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Confucius and Socrates Contents


Theory-Practice Correlation

By Sanderson Beck

Now that we have examined the teachings of Socrates, it may be worthwhile to glance back over his life to see how well he practiced what he preached. According to Xenophon and Plato there was a high correlation in terms of Socrates living up to his own ideas.

In Plato's Laches the general of that name declares that he loves and hates discussions depending on whether the speaker who is discoursing on virtue and wisdom has deeds to match or not. He examines how well the words and actions harmonize with each other. When they are in harmony, he rejoices; but when the man is of an opposite character, he is pained and hates the discussion. Laches then says, "Now of Socrates' word I have no experience, but before, as it seems, I have tested his deeds; there I found him worthy of freely speaking all the beautiful words."1 In this case Laches has personally seen Socrates' bravery on the battlefield, but he is as yet unfamiliar with his skill in conversation. As far as this general is concerned, his demonstrated courageous character gives him license to speak whatever he wishes.

Xenophon records in his Symposium that when Socrates recommended that every husband ought to teach his wife whatever he would like her to know, Antisthenes challenges him by asking, "If that is so, Socrates, how is it that you don't practice what you preach by yourself educating Xanthippe, but live with a wife who is the hardest to get along with of all the women there are---or, I think, that ever were or will be?" Socrates explains:

Because I observe that men who wish to become expert horsemen do not get the most docile horses but rather those that are high-spirited, believing that if they can manage this kind, they will easily handle any other. And I, wishing to deal with and associate with people, have acquired the same, well assured that if I can endure her, I will easily be able to relate with all the rest of mankind.2

The rest of the company confirmed the validity of this remark. Socrates did in fact have more trouble with Xanthippe than with anyone else, and his close relationship with her did give him the opportunity to learn how to get along with even a shrew like her.

After relating Socrates' ideas on self-control, Xenophon makes the following observation:

His own self-control was shown yet more clearly by his deeds than by his words. For he kept in control not only the pleasures of the body, but those too that money brings, in the belief that he who takes money from any casual giver puts himself under a master and endures the basest form of slavery.3

Socrates was well-known for his detachment from material things.

In defending Socrates against his accusers who felt he had been corrupting the youth, Xenophon gives more details. Not only did he control his own desires and appetites stricter than anyone, but he could endure any cold or heat and was resolute in labor; his needs were so well trained in moderation that he was content with very little. "This being his character, how could he have led others into impiety, crime, gluttony, lust, or laziness? In fact he helped many get over these by urging them toward goodness and giving them confidence that self-discipline would make them gentlemen."4 He never professed to teach these things, but by manifesting them he gave his disciples hope that they could attain them also. He never neglected the body, and criticized such neglect in others, such as over-eating followed by over-exertion. He recommended as much physical exercise as is pleasing to the soul, for this habit brings good health and does not hamper care of the soul. He disliked foppery and pretentiousness in the fashion of clothes or in behavior, nor did he encourage the love of money among his companions. Although he assisted them, he would not take money even though they desired to give it. This policy he kept in order to assure his own liberty, not selling himself into bondage to anyone. He was surprised that anyone could take money for the spreading of virtue; for him the greatest reward was the gain of a good friend. Certainly anyone who became a gentleman could not fail to feel deep gratitude for such a great benefit. Socrates made no promises to anyone, but he was confident that his companions who adopted these principles of conduct would be life-long good friends to him and to each other.5

Probably Socrates was condemned by many, because he was critical of many of the established practices of the time. He argued that it was foolish to choose public officials by lottery when every other profession depends on knowledge and skill, and mistakes in the minor crafts are less disastrous than the mistakes in statecraft. Some people felt that he led the young to despise the constitution of the city and made them violent. Xenophon reasons in his defense that the cultivation of wisdom and the use of persuasion by words are designed to replace force by safe and friendly means of change. Actually it is power without wisdom that leads to violence; for violence requires physical supporters, while wisdom only needs confidence in its ability to persuade.6 As far as we know, Socrates never attempted to organize his own political force, but rather only acted as an individual counselor in private life. What his students may have done in politics we will examine in the next chapter.

Xenophon concludes his defense of Socrates against the charges of corrupting the youth and rejecting the gods by declaring that he was more deserving of honor on these counts rather than death. He never caused anything bad to happen to the state nor was any man in private life harmed by him. "No man was more conspicuous for his devotion to the service of the gods," and he was so far from corrupting the youth that "if any among his companions had evil desires, he openly tried to reform them and exhorted them to desire the fairest and noblest virtue, by which people prosper in public life and in their homes."7 Perhaps there is some cosmic irony of history here, as with Jesus, that the man who stands out as doing the most for people, receives the most persecution.

Socrates often spoke about justice, so it is fitting that we look at the actions in his life which exemplified justice. Xenophon summarizes many of them.

