Socrates (470–399 BC) was one of the most influential philosophers in all of human history. His unique form of conversation, the “Socratic method,” remains essential to serious philosophical inquiry twenty- four centuries after he first introduced it.
He was born in a modest neighborhood located just outside the south entrance to Athens. In his teens, Socrates became interested in geometry, philosophy, and physics (subjects originally named by the Greeks). According to his student Xenophon (c. 428–c. 354 BC), Socrates and his friends met regularly to read “together the treasuries of ancient wisdom in books, and to [make] extracts from them.” [i] Thus, as a youth Socrates began a lifelong quest to answer the fundamental questions of life philosophically, through reason and observation. As he discussed the great works of philosophy with his friends, he came to believe that we learn best not when we lock ourselves away alone like a hermit on a mountaintop, but when we actively reason with others, receiving and giving thoughtful feedback.
Socrates served as an infantryman in the Athenian army from his teens into his fifties and fought on the front lines in numerous military campaigns. His bravery in battle became legendary. According to all accounts, he was an utterly fearless combat soldier. This is remarkable when you consider the nature of ancient warfare. In Socrates’s day, Greek infantrymen, or hoplites (from hoplon, the Greek word for “shield”), marched across the battlefield side-by-side in the phalanx formation, thousands at a time. As the Athenian phalanx approached the opposing force, the men increased the pace to crash into the enemy line at the “double-quick.” Blood and severed limbs would be flying everywhere. The Greek hoplite confronted the enemy in personal, face-to-face, hand-to-hand combat. Infantry warfare in Socrates’s day was unimaginably brutal, bloody, and horrific. [ii] On numerous occasions his commanders tried to decorate him for extraordinary bravery, but he turned them down, suggesting the medals be given to others.
Worldview and Lifestyle
According to his friends, Socrates cared little for fame, material possessions, or the physical comforts of life. Reasoning with others about the big questions of philosophy mattered much more to him. While walking through the busy agora (marketplace) in downtown Athens one day, he is reported to have said, “So many things I can do without.” His student Xenophon, who grew up to become a war hero, writer, and famous general, described Socrates as “frugal” and said that even shoes were too much of a bother for him: Socrates was known to go barefoot all year long, even on winter military campaigns and even during battles fought in the ice and snow. Every day he wore the same old cloak too—the one he also slept in. Although he could have had more possessions, Socrates sought an uncluttered life and practiced what is today called “voluntary simplicity.” [iii] Socrates married late in life; he and his wife Xanthippe had three children (all boys).
Because he believed that answers to fundamental questions were best pursued in philosophical conversation with others, Socrates could often be found sitting in the agora discussing fundamental issues with anyone who cared to join in. According to eyewitness accounts, in these discussions he treated everyone respectfully and as an equal. His commitment to human equality was a novel moral attitude in his day.
Those discussions in the marketplace must have been thrilling intellectual spectacles, for crowds would often gather to listen as Socrates engaged people from all walks of life in serious conversation.
At some point around the middle of his life, at least in part as a result of these conversations, Socrates became convinced that many people think they know what they are talking about when in reality they do not have a clue. He came to believe that many people, including smug experts, are in the grips of illusion. Their alleged knowledge is a mirage. Similarly, he also saw that many believe they are doing the morally right thing when they are really only fooling themselves—their actions cannot be rationally justified. As this realization sank in, Socrates found his life’s purpose: he would help people discover their own ignorance as a first step to attaining more realistic beliefs and values. But how to proceed?
The Socratic Method
Some people, when convinced that others are deluded, want to grab them by their collars and yell at them. Others try to force people to change their minds. Many people today believe violence is the only solution. None of this was for Socrates. He felt so much respect for each individual—even those in the grips of illusion and moral error—that violence and intimidation were out of the question. His would be a completely different approach: he asked people questions. Not just any questions, though. He asked questions designed to cause others to look in the mirror and challenge their own assumptions on the basis of rational and realistic standards of evidence. Questions like these: Why do I believe this? What is my evidence? Are my assumptions on this matter really true? Or am I overlooking something? Are my actions morally right? Or am I only rationalizing bad behavior?
Looking in the mirror in a Socratic way can be painful. For reasons perhaps best left to psychologists, it is easy to criticize others but it is hard to question and challenge yourself. There are intellectual hurdles as well. Which standards or criteria should we apply when we test our beliefs and values?
