“Do unto others as you would be done by” is a virtue many are taught in their early years of childhood by their parents. But what does “Do unto others as you would be done by” really mean? Does this statement deal with one’s moral character, one’s duties/rules or consequences of one’s own actions? How are virtues acquired? How are virtues applied in everyday life? Can one find happiness while in pursuit of virtue? Questions like these have become the foundation for the study of philosophy. This essay will attempt to answer the question of the title by proposing answers to these other questions.
There have been several philosophers who have researched, discussed, and assessed what virtues are, what is the good life and how to live a good life within the study of philosophy. Socrates, is one of the most influential philosophers of his era and his life is one of the most examined lives in philosophy. The Apology is a speech given by Socrates at his trial in response to the allegations made against him by Meletus, and two other men.
First, I will summarize The Apology: Socrates defense speech; second, I will discuss whether Socrates lived a meaningful life in pursuit of moral virtue; finally, I will conclude, based on the evaluations of the available arguments, whether living a virtuous life is a more plausible solution to/explanation of living a meaningful life. However, it is critical I begin by defining virtue/moral virtue.
Core standards of Virtue
“Virtue is knowledge. Virtue is also known as virtue ethics in philosophy. “Virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences” (Athanassoulis, ‘Virtue Ethics’). There are three main strands of development for virtue ethics: Eudaimonism, agent-based theories and the ethics of care (Mastin, “Virtue Ethics”).
Virtue Ethics looks at the virtue or moral character of one’s actions versus ethical laws. Virtue ethics concentrates on how adopting certain attitudes may lead to certain satisfactions. It deals with the idea of one’s moral character and questions how an individual can become a better person. It is more concerned with one’s moral character and not the action or the consequence.
“Eudaimonism embraces the proper goal of human life is ‘happiness’. This goal can be reached by a lifetime of practicing ‘arête’ (the virtues) in one’s everyday activities, subject to the exercise of ‘phronesis'(practical wisdom) to resolve any conflicts or dilemmas which might arise” (Mastin, “Eudaimonism”).
The Apology and Socrates
The Apology is a narrative of the speech Socrates gave in his own defense in court on the day he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death on the charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety (Plato & Grube, 20c – 24a).
To refute the charges, of impiety he explains his actions by telling the story about the Delphic Oracle. The Delphic Oracle says, “Socrates is the most wise”; Socrates thinks of himself as “most ignorant”, so he sets out to prove the Delphic Oracle wrong by trying to find someone wiser than himself. In conclusion he finds he is the “most wise”. The downfall of his actions – trying to find someone wiser, leads to him questioning the people of Athens. His questioning soon angers the citizens, in turn causing them to be confused, doubt their beliefs and values; the anger quickly turned into bitterness (Plato & Grube, 21a -23b).
On the charges of corrupting the youth, begins to cross-examine and have dialogue with Meletus his accuser (Plato & Grube, 24d – 25e). Socrates says, “either I do not corrupt the young, or if I do it is unwillingly, and you are lying in either case” (Plato & Grube, 26a). He asks, “how you say that I corrupt the young; or is it obvious from your deposition, that it is by teaching them not to believe in the gods in whom the city believes but in other new spiritual things?” He further questions Meletus about the impiety charges, saying if he is teaching the youth about gods, any gods, and he believes in those gods, then is not an atheist (Plato & Grube, 26c). If this is so then the charges of impiety are false, as well as the charges of corrupting the youth of the city. Socrates says he is not a sophist, a physicality, nor a corruptor of youth; but he was “the gods gift”- sent to help the city in response to the Delphic Oracle (Plato & Grube, 30e).
Socrates was found guilty of the charges; Meletus asks the jury for the death penalty (Plato & Grube, 35e). The irony of the story is instead of asking for an alternate penalty in lieu of death, he says the penalty should be something he deserves. He says a just assessment of what he deserves is “free meals in the Prytaneum” (Plato & Grube, 36b). The jury decides not to accept Socrates alternate penalty and instead sentences him to death (Plato & Grube, 38b).
The Apology ends with Socrates stating, “a good man could not be harmed in either life or death” (Plato & Grube, 41d); Socrates is saying to the jury that a moral man has no fear of death.
The Pursuit of Happiness and Virtue
“I have deliberately not led a quiet life but have neglected what occupies most people: wealth, household affairs, the position of general or public orator or the other offices, the political clubs and factions that exist in the city (Plato & Grube, 36b)? Socrates answer to the question, plainly said is that he thought himself too honest to survive if he occupied himself with those things. He states he felt those things would not be of use to him or anyone (Plato & Grube, 36b). Instead, he urges them to take advantage of the “greatest benefit”. Which is to be “as good and as wise as possible not caring for the city’s possessions, but to care for the city itself and other things” (Plato & Grube, 36c -d). This is truly reflective of they type of life Socrates lived. A life that was virtuous, by being contemplative of his actions and behavior.
Socrates felt he was useful to the people of Athens, he credited himself with waking them, and urging them to care for virtue. He feels he has led a virtuous life, by living in poverty, not taking care of his “personal affairs, just so he could hold conversations discussing moral and philosophical questions with anyone who would talk to him in the city.
Socrates is defiant. He rejects the idea of exile. He even rejects the idea of staying in Athens and keeping his mouth shut (Plato & Grube, 37a – e). He can’t stop doing philosophy, he says, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato & Grube, 38a). Death, he says, is either an endless dreamless sleep, which is nothing to fear, or it leads to an afterlife where, he imagines, he will be able to carry on philosophizing (Plato & Grube, 40d – 41b).
In Plato, Meno asks Socrates whether virtue can be taught? “Or is it not even teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way (Plato & Grube, 98d)? Socrates states before either of them can answer the question at hand they must have a clear understanding/definition of what virtue is. After some time, the men arrive at the conclusion: “virtue is something innate and it cannot be taught. It is simply a gift from the Gods that we receive without understanding” (Plato & Grube, 95c – 100b).
Does A Virtuous Life Equal Meaningful Life? The answer to this question would vary depending on who you are speaking to. Based on the readings/findings in this essay, and according to Socrates, I would say yes. I believe we all have purposes that help provide for a productive society. Some are motivated by doing good while others are motivated at the thought of what happens when good is done. We set goals to reach the purpose we have set for ourselves and when the goal is reached, we feel fulfilled and feel we have produced a form of good for either ourselves or for the good of others.
- Athanassoulis, Nafsika. “Virtue Ethics.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) (ISSN 2161-0002). N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
- ‘Eudaimonism – By Branch / Doctrine – The Basics of Philosophy.’ Eudaimonism – By Branch / Doctrine – The Basics of Philosophy. Luke Mastin, 2008. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
- Plato, and G M. A. Grube. Five Dialogues. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co, 2002. Print.