Few persons are relevant over 2,400 years after they died. Confucius, The Buddha, and Jesus of Nazareth all have deep and lasting legacies. Socrates is certainly one of the most influential individuals ever to live. Considering how many ancient Greek documents and texts have been lost, we are lucky to have any information about him at all. He never wrote anything down! I will share a few thoughts and quotes about Socrates, one of the best teachers of wisdom and most interesting thinkers in history. He is a great guide to us in the waning days of empire here in the United States, just as he was in the tumultuous period in which he lived in ancient Athens.
In retrospect we may say that Socrates, whose reality was known and at the same time not known at all, became a kind of vessel into which men and whole epochs projected their own ideals: he has been regarded as a humble, God-fearing Christian; a self-assured rationalist; a demonic genius; a prophet of humanity; and sometimes even as a political conspirator, concealing his plan to seize power beneath the mask of the philosopher. He was none of these. ~ Karl Jaspers
Socrates was arrogant, intrusive, fat, irrepressible, ugly, crass, and inquisitive. He would wander around the marketplace, where everyone would meet each other, in Athens, in the era of about 410 B.C.E. He had a unique penchant for trying to figure out the nature of things by engaging others in conversation. Primarily it functioned to question the legitimacy of “wise men,” bring about critical thinking and skepticism in the youth, and test the boundaries of human understanding. In a word, he was a pest. In fact, they called him “the Athenian gadfly,” basically – a horsefly.
Moral philosophy is the attempt to achieve a systematic understanding of the nature of morality and what it requires of us – in Socrates’ words: How we ought to live, and Why.
He wasn’t just being an ass, though. He was also questioning society. Athens had just lost a long (I mean LONG), drawn-out, significant war to maintain its empire with the rival city-state of Sparta. They finally lost, due mostly to inept leadership and hubris. The empire of Athens had been knocked down a dozen notches.
In this environment, Socrates was pronounced by the Oracle at the city of Delphi (like an astrological or religious shrine) to be the wisest man alive. He was perplexed by this, and sought to determine if others knew what they thought they knew. He thus became one of history’s greatest philosophers. His willingness to question both himself and others was heretofore unsurpassed. He wanted to know. The famous author and a philosopher in his own right, Michel de Montaigne, said this:
When Socrates was advised that the God of wisdom had given him the title of Sage, he was astonished; and, examining and searching himself through and through, he found no basis for the divine judgment. He knew of men as just, as temperate, as valiant, as learned as himself, and more eloquent, handsomer, and more useful to their country. Finally he concluded that he was distinguished from the others, and wise, only in that he did not think of himself so and that his God considered the opinion that we possess learning and wisdom a singular piece of stupidity in man; and that his best knowledge was the knowledge of his ignorance, and simplicity his best wisdom.
Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens and establish it in the towns and introduce it into homes and force it to investigate life, ethics, good and evil.
Here is what the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says about his life: “Socrates is one of the few individuals whom one could say has so-shaped the cultural and intellectual development of the world that, without him, history would be profoundly different. He is best known for his association with the Socratic method of question and answer, his claim that he was ignorant (or aware of his own absence of knowledge), and his claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, for human beings. He was the inspiration for Plato, the thinker widely held to be the founder of the Western philosophical tradition.”
Question-and-answer is right! He had a very agile mind, and if he walked up to you and a minute into the conversation asked you how you knew what was true, you were about to be stuck in a web of his design. You would walk away feeling that perhaps you did not know as much as you thought you did. This would be humbling – mortifying, in certain cases. It had a way of earning him the ire of many elders in Athens, who, after a defeat by the Spartans, with their society in a state of relative decay, weren’t in the mood for being bitten by a horsefly.
In Socrates’ view, the healthiness of a State depends on the degree to which the national life is based on the integrity of its leaders. To help bring about a healthy State, Socrates took every opportunity that came his way to run incompetent people out of office, to urge people concerned with truth and goodness to seek office, to make politicians accept responsibility for their actions, and to offer them assistance in carrying out their duties. For Socrates, politics is identical with social reform.
He was basically developing, on the streets of Athens in the 5th century, philosophy. He taught us to question, to seek, to engage in a dialectic, to examine, and to think for oneself. Though he was a believer in a god, it is said, he didn’t feel that much was revealed to human beings. If we wanted to know something, we were going to have to think about it. And then, think about it again. He came from a place of real or feigned ignorance, and took nothing for granted.
Biography.com writes that: “Socrates was known for his courage in battle and fearlessness, a trait that stayed with him throughout his life.” He was certainly so. Not only was he willing to do the modern-day equivalent of walking up to any movie star, military general, or politician and ask them challenging questions about themselves and their beliefs, he stuck by his guns until the end.
