The question asked by the title of this section is, “What is Philosophy?” Although I find that these particular texts
actually raise much more specific questions such as “what is the nature of piety” I believe that there are enough
commonalities among these and all of Plato’s Socratic dialogues to offer a suggestion as to the answer of this
question. I would suggest that to the ancients and perhaps even today, philosophy is an examination of life, the
limits of knowledge, and the nature and value of the various aspects of existence. In dealing with Socrates
specifically, philosophy is a process whereby one determines what—if anything—can be known about a particular
subject. And in most cases, it turns out that very little or nothing can be known.
In the Euthyphro, the subject explored by Plato through this dialogue between Socrates, who is on his way to be
tried on charges of corrupting the youth, and Euthyphro, who is preparing to prosecute his father for the accidental
murder of a slave, is the nature of piety. Socrates remarks that for Euthryphro to take such an action, he must be
quite certain that he is doing the right, or pious thing. “And do you mean to say, Euthyphro, that you think that
you understand divine things and piety and impiety so accurately that…you can bring your father to justice without
fear that you yourself may be doing something impious?” (3). Euthyphro believes that he does possess this
understanding, and Socrates proceeds to challenge him for a definition as to the nature of piety, that he might
make use of it in his own defence against the charges he is facing.
Euthyphro’s first answer is that piety is prosecuting the unjust individual, as he is doing in the case of his father.
But Socrates insists that this is merely an example of a pious act, and presses Euthyphro as to what particular
quality of an action renders it pious. Euthyphro then offers the definition, “What is pleasing to the gods is pious,
and what is not pleasing to them is impious” (5). Having just discussed the peculiarity of the fact that the Greek
gods were always quarrelling, Socrates is quick to shoot down this definition, as quarrels do not arise over things
than can be measured but over issues of what is just or unjust, honourable or dishonourable, and if an action is
pleasing to some but not all of the gods, it will be both pious and impious.
Euthyphro then offers that “piety is what all the gods love, and that impiety is what they all hate” (8). Socrates is
not satisfied with this definition either, questioning Euthyphro as to whether an action is pious because it is loved
by the gods, or loved by the gods because it is pious. Euthyphro comes to understand that to be loved by the
gods is merely an accidental property of piety, rather than its essential characteristic, in the same way that a thing
seen is so because it is seen and not because it is in a state of being seen, and a thing carried is so because it is
being carried and not because it is in a state of being carried. The piety of an action does not depend on whether
all the gods love it, but whether the gods love an action depends on whether it is pious. Socrates says, “you have
not explained to me the essential character of piety; you have been content to mention an effect which belongs to
it—namely, that all gods love it” (9).
Euthyphro gives up on trying to explain the nature of piety to Socrates, and we are left without a satisfactory
definition. Plato succeeds in demonstrating that the nature of piety can not be known, or at least that it can not be
defined in terms of the perceptions of the gods. In the Apology, the value of this lack of certain knowledge is
shown when Socrates speaks about the nature of wisdom.
In defending himself against the charge that he does not believe in the gods, Socrates dismisses this claim as he
points out that he does believe in divinities, and it is therefore absurd to assert that he believes in things of the gods
but not the gods themselves. In fact, his entire life’s pursuit has been to understand a statement made about him
by the oracle at Delphi, that none were wiser than Socrates. Not believing himself wise, Socrates endeavoured to
find someone wiser than he, and he sought out politicians, artisans, poets, and any who believed themselves to be
wise. But upon examining them he found that they were not wise, that they were at best skilled in their various
crafts but possessed much knowledge for which they lacked justification.
This led him to a conclusion that is perhaps the most important philosophical assertion that Socrates makes. “I
believe that the god is really wise, and that by this the oracle meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. I
do not think that he meant that Socrates was wise. He only made use of my name, and took me as an example,
as though he would say to men: He among you is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows that in truth his wisdom is
worth nothing at all” (15). The idea that the wisest is he who knows he knows nothing is one I accept, and which
I am sure will appear constantly throughout my philosophical reflections.
The assertion that we can never be certain about any knowledge is an epistemological claim, one which I am sure
to return to many times in this journal, so I will not dwell long on it here. I only wish to state briefly that although I
know many of today’s present philosophers would disagree with me, I do hold the conviction that nothing at all
can be known for certain, and that no matter how strong the justification for believing any particular claim, there is
always the possibility of an error in judgment or reasoning that would render the claim false. I not only believe that
there is room for doubt when it comes to absolutely every issue, but that this doubt is essential and even extremely
valuable in terms of human understanding.
