As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).
Humanism is defined by the International Humanist and Ethical Union as “a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality” . In fact, the concept, as well as related terms such as the Latin humanitas, go back thousands of years, and have been characterized by a family of similar meanings that are very much pertinent to a discussion of “The Humanist Impulse — Past, Present and Future,” such as the one presented in this issue of The Human Prospect.
In particular, we should distinguish between two related meanings of humanism, which already exercised the second century Roman grammarian Aulus Gellius, who wrote : “Those who have spoken Latin and have used the language correctly do not give to the word humanitas the meaning which it is commonly thought to have, namely, what the Greeks call ‘philanthropy,’ signifying a kind of friendly spirit and good-feeling towards all men without distinction; but they gave to humanitas the force of the Greek ‘paideia’; that is, what we call education and training in the liberal arts. Those who earnestly desire and seek after these are most highly humanized. For the desire to pursue of that kind of knowledge, and the training given by it, has been granted to humanity alone of all the animals, and for that reason it is termed humanitas, or ‘humanity.’”
So ancient “humanism” referred to either a cosmopolitan approach toward social living, or to the study of what we today refer to as the humanistic disciplines (which, however, at the time also included natural philosophy, i.e., modern science). Moreover, the two were thought to be related: the more one learns about the world and humanity, the more one is predisposed toward a humanistic philosophy. In that sense, then, I submit that one of the earliest, and most influential, ancient humanists was none other than Socrates, the man whose life and work is taken to be so important that the entire history of Western philosophy is divided into pre-Socratic and all that followed.
Before proceeding with my argument that Socrates can reasonably be considered a precursor of humanism, I need to acknowledge two caveats. The first concerns what scholars refer to as “the Socratic problem.” Socrates himself didn’t write anything, so all we know about his philosophy is from secondary sources, some sympathetic (Plato, Xenophon), others decidedly critical (Aristophanes). In what follows I refer mostly to Plato’s rendition of Socrates’ views, especially as presented in the so-called early dialogues (Apology, Crito, Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Euthyphro, and Ion), although Xenophon’s portrayal of his teacher is probably historically accurate, if less philosophically engaging.
The second caveat is an acknowledgement of a point made by Georges Canguilhem in his Études d’histoire et de Philosophie de Sciences . He is skeptical of any attempt — such as this one — to talk of “precursors” to philosophical and scientific ideas, arguing that “strictly speaking if there were precursors the history of sciences would lose all meaning, since science itself would not have a historic dimension except in appearance.” I respectfully disagree. One can retain a sense of historical change even while acknowledging that some early thinkers anticipated ideas that were later adopted and developed by others, so long as one does so judiciously, resisting the temptation to read too much of the present into the past. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that if we couldn’t sensibly talk about precursors it would be more difficult to understand history, which would then become a sequence of ideas entirely disconnected from any antecedent.
With the above in mind, in what follows I will briefly present five reasons why I think that Socrates was a humanist, and then conclude with some general considerations about the relationship between the Hellenistic philosophies influenced by Socrates and modern humanism.
Why Socrates was a humanist
1. Social and moral criticism. The first reason Socrates can be thought of as an early humanist is his concern with social and moral criticism. He was referred to by Plato as a “gadfly” , meaning someone who keeps (annoyingly) stinging the State and society at large, prompting them into action to redress wrongs and make progress toward a more ethical stance. This, of course, is precisely what, in the end, got Socrates killed by that very State that he had served all his life, as a soldier first and as a teacher of young people later. Nonetheless, ethically minded social criticism, as well as critique of the authorities whenever they stray from the social good, is most certainly a modern humanist value, and it can be traced back, in the Western tradition, primarily to the sage from Athens.
2. Focus on personal integrity. I have always understood humanism as a philosophy of personal improvement and responsibility, quite aside of its social dimension referred to above. Socrates lived this aspect of his philosophy personally, and it got tested on at the least three occasions. The first episode occurred in the year 406, when Socrates was already 64. The Athenians had routed the Spartan fleet at the battle of Arginusae, but its six commanders had failed to give aid to the survivors of their own foundered ships, because they decided instead to chase the retreating Spartans. The people wanted the death penalty for the accused generals, but Socrates’ tribe, which on that day held the prytany (executive power) in the boule (the city council), rejected the request. At that point the mob threatened the executive officers themselves with death, and the latter eventually relented. This is where Socrates stepped in. He was epistates (overseer) of the debate, and held veto power, which he exercised on the ground that “in no case would he act except in accordance with the law» . Needless to say, that stand — which he made on the grounds of his understanding of virtue and moral integrity — could have easily cost him his life.
