The Oracle of Athens: the Story of Socrates

As he lay dying, Socrates gazed upon the faces of his friends and loved ones, gathered in sorrow around his bed. The poison of the hemlock had taken hold, coursing through his veins and stealing his breath. And yet, in his final moments, Socrates remained steadfast.

The events leading to this moment had been tumultuous, a test of Socrates’ love for the truth and his unwavering commitment to it. In a time when the city of Athens was grappling with political turmoil and societal upheaval, Socrates’ unorthodox teachings and his relentless questioning of the status quo had earned him both admiration and enemies.

He was no king nor warrior. No lush tapestries adorned his home. But he was mighty, alright. His might lay not in armies or riches, but in the power of his mind.

Ultimately, he was put on trial charged with corrupting the youth and impiety towards the gods. Despite his eloquent defence, the court found him guilty and sentenced him to death by drinking hemlock.

To his last, he lived by his most famous dictum, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s a powerful statement that speaks of the importance of self-reflection and introspection, of taking a step back and truly analysing one’s beliefs and actions. It is a call to action, urging us to question everything, to seek truth and wisdom, and to live our lives with purpose and meaning.

Known for his plain dress and simple tastes, Socrates was a philosopher who sought to understand the meaning of life and the nature of wisdom. He walked the streets and engaged in lively debates with anyone who would listen, be they politicians, scholars, or unremarkable a citizens. His legacy lives on to this day, as we continue to explore the questions he raised and the wisdom he imparted.

Born in Athens around 469 BCE, he is considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. Despite having left no written works of his own, Socrates’s ideas and teachings were documented by his students, most notably Plato.

His method of teaching, known as the Socratic method, involved asking a series of questions to stimulate critical thinking and to expose the contradictions in an opponent’s beliefs.

We are going to explore Socrates’ unwavering quest for truth and his innovative method of teaching, the Socratic method. We will delve into his belief that true knowledge leads to right action, and how his ideas continue to shape our understanding of morality and virtue.

We will also examine some of the criticisms of Socrates and his teachings, including the charges that ultimately led to his execution.

We will see how Socrates’ ideas have influenced some of the greatest minds in history, from Plato to Martin Luther King Jr.

i. Socrates’ Love for the Truth

Socrates’ love for the truth was at the core of his being. He spent his entire life in pursuit of knowledge and understanding, constantly questioning the world around him and seeking to uncover the underlying truth of things. He believed that knowledge of the truth was the key to living a good life and that without it, one could not make wise choices or act morally.

The truth was important to Socrates because he believed that a clear understanding of reality was essential for making wise decisions and living a good life. He believed that without knowledge of the truth, one could not act morally or make informed choices. 

This belief clashes with the Sophists, a group of travelling teachers who taught rhetoric and persuasion for a fee. They believed that truth was subjective, and that it could be manipulated to suit one’s own needs. They taught their students how to argue effectively, regardless of whether their arguments were based on truth or not.

Socrates saw the Sophists’ teachings as a threat to the pursuit of truth, and to the moral and intellectual development of the youth. Winning an argument was not important for Socrates because he believed that the goal of an argument was not to prove one’s own point, but to arrive at the truth. He believed that true knowledge and understanding come from questioning and examining one’s own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of others. He believed that a true argument is one in which all parties involved are open to changing their minds if presented with new evidence or reasoning. This approach to argumentation was essential to the pursuit of wisdom and virtue, which he considered the ultimate goal of human life.

ii. Socratic Method (Dialectic)

Socrates originated what became known as the Socratic Method. It is based on the idea of asking questions in order to gain knowledge and uncover the truth. Unlike traditional philosophical methods of the time, which involved presenting arguments and evidence, the Socratic method is focused on asking questions and facilitating a dialogue between the inquirer and the person being questioned.

Socrates himself was known for his love of wisdom, and he believed that the best way to gain knowledge was to engage in conversation with others. He would often question people on various topics, such as ethics, morality, and the nature of the gods, in order to challenge their beliefs and encourage them to think more deeply about their own views. This approach was revolutionary for its time, as it encouraged people to question what they thought they knew and consider new perspectives. Additionally, because the method is focused on conversation and dialogue, it is able to encourage participants to engage with each other in a respectful and constructive manner, which can help to build consensus and understanding between people with differing views.

The Socratic Method has been used in many different areas of philosophy and is still a popular tool for teaching critical thinking skills today. It is often used in the fields of ethics and political philosophy as it allows the participants to explore complex moral and political questions in a structured and systematic way. For example, when discussing a moral question such as whether or not it is right to lie, the Socratic \Method would involve asking questions that encourage the participants to consider the different perspectives and arguments involved in the question.

Despite its many strengths, the Socratic Method is not without its limitations. For example, it can be time-consuming and labor-intensive, as it requires a great deal of effort and attention to detail to properly apply. Additionally, because it is focused on questioning and challenging assumption, it can sometimes be perceived as confrontational or hostile. Which can lead to resistance or pushback from participants.

iii. Knowledge of the Truth and Right Actions.

