Lecture 8: Socrates - The Just Man

The lecture covers Plato, Socrates, and what it means to be just.


In the 8th of 17 lectures in his "Civilizing the Barbarians" course, Stepanov's theme is "The Just Man". In this lecture, Stepanov delves into the concept of what it means to be just, and what kind of actions can be considered just or unjust. He references the play "The Trojan Women" by Euripides in order to illustrate the ethical dilemmas related to the invasion of a neutral country, the killing of most of its men, and the selling of its women into slavery. Stepanov raises the parallel question of whether it is worthwhile to save American lives by causing harm to others.

Stepanov then turns his attention to Socrates' physical appearance, opinions, views on justice, and approach to death. He describes Socrates as an unusual person who was poor and physically unattractive, but extremely popular with the elite society of Athens, mostly because of his wisdom and his ability to understand the essence of things. Stepanov mentions how Socrates would publicly say that he's in love with beautiful boys and especially Alcibiades, a famous Greek politician, but it was mostly for their minds and not for their physical aspects. Stepanov also points out that Socrates followed an inner angelic and prophetic voice, which would stop him every time he attempted to do something wrong. When Socrates was found guilty of false charges against him, he did not regret it because he believed that a true philosopher should welcome death since it would allow him to be reunited with the eternal and unchanging Forms, and ultimately to know the truth. Socrates even hoped to meet great figures from the past, such as Homer, in the afterlife.

Despite the fact that Socrates lived in the literate ancient Greek society, much of what we know about him comes from the works of Plato, who was a student of his. Stepanov's short canon contains six of Plato's dialogues: "Symposium," "Apology," "Crito," "Phaedo," "Gorgias," and "Republic." Here is a short summary of the role Socrates plays in each of these dialogues:

Stepanov believes that Socrates's ideas and beliefs are well documented in Plato's works and that it is through these works that we can understand Socrates's views. One of those views is that a just society is one in which citizens should be willing to obey the law even when it goes against their personal interests. Stepanov emphasizes that the just man is not only determined by his actions but also by the integrity of his intentions, and Socrates is a prime example of a just man because of the way he believed in and lived by his principles. Stepanov concludes this lecture with an emphasis that every civilized person should read Plato's dialogues on the death of Socrates, specifically "Phaedo," "Apology," and "Crito." He also mentions that the dialogue in "Republic" is also important in understanding Socrates' demise, as it contains a remarkable passage in which Glaucon argues that talk of justice is meaningless, and uses the example of a just person being subjected to severe punishment, including crucifixion, to make his point.

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