Socrates, by his example, stimulated a great deal of research into this question. Over the years, many criteria have been proposed, tested, and accepted as reliable guides to truth, with truth understood as correspondence with reality. These standards are collected in one place and studied in the field of philosophy known as “logic”—the study of the principles of correct reasoning. Today we call someone whose thinking is guided by rational, realistic criteria a “critical thinker.” Our current notion of criterial, or critical, thinking grew out of the philosophy of Socrates.
Socrates’s unique style of conversation had such an impact on those he talked with, and on all subsequent intellectual thought, that it has been given its own name: the “Socratic method.”
And it works. Countless numbers of people throughout history have changed their lives for the better by employing the Socratic method. The method of Socrates is as relevant and alive today as it was in the fifth century BC when he challenged his fellow Athenians to question their assumptions and values and passionately search for the truth using their own cognitive capacities.
So, moved by the pervasiveness of human ignorance, bias, egocentrism, and the way these shortcomings diminish the human condition, Socrates spent the rest of his life urging people to look in the mirror and examine their assumptions in the light of rational, realistic criteria as the first step to attaining real wisdom. Knowledge of your own ignorance and faults, he now believed, is a prerequisite for moral and intellectual growth. Just as a builder must clear away brush before building a house, he would say, you must clear away ignorance before building knowledge. As this reality sank in, his conversations in the marketplace shifted from the big questions of cosmology to questions about the human condition and to that which he now believed to be the most important question of all: What is the best way to live, all things considered?
Socrates’s mission—to help others discover their own ignorance as a first step on the path to wisdom–explains why he expected honesty on the part of his interlocutors. If the other person does not answer honestly, he won’t be led to examine his own beliefs and values. And if he does not look in the mirror, he will not advance. For Socrates, honest self-examination was one of life’s most important tasks. This is the ultimate reason why Socrates carried on his philosophical mission in the agora in one-on-one conversations rather than in lectures to crowds.
This emphasis on the individual also explains why Socrates compared his role in conversation to that of a midwife. Just as the midwife helps the mother give birth but does not herself give birth, Socrates helps his interlocutors give birth to more realistic beliefs of their own—truths they discover for themselves. The philosopher Ronald Gross writes that when Socrates acts as an intellectual midwife, we can almost hear him saying, “Push! Push! You can bring forth a better idea!” The Socratic process of giving birth to a better idea, Gross observes, can be “painful.” Yet at the same time, it can be “immensely gratifying.” [iv]
Trial and Death
Socrates had many friends; however, he also had enemies. Some in Athens believed that Socrates was undermining the social order when he encouraged people to question. In addition, big shots resented him for asking them inconvenient questions in front of everyone in the public square. Consequently, in 399 BC, when Socrates was seventy, his opponents talked a foolish man into pressing charges against him. Here are the (very trumped up) formal charges, both capital offenses:
Meletus son of Meletus of Pitthos has brought and sworn this charge against Socrates son of Sophroniscus of Alopeka: Socrates is a wrongdoer in not recognizing the gods which the city recognizes, and in introducing other new divinities. Further, he is a wrongdoer in corrupting the young. Penalty, death.
He could have avoided trial by going into exile, and his friends were ready to whisk him away to another Greek city-state. But as a matter of principle, he insisted on facing the charges. He would rather obey the law, even at the risk of death, than leave his beloved city.
In accordance with the law, a jury of 501 citizens was randomly chosen from a pool of six thousand citizens using a mechanical selection device known as a “kleroterion.” (The jury was large for a reason: no one could afford to bribe that many jurors!) Each juror was paid from public funds and swore the following oath:
I will cast my vote in consonance with the laws and decrees passed by the Assembly and by the Council, but, if there is no law, in consonance with my sense of what is most just, without favor or enmity. I will vote only on the matters raised in the charge, and I will listen impartially to the accusers and defenders alike. [v]
Socrates was known everywhere he went in Athens. His trial was a major public event and was probably attended by large crowds. It was held downtown in the agora, where he had questioned the rich and powerful for decades. The formal proceedings began in the morning, with the jurors sitting on benches separated from the spectators by a barrier. The prosecution was given exactly three hours to present its case. Once the prosecution had concluded, Socrates was allowed the same time for his defense, which consisted of a three-hour speech to the jury.