A perfect example of the value of uncertainty comes later in the Apology when Socrates speaks about why he
does not regret living a life which is now very likely to cause his death. Socrates points out that the fear of death is
no reason to choose one action or way of life over another. “For to fear death, my friends, is only to think
ourselves wise without really being wise for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For no one knows
whether death may not be the greatest good that can happen to man. But men fear it as if they knew quite well
that it was the greatest of evils” (20). Later, Socrates elaborates on this point. “For the state of death is one of
two things: either the dead man wholly ceases to be and loses all consciousness or, as we are told, it is a change
and a migration of the soul to another place. And if death is the absence of all consciousness, and like the sleep of
one whose slumbers are unbroken by any dreams, it will be a wonderful gain” (27). This passage has stayed with
me since the moment I first read it, as I can think of no more beautiful an illustration of the value of uncertainty, nor
a firm justification against the fear of death. We do not know what happens to us after we die, but whether or not
the soul endures, we gain. If the soul endures, our gain is that of eternal existence, but if it perishes or there is no
soul, we gain eternal rest.
There is one final point I would like to reflect upon before concluding, and this goes to the value of philosophy
itself. When Socrates tries to answer those who wonder why he does not simply withdraw from Athens and
cease his habit of examining others until they are forced to see their lack of wisdom, the practice of which is what
leads to his execution, he confesses that they will not understand. “If I say that I cannot hold my peace because
that would be to disobey the god, you will think that I am not in earnest and will not believe me. And if I tell you
that no better thing can happen to a man than to discuss virtue every day and the other matters about which you
have heard me arguing and examining myself and others, and that an unexamined life is not worth living, then you
will believe me still less”(25). I refer to the assertion that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” as I have been
reflecting on this quote for years and still have formed no definite conclusion as to its validity.
I would certainly like to believe that this is true—that we are missing something absolutely essential in this society
which places so much value on instant satisfaction and so little on reflection and examination of deep issues—but I
also can understand the position of those who choose not to dwell on philosophical issues, believing it a waste of
effort to spend so much time in search of answers to unanswerable questions. And does it not in fact seem a
contradiction for one who believes that we can never arrive at certain answers to insist upon asking the questions
Is an unexamined life not worth living? Perhaps the more immediate and important question is “is life worth
living?” This is a question we all ask ourselves at various times, and we all find that the answer changes according
to the particular circumstances which bring us to ask it. In moments of profound joy or ecstasy, I have felt that life
is absolutely worth living, that regardless of what if anything lies beneath the surface of things, all moments of pain
or pleasure, joy or sorrow have inherent value and that any kind of existence is essentially good. But there are
other moments when life seems too heavy, I am overwhelmed by responsibilities I have no interest in, and that the
things I want most of all are the very things that will always be out of reach, and I feel with complete sincerity that
I would rather have never been born at all.
And I suppose that really goes to the heart of the essence of philosophy. I exist, and as a thing that exists I want
to determine whether my existence has value. And so I examine myself and the world in which I find myself. I
examine my life because I want to get the most out it. An experience reflected upon, it seems, is worth more than
an experience merely had and forgotten. Of course I try to maintain the perspective that it is all subjective, and
that what increases life’s value in my eyes may have the opposite effect in another’s. And so I would conclude
that philosophy is a good, though perhaps only for those who are philosophically inclined. If we choose our own
values, and we value thought and reflection, then to study philosophy and reflect upon it as I am doing now is
valuable. It allows us to see things from different perspectives and offers us a deeper understanding of things
which we would otherwise experience on a much shallower level.
So I will continue to read and to explore the thoughts provoked by what I come across. I could devote
thousands of pages exclusively to the topics I have raised here, but I have my entire life in which to do so. As for
Socrates, I credit him with championing the value of uncertainty which I hold so dear, and for his example of
examining things which would otherwise go unexamined. Finally, as for the question of “what is philosophy?” I
would say it is many things to many people, but it is always a search for wisdom, a desire to question, and a
bringer of value to the lives of those who find it valuable.
What Is Philosophy?
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 1 - Plato and the Trial of Socrates
Plato: Euthyphro and the Apology
Kem Stone - 9 August 2007