Topics Worth Investigating

  1. Under Athenian law, one could not be prosecuted for a crime if it could be shown that the action was done unwillingly, under duress, by threat of force, or from ignorance. If Socrates' view is correct, how could anyone be responsible for his or her actions? If one acts under the influence of passion or other nonrational motives, is one morally responsible? Can one be "willfully ignorant" of the law?

  2. The central tenet of the Socratic ethics is "virtue is knowledge." "Virtue" is to be thought of as areté or "the peculiar excellence of a thing." In other words, just as we say a tool is useful in virtue of the way it performs a proper function, so also a person's virtue is his or her peculiar excellence or proper function. What, then, is the source of the lack of excellence or areté in a person? Why is the lack of areté considered "bad"?

  3. Socrates' argument that even if he left Athens, he would be driven out of city after city is voiced as a simple constructive dilemma. The major premise is a conditional statement with two different antecedents and two identical consequents (hence, the name "simple"). The minor premiss affirms (hence the name "constructive") alternatively the antecedents of the major premise. The conclusion affirms the consequent. For example, "If I study at the library, I will learn, and if I study in my room I will learn. But I must study either in the library or in my room. Hence, I will learn." Is Socrates' dilemma valid? Check a good logic text in order to evaluate it. Can the dilemma's conclusion be avoided by taking the dilemma by the horns, by escaping between the horns, or by proposing a counterdilemma?

  4. Socrates' argument that death is a good is phrased as a reductio ad absurdum (i.e., an argument often of the form, "If A implies B, and B is absurd, then A is absurd"). He couples this argument with the argument by elimination (disjunctive syllogism). A disjunctive syllogism is of the form, "Either A or B is true, but A is not true, so B must be true." Consult a good logic text in order to explain, on Socrates' view, as it is expressed in these two argument forms, how Hades could not be a bad place. Hint: you must consider the import of the Socratic Paradox.

  5. Could an indefinitely extended life have meaning? In economics, value and worth are dependent upon supply; is this true for the length of life, as well?

  6. Fyodor Dostoevsky writes in Notes From Underground:

    Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, thought necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure innocent child![1]

    Dostoevsky concludes, "And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous." Can you construct any specific examples of which Dostoevsky might have in mind?

  7. Sigmund Freud regards both Socrates and the Socratic Method so highly that he patterned psychoanalytic theory in part around the methods used in dialogue. Even so, is the Socratic Paradox consistent with the notion of the "unconscious"? Explain whether or not Socrates can admit either the existence of the subconscious[2] or the unconscious.[3]



Fyodor Dostoevsky. Notes From Underground. Trans. Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Random House. 1993.


I.e., processes affecting consciousness or personality of which the ego is unaware; or the partially unconscious. Ed.


I.e., irrational primary processes inaccessible to the conscious mind, discovered only through dreams, amnesias (forgotten events), and slips of the tongue. Ed.