Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Athens in 469 BC. He is considered the father of Western philosophy. Although he wasn’t the first philosopher, along with his student Plato and Plato’s student Aristotle, he was tremendously influential because of the questions he asked such as “What is Beauty?” “What is the Good?” and “What is Justice?” He is famous for his method of philosophical inquiry, what is known as the Socratic Method, and for ironically claiming not to know anything while always being able to gain the upper hand in a debate.
Although he didn’t write anything himself, he is the main character in Plato’s dialogues, where he is always showing the sophists, teachers of rhetoric (public speaking), to not know what they are talking about. He is famous for questioning everyone he met, for which he was called the “gadfly of Athens.” He believed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Unfortunately, he was ultimately sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth.” Plato considered him the “justest man alive” and would develop his own Theory of Forms inspired by Socrates.
Socrates would talk with anyone who would listen including the young and old, rich and poor, man or woman, free or slave. He would question people on topics such as love, courage, moderation, piety and the nature of the soul. Unlike the sophists, he didn’t accept money for his teachings. In fact, he believed that he didn’t know anything himself, but rather had a divine mission to help his fellow Athenians figure out what is true for themselves. He remained poor all his life, but was widely respected for his character. He fought bravely in the military, respected women, and lived a simple lifestyle. He is known for walking around barefoot because neither alcohol nor cold affected him.
Socrates believed that the best way to live one’s life was to focus on self-development, rather than trying to become rich. He was critical of the sophists, who received money for teaching virtue (arete). He didn’t believe that virtue could be taught. He saw virtue as the key to happiness, and he considered virtue the search for what is Good. He dedicated his life to searching for truth, believing that it is the philosopher’s job to show others how little they really know. He believed that he had an internal voice (daimon) which kept him from making mistakes, similar to poets who received their inspiration from the divine.
He saw injustice as harming one’s soul, which he considered the most precious thing. For this reason, he believed it is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one. He felt that everyone desired to do what is good, but people are led astray because they don’t know what the Good is. He valued friendship and community. Believing the soul to be immortal, he didn’t think death was necessarily a bad thing, and that it was possible that the souls of those who did good would be rewarded in the afterlife while those that were bad would be punished.
Socrates engaged people in discussion through a process known as the Socratic Method. In order to solve a problem, such as “What is Justice,” he would ask someone a series of questions rather than making any definitive statement himself. In this process of asking questions, the goal is for the other person to examine their beliefs, and to realize they don’t know what they thought they did. For example, in the Euthyphro, Euthyphro believes he knows what the God’s like (piety). Socrates believes that you can only know what piety is if you can define piety, and that simply listing things that are pious is not enough because piety is that which is true of all pious things, not just several examples. In this way, he makes Euthyphro doubt whether he knows what is really pious or not.
Socrates would ultimately be put on trial for “corrupting the youth.” He stood up for himself, as described in The Apology, saying that he engaged others in dialectic (the Socratic Method) because he wanted to make Athens a better place. He was sentenced to death, and while in Crito it’s explained that he could have escaped, he chose not to because he believed that a citizen should obey the laws of the city they live in (not wanting to break what is known as the “social contract”). In the Phaedo, he drinks the hemlock and says “Crito, we owe a rooster to Ascelepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget.” His death is seen as a testament to his character, because he wasn’t afraid, and because he was willing to uphold the very laws that had sentenced him.
Socrates would have a lasting impact on the history of Western philosophy. Along with his student Plato, and Plato’s student Aristotle (who taught Alexander the Great), these three are the most important philosophers of ancient Greece. The Socratic Method is seen as the basis of rational inquiry and the scientific method and is still used in classrooms today.