The second episode occurred during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants, a few years later. Socrates and others were ordered by the oligarchy to embark on a trip to Salamis to fetch and bring back one Leon the Salaminian to be executed. Socrates refused and simply walked home, again at great peril for his life. Notice that this instance too involves Socrates opposing a death penalty.
The last episode is the most famous one, Socrates’ own trial in 399 BCE (when he was aged 71), on charges of corrupting the youth and of impiety, which meant lack of worship of the State’s official gods . Plato and Xenophon agree on the reasons Socrates gave for his decision to accept the death penalty — famously, administered by drinking a cup of hemlock — even though he had easy means of avoiding it by fleeing the city. Plato gives the full reasoning in the Crito . Socrates’ reasons for refusing his friends’ help included: I) he would give the impression that he feared death, which was contrary to his teachings; II) there would be no point in fleeing, because he would teach the same doctrines everywhere he’d go, likely with a similar reaction from the local citizenship or political establishment; III) he could not in good conscience betray the law of the very same city that had nurtured him and allowed him to flourish; and IV) he did not want his friends — who were willing to help him escape — to be liable to the law in turn.
In all these instances Socrates lived (and died, in the end) in a fashion coherent with his teachings and personal philosophy, setting an example not just for humanists, but for all people of good will in terms of virtue, character, and personal integrity.
3. Deriving ethics from human reflection. Modern secular humanism is largely a non-religious movement (though the word “secularism” is not synonymous with atheism), and Socrates — despite having been condemned to death in part on the charge of “impiety,” was no atheist. Nonetheless, a major reason we should think of him as a humanist is that he made what still today is by far the most compelling philosophical argument that morality cannot be derived from gods, even if they existed.
The argument is found in one of the most breezy and memorable of the early Platonic dialogues, the Euthyphro . The action is set in the year 399 BCE or thereabouts. We are in Athens, walking beside Socrates, on his way to the Agora. He is not going there for commerce, nor to engage in a discussion with one of his pupils. Rather, Socrates has been summoned on urgent business at the Royal Stoa, the office of King Archon. The reason for the summons is that a young Athenian named Meletus, whom Socrates hardly knows, has leveled several charges against the philosopher, which will eventually result in his condemnation and execution by the State. At the moment, Socrates has encountered an acquaintance, also on his way to the magistrate’s office. The character in question is Euthyphro, and after exchanging greetings as customary, they inquire into each other’s business at the King’s Court. Euthyphro is aghast that someone would file suit against Socrates, but it is Socrates who is more surprised when he finds out Euthyphro’s business: the guy is going to denounce his own father, who accidentally caused the death of a household employee, who had in turn been guilty of murder. Socrates wants to know how Euthyphro can be so certain, judging from his boundless self-confidence, that this is the right course of action for him to take. Euthyphro’s response is that he knows what he is about to do is right because that’s what the gods want. But how, replies Socrates, do you know what the gods want? Completely unperturbed by the obvious irony in Socrates’ question, his interlocutor candidly responds: “The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all such matters. What should I be good for without it?”
Socrates then feigns much reverence for Euthyphro and declares himself to be the latter’s disciple, so that he too can learn about such important matters. This setup soon leads the philosopher to ask the obvious question: “And what is piety, and what is impiety?” In modern parlance, this query is about the same as asking what is moral and what is immoral. Euthyphro’s first answer is one that most unreflective people would give: “Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” In other words, gods define what is moral or immoral. This same sort of reply is why so many people are absolutely convinced that morality cannot possibly exist without gods, and that therefore denying the supernatural is equivalent to embracing moral relativism, from which the distance is short to nihilism and the conclusion that life itself is meaningless — all positions strongly rejected by modern humanists. Not so fast, says Socrates. He points out to his companion that, according to the stories we hear, the gods often disagree vehemently on what is right or wrong in any particular instance. This, of course, is a problem not just for polytheistic religions but also for monotheistic ones, once we realize that the intelligent person ought to ask herself why she should embrace the moral dictates of one particular god rather than those espoused by another god of a competing religion. But Socrates this day is in a good mood, so he lets Euthyphro off that particular hook by postulating that there probably are at least some moral dictates on which all gods would agree (for example, that killing without reason is not permissible). Still, Socrates presses the point by rephrasing the question: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” These two alternatives represent the horns of what is now known as Euthyphro’s dilemma.
