Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher born in the Athens in 470 BCE. His thoughts and teachings which have reached us through the works of his disciples have greatly helped in shaping the modern Western philosophy.
Socrates himself had written nothing, and whatever access we have to his mind is through the philosophical dialogues of his students, mainly Plato and Xenophon. His students portrayed him as a man with great intellect and wisdom, who would provide answers to their philosophical inquiries through thought-provoking dialogue.
Socrates’ mastery lies in the art of conversation, the proof of which can be found in the writings of his students Plato, Xenophan, Phaedo, Euclides, Antisthenes and Aeschines. Even though these works serve as an insight into Socrates’ philosophy, they cannot be credited word-for-word to Socrates, as they only contain the general idea of his teachings, and are not historical records of his philosophy.
Named after this maestro is an entire science of debate and discussion called the Socratic Method. The basis of the Socratic Method is questioning. This method involves discussions based on stimulative questions which are asked as an answer to puzzling inquiries, and which aim at triggering an individual’s critical thinking skills.
In a nutshell, the Socratic philosophy is one full of contradictions. His concept of virtue and evil, of knowledge and ignorance, are paradoxical as they are not in accordance with common sense.
Socrates most famous paradox is the knowledge of his ignorance. He never claimed to be wise and the all-knowing, in fact, he admitted that he knows that he knows nothing. According to Socrates, no one commits a wrongdoing to harm others but because he knows nothing better. Only knowledge can cultivate virtue, and one must never strive for material gains but for true virtue.
On morality, Socrates asks in Euthyphro by Plato that whether God loves the pious because he is good or is he good because the gods love him. If piety is based on God’s love, then it depends entirely on what God wills. On the other hand, if God loves someone due to his righteousness, then there must be a rational code of moral conduct which differentiates right from wrong, and which must be accessible to all to follow.
For Socrates, the pursuit of knowledge should be the foremost goal of an individual. He believes that without philosophical inquiry and thinking, one’s life is unworthy of living. The righteousness of thought and idea is the most important thing for Socrates. He believed that every person is capable of judging right from wrong and is thus solely capable for his actions and inactions.
In the domain of politics, Socrates idolized a state run by philosophers and thinkers. He deemed intellectuals as the only type of person capable of governing over the masses. In Republic by Plato, Socrates clearly disregarded democratic form of government which was present in Athens at that time and dreamt of an establishment run by philosophers alone.
Because of his open criticism of the state and religion of Athens, and for his ideas of morality, Socrates was convicted by the noble jury for the corruption of the society. He did not accept silence or exile, and was thus penalized to death. In 399 BCE, Socrates took his own life by drinking a cup of poison as punishment for his ideas. Because he chose death over intellectual silence, Socratic ideas are alive to this day, as they continue inspiring millions over the course of time.