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SOCRATES, The Original Western Guru Blog Post #4: Virtues or Qualities of the “GOOD”

The importance of what Socrates calls the “good” connects his philosophy not only with Eastern spirituality but even with the teachings of Jesus. For Socrates the “good” is similar to the “yamas” and the “niyamas” within Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in that it involves virtue but is also more than that. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali lists virtues that a spiritual aspirant must acquire and also lists the types of actions that must be avoided. We could call this morality in that it judges actions to be good and bad in degrees but we could say that these are simply instructions within the science of spirituality. In other words, the Eastern gurus call us to act virtuous or morally correct because they recognize that this type of behavior leads to the best of all possible lives. According to Patanjali, the spiritual aspirant must be virtuous in order to reach the highest levels of peace and joy. The Buddha’s instructions within the famous “Discourse on Effacement” (MN 8) are similar: the Buddha calls for monks to act virtuously so that can they can succeed in clearing suffering out of their lives.

Socrates also heavily emphasizes the “good” as a way for a philosopher to get to truth. He connects the “good” with moral ideas of justice and self-control (which he calls temperance and moderation) but also links the “good” directly with the identity of Divinity. Socrates in fact sees the “good” and the Divine to be synonymous. For him, the very structure of existence is “good” and is aligned with aspects of the “good” like justice and beauty BECAUSE the “good” is the true creating Divine principle. In other words, we exist in order to recognize, highlight and promote (we could even say worship) the “good.” [NOT that the world is “good” because it is created by the good God.] So being “good” pays us back by producing a “good” life because it connects us with the Divine archetypical structure of life.

Thus for Socrates, the philosopher knows that being “good” is truly the wisest and most beneficial way of living because of the obvious logical connection. For Socrates, a “good” life logically develops through connection with and alignment with the “good.”  Much of Socrates’ conversations, just like the Buddha’s sutras, involve the “guru” trying to describe what being “good” looks like in practice so that the disciples bring their behavior into alignment with it.

“Socrates argues that . . . our ‘salvation in life’ depends upon an ‘art of measurement’ that will overcome the power of appearance and get us to act rightly always.” FROM the introduction to Plato’s Protagoras by John M. Cooper (Complete Works of Plato, 1997)

In the “Discourse on Effacement” the Buddha teaches that meditation is not enough to realize the goal of life, one must become “good” in word and deed. In that sutra he lists the many do’s and don’ts of “good” behavior:

“But herein, effacement should be practiced by you: others will be harmful, we shall not be harmful here – thus effacement can be done. Others will kill living beings; we shall abstain from killing living beings. . . . Others will take what is not given. . . .Others will be unchaste. . . .Others will speak falsehood. . . .Others will speak maliciously. . . .Others will speak harshly. . . .Others will gossip. . . .Others will be covetous. . . .Others will have thoughts of ill will. . . .Others will have wrong views. . . .Others will have wrong intention. . . .Others will use wrong speech. . . .Others will commit wrong actions. . . .” and this list continues with 29 more prerogatives of “good” behavior.


“what is advantageous is nothing other than the movement of a soul in accord with the movement of things.” —Cratylus

Socrates sees the “good” and the Divine as inseparable and describes them both interchangeably, in a similar manner to many Eastern spiritual texts. He also commonly describes the “good” synonymously with more concrete virtuous ideals like “justice.”


“Because the good penetrates everything, it has the power to regulate everything.”– Cratylus


“It is governor and penetrator of everything else, it is rightly called ‘just.”— Cratylus


“In God there is no sort of wrong whatsoever; he is supremely just.” —Theaetetus


TEMPERANCE is another quality of the “good” that leads to the best of all possible lives, according to Socrates. He describes temperance as not only control over our indulgence in sensual pleasures but also as a type of humility and lack of self-importance. Again we could see this as a preaching of “morality” but that would miss the more important philosophical connection between being “good” and living “good.”

Temperance is“to obey the rulers and to rule [over] the pleasures of drink, sex, and food for themselves.” –Republic ch.3


“. . . then it would be of the greatest benefit to us to be temperate. Because those of us who had temperance would live lives free from error and so would all those who were under our rule. Neither would we ourselves be attempting to do things we did not understand—rather we would find those who did understand and turn the matter over to them [a description of humility] —nor would we trust those over whom we ruled to do anything except what they would do correctly, and this would be that of which they possessed the science. And thus, by means of temperance, every household would be well-run, and every city well-governed, and so in every case where temperance reigned. And with error rooted out and rightness in control, men so circumstanced would necessarily fare admirably and well in all their doings.” –Charmides

Socrates describes justice as one aspect of the “good” and as an aspect of the “good” recommends it universally to philosophers as a way of making their life “good” in the highest sense.

