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Four Phases of Morals_ Socrates, Aristotle, Christianity, Utilitarianism

Four Phases of Morals_ Socrates, Aristotle, Christianity, Utilitarianism
Title: Four Phases of Morals_ Socrates, Aristotle, Christianity, Utilitarianism
Release Date: 2018-03-23
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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M.D., D.C.L.,

Dear Sir,—As the substance of this book was originally delivered inthe form of Lectures before the Royal Institution, London, I wasnaturally led, in giving my notes a more exact expression and a largerillustration, to do so in connexion with your name—a name which,besides its official significance in all that concerns the AlbemarleStreet Institution, was recommended to me by that remarkablecombination of rare experience of life, enlightened scholarship, andvarious knowledge of men and places, which, more than the greatestmetaphysical acuteness, or the most extensive academical learning,enables a man to be a sound judge of those important practicalquestions with which the science of Ethics is occupied. As by thearrangements of the season—1869—of which my course formed a part,the number of Lectures was limited to four, and as I determined totreat the subject in the concrete historically, rather than in theform of abstract discussion, it necessarily happened that the fourphases of morals to which I specially directed attention, viewed inreference to the whole system of ethical doctrine, presented anincomplete and fragmentary aspect. I endeavoured however, under theselimitations, to bring forward those historical manifestations of moraltruth which both afforded a ready occasion for discussing some of themost fundamental questions of Ethics, and, from historical and localconsiderations, were most fitted to be presented to a British audienceat the present day. At the same time, there runs through the fourdiscourses a unity of thought and tendency beyond what the titleindicates, and which those who are competent to judge will easilyrecognise. Hoping that you will find nothing in this book but what hasbeen “attained with honesty, and maintained with moderation”—thetest of excellence in such matters which yourself have wiselyindicated,—and that you may be able to accord to these Discourses intheir written form some portion of that approbation which yourpresence conferred on their oral delivery,

I am,Dear Sir,Yours, with sincere esteem,JOHN STUART BLACKIE.
University, Edinburgh,October 1871.




As there is no country which can boast the honour of possessing morenames of a world-wide significance than Greece, so among those whohold this lofty position there is no name superior to Socrates,concerning whom the Delphic oracle in ancient times, and a greatutilitarian authority in modern times, agree in testifying that he wasthe wisest of the wise Greeks.[1.1] And though stout old Cato, inancient times, as Plutarch informs us, gruffly enough expressed hisopinion that the son of Sophroniscus was a pernicious old babbler,whose breath was justly stopped by the cup of hemlock which he drankfor his last supper—in harmony with whom the benign old dogmatistwhom the modern utilitarians revere as their patriarch declares thatSocrates and Plato wasted their lives in talking nonsense under thepretence of teaching philosophy,[1.2]—yet these negative utterances,few and far between, against the fair fame of the father of moralscience, have died away almost as quickly as uttered, and are now nomore heard in the grand organ-swell of the general admiration of morethan two thousand years. {2} Unquestionably if there be any name,after the great Founder of the Christian faith, which is entitled toclaim the title of a preacher of righteousness for all times and allplaces, it is the name of Socrates; and it is with the view ofbringing his high merits in tins respect before the general public, inas easy a way as is consistent with scholarly accuracy, that I haveundertaken to write the present paper.

The subject is one peculiarly attractive to a thinking man, not onlyon its own merits, but because of the ample and thoroughly trustworthymaterials which we possess for forming a correct judgment. We are nothere, as in the case of Pythagoras, sent to fish for fragments oftruth among fanciful writers who lived several hundred years after thedeath of the object of their transcendental laudations; but, as in thegospel history, we have to deal with the intimate disciples and dailycompanions of the great hero of the story. We gather our knowledge ofthe life and philosophy of Socrates from Xenophon and Plato, both ofwhom have reported their intercourse with the philosopher in a tone ofmingled admiration and sobriety which leaves no ground for suspicion.Only with regard to Plato we must take with us this caution, that hewas both a poet by temperament and by mental habit a system-builder;and, as he chose to set forth his own speculations in a series ofdramatic dialogues wherein Socrates is the chief speaker, we mustbeware of accepting, as standing on one common basis, the facts withregard to the life of Socrates brought forward in these compositionsand the doctrines which are put into his mouth. With regard to theformer, we may accept Plato’s evidence as a contemporary authoritywith the {3} utmost confidence; with regard to the latter, we must beconstantly on our guard; and indeed, according to my view, it is wisenever to accept any statement of Socrates’s doctrine from Plato, ofwhich the germ at least does not lie plainly in Xenophon. ForXenophon, just because he was a less original man than Plato, apleasing and graceful writer, somewhat on the level of our Addison,was for that reason free from the temptation, or rather had not thecapacity, to interpolate anything into his account of the philosopherwhich was not consistent with the actual fact. He was a plain man,with no theories to support, and no pretensions to maintain; and as afaithful contemporary recorder of what he heard and saw, a morecapable and trustworthy witness could not be desired. We shalltherefore draw our sketch of the life and sayings of the greatAthenian preacher mainly from his pleasant little book, introducingthe idealist of the Academy only where he cannot be suspected of usinghis revered master as a mere dramatic engine, or where his superiorliterary powers have enabled him to paint a more effective picture.

