(470?-399? BC) 

"To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know" - (From The Apology)

The 1st existentialist (Human problems)

"Know thyself"

"An unexamined life is not worth living"

Listen to Karen Armstrong explain why Socrates is the greatest philosopher. Audio thanks to BBC radio.

Home: Periclean Athens, Greece

School: None. No affiliations

Rational/Empirical?: He favored rationalism, agreeing with the sophists that empirical knowledge was inferior to abstract knowledge.

Influence: Profound 

Proposed construct: "Essence" -which was an abstract, universal definition of a concept that while difficult to precisely define, was generally agreed upon. Since philosophy required permanent constructs (to counter the sophist's argument) Socrates held that essences were real and permanent, that they could only be contemplated rationally, (to avoid Heraclitus' fluctuating world of matter) and most important, that they could be used to shut the sophists' mouths up.

Greatest achievement(s): Socratic Irony - which he used to inculcate the main thrust of his philosophy -"The wise man knows what he does not know". Also: Inductive reasoning/logic/ through which he argued over concepts such as justice, love, and virtue, to find the common elements in them. This, along with the self-knowledge that he taught were the basis of his teachings. Socartes disagreed with the Sophists that no truth exists beyond personal opinions. He believed that all vice is the result of ignorance, and that no person is willingly bad; correspondingly, virtue is knowledge, and those who know the right will act rightly.

"The Good knows both good and evil - The evil knows neither" - C. S. Lewis

Surviving works: He wrote no books and established no regular school of philosophy. All that is known is derived from Plato, who at times ascribed his own views to his master, so it's difficult to know just where the thoughts of Socrates end and Plato's begin.


Socrates is probably one of the greatest philosophers in history. He was also one of history's greatest teachers. Evidence for this contention can be found in the success he had with students: Plato, and the stoic Antithenes (who loved Socrates' careless poverty) are numbered amongst his students. Evidence for his status as a great teacher can also be found in the sheer number of schools of thought that began in Socrates' classrooms. Some philosophers of today go as far as to say that all schools of thought had some beginning in the classrooms of Socrates.

But while these sorts of arguments attest to the greatness of Socrates, none of this really answers WHY Socrates was a great teacher. Let's take a deeper look into his philosophy to answer that question.

Why was Socrates such a great teacher?

Socrates is thought to have said: "One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing." It was comments such as this that endeared Socrates to his students. They loved his humility, which is rare in teachers. Socrates was a seeker of wisdom, not a claimant of being a wise one. This kept him grounded, open minded, and tolerant of other's views. These are the attributes of a fine teacher.

Why is admitting that you know nothing such a great attribute?

It's nice that Socrates was so humble, but humility alone did not make him a great teacher. While it may seem paradoxical, Socrates' claim that he knew nothing (for certain) caused the Oracle at Delphi to call Socrates the wisest man on earth because they realized that in a world full of people who thought they knew everything, the only real wise man would be the one who would conceded that he actually knew very little. Socrates was, in his own way, separating merely "holding a belief" from actually knowing something. We all have beliefs about the world, and many of us believe that holding our beliefs means that we are knowledgeable, but the truth is that few of us actually really know anything about the world.

For example, consider that many ancient people believed the world was flat, and that evil spirits caused diseases. Because they believed these things, they felt that they knew these things. Therefore, a man who knew the names of various demons, and their methods of causing illness would be seen as a doctor or a shaman - a knowledgeable professional who would be respected as an authority on such matters.

But how did this professional come to know these things in the first place?

For Socrates, philosophy begins when when one learns not simply to accept what others tell us, when one learns not to simply believe we have the answers, but when we learn to question our beliefs, our dogmas and even our axioms. Only by examining things for ourselves, learning for ourselves, by skeptically exploring what is held to be truth, can we really come to know, or understand anything. Nietzsche would echo this creed in his work "Thus Spake Zarathustra", when he has Zarasthrustra call upon his followers to first doubt him, before they come to believe him. Only by critically examining what he has to say can his followers see the truth of what he says. This call is also the essence of scientific thinking - know, don't just believe. Examine, don't just accept.

The implication is that false creeds will fail this critical examination, while truth will pass such a test.

Another reason Socrates was a great teacher - he was no hypocrite either.

Socrates was a good role model for critical thinking, because no one person was more of a target of his skeptical attacks than Socrates himself. He stated: "Who knows how these cherished beliefs became certainties with us, and whether some secret wish did not furtively beget them, clothing desire in the dress of thought? There is no real philosophy until the mind turns on and examines itself."

Probably the most important lesson we can learn from Socrates is just how his method of uncovering truth, the Socratic method, works. So let's do it.

