About This Blog

About The 'Socrates 4 Today' Project

Whether we like it or not, we all have important Life Choices to make, and these choices are largely ‘philosophical’ in nature. Knowing about some of the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle can help us all make more informed life choices today and live happier and more fulfilled lives as a result.

The Socrates 4 Today project is not an official group or institution of any kind, but rather an umbrella banner for a loose collection of friends (and occasionally friendly organisations) to carry out philosophy related activities. These friends all share the idea that the ancient (yet living) ‘real’ philosophy and wisdom of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle has relevance and importance for us all today.

While some of these friends might enjoy a more academic approach to this philosophy personally, they all share the view that philosophy is essentially a ‘practical’ subject, and is something to be applied to the way we live our lives – not just read about in a book. (Even Plato himself says, there is only so much you can learn about philosophy from a book!)

It is hoped that the Socrates 4 Today Project will help to make some of the central ideas and themes of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and some of the other Greek philosophers more relevant to a wider modern audience. ‘Real’ philosophy after all is said and done – is simply about giving people important tips for living a better, happier and more meaningful life. It is about making better and more informed Life Choices today.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Three Powers of The Psyche (Soul) and their Virtues

In the early spring of 2013 I had the pleasure to attend three “Socratic” lectures in London given by the Prometheus Educational Trust. I posted brief details on this blog at the time for anyone who might want to go along; but now I wish to pick out one or two threads and ideas from those talks. This post will outline the essence of what Socrates and Plato meant by VIRTUE and EXCELLENCE (ARETE)– which is just slightly different than what we often regard as “the virtues” as later described in specific detail by Aristotle. Tim Addey reminds us in his first talk ‘The Philosopher in the World’ that philosophy (the love of wisdom) in its simplest sense is just about making the best choice we can when faced with a range of possible actions in a given situation. Every human being chooses what they consider to be the wisest choice and rejects the more foolish according to their own criteria. No-one would choose to act foolishly we can presume – although that may become apparent in hindsight.

We have as Tim suggests to make our way through the drama of life, hopefully avoiding too much tragedy – and hopefully not “frutting and stretting like poor actors across the stage” too much as Shakespeare once beautifully put it. In order to live well – we must Know Ourselves as inscribed above Apollo’s temple in Delphi; and this means to know where we are and what we are as individual human beings, collective societies and as human beings within a vast universe. Now whether readers of this piece are religious and spiritual people or not – I want to find and use a term for the inner self – or rational consciousness – that makes rational decisions about the actions we can take. Tim Addey suggests using the word ‘soul’ providing we can leave the considerable baggage associated with this word behind. I somehow doubt this – and so will stick to the word “psyche” used by the ancient Greeks, which literally meant 'breath'. Keep in mind that the word 'psyche' meant a little bit more to the ancient Greeks in some ways that soul means to us today; but in other ways carried less baggage than the word 'soul' does to most people today. For the non-spiritual reader “rational consciousness as yet to be fully scientifically explained” will do just as well – but I shall use psyche for convenience now.

Now the seeker of wisdom – the philosopher – in the Socratic and Platonic tradition consciously cultivates wisdom as he goes through the life lived by the psyche while living as a human being here on earth.

The psyche is seen as having three essential faculties or powers - and one of these might be called the ‘desiring’ nature which pursues what it perceives to be goodness through an instinctive attraction to whatever is beautiful.

The second faculty we can call the ‘knowing’ nature which peruses goodness and truth through investigation and trying to look beyond the first appearances of the person or situation requiring action. On another level it persues the truly good rather than what merely appears to be good or a good idea.

The third faculty or power sits somewhere between the previous two - almost trying to harmonise them into a unified whole. This third faculty was known as ‘thumos’ in Greek – which actively desires the good but listens also to the rational and investigative part of the psyche. It is often vary clumsily translated with the word 'anger' today – but it should include ‘spirited’ and 'vibrant' and 'positive actions' within its borders. Once again, we must be cautious with the way some words are translated since we use some words differently these days. I will therefore keep to the word thumos for this third faculty or power of the psyche.

