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P.A. Christensen Lecture: “The Barefoot Humanist”

At the annual P.A. Christensen Humanities Lecture, philosophy professor Daniel Graham discussed Socrates’ introduction of morality and ethics to philosophical thought in a lecture entitled, “The Barefoot Humanist: Socrates and the Science of Man.”

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 27, 2015)—As a barefoot advertiser of his own ignorance, could Socrates really be the founder of ancient humanism?

At the annual P.A. Christensen Lecture, Professor Daniel Graham examined Socrates the humanist and how his strange methods of inquiry and study of the human soul introduced morality and ethics into philosophical thought.

“To study Socrates is to confront the so-called Socratic paradoxes,” said Graham. “Socrates found his truth in unexpected places. He found wisdom in ignorance, truth in opinions, virtue in knowledge and piety in human affairs.”

The young Socrates was conflicted by the different educational programs he could follow in his day. From traditional religion and scientific philosophy to craft technology and social engineering, Socrates found that each seemed to lack an account of human goodness, Graham said.

“As for scientific philosophy, it holds that morality arises with the invention of culture by human beings,” said Graham. “It is a mere convention or custom, nomos, designed to keep order; indeed, perhaps even the gods are a human invention.”

One problematic aspect of scientific philosophy, Graham explained, was that the sophists used its arguments to dismiss morality as merely an artifact of culture, and religious writers even went as far as to imply that human goodness was impossible.

“Technology, scientific philosophy and sophism seem to offer no clues to the important questions of what is right and wrong, good and evil,” said Graham.

Socrates went around asking what the virtues were and how to acquire them. Over time his reputation grew, and he eventually gained a following in Athens, Graham said.

Graham told the story of Socrates’s friend, Chaerephon, who took it upon himself to visit the oracle of Apollo at Delphi and ask if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The oracle’s answer was no, evidently solidifying Chaerephon’s faith in Socrates’ project.

When Chaerephon reported this response to Socrates, however, Socrates was deeply troubled. “How could Socrates be outstanding in wisdom when he had no special knowledge?” asked Graham. “He set out to find someone who was clearly wiser than himself so that he could bring this knowledge to the oracle and point out that there must be some misunderstanding.”

In interviewing politicians, poets, craftsmen and other skilled thinkers of the day, Socrates found that each believed to possess a knowledge they did not actually have based on their perceived success, Graham explained.

“In the end, Socrates claims to recognize that he has one small advantage over these reputed wise people: he knows his own limitations. He does not deceive himself into believing he had knowledge he did not have,” said Graham.

This perspective would become important to Socrates over the course of his life. “He began to see his lack of expert knowledge – his greatest weakness – as his greatest strength,” continued Graham. “Socrates came to see himself as having a mission from the gods to share his wisdom – to show others the limitations of their understanding.”

At this discovery Socrates shifted from seeking his own enlightenment or knowledge to pointing out the limits of human knowledge to others, Graham said.

The difficulty in understanding this approach was that Socrates seemed to have no answers, but only to ask questions that neither he nor any of his associates could answer, said Graham.

However, Graham argued there was a method to Socrates’ madness. To show this, Graham used an example from Plato’s Apology, Plato’s version of the speech Socrates gave in defense of his beliefs after being accused of corrupting the youth in the city and disrespecting the Gods.

Graham explained how in this speech Socrates used his awareness of his ignorance to claim that the fear of death is a fear of something one does not know. Death, according to Socrates, might actually be a good thing, but claiming to know death to be an evil produces fear and therefore limits moral conduct and space for moral deliberation.

“Cowardice results from what he calls ‘the most reprehensible ignorance,’” said Graham. “Now it appears that Socrates’ courage results directly from his awareness of his own ignorance. He knows that he does not know that death is the greatest of all evils, and so he does not take death into consideration in his moral deliberations.”

Graham explained that Socrates’ dismissal of concerns about life and death enabled him to focus on moral issues. “By knowing what he knows (disobedience to authorities is wrong) and what he does not know (death is the greatest evil), Socrates is free to make a purely moral decision, untroubled by issues of his own personal welfare,” he said.

Graham argued that Socrates’ methodology and questioning invented moral theory and ethics. “He came to see his apparently negative method of refutation as a positive way of improving character,” Graham explained. “By his own lights his every refutation was an act of moral regeneration.”

He continued that though Socrates’ questioning does not teach the individual anything, it removes roadblocks that stand in the way of correct reasoning.

“What then should philosophy teach us? How to examine our souls and determine what is truly important. What is the most important study of all? Moral philosophy, which teaches us how to live the good life,” said Graham.

Though his ideas were difficult for many during his time, and even had him put to death, he eventually became what Graham described as a cultural hero, a martyr and a saint to philosophy.

Gone were the cosmological speculations and the sophistical refutations. Philosophy became imbued with morality,” said Graham. “To be a philosopher was to be committed to the moral life. A theory that did not make people better was not philosophy but sophistry.”

He concluded, “In the end, Socrates was not an enemy of religion, or science, or technology, or moral order, as his critics claimed. But he saw the most important knowledge of humans as human goodness and morality.”

The P.A. Christensen Humanities Lecture honors the memory of Parley A. Christensen, a BYU English professor from 1927 to 1965. He was known as both a teacher and scholar as well as a lecturer and writer, and was chair of the BYU English Department for 20 years.