The Socratic Method

The Socratic method is guided self discovery - one guides while the student questions along and learns. Those who are experienced in the method can learn to be their own guide, but beginners should seek out one with more experience to serve as the guide. The point is not for the guide to teach the student the truth, or to persuade them of the truth, but to teach them the critical thinking necessary for the student himself or herself to come to their own conclusion. Socrates also knew that self discovery was the best sort of learning because of the joy it gave the learner. It's one thing to be taught by another, but something else entirely to learn for oneself.

The line of questioning that the guide and student will use follows the rules of logic that Aristotle would later officially lay down. Briefly stated, this means that that once the student accepts a series of premises, he or she will be compelled to accept the logical conclusion that stems from the premises. What is most fascinating, and perhaps the most important rule of the Socratic Argument is that both guide and student should follow the argument wherever logic dictates that it leads - insights are often unexpected or counter-intuitive and even the guide may learn from the experience.

Here are the key steps in the method:

Both guide and student concede that ignorance is the first step in the pursuit of knowledge - we do not know for certain what the truth is. If we don't do this, if we start by maintaining our beliefs no matter what he evidence states, all that follows is a farce.

Next, what we say must be coherent. What must define all the important terms in our arguments. This is why Socrates would often ask a question a person mulling over a question of piety with: "Just what is piety?" Socrates found that very often our arguments are flawed because the terms we are arguing over have no real clear meaning in the first place.

Then, we should draw out the implications of an idea and determine its consequences. We follow it through no matter where it leads us. We do not allow our desires to determine our outcome!

Lastly, no matter the outcome, we must see that we grow from such self examination: We learn not only what we can know, but what we cannot know and we learn to question rather than accept.

What kind of questions did Socrates answer using his method?

Socrates was famous more for obliterating bad ideas than he was for coming up with new ideas. He excelled at destroying the dogmas of others, and pointing out the limitations of abstract terms, such as "piety", but he did bother to answer a few questions authoritatively.

These questions were: What is the meaning of Virtue? And What is the best state?

Socrates was famed for being an atheist, but he himself denies this in "The Apology". Socrates did have his own religious faith. He believed in one god, conceived as an all-good, prime mover. However, the religion of Socrates was one born of logic and philosophy, and not a dogmatic theology.

Instead, Socrates hpoed to build a system of morality (to replace the one he tore to bits by denying the multi god system) that was independent of religious doctrine. He saw religion as merely a justification for moral systems that were created by men - divine authorities to stand in the place of human authorities that would otherwise be questioned. So he wanted to create a system based on logic and reason. In order to do so, Socrates defined "good" to mean "intelligent" and "virtue" to be wise.

If a man could only know himself and know the good, he would do the good. Socrates put forth that all that we called sin was really just error, or poor choice. Therefore an intelligent man, who made wise choices would be virtuous and good.

From this, Socrates claimed that a society had to be lead by those who were the wisest - and not by the mob. The concept of the philosopher king was born of this creed. For this reason, Socrates rejected democracy as it existed in his day. However, it is a mistake to believe that he did not stand for individual rights. In fact, the life of Socrates bears testament to the philosophy that the individual must be free - just read the Apology, wherein Socrates chooses death over being silenced by the government.

What Socrates was looking for was a society wherein the individual lived in an intelligently administrated society, yet it was one that returned more to the individual than the individual gave to it - slight restrictions in individual liberty would be offset by protections of his rights to free speech and freedom of thought.

Socrates on personality theory:

As a student of psychology, I am interested in what Socrates has to say about personality. Socrates stated, as quoted by Plato in Phaedrus: "In every one of us there are two ruling and directing principles, whose guidance we follow wherever they may lead; the one being an innate desire of pleasure; (hedonism) the other, an acquired judgment which aspires after excellence." From this we can see the beginnings of Freud's conflict model of the psyche. Socrates may have been one of the first psychoanalysts.

The Skinny on Socrates

There is one truth that went unspoken in this entry: it is difficult to know just what in this entry truly is original to Socrates, and what was attributed to him by his student, Plato. However, I feel it safe to assume the following as probably true: Socrates promulgated the brave tradition of seeking the truth wherever it may lead, no matter the danger. He thought that the only "sin" was insisting on being ignorant and trying to make others believe your ignorance is really knowledge. The Socratian attitude would be "I try to be happy when I am wrong because it means that I have gained new knowledge and hopefully am closer to the truth of things." Socrates is erroneously labeled an elitist philosopher by critics such as Erasmus. In reality, his existential views had strong practical value in the everyday lives of common men, and his influence on improving the common man's lot is far, far superior to that of Erasmus.

To learn more about Socrates - see his finest student, Plato.

Additional source for this entry: The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant (from 1926) which I picked up at a used book store for around 2 dollars.