Consider first the second horn, that an action is moral because it is approved by the gods. Rather counterintuitively, this essentially means that morality is arbitrary! If God decides that, say, murder, rape, or genocide are okay, then we would have to assent, regardless of how repugnant such a thought might be or how much our own sense of right and wrong would be offended or crushed by it. Indeed, it is not at all difficult to find perfectly good examples of God’s commandments in various sacred scriptures that no person in his right (moral) mind today would follow, regardless of their alleged divine origin.
Perhaps, then, we should embrace the other horn of the dilemma and agree that a given action is approved by the gods because it is moral, not the other way around. Except that such an agreement provides only temporary relief. Think of it this way: if God approves of a given action because that action is moral, this means that there is a God-independent standard for morality by which God himself abides. But if that is the case, two astounding conclusions follow: first, we do not need gods to be moral (because there is a non-divine source to look for); and second, we are now in a position to figure out how to be moral on our own (which just happens to be the goal of secular ethics). The surprising outcome of Euthyphro’s dilemma, then, is that the religious believer has to agree that either morality is arbitrary or the divine, even if it exists, has nothing to do with it at all.
Of course, few people like this conclusion the first time they hear it, least of all our good old friend Euthyphro, who tries desperately to escape the horns of the dilemma on which Socrates has managed to impale him. He does not succeed, and his attempts reveal such a poor logic that Socrates pokes a bit of fun at him. Then, as the infinitely patient teacher that he is (or, depending on how you interpret his character, the ever sarcastic commentator on society), Socrates tells Euthyphro that they now have to begin the discussion from scratch. But Euthyphro cannot take it anymore, and in one of the most unceremonious hasty retreats ever to appear in Western literature he takes leave of the philosopher by saying, “Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now.”
The Euthyphro dialogue was written twenty-four centuries ago, and its conclusion is devastating for the whole idea that divinity and morality are intimately linked. That conclusion remains valid today, despite the valiant attempts by a number of theologians — from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas all the way to Richard Swinburne — to somehow counter it. That by itself should grant Socrates the title of honorary humanist.
4. The practice of epistemic humility. Another major value of modern humanism, I would think, is the rejection of dogmas of all kinds, not just religious, but political as well. This is because dogmas are the antithesis of critical thinking, one of the attitudes that humanists everywhere seek to encourage. The opposite of a dogmatic posturing is the adoption of a habit of epistemic humility, as made clear by modern virtue epistemologists .
Socrates is arguably the most famous practitioner of epistemic humility, as is clear by the story of the Oracle at Delphi, told by Plato in the Apology . This is the famous scene where Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates, asks the Oracle if anyone is wiser than Socrates. The Oracle’s response, that no one is wiser, puzzles the philosopher, who believes that he himself doesn’t actually know anything and is not therefore wise. But of course Socrates’ own repeated inquiries with the major politicians, statesmen, and artists of the Athens of his time clearly reveal that they know nothing either, except that they are convinced of the contrary. This, then, is what makes sense of the Oracle’s otherwise cryptic response: Socrates is wiser than all the others because only he realizes the depth of his own ignorance. I submit that the modern world too could do with a bit more wise recognition of the epistemic limits of humanity.
5. The Socratic method. The so-called Socratic method, also known as the meth- od of elenchus (from the Greek élenkhos, meaning “refutation, scrutiny”), is not only still very much used today in pedagogy, but represents one of the crucial tools of skeptical inquiry, and therefore a major component of humanist epistemology. The method begins with having one’s interlocutor state some belief he is willing to accept and defend. Then the teacher derives a number of conclusions from other beliefs held by the interlocutor, eventually showing that such conclusions are in contradiction of the initial belief under examination. The above mentioned Euthyphro is a spectacular case of Socratic method at work, and it is both instructive and entertaining (at the least for us readers, if not for Euthyphro).
