Plato and Aristotle: Concept and Passion
Sophocles distrusted the enlightened Periclean humanism springing up around him as Athens enlarged her empire. He saw it as hyperbasia, an overreaching, a failure to recognise the passionality and the limits of life. Thucydides, forty years younger, saw the age in decline and retrospectively admired its political and conceptual assurance, even though his account of its implosion resembled Sophocles’. Socrates was midway between the two in years, a very child of the age, perhaps its greatest. In him an entirely new way of thinking took shape which was both derived from and directed against Periclean conceptual humanism. Socrates, like Antigone and Creon (but not Sophocles), and to a far greater extent than Pericles and Thucydides, saw virtues such as wisdom, courage, balance and justice as necessarily and sufficiently constitutive of human well-being and well-faring. He took the key terms of Athenian moral life as he found it and subjected them to an unprecedented and still unrivalled scrutiny (the elenchos). His intention was to defend the moral life against force and appetite. For Pericles and Thucydides, who had the same intention, these concepts lived only in use, but for Socrates use mutates all too rapidly into expediency and relativism, and his task is to prevent that mutation by fixing the meaning of the concepts. Using concepts whose meaning is unclear opens the door to Cleon, the Sophists and stasis. Socrates’ clarificatory activity is thus deeply ethical and political in purpose: but it can paradoxically appear to be, or can actually be, destructive of the very concepts it seeks so fearlessly to protect.
KeywordsPractical Wisdom Moral Concept Moral Thought Early Dialogue Pure Concept
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