When he was 70 years old – extremely old for that era – the populace had had enough. In a trial with 501 jurors, his intelligent and passionate defense of himself failed, and he was convicted of not observing the gods and of corrupting the youth. His sentence: death.
Socrates, the Athenian gadfly, transformed casual conversations into full-blown quests for philosophical truth.
Holy crap! Indeed, they killed the best thing they had going for them at a miserable time. This, a city-state that had an empire, broke treaties, had slaves, subjugated women, and lost a 30-year-war to its neighbor decided that killing basically the greatest philosopher in their midst was a good idea. Like the story of Jesus, and other pursuers of wisdom since, Socrates had a tough choice to make: run, or accept the ruling of the demos (the people).
He chose to die. Against his friends’ emotional pleas, he felt that he should die like he lived: obeying the law. Though a man such as Socrates was knowledgeable that the laws of the polis (city) were fallible and at times, absurd, he felt that to live his life by them and in the end to flee would be ignominious. He was 70, and had lived an extremely full life. He chose to drink poison and kill himself as the court demanded.
In meeting the accusation that he had corrupted the youth of Athens, Socrates did not for a moment assume an apologetic air, but with courageous faith in the worth of philosophy set forth the principles by which he governed his life.
How do I feel about him? I think he would have done better to be more modest and humble. I mean, a person who would walk up to anybody, regardless of the social constraints against such behavior, and engage them in the most challenging and heated discussion of deep concepts you can imagine is basically full of himself. At the same time that he would claim modesty and ignorance, he was laying a trap. It was perhaps in the service of truth, but it is only one step above the sophists, who taught rhetoric not for truth, but for personal gain. I would probably say that the life of his students Plato and, by extension, Aristotle, were a bit more palatable because they taught in their schools per se. Socrates could have taught without being such a pest about it.
However, one of the world’s most notable philosophers, Bertrand Russell, says this: “Socrates was no doubt familiar with the achievements of all the thinkers, writers and artists of Greece. But what we know is little, and as nothing when set against the infinite vastness of the unknown. Once we see this, we can truly say we know nothing.” That is a smart way of putting it. Socrates might have been merely modeling ignorance for the purpose of birthing knowledge, but he was still serving as its midwife. Few who witnessed his teachings could have left unaffected. He wasn’t promising enlightenment or union with God, as Buddha and Jesus were, but he was offering something prized.
The difficulties associated with finding an answer to Socrates’ question, How should we live? …I came to realize that there is no single or final answer. Different stages of one’s life call for different answers; the answers of youth are not the answers of middle age, which, in turn, are not appropriate for old age. The key, at least for me, was the realization that the answers were far less important than the question itself.
What he did was help the previously-cocky and now-disgraced Athenians question themselves. A society like theirs was perhaps the birthplace of philosophy, but the citizens still had much learning to do. I mean, the slaves, and the restrictive social conventions and the empire. As Colin McGinn puts it: “We thought we knew what the self was; we end up not knowing what the self is. We thought we knew there was an external world; we don’t. We thought there was free will; it turns out were not even clear about what that is. All sorts of subjects, it turns out, we are much less clear about than we thought. Well, Socrates was the person who urged the importance of people really realizing their own ignorance; realizing the limits of their knowledge.”
Another scholar, Daniel N. Robinson, adds this: “Socrates is a gadfly in the sense of unseating the confident rider who believes he is on the flight path to truth. Socrates was well trained in the art of rhetoric and the great Sophist teachings of his time, but he goes beyond Sophism. His objective was not just to expose the ignorance of an interlocutor but to find the truth and, ultimately, defeat skepticism itself.”
Socrates does not hand down wisdom but makes the other find it. The other thinks he knows, but Socrates makes him aware of this ignorance, so leading him to find authentic knowledge in himself. From miraculous depths this man raises up what he already knew, but without knowing that he knew it. This means that each man must find knowledge in himself; it is not a commodity that can be passed from hand to hand, but can only be awakened. When it comes to light, it is like a recollection of something known long ago. ~ Karl Jaspers
Socrates’ values were probably very consonant with what I consider the wise to love and to pursue: justice, truth, self-confidence, and wisdom (among others). He also believed in the interrelationship of allied values, which most of us have never thought about before. Here is an interesting take on his values in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
…Socrates argues for the view that all of the virtues—justice, wisdom, courage, piety, and so forth—are one. He provides a number of arguments for this thesis. For example, while it is typical to think that one can be wise without being temperate, Socrates rejects this possibility on the grounds that wisdom and temperance both have the same opposite: folly. Were they truly distinct, they would each have their own opposites. As it stands, the identity of their opposites indicates that one cannot possess wisdom without temperance and vice versa.
…virtue is a form of knowledge…. Things like beauty, strength, and health benefit human beings, but can also harm them if they are not accompanied by knowledge or wisdom. If virtue is to be beneficial it must be knowledge, since all the qualities of the soul are in themselves neither beneficial not harmful, but are only beneficial when accompanied by wisdom and harmful when accompanied by folly.
