Socrates (470-399 b.c.e.)

Socrates is to this day an enigmatic figure. Most of what we know of him comes from the dialogues written by his greatest student, Plato. Socrates never wrote anything down, and this alone is an indication of his character. Why write when you can live? His actions, his relations to other people and society, his command over his body and his mind—these things all contribute to Socrates' virtuous character.

The Character of Socrates

The character Plato presents is a complex one, undoubtedly embellished. It was fitting that Socrates was ugly, since outer beauty was of no consequence to him. He was concerned with excellence of character, excellence of action, not physical appearance over which nobody has control. Socrates had such control of his mind and body that he was known to drink wine all night and never get drunk, never lose his ability to reason and philosophize at great length and in great detail.

Socrates often highlighted the importance of self control. If we give into every impulse, every desire, he reasoned, we cannot fully appreciate them. Socrates did not advocate abstinence or the inhibition of all desire (as some Eastern thinkers do); he advocated the use of restraint when necessary. Think about the difference between eating an incredible, fattening meal every night for dinner and eating the meal once a month. Won’t you have a greater enjoyment of the meal if you have it less often rather than more often? Furthermore, it is difficult to cultivate likes and dislikes when you are only seeking the nearest pleasure. If you just want to get drunk, don’t you simply search for the cheapest, easiest method? But then, how to you learn to appreciate the subtle differences in good beers or wines?

The video above gives a contemporary illustration of some key aspects of Socrates' life.

The remains of Delphi in Greece are in the image below, where the Oracle famously said that there was no one wiser than Socrates. What made Socrates wise was the fact that he realized his ignorance, and this in itself allowed him to at least see the path to actual knowledge. How many of us can actually set aside our pride and acknowledge our ignorance in certain areas as Socrates did?

You can see the Socratic Method at work in modern day courtrooms as well as in college classrooms.

The Model Western Philosopher

Many philosophers of our day and age see Socrates’ life as the quintessential life of a philosopher or as an archetypal individual, as Soccio puts it. Socrates was constantly thinking and using reason to develop himself as a person. And yet he knew when thinking was unnecessary and when action was appropriate. He did not write his philosophy, he lived his philosophy. The case is often made, however, that Socrates did not in fact exist. What if Plato just made him up? His existence has further support in the fact that Socrates was a part of the writings of other ancient Greeks, such as Xenophon and Aristophanes. Whatever the case, studying Socrates can be a very useful and interesting undertaking, the same way studying an incredibly in depth, fictional character in a novel can be useful.

The Socratic Method

In the dialogues of Plato, Socrates often uses the Socratic Method. So deeply has this been embedded in our culture that you have probably been a part of it, or observed it, without knowing it. Socrates thought that knowledge was in everyone, but that it needed to be drawn out of people. Thus, Socrates would ask people to continuously define and redefine terms in discussions. Here's a generic example:

“So you’re saying this means this?”
“Well, if this means this, then that must be the case, and that can’t be the case, can it?”
“No, no, of course not. What I actually meant was this means that.”
“But if this means that then…”

Do you see the point of my little illustration here? That’s the Socratic Method: two participants going back and forth, trying to reach the truth about something, the Socrates-type constantly asking for revision and redefinition.

Socrates also used irony in his speeches and discussions. At the beginning of a dialogue, he often pretended to be naÔve and professed ignorance. But by the end, Socrates always had the upper hand and always made his “smart” opponent look like a fool. An example of Socrates in action from Plato’s dialogue, The Republic, is in the text.

A Special Kind of Knowledge - Self Knowledge

Two related phrases that Socrates is famous for are “know thyself” and “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Knowing yourself is no easy feat, and it was a lifelong journey for Socrates. There are, naturally, different ways to interpret this command.

Socrates believed there was a special kind of knowledge that comes about when one learns to “Know herself.” He called this knowledge “techne.” For Socrates, this term encompasses theory and the application of that theory. A good basketball player knows the play book and how to execute the plays. In order to achieve human excellence (or “arÍte”) one must possess techne.

Examining your life is one of the core components of almost any philosophical system. By examining your life, you gradually learn to know yourself. Think about Socrates’ statement for a second: if you don’t examine your life, it’s not worth living. Now imagine all the people who, in fact, do not examine their lives and do not want to (including very materially-wealthy individuals). Each and every one of these people, Socrates would say, is living a life not worth living. Without knowing yourself and examining yourself you cannot grow, he would say. What do you think of this? Is Socrates full of it here, or does he have a point?

Who is the Wisest Man in Athens?

One of Socrates’ friends once asked the Oracle if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The Oracle said that, in fact, no one was wiser than Socrates. When Socrates heard this, he was confused, for he did not see himself as the wisest man. He went around to different people who professed to have different types of knowledge. What he found was that, while these people professed to have knowledge, they actually had none. Socrates concluded that he was wisest because he realized that he didn’t know. The fact that he acknowledged his ignorance opened him up to actually learn.

I can’t count the number of people I’ve met throughout my life who profess to know many things. They’ll sit for hours and tell me about all the things they know—what’s wrong with the economy, who the best presidential candidate is, how to avoid getting a ticket! Whatever it is, they know. Have you met these people? The lesson of Socrates is that these sorts of people have closed themselves off. Sure, they might know a few things, but they are not wise because they don’t realize that there are still things they don’t know.

Even the wisest of figures admit their ignorance, and this is a great part of their wisdom. Einstein spent the last years of his life trying to develop a grand, unifying theory of physics (which, to this day, has yet to be developed).

And here we see one of the many indirect ways philosophy can benefit you as a student. For those of you who go on to something else, never to take a philosophy class again, remember Socrates' message to remain humble in the wisdom you acquire. There is always more to learn! You can get four PhDs and not exhaust the reservoir of possible human knowledge. Many of you might become great physicists, or computer scientists, or nurses—and this is great —but don’t let that close you off, prevent you from learning about other things. There is always room for growth.

The Death of Socrates  

Socrates’ death is fitting and completes his life perfectly as an archetypal figure. Not surprisingly, he was charged with corrupting the youth and teaching about Gods not recognized by the state and put on trial. Although he gave an eloquent defense, the Athenian court still sentenced him to death by drinking hemlock (a type of poison). As the story goes, Socrates drank the hemlock willingly, despite the possibility of escape. As the poison took hold of his body, it moved from his feet upward. He was talking and philosophizing with students and followers the entire time, until the hemlock finally reached his brain—the last part of his body to go. (The famous painting to the right is called "The Death of Socrates" by Jacques-Louis David.)

Socrates had some interesting ideas about ethics. He thought that virtue is knowledge. No one does anything that's wrong if they know that it's wrong. Does this sound right to you? This means that when people do something wrong (not virtuous) then they just didn't know any better. Does it seem like there are people who know certain actions are wrong, but engage in them anyway?

"The unexamined life isn't worth living," said Socrates. Harsh words. Do you think this is true? Assuming the person in the picture above has not taken the time to examine her life, is her life still not worth living?


The famous painting above is called "The Death of Socrates," as immortalized in Plato's dialogue The Apology. Socrates is about to drink hemlock (a type of poison) as decreed by the Athenian court. However, he is still philosophizing while his friends are crying. What does this tell us about the character of Socrates?



Copyright © Luke Cuddy 2008