Ancient Philosophers: The Doctrine of Socrates: Minor Schools

Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World


by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

VI. The Doctrine of Socrates: Minor Socratic Schools

The teaching of Socrates had had two main points: the concept and morality or ethics. However, not all Socrates’ disciples succeeded in understanding the profundity of the master’s teaching. Many of them had first been at the school of the Sophists or of the Eleatics, and they did not succeed in overcoming their initial positions and in grasping the meaning of the Socratic concept in its purity. They believed that the Socratic concept was not much different from Protagoras’ “man — measure-of-all-things,” and that the good was the same as the one of Parmenides. The spiritual heir of Socrates is Plato, who in the Academy carried the doctrine of his master to its highest development.

The others, after the death of Socrates, returned to their native cities and opened schools with a teaching which indicates a return to the Sophistic or Eleatic doctrines. These schools were called Minor Socratic Schools: Socratic, because after the example of Socrates they were interested in the knowledge of morality; Minor, because the thought of Socrates was not expounded for its own good but with inclinations toward former positions.

The Minor Schools are four:

  1. The Megarian, founded by Euclid of Megara;
  2. The Elian, founded by Phaedo;
  3. The Cynic; and
  4. The Cyrenaic.

We shall explain the principles of the last two. They possess a certain importance since they can be considered as historical and doctrinal antecedents of two other monuments of Grecian thought of major importance — Stoicism and Epicureanism.

The Cynic School. This school was opened by Antisthenes, who first was a disciple of Gorgias and then of Socrates. He taught in the Cynosarges of Athens, whence the name Cynic. Antisthenes taught that knowledge (cognition) could not pass beyond the data of the senses; and since every sensation is individual, he concluded that only the individual is real. Moreover, as every individual has his own essence and no other, Antisthenes inferred that error is impossible and finally every definition is impossible.

What, then, were the concepts which Socrates had discussed? Simply the names of nouns. In a word, Antisthenes was an empiric nominalist. Of him it is related that in a debate with Plato about concepts, he said: “O Plato, I see the horse, but the horseness — that I do not see.” Plato answered: “You do not see the horseness because you have nothing but the eyes of the body.”

In ethics, virtue is not a means to attaining good, but is the good itself. As virtue is the only good, so vice is the sole evil. But in what does virtue consist? In autarchy, i.e., in the possession of one’s own reason, that which tells us that pleasures, riches, and everything which is called the civilization of a people is vice, because it is evil to feel the need of them. The Cynic, hence, went apart from society to live as a primitive man with few things, and these few supplied by nature itself. Between nature and society as we know it, with all the comforts of life, there is the same difference as between virtue and vice. To live according to nature understood thus — such is the model of the Cynic’s life.

The most famous Cynic was Diogenes of Sinope. Cynicism is a reaction of the poorer classes against the aristocracy; the reaction was made in the name of nature.

The Cyrenaic School. This school was founded by Cyrene, in those times an enchanting city of Libya, by Aristippus who, before becoming a disciple of Socrates, had heard the lectures of Protagoras.

Regarding cognition, for Aristippus only the subjective sensations are knowable; this implies that the field of knowledge is restricted to the cognition of one state after another which the subject notices in himself as sensations. Thus we are in pure sensism, according to which reality is but a succession of subjective phenomena, with no relation whatsoever to any external object. For Aristippus no metaphysics is possible, since the subject remains closed up in sensations.

Regarding ethics, the Cyrenians, in opposition to the Cynics, affirm that virtue consists in pleasure, and vice in pain. In accordance with their logic, virtue is a pleasing sensation, vice a painful one. The Cyrenians had a theory of sensations: there are three species, pleasant, painful and indifferent. The wise man will seek to keep away the painful or reduce them to the least possible, while he will change the indifferent into pleasant sensations. In a word, virtue consists in procuring for oneself the greatest possible quantity of tender emotions. Hence it is not in the passive, pleasant sensation that virtue consists, but in a supreme effort to secure for oneself the maximum of pleasures. (This is called dynamic hedonism.)

The wise man must preserve mastery over himself while yet living in the midst of pleasures. He must possess them and yet not be possessed by them, as Horace was to say later. In fine, the wise Cyrenian is the happy man who finds a limit only in reason.

The followers of Aristippus developed this rational motive further than that of immediate sensible pleasure and finished by concluding with Theodore the Atheist that nothing exists except pleasure. Others, with Hegesias, the Persuader of death, came to the conclusion that a life is not worth living if it is devoid of pleasure.

Such are two examples of the Minor Socratic Schools. The greatest of the Socratic schools, however, referred to as the Major Socratic School, was the Academy of Plato, which stayed closer to the original intent of the teachings of Socrates.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work. “Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World” was designed and organized by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in © 2011 -2013 The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).

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