Key thinker: Socrates (c. 470 BCE–400 BCE)
Socrates (c. 470 BCE–399 BCE)
Socrates was born in Athens sometime around 470 BCE. There is little reliable information available about Socrates’ life, but we do know that he was a famous but controversial figure in Athens (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Socrates). In The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, a sometimes unreliable account of the famous philosophers written in the 3rd century, Diogenes Laertius describes Socrates as a formidable public speaker who showed equal interest in ‘persuading and dissuading men’ (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/socratesbio.html). Socrates’ style of teaching, now called the ‘Socratic method’, was not a method of direct instruction. Instead, Socrates used questions and dialogue to help his listeners come to their own understanding of a topic by thinking it through to its logical conclusion (https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/socrates).
Plato was taught by Socrates as a young man and became one of his followers (see 2.2.1. Socrates). Like some of Plato’s family members, Socrates was associated with the Thirty Tyrants, a group of conservative oligarchs who supported Sparta and briefly overthrew Athenian democracy between 404 and 403 BC (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Thirty-Tyrants). Because Socrates never recorded anything in writing, much of what we know about his philosophy is derived from the accounts of others, such as Xenophon or Plato (see 2.2.2. Plato). Though Socrates appears throughout Plato’s writing, this fictional character does not correspond to the historical figure of Socrates. Instead, Plato uses Socrates and his dialectical method to interrogate prevailing ideas and assumptions about the world and society, and to offer alternative answers (https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/plato).
In 399 BC, aged 70, Socrates was sentenced to death on the charges of impiety, undermining democracy, and corrupting the youth of Athens (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates/). He died of poisoning soon after. Socrates’ trial is memorialized in Plato’s Apology, which supposedly records his defence against his accusers (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Apology-by-Plato). In the Apology, Socrates claimed ignorance and argued that he had no wisdom to teach and, therefore, could not be held responsible for the actions of his followers (https://iep.utm.edu/socrates/). In his speech, Socrates also proclaims how important philosophical conversation is for the development of virtuous citizens, as well as the attainment of knowledge that could guide the human soul towards happiness. Socrates is today considered the ‘founding father’ of Greek, and by extension, Western philosophy. His Apology provides some of the strongest arguments on the value of critical thought for society.
Socrates was known to engage with both hostile interlocutors and followers who admired him (see 2.2.1. Socrates). He counted the Sophists (see Key thinker: Sophists), as well as many prominent Athenian politicians, among his opponents. Socrates distanced himself from the Sophists, who shared their knowledge and offered instruction in rhetoric to the public for money, and are today considered part of the ‘pre-Socratic’ tradition of philosophy (https://iep.utm.edu/socrates/). While the Sophists thought that the task of the philosopher was simply to instruct students by imparting the teacher’s wisdom on them, Socrates instead argued that the philosopher in fact possesses no such wisdom (see 2.4. Socrates and Sojourner Truth: knowledge and education). For Socrates, philosophers like himself are ‘intellectual midwives’ who simply help students ‘give birth’ to ideas that are already there. In short, Socrates helped his students interrogate a topic by encouraging them to be more truthful about their own views.
Socrates argues that people’s unwillingness to confront their own ignorance stifles intellectual and social progress. But we can only discover the limits to our knowledge if we test our opinions against other arguments and challenge our assumptions. Through dialogue, Socrates argues, students can learn to improve their opinions, pursue genuine knowledge, and expose false views. Socrates believed that we can only achieve true wisdom if we recognize our ignorance and embark on a lifelong search for truth (see 2.4. Socrates and Sojourner Truth: knowledge and education). This conception of education contrasts with Plato’s view that philosopher-rulers, who have superior knowledge, educate the rest of society according to people’s vocations (see 2.2.2. Plato). For Socrates, true knowledge leads to a virtuous life; therefore, citizens can learn to be virtuous by engaging in Socratic dialogue and pursuing wisdom with the humility that, he argues, should be the hallmark of every philosopher.
The distinction between knowledge and belief is at the heart of Socrates’ philosophy (see 2.3.2. The Allegory of the Cave: knowledge and politics). While beliefs only concern those things that are, i.e., what we can empirically know, true knowledge encompasses both empirical and other forms of knowledge. Like Sojourner Truth (see 2.2.3. Sojourner Truth), Socrates sought to interrogate the supposedly common sense views of the dominant discourse of those in power. In Socrates’ case, this was the Athenian ruling class, while Truth directed her arguments against the racist and patriarchal US state and society (see 2.6. Conclusion). Both Truth and Socrates spoke truth to power, though Socrates’ association with the Thirty Tyrants shows that he was by no means an egalitarian thinker. Socrates also held some progressive views for his time. For example, he acknowledged that women, too, can be philosophers (see 2.3.3. Women Guardians in the ideal state) who govern the city and ensure that justice prevails. This sets Socrates apart from philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who considered women to be naturally inferior to men.
Morrison, D. ed. (2010) The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gilbert, O. Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1998), ed. Nell Irving Painter. New York: Penguin Books.
Arendt, Hannah (1998) The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.