The age of Socrates was the age of Pericles, the culminating epoch ofAthenian glory; he was contemporary with Euripides, Sophocles,Herodotus, Thucydides, Hippocrates, Democritus, Anaxagoras,Aristophanes, Phidias; but, while he shared all the elevatinginfluences of this ascendant age, growing with its growth andblossoming with its blossom, he was not spared the sorrow of quittingthe scene beneath the first dark shadows of its decay. That militaryambition which is as much the besetting sin of democracy as ofautocracy, had precipitated the Athenians, during the latter part ofthe fifth century {4} before Christ, into a distant expedition whichcrippled their energies and exhausted their resources; all this, andcertain violent revolutionary changes which arose out of it, Socrateshad to live through, till at last, a few years before his death, hesaw the pride of Periclean Athens laid prostrate at the feet ofLysander and the rude oligarchy of Lacedæmon. He was born in the year469 B.C., eleven years after the naval battle of Salamis which freedEurope for ever from the apprehension of Asiatic servitude, exactly atthe time when the brilliant but sober policy of Pericles commenced itslong period of happy sway over the fortunes of the Athenian state. Atthis time Simonides and the other great poets who had seen and sungthe glorious victories of Marathon and Salamis were swiftly departingfrom the scene; but the memory of those patriotic achievements stillburned vigorously in every Athenian breast, and conspired, with thebirth of new and ambitious intellectual aspirations, to surround theyouth of the philosopher with an atmosphere the most favourable tosocial and intellectual progress. The importance which theachievements of the democracy at Marathon and Salamis gave to themiddle and lower classes of society at Athens, broke down the barrierswhich ancient aristocratic exclusiveness might have raised against thepretensions of mere character without position; so that Socrates,though the son of a stone-cutter, and not, like Plato, drawing hisblood from the old Attic aristocracy, seems to have found freeentrance into the society of the most distinguished public andliterary men of his age. His mother, as he himself took care to informthe world, was a “right worthy and worshipful {5} μαῖα,” orlady-obstetrician; a “wise woman,” as the French say, in matterswhere it seems most natural that women should be specially wise; hername was Phænarete; but in social position, according to ouraristocratic way of talking, she was nobody. What Socrates’s ownprofession was, or how he supported himself, a very important point inthe history of all public men, we unfortunately do not know exactly;that he practised stone-cutting in his early years is not improbable;and this may have given rise to the belief mentioned by Pausanias,that a group of the Graces at the entrance of the Propylæa was hiswork; but there is not the slightest indication either in Xenophon orPlato that he continued to practise this art, or any other art, inafter life. He had therefore no profession; and, as he made no moneyby his philosophy, we must believe that he had been left some smallcompetence by his father, or some relation, on which he was content tolive. That he was extremely poor we know, both from Xenophon and fromhis own account of himself before the jury at his trial. We know alsothat his habits of life were remarkably plain and frugal, that herequired little money, and coveted none. That he was in a position tohave made money if he had chosen there can be no doubt; but heexpressly states that he had relinquished all projects for increasinghis income, in order that he might devote himself without distractionto the great work of his life. However, with his philosophical notionsabout mere external grandeur, he seems to have been rich enough tolive comfortably with a wife and family. This wife was the notedXanthippe, not always the most pleasant companion, and, perhaps notaltogether {6} without reason, from her point of view, at variancewith a husband who showed such utter indifference to worldlyaggrandizement and domestic display; but for this touch of sharpnessin the temper only, as he argued, the better fitted to be the wife ofa philosopher, or to make a philosopher of her husband; for, as menwho wish to learn to ride do not choose the meekest and most docilebeast that they can find, but the most spirited, so the husband whowishes to rule a wife well should have such an one as it is not easybut difficult to control. This character of the philosopher’s wiferests on the authority of Xenophon; Plato nowhere alludes to it; andwhatever her temper might have been, Socrates certainly did notconsider it so bad as to justify his sons in withholding from her theusual love and reverence due from children to their parents; for“you may be sure,” he said, “if she is a little cross sometimes,it is for your good; and there is a reason in her objurgations which awise son ought to acknowledge.”

Having no special occupation or profession in life, Socrates mightperhaps have passed in Athens for an idle man, a lounger about thestreets, and public talker, had there not sprung up about this time aclass of men professing to be teachers of eloquence and of all wisdom,with whom he was brought into connexion. These were the Sophists, aname which means nothing more than professors or teachers of wisdom.Like these men, Socrates was always seen in the streets and publicplaces of Athens, conversing with the clever young men, and publiclydebating all points of speculative and practical interest. He wastherefore in outward appearance and to the {7} general eye a mereSophist among Sophists. For it is not everybody who cares to know thattwo men who fight with the same weapons and in the same style of fencemay be fighting for very different causes, on opposite sides, and withaltogether contrary results. But the truth behind the appearance was,that while the majority of these Sophists taught eloquence as a trade,and logical training as an affair of intellectual exhibition, Socratespreached virtue as a mission, and the exercise of right reason as theonly means of obtaining virtue. We say mission here not as afashionable phrase of

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