JUSTICE: “the just man never harms anyone, since everything he does is for the benefit of all.” –Clitophon

This is the same practical benefits of virtue made within many Eastern spiritual texts. Remaining harmless to others, taking less in life, being generous with everything one has, being patient, refraining from injust or unfair business practices, etc. are traits recommended both in the East and in Socrates’ writings.

“. . . people who are truly and fully just thereby lead a better, happier life than any unjust person could.” –Republic ch.3


“. . . how much more advantageous it is for the individual to be just rather than unjust.” —Republic


“. . . just and unjust actions are no different for the soul than healthy and unhealthy things are for the body.” —Republic ch.5


“Injustice, Thrasymachus, causes civil war, hatred, and fighting among themselves, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose.” –Republic


“. . . just people are cleverer and more capable of doing things” –Republic


“Justice? I myself put it among the finest goods, as something to be valued by anyone who is going to be blessed with happiness, both because of itself and because of what comes from it.” –Republic


To be “good” is to have high principles and to act in accordance with them; in other words, to be a decent human being not out fear of a punishing God but from the realization that being “good” is logically the most beneficial way of living.

“a decent person is most self-sufficient in living well and, above all others, has the least need of anyone else. . . it’s less dreadful for him than for anyone else to be deprived of his son, brother, possessions, or any other such things. . . . [he] bears misfortune most quietly.” –Republic ch.3


To this list of characteristics of the “good” (the just, the temperate, the humble) Socrates adds other virtues like moderation, courage, frankness, high-mindedness, single-mindedness, concentration and truthfulness:

“neither we, nor the guardians we are raising, will be educated in music and poetry until we know the different forms of moderation, courage, frankness, high-mindedness, and all their kindred, and their opposites too.” –Republic ch.3


Socrates even includes attention or a focused mind as part of being “good” just as the Buddha did: “single-mindedness or truthfulness (these being the same thing)” –Cratylus


Finally, Socrates connects the “good” not only with the Divine but also with “truth” in the highest sense of the word. But since the “truth” is really a description of the “good” it remains below the “good” in primacy:

“what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower is the form of the good.” —Republic ch.7


“Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things, but the good is other and more beautiful than they.” —Republic ch.7
“Not only do the objects of knowledge owe their being known to the good, but their being is also due to it, although the good is not being, but superior to it in rank and power. . . . one [is the] sovereign of the intelligible kind and place, the other of the visible.” —Republic ch.7

Because the good penetrates everything, it has the power to regulate (kerannutai) everything. –Cratylus

Many other quotes from Eastern scriptures could be included here, outlining the importance of virtuous behavior in their science of spirituality. Quotes from the Gospels of Jesus would show that the New Testament contains nearly identical recommendations. The point I am making here, overly briefly perhaps, is that “being good and doing good leads to the best of possible lives” is clearly a central aspect to the teachings of Socrates and to the major spiritual gurus of the East.


Book 1, Sutra 48: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



The word that Patanjali uses is “rtambhara,” or “truth bearing.” This truth is of a special Absolute nature. Satyananda Saraswati explains, “Sat is subtler than energy; ‘sat’ means existence. It has two aspects called ‘ritam’ and ‘satyam.’ ‘Satyam’ is the relative aspect and ‘ritam’ is the absolute or cosmic aspect. . . . ‘Ritam’ is the ultimate truth beyond matter and energy.”

Only one earlier sutra (20) includes the word, “prajna.” But it is the very important sutra number 20 that lists the ingredients necessary to reach the goal of yoga. There, “prajna” is listed along with “samadhi,” energy and purified memory. So “prajna,” although important, is not the end goal of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.



Book 1, Sutra 4:Patanjali Yoga Sutra



This verse tells us that normal life (with a non-Yogic mind) involves both deception and error. Patanjali implies here in this sutra that the normal way of seeing and living is deceived and limited. Normal experiences have “caught us” in their net of illusion and led us to the very limited life of identification with what is continually changing. This is what is called “Maya” or “samsara” and it implies that normal life is both a trap that most of us are ensnared in and also a handicap.

In the previous sutra, Patanjali told us about Yoga and how it is a completely different way of living life that is grounded, stable and content (and also full of knowledge of who we truly are, “our essential nature”). Now, in this sutra, Patanjali describes life outside of Yoga to be like being in jail; a jail based in the action of identifying with what comes and goes in life.

Patanjali has also already told us that getting free of this trap and this limitation involves disconnecting the mind from what changes and then grabbing onto the truth that automatically surfaces once the mind has become still. So our tendency to grab onto thoughts and perceptions is not in itself bad, according to Patanjali, it is just that we are grabbing onto the wrong things. We grab onto what changes, what disappoints, what disappears, what is violent instead of grabbing onto the unchanging, eternal Truth. Of course, we can’t see that Truth until we engage in Yoga. Yoga stills the mind which then allows us to see some alternative thing to grab onto.