Home » Ancient Philosophy » Diagnosing Socrates: Was Socrates Happy?

Diagnosing Socrates: Was Socrates Happy?

Andrew Turner
Harvard University


Socrates’ general definition of happiness was unachievable as the telos of wisdom, the character of which seems largely undefined. While nowhere in Plato’s Dialogues does Socrates explicitly contend that a final and complete wisdom is necessary for happiness, I find that the implication is evident if considered against the broader backdrop of the concept of ultimate objectives and ends in Greek philosophy. Furthermore, I argue that Socrates could have only claimed happiness in terms of the search for wisdom and not in terms of the telos of wisdom. This is important since it indicates a contradiction in the larger Greek notion of the importance of results, ends, and objectives (rather than processes).[1]

Diagnosing Socrates: Was Socrates Happy?


I argue that Socrates espoused an expectation of happiness that was essentially unachievable since it relied, chiefly, upon the telos of wisdom, the character of which he never explicitly defined, and the qualification of which, by all accounts general to his culture, he defied. Furthermore, I argue that Socrates could only claim happiness in terms of the search for wisdom and not in terms of the telos of wisdom-qua-wisdom. This is important since it indicates a fundamental contradiction in the Greek notion of the importance of results (rather than processes), as later qualified by Aristotle.

The vast majority of the Western world is quick to identify Socrates as happy. Plato’s Euthydemus is generally considered to be the first philosophical treatment of Socratic happiness[2] (even if its theme explores types of education and not happiness per se); and it is here that we first encounter the notion that, for Socrates, wisdom is sufficient for happiness.[3] However, while Socrates may speak at great length on how to recognize happiness through wisdom (of course Socrates believed that general happiness, for most people, was derived from the individual mastery of a particular skill),[4] there is very strong evidence in the dialogues to suggest that he never found happiness and was himself—by virtue of his own definition—unhappy.

In support of this claim, I draw on three standard texts: Euthydemus, Symposium, and Apology. I will demonstrate that Socrates is never able to achieve the telos of wisdom, and that such an assessment necessarily means he lacks both wisdom and happiness, and therefore could only claim personal happiness based on the search for wisdom. In this sense, he cannot stand as the model of the happy person in Western philosophical tradition, since his self-defined teleological requirement for happiness can never be met.

It is important to understand how Socrates arrives at his view of wisdom. He very deliberately departs from the cultural notion that good fortune is the most significant impetus of individual prosperity in three ways (Euthydemus 278-282). Firstly, Socrates argues that luck is essentially an unrepeatable characteristic of any particular situation, and at the whims of chance, birth, or other men. Secondly, as Daniel Hagen pointed out earlier this year,[5] he demonstrates how particular learned skills, when applied at graded levels from novice to master, necessarily demonstrate wisdom (Euthydemus 280d7-281b4). Thirdly, he argues that goodness in one’s life should not be measured in the accumulation of material items, but in the accumulation of wisdom. Socrates shows a relation between goods and wisdom when he argues that aggregate individual wisdom is improved over one’s lifetime and this improvement may be quantified in terms of material goods acquired. In essence, he argues that greater acquisition of goods only comes through correctly applied wisdom, thus it is the wisdom itself (not the material goods) that is most important.

Socrates concludes by arguing (in Apology, not Euthydemus) that misfortune and other men may take away all the material goods of a wise man, including his life, but they can never remove his acquired wisdom (Apology 29d2-30b4). It is on this final point that we find one of the chief rationales to call Socrates a happy man—because his death cannot negate his accumulated wisdom, and since happiness is the telos of wisdom, Socrates must be a happy man. Add to this his own argument describing how, in fact, he finds happiness in his forthcoming execution:

How much would one give, judges, to examine him who led the great army against Troy, or Odysseus, or Sisyphus, or the thousand Others whom one might mention, both men and women? To converse and to associate with them and to examine them there would be inconceivable happiness. Certainly those there do not kill on this account. For those there are happier than those here not only in other things but also in that they are immortal henceforth for the rest of time, at least if the things that are said are in fact true (Apology 41b8-c3).