Socrates counts among those great minds who actually cultivated doubt in the name of truth. The Socratic method is an eternal questioning. This is not relativism; there is truth to be found, but human being may best approach it through doubt rather than conviction.
Wisdom scholar Stephen S. Hall writes of this sense of intellectual modesty that serves us wisdom-seekers well: “Especially in early Eastern philosophy, an acute appreciation of human fallibility emerges as a fundamental construct of the human condition.” Indeed, Confucius wrote something very similar to something which Socrates, a century later, would also arrive at: “To know what you know, and know what you don’t know, is the characteristic of one who knows.” Hall does note that if Socrates were to be criticized, one limitation would be that he might have valued rationality to the unnecessary exclusion of emotion, and Hall has found in his exhaustive inquiry into wisdom that modern neuroscience finds that a kind of integration serves one better than a rigid reliance on logic and objectivity. This idea has been developed with great success by Gene Roddenberry and future writers of Star Trek with the character Spock, who is half-human (susceptible to the perils of emotionality) and Vulcan (susceptible to the myopia of “logic”).
There is an interesting view of his main message: the unexamined life is not worth living. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums it up nicely:
After the jury has convicted Socrates and sentenced him to death, he makes one of the most famous proclamations in the history of philosophy. He tells the jury that he could never keep silent, because “the unexamined life is not worth living for human beings” (Apology 38a). We find here Socrates’ insistence that we are all called to reflect upon what we believe, account for what we know and do not know, and generally speaking to seek out, live in accordance with, and defend those views that make for a well-lived and meaningful life.
…[b]y asserting the primacy of the examined life after he has been convicted and sentenced to death, Socrates, the prosecuted, becomes the prosecutor, surreptitiously accusing those who convicted him of not living a life that respects their own humanity. He tells them that by killing him they will not escape examining their lives.
Does Socrates really know what it is like to be a fool? Can he truly experience the joys of idle pleasure in simple things, untroubled by the desire to understand and improve the world? We may doubt it.
Socrates, you may remember, took the position that only God knows; that for the most part men have nothing better than opinion. And he went on to say that to know this is wisdom.
He also exposed the fallibility of law and of democracy. Perhaps it is no coincidence that his best student, perhaps the most famous philosopher ever – Plato – came to deeply distrust the “mob.” Daniel N. Robinson writes: “The Athenians treasured the democratic character of the polis, and a philosopher could well expect trouble when challenging its core precepts. Socrates raised grave questions about such precepts. Suppose for argument’s sake that the polis contained 11,000 people – of whom 10,994 are certifiable fools and six are wise men!” America’s founding fathers also worried about putting critical decisions in the hands of 501 individuals, many of whom were simply farmers, merchants, and bakers. Clearly, oligarchy is going too far in the opposite direction, but democracy is faced by the threat of “tyranny of the majority.”
Ever since Socrates, playing the sage among fools has been a dangerous business.
There is a pessimistic view of Socratic wisdom I have always found interesting. It’s a dark look at virtue; a poem by the poet Bertolt Brecht. It isn’t exactly “inspiring” or “reassuring.” It, combined with Socrates’ execution, frankly makes philosophy seem like a dangerous and dubious proposition. Such is the case in benighted and wayward societies, I’m afraid. It’s still worth thinking about – if only to give you a fuller understanding of what wisdom is about in its deepest form. Here is a stanza from the barn-burner of a poem, How Fortunate the Man with None:
As reported by Plato in his famous Apology, Socrates was convinced that most of us approach life backwards. We give the most attention to the least important things and the least attention to the most important things. It was his firm belief that ‘wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence brings about wealth and all other public and private blessings.’ It was the state of our souls that was most important to Socrates; the inner life of each person; greatness of spirit; wisdom; inner excellence. ~ Tom Morris
Let go of others’ values. Take only what your church, family, and society inculcated in you that is authentic, rational, and feels right. Spend the time it takes to find out what you value, what you cherish, and why. Socrates heralded the process of really inquiring about values, and he made a massive impact. I value his method.
Here is a book by a noted philosopher worth checking out. This is what one person says in a snippet of a review: “In Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus (1962), Karl Jaspers provides a concise but illuminating account of the thought and lives of some of the greatest individuals who ever walked on this earth. The book gives a quite fascinating glimpse into how these unique individuals, with their mission of guiding the human spirit to the level of ultimate values, shaped and still shape the minds and cultures of large parts of humanity.”
I urge you to look up many more Socrates quotes – or quotations by famous philosophers – here in The Wisdom Archive, a fabulous source for wisdom quotes, trenchant thoughts, and insightful inspiration.
Fields and trees teach me nothing, but the people in a city do.