This gives us a tri-partite psyche (soul) in the Platonic view – and this idea comes up time and again in the writings of Plato in various ways. My favourite example is in the Phaedrus dialogue – where we find the Myth of the Charioteer presenting the rational part of the psyche as a Charioteer being pulled by a good white horse (the spirited, active and ordinative part of the psyche) and a dark unruly horse which represents the desiring or appetitive part of the psyche.  Without going into all the details here – it is sufficient to quote that: ‘the life of the Charioteer is not always an easy one…..’

Now….. finally moving to my main theme of this particular blog – the virtue & excellence of the various parts of the psyche – I should point out that each of the three main faculties of the soul mentioned above can be improved individually – which leads on to the improvement of the whole psyche. Indeed, each of the three faculties has a perfection – and were a person able to perfect all three areas he would have perfected his psyche or soul as much as a human being could in the this mortal life. The perfection of these three faculties of the soul is ARETE in its formal description – that is VIRTUE and EXCELLENCE.

Specifically, the improvement and excellence of rational, knowing, investigative faculty of the soul (the Charioteer) is wisdom - where we become proficient in recognising the truly good from what only appears to be good…. 

The excellence of the thumos (spirited and active part - the white horse) is fortitude or courage – which keeps us going in tough and difficult times – and can keep us steadfast and stable amidst the storms of life.  It also helps to keep us true to the directions of the rational faculty, even in difficult times when easier options to choose from might tempt us away from the path we have chosen.

The improvement or excellence of the desiring quality of the soul (the dark unruly horse) is temperance – so that our pursuit of goodness in the form of beauty remains within its proper limits…. and allows our normal human desires to be kept under the control of the rational faculty. (It is not wrong to have desires per se in Plato –or to act on these desires providing that are kept under rational control.

In addition to the three virtues or excellences of the psyche mentioned above (temperance, wisdom, fortitude or courage) there is a fourth virtue in the Platonic tradition JUSTICE – which is mostly where a civil community is arranged in the best way for the community. Justice can also be applied to our personal choices and therefore psyche or soul in some ways.This is a reasonable enough point to clarify that while we often talk about a tripartite soul in Plato - it does not mean that it is in three distinct bits which are then stuck together - it simply means that there are three distinct qualities or powers to the psyche.

Now just a little more about these four virtues – three which are mostly faculties of the psyche or soul – and the fourth which largely applies to our communities and societies as a whole. The psyche can exercise its various powers outwardly towards the world, inwardly towards itself, and upwardly so to speak towards the immaterial causes, the divine, and the metaphysical. In each of these three cases (directions) the development of the four virtues is necessary if the process of obtaining excellence (ARETE) is to be advanced.

When the virtues are directed outwardly they are called civic or political virtues;

When the virtues are directed inwardly for self-improvement they are called cathartic (or purifying) virtues;

When directed upwards they are called contemplative or theoretic virtues; (….. and Tim Addey reminds us in his talk that: ‘for the causes from which we descend are only to be seen in purest contemplation’.)

“Bite Size Chunks” is one of the promises of this blog and so I will finish this introductory look at the Socratic Platonic four virtues here. I will conclude by adding just one more paragraph from the notes to Tim Addey’s talk on this subject:

‘This then, is the internal constitution of the human soul, with its powers and excellences: but what is the place of such a creature in the world? If justice enables parts to contribute to the whole, what kind of life should we be living in order to both give and take goodness in the universe…….. and how will the lover of wisdom extend the goodness inherent in his or her soul into the material world.

Notes: I hope to place some more ideas from these Prometheus Trust talks into “Bite Size Chunks” in due course. For those who would like to read more on this now take a look at my original post about these talks which has links to the full notes.

For those of you who would like to read how I personally think this background is useful for our lives today (4 Today) there is a short piece on this subject on my more personal blog at: Virtue and Excellence In Leisure Time


Plato's academy was started in Athens around 387 BCE by Socrates' student and friend Plato. It was still going as a place of learning in the middle of the 5th century CE - some 850 years later, albeit with some breaks along the way. This enormously long period for the existence of an important place of learning cannot have been just by chance - or can it? Surely there must have been some important substance to the philosophy studied there that might perhaps be worth our attention today; just as much as any popular philosophy from more far away and seemingly exotic lands.

