Socratic Psychology

   In our current crisis of the studies and practices called psychology and psychiatry, it is possible to return to the foundations, both of this and the Western science of man, to correct a few wrong turns and to replenish the enterprise, as by the watering of roots.

   Psychology is of course the account, or –logy, of the psyche or soul and mind. As an enterprise of knowledge, or scientia, science- it has a basis that is part philosophical and part included in “natural philosophy” or material science. From the teaching of the oracle of Delphi, commanding “know thyself,” Socrates teaches in his Apology that “the unexamined life is not worth living for men” (38a). So he would go about examining his fellow Athenians, as he did the poets, politicians and statesmen. The truly useful part of modern psychology, from the “talking cure” discovered by Freud, is in our self reflection or the healing effects due to the capacity of the soul to know itself. All therapeutic enterprises are measured by their ministry to this- despite the occasional apparent benefits of deception.

   Psychology as a division of the university was just being born as the School of Athens declined and went underground in ancient Alexandrian Greece. Hence, Keats, in his “Ode to Psych,” calls her the “latest born and lovliest far/ Of all Olymopus’ faded hierarchy.”

   The most elaborate account of the soul in a Socratic writing is most likely found in Plato’s Republic, and the erotic works add significantly to what is there abstracted. But the Apology is the place to start when looking to gather principles of a psychology from this most enigmatic teacher, who always claim he knows he does not know anything worthwhile. He claims to know that human wisdom is worth little or nothing, but that divine wisdom- even that knowledge of nature sought by the natural pre-Socratic philosophers- is the possession not of man but of the God. This is the basis of what is called his moderation, and it is a principle of psychology. The mad are unable to question some first principle they may have, but have a bit wrong, often with tragic consequences.

    Another first principle of the Socratic regard for the soul is that the soul is more importand than the body. In the Apology, Socrates tells the Athenians,

I go around and do nothing but persuade you, both younger and older, not to care for bodies and money before…how your soul will be the best possible

(Apology, 30,b)

He also teaches:

Not from money does virtue come, but from virtue comes money, and all other good things for humans both publicly and privately.

Apology, 30b)

He has plenty of other more enigmatic sayings, too such as

…for to fear death is nothing other than to seem to be wise, but not to be so0. For it is to seem to know what one does not know.”

(Apology 29a)


I do not care about death in any way at all…but my whole care is to commit no injustice or impious deed


   Other famous Socratic maxims are such as that virtue is knowledge, that the just man harms no one, and that there is no harm possible for a good man (41d) and better activity than conversing with the great and wise (41b).

   For our psychology, we ask: What is the health of the soul? It seems to know all these things about the abnormal, the dysfunctional, the maladaptive, the unprofitable and the non-compliant, we ask, what then is the proper function of the soul? What is the health of the soul? With rare exceptions, as perhaps Jung and Maslow, our psychology and psychiatry simply assume answers to these questions, and base life-altering diagnoses on these unexamined assumptions. They literally seem to mean, “you know, normal, like us,” but with all the authority of medical science. We ask: “What if justice either IS, or is necessary to, the health of the soul? If so, our entire psychology must fail from the start, due to the attempt to imitate the natural sciences and to follow the apparent conclusion of modern sociology, that all “values” are culturally relative. We get our “first principles” from common sense, tradition, philosophic ethics and fashionable opinion, and our psychologists and psychiatrists, being human, are in the same boat as all, so to speak. Every statement made by professional and our pop psychologists contains and at the same time denies making an ethical assumption, because the heath of the soul is in truth an objective basis of ethics. While, as Socrates, we cannot know this within a body of science and practice, we can make progress in the pursuit if we try, but will not if we do not try. Our suggestion is that some might spend their lives inquiring, and psychology by this make the Socratic turn, becoming philosophical.

   The two clearest statements of the principle of Socratic psychology are found in the Minos and Laws. At the end of Book I of the Laws, The Athenian Stranger says to Klinias:

This then- the knowledge of the natures and the habits of souls- is one of the things that is of the greatest use for the art whose business it is to care for souls. And we assert (I think) that the art is politics. Or what?

Kl. It certainly is.

And from Minos:

…whatever are those things which the good lawgiver and pasturer distributes to the soul in making it better?”- …but surely it is shameful for the soul of either of us to be manifestly ignorant of those things in which good and base inhere, while having investigated the things that pertain to the body and the rest!


(Translated by  Thomas L. Pangle, in The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, p. 66)

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