In some instances Socrates even consciously explains to his friends how he works. For instance, in the Theaetetus, he says that he is not really a teacher, but rather someone analogous to a midwife, the difference being that his “concern is not with the body but with the soul that is in travail of birth.” Continuing “and the highest point of my art is the power to prove by every test whether the offspring of a man’s thought is a false phantom or instinct with life and truth. I am so far like the midwife that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom; and the common reproach is true, that, though I question others, I can myself bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me” . Not only do we see here, again, displayed the virtue of epistemic modesty discussed above; we can also appreciate that Socrates is not telling his students and interlocutors what to think, he is trying to teach them how to think. That difference is at the heart of modern critical thinking and therefore of humanist discourse.
Socrates’ influence from a humanist perspective
Entire books have of course been written about Socrates’ importance on the development of ideas in subsequent philosophers , some of whom, like Kant , were themselves instrumental in shaping the Enlightenment, and therefore modern humanist thought. Here, however, I want to briefly comment on two of the Hellenistic philosophical schools that immediately followed Socrates, and that were strongly influenced by him: Cynicism and Stoicism .
The Cynics coined the term “cosmopolitanism,” which was then adopted by the Stoics and incorporated in their discipline of action , which regulated how we should behave toward other people. Arguably the most famous Stoic interpretation of the concept is known as Hierocles’ circles , and says, in part:
Each of us is, as it were, circumscribed by many circles; some of which are less, but others larger, and some comprehend, but others are comprehended, according to the different and unequal habitudes with respect to each other. For the first, indeed, and most proximate circle is that which everyone describes about his own mind as a centre, in which circle the body, and whatever is assumed for the sake of the body, are comprehended. For this is nearly the smallest circle, and almost touches the centre itself. The second from this, and which is at a greater distance from the centre, but comprehends the first circle, is that in which parents, brothers, wife, and children are arranged. The third circle from the centre is that which contains uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, and the children of brothers and sisters. After this is the circle which comprehends the remaining relatives. Next to this is that which contains the common people, then that which comprehends those of the same tribe, afterwards that which contains the citizens; and then two other circles follow, one being the circle of those that dwell in the vicinity of the city, and the other, of those of the same province. But the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race. These things being thus considered, it is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one centre, and always to endeavour earnestly to transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend.
This is in essence what modern humanists such as Peter Singer  are arguing about the scope of ethics: that we should be concerned with an expanding (though in Hierocles’ metaphor it is rather a contracting, as in lulling others closer to us) circle of concern, which Singer extends beyond human beings to any other creature capable of experiencing pain. The germ of these ideas — which are themselves crucial to contemporary humanism — can be traced back to the Cynics and Stoics that taught them from the fourth century BCE through the second or third century CE, and therefore indirectly to Socrates himself. He was a humanist indeed.
 IHEU Bylaws.
 Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, XIII:17.
 Canguilhem G. (2002) Introduction: Objet de L’Histoire des Sciences. in Études d’histoire et de Philosophie de Sciences. Vrin, 7ème edition augmentée, pp. 20–21.
 Plato, Apology, 46.
 Hayek, F.A. (2011) Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 3: The Political Order of a Free People. University of Chicago Press, p. 1.
 Plato, Apology, 24-27.
 Plato, Crito.
 Plato, Euthyphro.
 Greco, J. and J. Turri. Virtue Epistemology, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 Plato, Apology, 27.
 Plato, Theaetetus, 150b.
 Morrison, D.R., (Ed.) (2010) The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. Cambridge University Press.
 Kant, I. (1784) What is Enlightenment? (translated by M.C. Smith).
 Pigliucci, M. (2015) Dying (Every Day) With Dignity: Lessons From Stoicism. The Human Prospect 5(1):11-26.
 Hadot, P. (2001) The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Harvard University Press, ch. 8.
 Taylor, T. (1822/2011) Ethical Fragments of Hierocles, Preserved by Stobaeus. Evergreen Books.
 Singer, P. (1994) How are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest. Man- darin/Reed.