In the above excerpt we find Socrates doing two things rather explicitly: first, he is telling the court that he will, in the afterlife, continue the very actions for which he will be executed, and he will do so for eternity and with the likes of the greatest personages Greece has ever known. Second, he is telling them that they are wasting everyone’s time and, in fact, courting the selfsame charge of impiety for which he has been found guilty! The court has no recourse to claim Socrates cannot continue to philosophize in the afterlife, since such a claim would be tantamount to saying there is no afterlife; and the court perforce must worry that the very act of executing Socrates will offend the gods, since “Certainly those there do not kill on this account” (41b12-41c1). Finally, by saying in line 41c that “those there are happier than those here”, happier ostensibly because they will entertain and find pleasure in the process of philosophy and the accumulation of wisdom, he is saying that the men of Athens are intrinsically unhappy precisely because they don’t do this. In this sense, then, killing Socrates will serve only to increase their unhappiness (while increasing Socrates’ happiness).

Interestingly, this same passage promotes the idea that Socrates knew he had not achieved wisdom, since he imagined continuing the interrogative process in Hades with the heroes and heroines of Greek antiquity (his antiquity, that is). It is also remarkable to recall that he imagines continuing this process for eternity—could this indicate an understanding that he expected to never achieve the telos of wisdom? If so, then it indicates not only that Socrates could not possibly have ever been happy (if happiness is the telos of wisdom), but that he could never, even given all of eternity, be happy.

So, what does this say with regard to his educative attempts to encourage others to both follow a life of contemplation, and in doing so approach more directly true happiness and wisdom? It is arguable that he never actually succeeds in getting any of his interlocutors to do anything more than defer to his assumed superior philosophical position. If this is the case, then it is highly unlikely that Socrates ever left a dialogue satisfied (or happy) with his efforts, if we agree that he genuinely desired to effect change in others and not merely in himself. Sarah McGrath explores this topic in a roundabout way in her essay “The Puzzle of Pure Moral Deference.” In her article, McGrath defines pure moral deference as “treating someone [else] as a genuine moral expert in a very strong sense.”

You tell me that eating meat is immoral. Although I believe that, left to my own devices, I would not think this, no matter how long I reflected, I adopt your attitude as my own. It is not that I believe that you are better informed about potentially relevant non-moral facts (e.g. about the conditions under which livestock is kept, or about the typical effects of eliminating meat from one’s diet). On the contrary, I know that I have all of the non-moral information relevant to the issue that you have (McGrath, 322).

In the above example, McGrath demonstrates how an originally moral-based decision is adopted by a second party out of deference to the assumed moral superiority of the first party, and not out of a genuine and personal moral conclusion derived from reflection and analysis. In the same way, Socrates’ interlocutors may be said to find themselves in one of three states at the close of a dialogue: disagreement, neither agreement or disagreement (neutrality), and agreement. In all three cases, Socrates did not change the minds of the interlocutors, though he may have changed their habits in the latter two states at least. In the case of those who find themselves in agreement at the close of a dialogue, it might be helpful to review how they voice that agreement.

Euthydemus has (at least) three endings, which we’ll review slightly disordered—in the second, Socrates manages to belittle the two sophists without them realizing, and in the third he simply encourages Crito to see the study of philosophy as worthy in its own right, and to realize that there will always be good and bad teachers and that the former is always outnumbered by the latter. Crito makes no response to this; and Dionysodorus and Euthydemus give no indication that they are moved in any way by Socrates’ clever retorts regarding their eristic arguments. Yet, perhaps we should read the lack of response as a tacit approval or agreement (Qui tacit consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit). In the first case, we do experience an agreement of sorts, but I think it is of the McGrathian deferential persuasion.

“In sum, Cleinias,” I said, “it is likely that concerning all the things that we first called goods, the account of them is not that they are by nature goods just by themselves, but rather it seems to be this: If ignorance leads them, they are greater evils than their opposites, insofar as they are better able to serve the evil master; but if intelligence and wisdom lead them, they are greater goods, though just by themselves neither sort is of any value.”

He said, “Apparently, it seems to be just as you say.”

“Then what follows from the things we’ve said? Is it anything other than that none of the other things is either good or evil, but of these two, wisdom is good, and ignorance is evil?”

He agreed (Euthydemus 281d2-e5).[6]

The key sentence is Cleinias’ in 281e: “Apparently, it seems to be just as you say” [emphasis mine]. This can genuinely mean nothing more than acknowledging that Socrates has made an argument for which Cleinias has no ready response, and so when Plato writes, “He agreed” it can only be an agreement of deference.

