by Swami Krishnananda
Socrates, the wise man of Greece, concerned himself mostly with practical problems of life, because mere metaphysical speculation bereft of the application thereof in life he considered futile. He said: "The student of human learning expects to make something of his studies for the benefit of himself or others as he likes. Do these explorers into the divine operations hope that when they have discovered by what forces the various phenomena occur, they will create winds and waters at will and fruitful seasons? Will they manipulate these and the like to suit their needs?"
The view of the Vedanta is the same regarding metaphysics as long as it is confined to the province of reason alone, which exclusively moves along the channels dug out by sense-perception. It was the view of the Buddha, too. Reason cannot give us genuine knowledge of reality. But the Vedanta recognises the value of metaphysics when it is expected to lead one to the final realisation of the Divine Being. In fact no one can live without a metaphysics of life. It may be a good metaphysics or a bad one; but that there is one which everyone follows in leading his life no one can deny. Rational conviction of the nature of Reality intensifies one's faith in it. We cannot go far with mere airy ethics which has no metaphysical background. Ethics is always based on metaphysics. No one can be convinced as to the value of goodness, virtue or righteousness without being assured of a goal towards which they are expected to direct a person and on whose principles they are ultimately based. Whether Socrates himself had a personal metaphysics of his own or not we cannot clearly say. But from the writings of Plato we understand that he had one, though he did not make explicit mention of the same, perhaps in view of the fact that it would not be of much benefit to the people of his time. Anyway, a metaphysics for life is an absolute necessity, though we need not label it with that frightening term from which people incapable of hard thinking are likely to shy away. This will be clear from a study of the philosophy of the Vedanta.
Socrates sought a rational basis for ethics and morality, for the practice of right and wrong, good and bad. He did not agree with the Sophists that 'man is the measure of all things' in the sense that what pleases man is right for him and that there is no such thing as the universally good. To Socrates, knowledge is the highest good or virtue. A knowledge of virtue is to precede its practice. A rational understanding of the nature and meaning of goodness, self-control, truth, wisdom and justice is the pre-condition of their being practised in life. It was the principle of Socrates that no man is voluntarily bad or involuntarily good. Evil is the result of ignorance. Those who have right knowledge cannot go counter to the canons of virtue.
The Vedanta is in agreement with Socrates in holding the view that the practice of virtue should be preceded by a rational understanding of the implications and the nature of virtue. It says that viveka (understanding) should precede vairagya (dispassion) and the practice of shatsampat (six ethical virtues), which means that an aspirant after moksha (liberation), or the final salvation of the soul, should have a profound discernment of the difference that exists between the real and the unreal, in order that his renunciation of the unreal and the practice of self-control may have meaning and value. There cannot be true renunciation or self-control without a correct understanding of the truths implied in their practice. Knowledge precedes action of all kinds. The good is a universal principle and not a private fancy. This is the opinion of both Socrates and the Vedanta. To both knowledge is the highest good, but the Vedanta gives a warning to people, which we do not see Socrates doing, that theoretical knowledge is not virtue and that it is possible for a man of such shallow knowledge to turn to evil and to perpetrate wrong. It is common that people know that they should not tell a lie, and yet many of them do not speak the truth. This is the inscrutable illusion covering the consciousness of man, says the Vedanta. People know that they should not hurt others, and yet they hurt others in spite of the knowledge of the wrong of hurting others. The knowledge of the importance of virtue does not deter people from moving to the evil side of things. The question often raised against the dictum of Socrates that knowledge is virtue is: why do people pursue the wrong path in spite of their knowledge of the right? Yes, we can defend Socrates by saying that such a wise man as he was could not have meant by knowledge some theoretical opinion but knowledge including a perfect discipline of the will. Those who have genuine knowledge of Truth cannot act wrongly, for virtue is for one's own interest, joy and honour. Virtue and happiness mean the same thing but one cannot be virtuous without knowledge.
Socrates says: "I do nothing but to go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your person or properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money, and every other good, public as well as private."
And this is what the Vedanta holds. It is proper to go on persuading and convincing people so that they may move along the path of righteousness which leads to the highest good, viz., liberation of the soul and to teach the disciples to go on with this work of the dissemination of spiritual knowledge throughout the world so that peace and joy may reign supreme and the life of man may be crowned with blessedness. This is what all great men have done and do even today. This is the expression of the irresistible urge of the spiritual consciousness to recognise itself in every entity of the universe, which all are, after all, its own organic parts objectified through sense.