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Socrates' Search for Justice

This indirect method of searching for the truth often left Socrates's interlocutors in a state of puzzlement because they were forced to conclude that they were ignorant of what they began by assuming they knew very well. Socrates insisted that he, too, was ignorant of the best definition of virtue but that his wisdom consisted of knowing that he did not know.1 He was trying to improve rather than undermine his interlocutors' beliefs in morality, even though, as one of his conversationalists put it, a conversation with Socrates made a man feel numb just as if he had been stung by a stingray2. Socrates wanted to discover through reasoning the universal standards that justified morality. He especially attacked the view of the sophists that proclaimed conventional morality the “fetters that bind nature.”3 This view, he asserted, equated human happiness with power and “getting more.”

Socrates passionately believed that just behavior was better for human beings than injustice and that morality4 was justified because it created happiness. Essentially, he seems to have argued that just behavior, or virtue, was identical to knowledge5 and that true knowledge of justice would inevitably lead people to choose good over evil and therefore to have truly happy lives6, regardless of their material success. Since Socrates believed that knowledge itself was sufficient for happiness, he therefore asserted that no one knowingly behaved unjustly and that behaving justly was always in the individual's interest. It might appear, he maintained, that individuals could promote their interests by cheating or using force on those weaker than themselves, but this appearance was deceptive. It was in fact ignorance to believe that the best life was the life of unlimited power to pursue whatever one desired. Instead, the most desirable human life was concerned with virtue and guided by rational reflection7. Moral knowledge was all one needed for the good life, as Socrates defined it.

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