Socrates & Descartes

July 11, 2006 § 8 Comments

We students of literature and philosophy are so fortunate to have the opportunity to read, review; analyze and discuss the written works of some of the greatest thinkers in Human history. Even in light of present day, where our scientific discoveries and technological advances have further evolved the civilized man, there are still fundamental principles of knowledge and thought rooted in the written works of great thinkers such as Socrates and Descartes. This essay will bring together and expound on the differences and similarities of these two great thinkers whom lived Worlds apart.

Socrates born 469 B.C. was inclined toward two particular branches of philosophy: ethics and epistemology. Ethics is the philosophy which seeks to understand the nature of morality (i.e., right and wrong). While Descartes also known as Cartesius; born in 1596, was a mathematician and philosopher. His methods of reason and analysis were utilized to contemplate metaphysics and epistemology as well. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy which seeks to identify the “first principles” and being. Socrates and Descartes were two great minds from vastly different times in our history… Their differences not only exist in time but in thought also. Socrates was a philosopher of ethics. He studied human behavior to draw an answer to the question of right and wrong (morality). Even with his life at risk, his search to reveal the nature of morality persisted. This is best illustrated in Plato’s Apology when Socrates says,

“You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action; that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one” (qtd. in Plato).

Socrates boldly states that a man who is of any value only considers one thing, his present action, is it right or wrong? This differs from Descartes’ work in many ways, but the greatest difference is chiefly exhibited in Socrates’ passionate discourse on ethics and morality directed to an audience, as Descartes’ work carried a very personal undertone.

In the same manner Descartes’ work resulted in a few differences from Socrates. Firstly, the method in which their ideas were recorded, Descartes wrote his discoveries himself and these were kept virtually without blemish. However, Socrates’ work was exposed as a result of the writings of his followers like, Xenophon, Aristotle, Aristophanes and especially Plato. Secondly, Descartes’ primary branch of philosophy was metaphysics, concerning the study and identification of the “first principle” the self.

For example, in Descartes’ Discourse on Method Descartes concludes that since he is thinking he must exist when he claims,

“And noticing that this truth—I think, therefore I am—was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable of shaking it, I judged that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking” (Descartes).

Descartes feels that thinking is evidence of existence as his metaphysics is the study of the self. Unlike Socrates whose philosophy of ethics attempts to understand how man relates to others be it person, place or thing.

On the contrary, there is a branch of philosophy that both Socrates and Descartes share, and that is epistemology: the search for the origin, nature and materialization of knowledge. It seems to me that Socrates and Descartes came to the same conclusion concerning the origin of knowledge, which is that the origin of knowledge and all things coming forth from knowledge reside in God. I found this to be supported in text from both Plato’s Apology of Socrates and René Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes sincerely attributes all of existence, knowledge and everything else as the creation of God when he writes,

“Be that as it may, there is fixed in my mind a certain opinion of long standing, namely that there exists a God who is able to do anything and by whom I, such as I am, have been created” (Descartes).

Descartes shared an unexpected excerpt of personal conviction that exposed his humaneness as well as his humility in light of brilliance. Likewise, Socrates suggests that wisdom comes from God when he says,

“But the truth of the matter, gentlemen, is pretty certainly this: that real wisdom is the property of God… The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless” (qtd. in Plato).

Both Descartes and Socrates alike are seekers however, ultimately do not claim any knowledge of their own but owe their progresses and attainments of certain knowledge to God.

In conclusion, I find that the differences of Socrates and Descartes exist more in mundane and subjective realities. Their lifestyles, cultures, time-periods and certain philosophical schools. However, it is in a deeper faculty of their work where the similarities exist. It is this deeper faculty which allow them to share in highest caliber of thought exercised in their philosophy. I find that both philosophers claim nothing of knowledge to be owned by them but resolve to God as the sole owner of knowledge and in the branch of philosophy which they share, epistemology, they agree that the origin of knowledge is God.


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§ 8 Responses to Socrates & Descartes

  • Dirty Butter says:

    As a Christian, I, too, would agree that the origin of knowledge is God. Proverbs personifies this knowledge as the Woman of Wisdom.

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.” John 1: 1-2 KJV

  • tabootenente says:


    very intriguing, well-considered post. i have studied philosophy on a non-degree track while picking up my BA in lit, and now i’m halfway toward a writing and publishing MFA degree.

    within my current program, a “teaching composition” course is offered as a workshop–a theory-intensive researching into epistemology and the nature of communicating “truth” to others. anyway, your article caught my eye and inspired a couple of thoughts:

    first, descartes was a revolutionary thinker and instigated all sorts of fundamental, philosophical upheavals to take place.

    i’m the worst sort of amateur philosophy student–so please don’t think i’m representing pure knowledge about descartes and his work. still, while i think (hehe) descartes was more than simply brilliant, i also think he had a streak of laziness in his mode of thinking and expression. sometimes it seems as if he makes several intuitive leaps to bridge gaps he couldn’t cover with logic. i have some specifics, but i don’t want to clog up your blog (more than i am already) unless you want to hear them.

