place in his ethics. Plato thought that the human mind is divided into three parts: the rational part (logistikon), the spirited part (thumoides), and the appetitive part (epithumêtikon). Each is responsible for a function of the human mind: thinking, feeling, and desiring, respectively. Even though every mind is formed by these three parts, in each one of us – so the theory goes – one of these parts is always more prominent.

 

As a consequence, Plato says that there are three types of character, which he presents in the myth of the three metals:  there are those that have souls made of gold (dominated by the rational part), those who have souls of silver (dominated by the spirited part) and those who have souls of bronze (dominated by the appetitive part).

 

The platonic discussion of wisdom appears in the course of the exposition about the kallipolis, the ideal city-state. It’s here that we find Plato’s idea that wisdom is a form of euboulia, that is, the capacity to give good advice, or for sound judgment. Far from being a universal virtue, available to all, this capacity is a form of intellectual excellence that can be achieved solely by trained philosophers, that is, for those who have a soul made of gold. In his ideal polis, those people should lead the government as kings or queens.

 

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Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates by Marcello Bacciarelli, 1776-77, via Wikimedia.

 

It is for that reason, at least in the context of the Republic, that Plato considers that wisdom, as euboulia, can be achieved only by some people who can submit to an extensive educational program. But, once they became governors, this virtue could confer benefits to all the citizens of the polis. That’s one of the reasons why the kallipolis is the ideal city.

 

As for the individuals with souls of silver or bronze, even though we can assume that Plato would concede that they could develop some degree of euboulia in some limited affairs, they would never be able to be wise. In any case, we should notice that Plato’s ethics differ considerably from Socrates’. That contrast becomes even clearer in Plato’s later work; but that’s an entirely different topic. 

 

Aristotelian Wisdom: Two Virtues Instead of One 

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Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, 1653, via the MET Museum

 

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, Aristotle presents a more detailed account of wisdom than that of his predecessors. It’s interesting to consider some other basic aspects of his ethics before we enter into his discussion of wisdom.

 

For Aristotle, areté and eudaimonia are also correlated. Like Plato, Aristotle didn’t believe that all human beings have the same capacity for virtue. Unlike Plato, he thought that only those who received a good education, from childhood to early adulthood, could become virtuous one day. That’s a sine qua non for him: a necessary condition. However, this initial education could only raise decent people. True virtue requires a special kind of practical knowledge and education. And that, in fact, is what Aristotle aims to provide with his ethical theory.

 

Aristotle also thought that the human mind is divided into three parts: the rational, the sensitive, and the vegetative. It would be impossible to discuss all of the nuances that differentiate his psychological theory from Plato’s here; for our purposes, I’ll only highlight that Aristotle thought that human virtue was the same for all human beings (well, at least for all the aristocratic Greeks that formed his main body of students). That means, in other words, that Aristotle considered virtue to be more accessible than Plato thought it was.

 

According to Aristotelian ethics, human virtue could be divided into two general categories: intellectual virtues and moral virtues (or virtues of character). And, in Aristotle’s opinion, wisdom is not one virtue, but two distinct intellectual virtues. That is, for Aristotle, there are two kinds of wisdom. I’ll explain them later. Let’s first get a better grasp of what moral virtues are.

 

alexander oracle apollo lagrenee painting
Alexander Consulting the Oracle of Apollo by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, 1789, via Wikimedia.

 

Moral virtues are related to the irrational aspects of the human soul, like sentiments and desires – it’s here that we find virtues like courage and generosity. Aristotle thought that when guided by the rational part of the soul – that is, when our irrational dispositions are regulated by reason (orientated by the doctrine of the mean) – these dispositions become virtuous. If our irrational dispositions are well-regulated by reason, we feel and desire in a way that is most adequate to our nature as human beings.

 

Training our dispositions is not easy. It requires a lot of effort and time. But, as Aristotle himself says, even if we acquire moral virtues, their possession is not sufficient to live a virtuous life. We need to correctly apply them in the different circumstances that life presents to us. That is, we need to be sensitive to the specific ethical dimensions of our circumstances; we need to know what we should prioritize at the moment of action; we have to know what we should do to achieve that end, and how, in detail (if possible), we can do it. And that’s an intellectual capacity, one that Aristotle calls “phrónesis”: practical wisdom or prudence.

 

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An Allegory of Prudence by Titian, c. 1550-65, via the National Gallery

 

Practical wisdom, however, cannot be acquired in the same way as moral virtues. While it’s possible to be brave and imprudent, Aristotle thought that it’s not possible to be practically wise without full comprehension about the human good, including the possession of all the moral virtues. True practical wisdom is not a domain-specific ability. It requires full comprehension of what is good for a human being in general and in all aspects of one’s life, in all the different phases of one’s life. It’s the end goal of a person’s moral development.

 

Thus, practical wisdom is different from the other kind of wisdom that exists: theoretical wisdom (sophia). While practical wisdom is general knowledge about the good for human beings, as human beings, theoretical wisdom is a different type of knowledge. Sophia is knowledge about the most excellent beings of the cosmos, the most general categories of Being, the laws of nature – and so forth. To have it is to possess an excellent comprehension of the universe in which we live. And that’s a purely theoretical matter.

 

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Wisdom by Titian, c. 1560, via the WGA.

 

So, in the light of all that, what’s the happiest life a human being can live? How does Aristotle answer the philosophical question about the good life? Aristotle thought that the happiest life is the contemplative life of the philosopher who has both kinds of wisdom. That’s because theoretical knowledge provides him with a kind of good in itself, a good that cannot be used to achieve any of the other human goods. In second place, there is the life of the practically virtuous citizen, who doesn’t have sophia but is guided by phrónesis, and thus, they can achieve a happy human life.

 

Is Wisdom According to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle Making a Comeback?

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A statue of Athena outside the Academy of Athens, via Greece Is.

 

We saw the contextual reasons that made Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle reflect on wisdom, along with their different concepts of it. Their aim was practical, since they were interested in finding an answer to the question: how can we live well? In this context, “wisdom” generally is meant to refer to some kind of connection between knowledge and action, to some mental capacity that enables us to better orient ourselves in the world that we live in because of the knowledge that we have.

 

Contemporary philosophers typically don’t deal with the problem of the good in this way anymore. I will not comment on whether that’s a good or bad thing here, but I suspect that in our scientific age, where knowledge on many of the most important aspects of human life is abundant, the concept of wisdom will eventually return to prominence in philosophical discussion. In particular, Aristotle’s concept of wisdom is becoming more relevant: some philosophers and psychologists already think so too, apparently. In any case, any serious reflection about wisdom has to begin with an understanding of what Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle once thought about it.



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By Julian DutraBA PhilosophyJulian M. Dutra is a Brazilian philosophy teacher from the Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos (UNISINOS). His primary interest is in the fields of epistemology and ethics. His main academic interest is in the field of ethics of belief, where he can work at the intersection of his favored philosophical fields. He is also interested in topics from virtue ethics, logic, education, history and philosophy of science, metaphilosophy, and political philosophy.