Naturally, the reader across time may approach Euthydemus like all the dialogues and read them non-historically (and reading Plato as literature is quite the dissertation-maker), but if we approach Socrates as a real individual and the dialogues as the best available representatives of actual discourse, then we come to a disconcerting and quite sad conclusion that Socrates was a rather unsuccessful teacher.

Symposium, however, belies the first half of the aforementioned notion, since it is largely regarded as more fiction than not, yet adds weight to the claim of Socrates’ overall edifying failure. While the poet Agathon was indeed a real individual, and records indicate that he held a substantial symposium at his home after being lauded for his work at Lenaia, the sequence of events and dialogue between participants is too “containerized” as Harold Attridge describes it.[7] Nonetheless, the interactions between partygoers is in keeping with Plato’s other uses of the same historical characters, and the general attitude of the revelers toward Socrates is roughly an even mix of jealousy-based disdain and reluctant respect.

One morning he was thinking about something which he could not resolve; he would not give it up, but continued thinking from early dawn until noon—there he stood fixed in thought; and at noon attention was drawn to him, and the rumour ran through the wondering crowd that Socrates had been standing and thinking about something ever since the break of day. At last, in the evening after supper, some Ionians out of curiosity (I should explain that this was not in winter but in summer), brought out their mats and slept in the open air that they might watch him and see whether he would stand all night. There he stood until the following morning; and with the return of light he offered up a prayer to the sun, and went his way (Symposium 220a-c).

Alcibiades, after delivering this unflattering and context-free recounting, adds a rather begrudging praise, which it is important that we review at length:

I will also tell, if you please—and indeed I am bound to tell—of his courage in battle; for who but he saved my life? Now this was the engagement in which I received the prize of valour: for I was wounded and he would not leave me, but he rescued me and my arms; and he ought to have received the prize of valour which the generals wanted to confer on me partly on account of my rank, and I told them so, (this, again, Socrates will not impeach or deny), but he was more eager than the generals that I and not he should have the prize. There was another occasion on which his behaviour was very remarkable—in the flight of the army after the battle of Delium, where he served among the heavy-armed,—I had a better opportunity of seeing him than at Potidaea, for I was myself on horseback, and therefore comparatively out of danger. He and Laches were retreating, for the troops were in flight, and I met them and told them not to be discouraged, and promised to remain with them; and there you might see him, Aristophanes, as you describe, just as he is in the streets of Athens, stalking like a pelican, and rolling his eyes, calmly contemplating enemies as well as friends, and making very intelligible to anybody, even from a distance, that whoever attacked him would be likely to meet with a stout resistance; and in this way he and his companion escaped—for this is the sort of man who is never touched in war; those only are pursued who are running away headlong (Symposium 220d-221b).

Even as Alcibiades heaps upon Socrates the praise of a thankful campaign veteran (220d3), admits that his service award should have gone to Socrates (220e4), and comes two verbs and an adjective away from calling Socrates a Soldier-Demigod (221a2), he quickly draws attention from heroics by reminding the listener of Νεφέλαι—an obvious but subtle attack that transforms Socrates from a capable and intelligent warrior into a kind of dangerous and single-minded animal (221b3).

Of course, there may be something to the idea of this animalistic single-mindedness when one considers Socrates’ focused and unabated determination to seek wisdom (and thus happiness), and force everyone around him to do the same.

I would say to you, “I, men of Athens, salute you and love you, but I will obey the god rather than you; and as long as I breathe and am able to, I will certainly not stop philosophizing, and I will exhort you and explain this to whomever of you I happen to meet, and I will speak just the sorts of things I am accustomed to: ‘Best of men, you are an Athenian, from the city that is greatest and best reputed for wisdom and strength: are you not ashamed that you care for having as much money as possible, and reputation, and honor, but that you neither care for nor give thought to prudence, and truth, and how your soul will be the best possible?’ And if one of you disputes it and asserts that he does care, I will not immediately let him go, nor will I go away, but I will speak to him and examine and test him. And if he does not seem to me to possess virtue, but only says he does, I will reproach him, saying that he regards the things worth the most as the least important, and the paltrier things as more important. I will do this to whomever, younger or older, I happen to meet, both foreigner and townsman, but more so to the townsmen, inasmuch as you are closer to me in kin. Know well, then, that the god orders this (Apology 29d2-30a5).

david-the-death-of-socrates-3Despite remarks like “it would be an extraordinary happiness to talk with them [the heroes dwelling in Hades-Elysium]” (Apology 41c2) and “He took the cup most cheerfully, without any change of color or expression on his face. He drained it very easily, in good humor” (Phaedo 117c3), the Apology is no less suggestive that Socrates was unhappy under his own terms. We must still contend with the realization that Socrates cannot be said to have met his death a wise (and thus happy) man if we use the teleological definition; and we cannot point at any of his interlocutors (except perhaps Gorgias) to say that he achieved a telos of wisdom through effecting change in others.

