Why Was Socrates So Wise? (and in what way was he wise?)

Would Socrates have been so wise if he were born rich and handsome, and if he’d had a happy Socratesmarriage?   I think not.

One day, one of Socrates’ students came to him asking, “a friend is thinking of getting married, would you advise him to marry or not?”  Socrates replied, “by all means he should marry.  If she’s a good wife he’ll be very happy, if she’s a bad wife, he’ll become a philosopher.”   Socrates was well known to have a shrewish wife.   The story tells us quite a bit about Socrates, himself.   Taken at face value, it clearly indicates that his marriage problems stimulated his efforts to elevate his mind above personal circumstances.   Although he probably inherited his very strong constitution from his parents, he may have developed his extremely strong mind through coping with his domestic life.   In any case we can speculate that, in some sense, his students constituted his family.

“Adversity makes men, prosperity makes monsters”  — Victor Hugo

Socrates’ trade was stone-cutting.  From Xenophon’s and others’ reports, we know that he was physically very strong and stoic, along with his strong constitution.  In addition there likely wouldn’t have been an expectation that he’d become rich, famous, or a leading politician of Athens.  Hence he was free to think his own thoughts, make his own path, and not be embarrassed by his lack of wealth or other forms of worldly success.  There were little or no constraints on his life-choices.  Furthermore, he had no need for others to agree with his ideas.

Socrates’ value system included friendship as one of the greatest ‘possessions’.  Freedom and independence must have also been high on his list.  One surmises from his refusal to accept payment for his teachings that the very act of discourse was highly satisfying to him.  He may well have been extremely verbal and extroverted.

I think that the following story, demonstrating Socrates’ strength of mind is particularly interesting and inspiring.  A contemporary observed that following a military defeat of the Athenians, as the soldiers retreated back to Athens, almost everyone appeared very dejected and depressed, as one might expect.  But not Socrates;  Socrates walked upright, with a strong bearing that gave no indication of defeat.  (I’ve sometimes said: “Don’t be so weak minded that your attitude is completely determined by your circumstances”)   His self-discipline was clearly not limited to his physical behavior, but extended to all aspects of his mind.  Socrates never stopped acting as a mentor and role model for those around him.

Socrates observed that food, sex, wealth, and other apparently pleasurable and valuable things can make a prisoner of the person who enjoyed them.  In fact, he noted that they often lead to problems and pain, after the initial pleasure.  His mind and will were so strong and logical, that he was able to act upon his conscious observations and conclusions.  Very few people are able to control themselves and exert such strong self-discipline.  One might say that he had an undivided will.  There seems to be no indication of one part of him warring against another part.  When Socrates ‘made up his mind’, he made up his entire mind.  Confucius (who died 9 years before Socrates was born) would have described him as a complete man.

“If a man remembers what is right at the sign of profit, is ready to lay down his life in the face of danger, and does not forget sentiments he has repeated all his life when he has been in straitened circumstances for a long time, he may be said to be a complete man”    

Confucius, Analects, XIV.12


References:  (examples of Leaders & Wise Men ‘made’, not ‘born’)

  • The Dalai Lama and Krishnamurti were chosen as young children to be raised as world leaders of religion.   Their upbringing molded and formed them, successfully!  (Alternatively you may choose to believe that Krishnamurti’s “aura” alerted the Theosophists to his destiny, and the Dalai Lama is truly a reincarnate spirit. Frankly “I don’t know”)
  • Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count Book by Richard E. Nisbett

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3 thoughts on “Why Was Socrates So Wise? (and in what way was he wise?)

  1. Rolando Manso

    I loved the piece and your writing is exquisite.
    I’m not sure what you meant by “Furthermore, he had no need for others to agree with his ideas.”

    I was always of the impression that everyone in a society had a need for others to agree with his/her ideas or inevitably negative feedback follows. I thought his apparent lack of need in the face of that fact was part of what made him such a courageous free thinker of his times.

  2. Ed Post author

    Thanks for the kind words Rolando!

    Actually, you’re correct. It may well be that Socrates did care about whether others agreed with him but simply had a strong enough mind to not show it. The same thought had occurred to me regarding his demeanor while retreating from a losing battle… perhaps he’d simply chosen to try to be a good role model for the other Athenians. I suspect it’s something we can’t possibly know for sure.

    The great psychologist, William James, said “the bird doesn’t sing because he’s happy, he’s happy because he sings”. In other words, behavior helps to determine attitude, and vice versa. Perhaps Socrates chose to act brave in order to increase his and others’ bravery?


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