By say 450 CE the headmaster or principal of the Academy was a philosopher called Proclus – and the school had been moved to Proclus’ modest home in Athens to avoid the unwanted attention and possible danger from the Christian authorities then in power in Greece. Interestingly, one of the first exhibits you see on the way into the New Acropolis Museum in Athens today is about Proclus' little house where Plato’s Academy was based for some years during the 5th Century CE

It had become an established tradition by Proclus' time that the first book of Plato that the new students studied was usually a book called: ‘The First Alcibiades’. This was because it encouraged and emphasised to the new students the importance of the Delphi maxim 'Know Yourself' before starting any philosophical investigation or path. (Incidentally, the second maxim written above the entrance to the temple of Apollo in Delphi was 'Nothing to Excess') The new students were taught the importance of asking: 'Where am I and where am I going?’ – but even more importantly: 'What Am I and where did I come from?'

Are You a Philosopher?

If you ‘wonder’ about things and have the curiosity to find out when your do not know something then you are a philosopher. Philosophy is simply the love of wisdom and trying to make ourselves a little bit wiser as we go through life. However, we will need to search for wisdom in a range of topics and areas unless we have enough curiosity to find things out: 'to wonder I suppose'.

By clicking onto this website and similar ones; by reading books on the various subjects raised; attending some lectures from time to time, or simply by just talking to your friends about various important subjects you start to become philosophers as well.

The only other thing that you really need to be a philosopher is to keep an open mind on various subjects - but especially ‘the truth’ of all things as the years go by. We must also know that sometimes we do not know all the answers – and therefore need to investigate a subject further.

Socrates said that: ‘the un-investigated life is not worth living’.

Face to Face Philosophical Activities with James & Socrates 4 Today.

Socrates deliberately chose to keep his philosophical conversations with his students and friends an oral tradition and to discuss his philosophy face to face with them. He chose not to write things down at all for a wider audience (i.e. books) and clearly had his reasons for taking this approach. In keeping with this wisdom, talks are organised ‘‘face to face’ in Athens and Delphi in Greece, and occasionally in London, for small informal talks, discussions and philosophical walks.

Socrates never charged money for his teaching and time and most talks and other activities organised by James under the 'Socrates 4 Today' banner are usually without any charge or fee for people who come along.

(Kindly note that details of talks and events arranged by various other individuals and organisations are sometimes posted on this blog for information purposes – and ticket charges may apply in these cases.)

The current face to face activities outlined below are very informal - with other like-minded people who are simply interested in understanding Socrates, Plato and Aristotle or indeed “life” just a little better and finding their own unique philosophical or spiritual path.

Current Activities Include:

1.Introductory Talks and 'Walks with Talk' in Athens and Delphi - Greece

Regular programs of introductory talks, and pedestrian 'walks with talk' are organised in Athens and occasionally in Delphi or London. The talks are very informal and usually followed by a discussion of the philosophical issues raised. “Click” for Details of Talks for 2016 + 2017

2. Coffee, Philosophy and Perhaps A Little Greek Salad.

James regularly meets individual visitors to Athens and Delphi (and sometimes London) - to drink a beer or a coffee and chat “without template” about the ‘real’ Greek philosophy (and spirituality) of Socrates and the ancient Greeks or to answer various other questions people may have.

3. Skype Sessions

As well as a growing number of face to face opportunities to discuss philosophy, James and the Socrates 4 Today network of friends can arrange to discuss philosophy on line using Skype where distance prevents face to face meetings.

For further details contact jamesdelphi2000@gmail.com

Embryonic Activities:

The Little Academy of Athens ©

The ancient Greeks had a saying that if you want to do something well: 'Start and finish with the hearth', and it is at the hearth (the kitchens and fireplaces of our homes) that The Little Academy of Athens has started its small and informal school/s for ‘real’ Greek philosophy. The rationale is that if a little house was sufficient for the great Socratic philosopher Proclus to keep Plato's Academy and ideas alive in Athens during the 5th century CE - then it is certainly sufficient for the friends of the Socrates 4 Today project to meet and discuss various subjects and deepen their knowledge in the search for wisdom, truth and perhaps even philosophical enlightenment. Over time it is hoped more and more friends of ‘real’ philosophy will pass through the The Little Academy of Athens, and as a result, shine more brightly and consistently in their own part of the world.