Furthermore, we must agree with Russell Jones (“Felix Socrates?”) when he contends that the two-deaths argument cannot indicate any kind of true happiness,[8] but we must do so for different reasons. Jones argues centrally from the position of value, not morally but qualitatively. For Jones, Socrates couldn’t have been happy because his two notions of afterlife—nothingness versus persistence of the soul or consciousness—ought not cause happiness; one ought not be happy upon the contemplation of either. In this sense, Jones’ contention relies upon a personal definition of happiness, which might not apply universally enough to encapsulate happiness as such.

Naturally, if Socrates had simply but concretely refined his notion of wisdom and happiness to be something found within the process of striving for complete wisdom and happiness rather than the achievement of complete wisdom and happiness, we could say from the evidence of the dialogues that he found himself, at the end of his life, truly happy.

It is arguable that Socrates indicates a preference for the destination (the telos) rather than the journey, and this is in keeping with the cultural requirements of Greek philosophy pre- or post-Socratic. Socrates demanded, by his own arguments, a telos of enlightenment achievable only at the moment when no further questions could be asked, and necessarily must have found himself, at the end, lacking: with apologies to Hegel and Heidegger, I might call this a kind of dasein moment-of-being. Might we then wonder, realizing as his tired body grew numb and cool and that no more questions could be asked… did he find some modicum of happiness in that final moment?


[1] In many ways this paper is a general response to two papers by Russell Jones, “Felix Socrates?” and “Socrates Bleak View of the Human Condition”; also, throughout I am explicitly discussing the Socrates of the Dialogues.

[2] Republic spends more time on happiness, but the first best discourse occurs here.

[3] Russell Jones expressed something very similar to this in “Felix Socrates?”

[4] Socrates at times seems obsessed with professional skill, and typically uses the carefully mastered technoi of common laborers to illustrate points of acquired wisdom and personal happiness.

[5] Hagen recently completed his PhD in ancient philosophy at MIT; his research is focused on the development of a unifying moral virtue in the dialogues. His dissertation should be published by MIT Press in 2019; a copy of the work may be requested from DSpace at MIT or the MIT-Harvard Interlibrary Loan.

[6] Euthydemus 281d2-e5, as translated by Russell Jones for his article of a similar topic, “Felix Socrates?”. I find this particular translation the most succinct and lovely of the many available for Euthydemus. It should be noted that the traditional Jowett translation renders 281e as, “That, he replied, is obvious.”

[7] Harold Attridge discussed this concept during the “Johannine Literature” seminar at Yale Divinity School in June 2016.

[8] It is s to note that Socrates’ individual persistence of consciousness argument, (a Greek afterlife in Hades-Elysium) possibly indicates that he actively entertained annihilation as more likely (after death), since he carefully appends the remark, “if the things that are said are in fact true” (Apology 41b8-c3), which I think can only be translated as a sense of post-existential doubt! This might make anyone truly unhappy, but not necessarily everyone.


  • Brickhouse, Thomas C. and Nicholas D. Smith. Socratic Moral Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

  • Grube, George. Five Dialogues, translation of Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, Crito, Meno, and Phaedo, by Plato. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981. Print.
  • Hagen, Daniel. 2016. Moral Expertise and Moral Education: A Socratic Account. Dissertation. MIT. 2016. Interlibrary Loan Harvard-MIT. PDF.
  • Jones, Russell E. 2013. “Felix Socrates?” Philosophia vol 43, 77-98. “Socrates Bleak View of the Human Condition” Ancient Philosophy vol. 36. 2016: 97-105. Print.
  • Jowett, Benjamin. Essential Dialogues of Plato. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005. Print.
  • McGrath, Sarah. “The Puzzle of Pure Moral Deference,” Philosophical Perspectives vol. 23. Ethics: 2009: 321-344. Print.
  • West, Thomas G. and West, Grace S. 4 Texts on Socrates: Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, Crito and Aristophanes’ Clouds. New York: Cornell University Press, 1998. Print.

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