Socrates’s student Plato was in the audience. Plato was so moved by the events that morning that he preserved Socrates’s speech in dramatic form in a dialogue, the “Apology” (from the Greek apologia for “reasoned defense”), one of many that Plato would eventually write, each preserving and carrying forward an aspect of his teacher’s legacy. According to Plato, at one point in his defense, Socrates says this to the jury:
Suppose gentlemen, you said to me, “Socrates, you shall be acquitted on this occasion, but only on one condition. That you give up spending your time on this quest and stop philosophizing. If we catch you going on in the same way, you shall be put to death.” Well, supposing, as I said, that you should offer to acquit me on these terms, I should reply:
Men of Athens, I am your very grateful and devoted servant, but I owe a greater obedience to God than to you, and so long as I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet. I shall go on saying, in my usual way, “My friend, you are an Athenian and belong to a city which is the greatest and most famous in the world for its wisdom and strength. Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with honor and reputation, and care so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?” [vi]
Socrates’s speech to the jury also included one of his most memorable declarations: “The unexamined life is not a life worth living for a human being.” [vii] Someone living the examined life regularly looks in the mirror and with rational standards in mind asks the questions we have been discussing: Are my assumptions really true? Or am I fooling myself? What is my evidence? Do the values I live by reflect morality? Or am I not being honest with myself? Am I only rationalizing bad behavior?
In the end, although the charges were phony, Socrates was found guilty. [viii] The prosecution recommended death. At this point, Socrates could have saved his own life. According to law, the prosecution would propose a penalty, the defense would make a counterproposal, and the Senate would then choose between the two. If Socrates had suggested a reasonable alternative penalty, such as a stiff fine, the Senate would probably have accepted it. His friends were prepared to raise any amount of money. Instead, Socrates suggested a penalty he knew the court would not accept: that the city provide him with free meals for life. [ix] The death sentence followed.
However, because the final verdict was handed down at the start of a month-long civic holiday, the law required that the execution be postponed until the end of the festivities. Socrates thus spent the last month of his life in a jail cell, surrounded by family and friends, doing what he loved most: discussing philosophical issues, including the questions of life after death and the immortality of the soul, just like in the old days. Several friends urged him to escape. The jailor was willing to help. Socrates refused, justifying his decision with a philosophical argument about the nature of political obligation and his duty to obey the law—a Socratic argument that is still discussed today. [x]
In the dialogue Phaedo, Plato tells us that when the time came to drink the poison, the jailor said to Socrates:
To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are the guilty cause. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be; you know my errand.
Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out. Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then, turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good as could be to me, and now see how generously he sorrows for me. But we must do as he says, Crito; let the cup be brought . . .
In the end, even though he knew that the death he was about to experience would be extremely painful and slow, Socrates calmly drank the hemlock. You are almost there in person when you read the death scene as Plato records it. Socrates has just taken the poison and is waiting for its effects when some of his friends begin to weep. Socrates stops them:
“What is this strange outcry?” he said. “I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not offend in this way, for I have heard that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience.” When we heard that, we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the [jailor] who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard and asked him if he could feel; and he said, no; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And Socrates felt them himself, and said: “When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end.” He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said (they were his last words)—he said: “Crito, I owe a rooster to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?” “The debt shall be paid,” said Crito; “is there anything else?” There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth. Such was the death . . . of our friend, of whom I may truly say, that, of all the men whom I have ever known, he was the wisest, and justest, and best. [xi]
Before Socrates, Greek philosophers focused on the great cosmological questions, such as these: Is there a one over the many? What is the ultimate nature of reality? What are the building blocks of the cosmos? By the sheer force of his personality, Socrates shifted the focus from broad cosmological speculation to the human condition and to the following issue: What is the best life a human being can live, all things considered? The Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero (106–43 BC) put it this way: “Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the sky, set it in the cities and even in the home, and have it consider life and morals.” [xii]
The philosopher and noted expert on Socrates, Gregory Vlastos, calls the Socratic method “one of the great achievements of humanity” for
. . . it makes moral inquiry a common human enterprise, open to every man. Its practice calls for no adherence to a philosophical system, or mastery of a specialized technique, or acquisition of a technical vocabulary. It calls for common sense and common speech. And this is as it should be, for how man should live is every man’s business, and the role of the specialist and the expert should be only to offer guidance and criticism, to inform and clarify the judgment of the layman, leaving the final judgment up to him. [xiii]
This Socratic idea, that each of us is capable of critical thinking and has the potential to live an examined life, was revolutionary when first proposed. It marked a major turning point in the history of thought. Indeed, Vlastos calls the Socratic method the first major step toward the ideal of the universal moral equality of all of humanity. [xiv]
[i] Quoted in W. K. C. Guthrie, Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 53.