Reviews of Unusual and Interesting Books Associated With Socrates

Atticus the Storyteller's 100 Greek Myths (by Lucy Coats)

This is a great book for anyone who enjoys reading to their children at bedtime, or wants to try and get their children to read more a bit more by themselves. Interesting, enchanting, inspiring, all at the same time. Beautifully produced and with great illustrations to keep young eyes turning the pages. Good clear English for youngsters who want to improve their English language skills as well. (Many of these myths are pillars of our culture and way of life)

See: 100 Greek Myths for Children

'Travels In Elysium' by Williamk Azuski.

'The Travels' starts with the simple premise of young Nicholas ‘Nico’ Pedrosa taking his first job as an assistant at an archaeological dig on Santorini in Greece. However, within just a few pages William Azuski has begun adding the many layers of intrigue and mystery which he develops throughout his well crafted and philosophically thought provoking book. Nico tries to work out whether his new boss and would be mentor, Marcus Huxley, really will find new levels or reality and truth hidden under the deep volcanic ash of the ancient Minoan eruption; or whether it is just a wild obsession with Plato’s World of Ideas and Forms, the Orphic Mysteries, and “all things ancient Greek and metaphysical” that drives Huxley forward. Surely no personal or greater good can come from the situation Nico finds himself in or Huxley's dubious methods; or can it? One cannot help but keep turning the pages to find out.

See: The Travels

'Plato For Beginners' by Robert Cavalier.

Robert Cavalier’s little book with cartoons and pictures puts Plato into "bite size chunks" for young people, and this is certainly one of the aims of this blog. Cavalier's book encourages people to go out and read a bit more and so it deserves a mention on this blog. This short book will be of interest to all 'beginners' of Socratic philosophy – whether young and old - if they want to get a quick overview of what the subject is about. There are a few small points where I think a mistake has been made, and certainly a few spelling mistakes - but what the heck - the cartoons are very good. Ideal stocking filler for young philosophers!

See: Plato for Beginners

'Socrates and Plato & Their Essential Tip for Young International Travellers' by James Head.

Socrates and Plato are without doubt two of the best known philosophers and thinkers from ancient Athens or indeed any other period of history including our own. Why is it that they are still so well known today, and what is it really that makes them such important people? These are just some of the questions I hope to answer for you in this first book of three understandable essays for general readers.

Keep in mind right from the start that philosophy after all is said and done, is simply about giving people tips for living a good life or a better more fulfilling kind of life. Socrates was quite simply a wonderful teacher about life in its various shapes and forms; which is what ‘real’ philosophy is all about. ‘Where am I and where do I want to go?’ - are the fundamental philosophical questions for Socrates summed up in the Delphi Maxim or phrase: ‘Know Thyself’. I hope this book will start to explore some of these questions for you, as well as giving you a good idea of what Socrates and Plato were all about and why their advice or ‘tips’ are still worth our consideration today.

The three essays move progressively deeper into the philosophy of Socrates and Plato for those who wish to know a little more. After a general introduction to what ‘real’ Greek philosophy actually is in the traditional Socratic sense, the first essay looks at the essential question of ‘Know Thyself’ and talks about Plato’s book The First Alcibiades. Interestingly, this was also the first book that new students at Plato’s Academy began with – so it is undoubtedly a good place for us to start. The second essay is appropriately titled: ‘The Nuts and Bolts of Plato’ and looks at some important ideas and themes which crop up in many of Plato’s books. By the end of this second essay you will have a very good ‘general idea’ of what Socrates and Plato were all about.

Finally, the third essay discusses Plato’s book The Phaedrus in some detail. As described within the previous essays, Plato can be thought of as a poetic writer who often adds several layers of meaning to his books. The Phaedrus can simply be read as a description of what it means to fall hopelessly in love with someone; or it can be read as a road map to philosophical enlightenment. As described at the start of this final essay, this is one of the many choices we all have to make for ourselves. (Regular free offers - See top right of this blog page for details.)

See: Essential Tips for Young Travellers

Let me know if you would like to add a book review in the above section of the Socrates 4 Today blog.

Why Not Spend 3 Days In Delphi ?

Why Not Spend 3 Days In Delphi ?
I guess many philosophers like to walk in 'special' places like Delphi....