Again, concerning justice he did not hide his knowledge, but demonstrated it by his actions. All his private conduct was lawful and helpful; to public authority he was so scrupulously obedient in all that the laws required, both in civil life and in military service, that he was a model of good discipline to all. When chairman in the Assembly he would not permit the people to record an illegal vote, but upholding the laws, resisted a popular impulse that might have overcome any but himself. And when the Thirty laid a command on him that was illegal, he refused to obey. Thus he disregarded their repeated injunction not to talk with young men; when they commanded him and certain other citizens to arrest a man on a capital charge, he alone refused, because the order given him was illegal. Also when he was tried on the charge brought by Meletus, even though it is the custom for defendants to ask for favor with the jury and to indulge in flattery and illegal appeals, and many by such means have been known to gain a verdict of acquittal, he completely rejected the familiar trickery of the courts; though he might easily have gotten a favorable verdict by even a moderate indulgence in such stratagems, he chose to die through his loyalty to the laws rather than to live through violating them.8

As we have seen earlier, these courageous deeds in accordance with his beliefs were also described in various works by Plato.

Socrates often made reference to his own actions in discussing a topic, such as the time when Hippias asked him about justice, complaining that Socrates never stated his own ideas. Socrates replied, "I declare them by deeds, anyhow, if not by my words. Don't you think that deeds are better evidence than words?" Hippias agrees, pointing out that many talk about justice and do what is unjust, but no one who acts justly can be unjust. So Socrates asks him, "Then have you ever seen me dealing in perjury or calumny, or stirring up strife between friends or in the city, or doing anything else unjust?"9 Hippias has not. Here again Socrates shows his concern that his actions match his theories.

Xenophon tells how Hermogenes tried to get Socrates to prepare a speech for his defense in court against Meletus; he responded, "Don't you think I have been preparing for it all my life? .. in being constantly occupied in the consideration of right and wrong, and in doing what was right and avoiding what was wrong."10 When Hermogenes persists, Socrates closes the matter by saying that his deity prevented him from preparing a speech ahead.11 Socrates had no need to worry at this particular point; since his entire life was devoted to what was best, this must be a good thing that is happening.

In Plato's Gorgias Socrates declares that doing what is good and just is more important than merely trying to extend one's life-span a little longer. "But O blessed one, don't you see that the noble and the good are something different from saving and being saved? For may not he who is truly courageous not love life so much in terms of a certain amount of time, but surrendering all this to God and believing what the women say that no one escapes destiny, should not he proceed to consider the best way to live out the time of his life?"12 Besides, for the person who is aware that his soul is immortal, it is only a question of where and how well one lives.

Later in the Gorgias Socrates demonstrates his courage in criticizing the state in an effort to improve it even though he is arousing enmity and endangering his own person. Rather he does what he does for the sake of justice, as the physician whose medicine may be painful for a while although it leads to health. Even though his own life might be in danger, Socrates could not lower himself to flatter the state unjustly.13 Socrates did in fact end up making the ultimate sacrifice.

In the Crito we have seen how Socrates demonstrated logically and in actuality that it is better to follow the just laws of the state than to run away and set a bad example for other law-breakers.14

After discussing the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo Socrates personifies the certainty of his knowledge by his calmness as the execution proceeds. When Crito asks him how shall they bury him, Socrates reminds his friend that he is leaving soon and not to confuse his dead body with who Socrates really is.15 Socrates is friendly and cooperative with the jailer who instructs him to drink the poison. Even though his friends request it, Socrates refuses to delay his death beyond the designated time, for he would gain nothing by it. He remained calm and confident to the very end. The narration concludes that of all the men of that time, Socrates was "wisest, most just, and best."16 His equipoise in such circumstance could not help but give confidence to the witnesses present.

Let us conclude this chapter with Xenophon's final summary from his recollections of Socrates.

All who knew what manner of man Socrates was and who pursue virtue continue to this day to miss him beyond all others, as the chief of helpers in the quest of virtue. For myself, I have described him as he was: so pious that he did nothing without counsel from the gods; so just that he did no injury, however small, to any man, but conferred the greatest benefits on all who dealt with him; so self-controlled that he never chose the more pleasant rather than the better course; so wise that he was unerring in his judgment of the better and the worse, and needed no counselor, but relied on himself for his knowledge of them; no less masterly in putting others to the test, and convincing them of error and exhorting them to follow virtue and goodness. He seemed to be all that an excellent and happy man must be.17


1. Plato Laches 188-189.
2. Xenophon Symposium II, 9-10.
3. X. Mem. I, v, 6.
4. X. Mem. I, i, 1-2.
5. X. Mem. I, i, 3-8.
6. X. Mem. I, i, 9-11.
7. X. Mem. I, ii, 63-64.
8. X. Mem. IV, iv, 1-4.
9. X. Mem. IV, iv, 10-11.
10. X. Mem. IV, viii, 4; X. Apology 3.
11. X. Mem. IV, viii, 5; X. Apology 4-5.
12. P. Gorgias 512.
13. Ibid. 521-522.
14. P. Crito 50-54.
15. P. Phaedo 115.
16. Ibid. 116-118.
17. X. Mem. IV, viii, 11.

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.


Life of Confucius
Attitudes of Confucius
How Confucius Taught
What Confucius Taught
Example of Confucius
Influence of Confucius


The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Example of Socrates
Influence of Socrates
Confucius and Socrates Compared

Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato

Beck Index