    anyway, the source of my response to your descartes discussion concerns your idea that ultimately he believed that god was the sole owner of knowledge; i’m not sure about this one.

    i think descartes was, in his youthful thinkings, his own man. only later in life, especially when his work became known to the public and he was accused of atheism, apostacy and so-on, did he attempt to issue any sort of check made out to god–and these statements he issued more closely resembled his intuitive leaps rather than his inspired philosophical thinking.

    sorry this is taking a long time, but your article is encouraging a response that takes some thought.

    okay, one little bit about socrates: there’s something noble about the guy, isn’t there? sure, he accepted his death sentence even though it was unjust–because he felt that to overrule the judgment of the community was also unjust.

    truth and goodness and doing the right thing = same thing. it’s a powerful concept that history has attributed to socrates. he never worked out the problem that formed one of the few fundamental paths that epistemologists can take: is there really a truth out there? aristotle, of course, says yes and you can find it through deductive logic. plato, who was the true disciple of socrates (and actually is most likely responsible for much of the thinking attributed to socrates) says maybe–the external world is in flux so you can’t KNOW truth–but he offered a method for finding it anyway!

    socrates’ dialectic is the bedrock of that method. and the path he describes is a very spiritual one–one that requires both detailed thinking and meditation, as well as the capacity for faith. his is a lonely path–the closer you get to finding Truth, the more alone you will be.

    thanks again for a great post, and sorry for boring everyone to tears.

    Taboo Monkey Blue Blog: Writing on Writing

    BY THE WAY, if you’re looking for more tear-inspiring boredom, a while back i wrote out some meditations on epistemology and communication. i was a bloggie newbie at the time, so you’ll need to go to to find all 5 posts under the heading Teaching the Art of Writing: Meditations on James Berlin.

  • Abu Sahajj says:

    “As a Christian, I, too, would agree that the origin of knowledge is God. Proverbs personifies this knowledge as the Woman of Wisdom.”

    I think Chrisitian Theol0gians would have a field day arguing against that point DB.

  • wilbur says:

    on the money again bruv

  • Wellwisher says:

    There is an interesting analogy between Descartes’ First Principle and linguisitic philosophy in the Qur’an.

    For Descartes, thinking implies existence.

    In the Qur’an, KNOWING implies existence.

    But then, as the mental processes that they are, thinking and knowing are quite akin to each other and there is significant overlap between the two.

    It is for this reason that the entirety of what exists – a UNIVERSE – is called ‘AALAM in the Qur’an, the primary meaning of which is a “THING THAT IS KNOWN”.

    And then there is the interesting mystical link between God and knowledge.

    The Qur’an says: Allah is the LIGHT of the heavens and the earth.

    The Prophet s.a. said: Al ‘ilmu Noor. KNOWLEDGE is LIGHT.

    So, in one respect, Allah is the light of the universe and the knowledge of the universe. In other words, the existence of the “THING THAT IS KNOWN” (AL-‘AALAM) is because of, and dependant upon, Allah.

  • james says:

    When there is a first principle there can be no other principles but that that proceeds from the first and therefore is defined by the first. By definition then all following principles must seek back to their origin or genesis which is the first principle. Those that do not are foolishly perverting themselves from the intention of the first principle.

  • Stephen Coughlin says:

    I humbly disagree with the very translation of Descartes’ most famous phrase, “Cogito, ergo sum,” which is not translated, “I think therefore I am,” but “I know (by experience), therefore I am.” This completely changes the meaning and the thrust of his proof of existence. Thinking, or the use of our rational mind, has nothing to do with proving existence. It is experiencing, knowing through experience, that proves that we are alive and exist.

    The rational, thinking brain is not the most important part of our mental capacity. It is the creative, intuitive mind that dominates our existence. Albert Einstein said that he never made a discovery with this thinking mind. Imagination, creative awareness, contains all knowledge yet to be discovered, he said. Whereas, rational thinking only contains the knowledge we have already acquired through our creative inspiration. We’ve got it backwards because science has gradually programmed us to believe that our rational, thinking mind was our primary mind, when it is definitely not. The rational, logical, thinking mind can only verify what we have discovered through our creative, intuitive mind.

    Sadly, the mistranslation of Descartes’ “cogito” as if it were “scio,” the latin for intellectual, rational knowledge, started our slide into the very narrow and dangerous view and belief we have about our mental abilities. In reality, it is our creative, intuitive mind that is primary, and the rational, thinking mind is its auxiliary function. All psychological fear comes from this mistaken notion, because fear is nothing but thought, and thought is the production of the rational mind. We are killing ourselves because of the pandemic of fear caused by the overwhelming production of junk thought that is our modern state of mind. We must learn how to quiet the thinking mind, put it in neutral, and let the inspiration of our creative, intuitive mind flow though to give us all the answers we will ever need as we walk through our days. Socrates lived this and listened to his “oracle within” that guided him though his life. That’s why he didn’t object to his death, because his oracle didn’t tell him to . By this he knew that it was his time to leave. Blessings, Stephen

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