[ii] See Nicholas Sekunda, Greek Hoplite 480–323 BC: Weapons, Armour, Tactics (Elms Court, UK: Osprey, 2000).
[iv] Ronald Gross, Socrates’ Way: Seven Master Keys to Using Your Mind to Its Utmost (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam, 2002), 9.
[v] See http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/greekcrimpro.html. We take trial by jury for granted. In 399 BC, no other society on earth at the time had public trials with citizen juries paid with public funds and swearing detailed oaths so modern they could be used in the courtroom today.
[vi] Plato, Apology, 29d.
[vii] Ibid., 38a.
[viii] The vote was 280 to convict, 220 to acquit. If 30 citizens had voted differently, Socrates would have gone free.
[ix] At the Prytaneum, a state-sponsored mess hall reserved for Olympic champions. He also offered a nominal fine as an alternative punishment, again knowing it would not be accepted.
[x] For an account of his argument, see Plato’s Crito.
[xi] Plato, Phaedo, 118. Plato is sparing his readers the gruesome details. A death by hemlock would usually involve vomiting, feelings of suffocation, and violent seizures.
[xii] Read this online at http://www.litera.co.uk/cicero_socrates/.
[xiii] Gregory Vlastos, “The Paradox of Socrates,” in Gregory Vlastos, ed. The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Anchor Books, 1971), 20.
[xiv] An ideal that humanity is still struggling to achieve, some twenty-four hundred years after Socrates. The same ideal was advanced at about the same time by the Chinese philosopher Mozi (c. 470–c.391 BC), who rejected the Confucian aristocratic, family-centered morality of his day in favor of a morality of universal concern and impartiality toward all. Unfortunately, the entire Mohist school was destroyed by the Qin Emperor in 213 BC in a bloody cultural purge known as “The Burning of Books and the Burying of Scholars.”
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
About the author
Paul Herrick received his Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Washington. Since 1983 he has taught philosophy at Shoreline Community College, in Shoreline, Washington, near Seattle. He is the author of Reason and Worldview. An Introduction to Western Philosophy, Think with Socrates: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, The Many Worlds of Logic, and Introduction to Logic.
Other articles by Paul Herrick
What is Logic? In this article in the “What is” series written for Philosophy News, Paul Herrick author of three logic texts gives an overview of logic, its history, and its importance. Even if you don’t have a background in philosophy, you will find this summary helpful and informative.
Books by Paul Herrick
Introduction to Logic, Oxford University Press, 2012
This is a comprehensive introduction to the fundamentals of logic (both formal logic and critical reasoning), with exceptionally clear yet conversational explanations and a multitude of engaging examples and exercises. Herrick’s examples are on-point and fun, often bringing in real-life situations and popular culture. And more so than other logic textbooks, Introduction to Logic brings in the history of philosophy and logic through interesting boxes/sidebars and discussions, showing logic’s relation to philosophy.
Think with Socrates: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, Oxford University Press, 2014
Brief yet comprehensive, Think with Socrates: An Introduction to Critical Thinking uses the methods, ideas, and life of Socrates as a model for critical thinking. It offers a more philosophical, historical, and accessible introduction than longer textbooks while still addressing all of the key topics in logic and argumentation. Applying critical thinking to the Internet, mass media, advertising, personal experience, expert authority, the evaluation of sources, writing argumentative essays, and forming a worldview, Think with Socrates resonates with today’s students and teaches them how to apply critical thinking in the real world. At the same time, it covers the ancient intellectual roots and history of the field, placing critical thinking in its larger context to help students appreciate its perennial value.
Reason and Worldview, Harcourt College Publishers, 1999
A comprehensive look at major movements in philosophy and how those movements helped shape the way we think and behave.