Socrates (469-399 B.C.): The Game-Changer

Socrates was born in Athens, Greece, around 469 B.C. and died in 399 B.C. Whereas pre-Socratic philosophers examined the natural world, Socrates placed emphasis on the human experience. He focused on individual morality, questioned what made a good life, and discussed social and political questions. His work and his ideas became the foundation of Western philosophy. While Socrates is widely regarded as one of the wisest men to have ever lived, he never wrote down any of his thoughts, and all that we know about him is based on the written works of his students and contemporaries (mainly the works of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes).

Because everything that we know about Socrates is based on accounts from others (which were often fictionalized) and these accounts differ, we do not actually know much about him or his teachings. This is known as the “Socratic problem.” From the texts of others, we are able to gather that he was the son of a stonemason and a midwife; he most likely had a basic Greek education; he was not aesthetically good-looking (during a time when external beauty was very important); he served in the military during the Peloponnesian War; he had three sons with a much younger woman, and he lived in poverty. He might have worked as a stonemason before turning to philosophy.

The one detail that has been well documented, however, is Socrates’ death. While Socrates was alive, the state of Athens began to decline. Having embarrassingly lost to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, Athens had an identity crisis of sorts and became fixated on physical beauty, ideas of wealth, and romanticizing the past. Because Socrates was an outspoken critic of this way of life, he grew to have many enemies. In 399 B.C., Socrates was arrested and brought to trial with charges of being unreligious and corrupting the city’s youth. Socrates was found guilty and was sentenced to death by poisonous drink. Rather than flee into exile (which he had the chance to do), Socrates drank the poison without any hesitation.

A quote often attributed to Socrates is, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates believed that in order for a person to be wise, that individual must be able to understand himself. To Socrates, an individual’s actions were directly related to his intelligence and Ignorance. He believed people should develop their self, rather than concentrate on material objects, and he sought to understand the difference between acting good and being good. It was in the new and unique way that he approached knowledge, consciousness, and morality that Socrates would forever change philosophy.

Socrates is perhaps most famous for his Socratic method. First scribed in Plato’s Socratic Dialogues, Socrates and a pupil would a discussion on a particular issue, and through a series of questions, Socrates would set out to discover the driving force behind that individual’s beliefs and sentiments were shaped and in so doing, get closer to the truth. By continually asking questions, was able to expose contradictions in the way an individual thought, which allowed him to come to a solid conclusion.

Socrates used the elenchus, a method in which he would refute the claims of the other person. Here are the steps of the elenchus:

  1. An individual would assert a statement to Socrates, which Socrates would then refute. Or, Socrates might ask the other person a question, such as, “What is courage?”
  2. Once the other person provides his answer, Socrates would think of a scenario where his answer was not the case, asking him to assume his original statement was false. For example, if the other person describes courage as “endurance of the soul,” Socrates might refute this claim by saying that “Courage is a fine thing,” while “Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing.”
  3. The other person would agree with this claim, and Socrates would then change the statement to include the exception to the rule.
  4. Socrates proves that the individual’s statement is false and that the negation is in fact true. As the other person continues to alter his answer, Socrates continues refuting, and through this, the individual’s answer gets closer to the actual truth.

The Socratic method is still widely used to this day, most notably in law schools throughout the United States. First, a student will be asked to summarize a judge’s argument. Then, the student will be asked if he agrees with the judge’s argument. The professor will then act as a devil’s advocate by asking a series of questions to make the student defend his decision.

By using the Socratic method, students are able to start thinking critically and using logic and reasoning to create their arguments, while also finding and patching up holes in their positions.