One of Socrates’ key ideas was that knowledge of the truth was essential to the right action. He believed that without a proper understanding of the truth, individuals were unable to act in a just and moral way. Socrates saw ignorance as the root of all evil and believed that ry wisdom could only be attained through a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

Socrates believed that truth was not something that could be handed down from one person to another, but rather something that each individual had to discover for themselves. He used his questioning method to challenge individuals to think deeply about their beliefs and to question the basis of their opinions. This approach was innovative at the time and often resulted in individuals realising that they did not actually know what they thought they did.

One example of Socrates’ approach to truth and right action can be seen in this famous conversation with Trasymachus in Plato’s Republic. Trasymachus believe that justice was nothing more than the advantage of the stronger, and that morality was nothing more than a tool used by those in power to control the masses. Through a series of questions, Socrates challenged Trasymachus to think more deeply about his beliefs and ultimately, Trasymachus was forced to admit that justice was not just the advantage of the stronger, but was instead something that served the good of the community as a whole.

Socrates’ belief in the importance of knowledge of the truth and right action also had a significant impact on his own life. Despite being a man of modest means and having no political power, he stood up for what he believed was right, even at the cost of his own life. He was ultimately sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the youth, but he never wavered in his commitment to the pursuit of truth and his belief in the importance of right action.

Right action, or doing what is morally right, is a direct result of having knowledge of the truth. He famously stated in the “Aplogoy,” “The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.” In other words, if one knows the truth and understands what is morally right, one will naturally act in a just and virtuous manner.

The view is in stark contrast to the philosophy of the Sophists, who believed that morality was a matter of personal convenience and that there was no objective truth.

For Socrates, the pursuit of knowledge was the key to discovering what was truly good and just. By asking probing questions and having people examine their own beliefs, he aimed to lead them to a greater understanding of the truth and, as a result, to live a more just and virtuous life.

iv. Reactions

Socrates’ ethics, based on his concept of the “examined life,” has been both praised and criticised by other philosophers throughout history. Some of the more prominent critics include Aristotle, and more recently, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Aristotle was critical of Socrates’ emphasis on virtue and moral knowledge. He believed that while virtues were important, they were not enough to guarantee a good life. Instead, a balance of both virtue and practical wisdom was necessary for a person to lead a good life. In addition, Aristotle was critical of Socrates’ method of questioning and its focus on finding universal truths. Aristotle believed that this method was not sufficient for gaining practical knowledge and that it was better to seek knowledge through observation and experience.

In more recent times, Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, was highly critical of Socrates’ ethics and its influence on Western thought. Nietzsche saw Socrates as the origin of “slave morality,” which he saw as a suppression of the instincts and desires that are necessary for human flourishing. In his book “On the Genealogy of Morals,” Nietzsche critiques the values of “slave morality”, which he sees as arising from the weak and oppressed and promoting cowardice, humility, and obedience. He argues that Socrates embodied this type of morality and spread it through his philosophy.  Nietzsche also criticises Socrates for valuing reason over life, instinct, and will to power, which Nietzsche sees as essential for health and vitality. 

v. Legacy

Perhaps the most prominent thinker to be influenced by Socrates was Plato, on whom he had a profound effect. Many of Plato’s dialogues are meant to be a record of the conversations and debates that he had with Socrates.

One of the key areas where Socrates influenced Plato was in his approach to truth and morality. Socrates believed that truth and knowledge could be gained through reason and argument, a view that Plato would later adopt and develop in his own philosophy. Socrates also believed that the pursuit of truth was a never-ending journey and that there was always more to learn. This idea is reflected in Platoi’s famous allegory of the cave, in which people can only see shadows of the true reality until they venture out into the light.

Another area where Socrates influenced Plato was in his ethical philosophy. Socrates believed that the key to living a good life was to pursue virtue and wisdom and that this was more important than worldly success or wealth. He also believed that the purpose of philosophy was to help people become better, more virtuous people. Plato adopted these ideas and developed his own theory of Forms, which held that there was an ideal, perfect version of everything in the world, including moral concepts like justice and truth.

Socrates left a legacy that continues to inspire and challenge the minds of men and women to this day. He was a philosopher who sought the truth, not with answers, but with questions. He asked his fellow Athenians to examine their lives and beliefs, to question what they held to be true and to never stop seeking knowledge. He died a martyr for his beliefs, but his legacy lived on through the works of his students and through the ages.

Many centuries later, in the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. emphasised seeking truth, questioning authority, and engaging in critical thinking. King became one of the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. He studied philosophy in college and was exposed to the works of ancient Greek philosophers, including Socrates. In his own writings and speeches, King often invoked the concept of “the examined life,” which is a central idea in Socratic philosophy that emphasizes self-awareness, self-reflection, and the pursuit of wisdom through questioning and critical inquiry. King’s advocacy for civil disobedience as a means of challenging unjust laws also reflects Socratic ideas about the importance of individual conscience and standing up for what is right, even in the face of opposition.

Today, Socrates remains an exemplar of intellectual honesty, moral courage, and unwavering commitment to the pursuit of wisdom. His impact on philosophy and human thought is truly immeasurable.

The following sources will take you further into Socrates’ philosophy and his philosophical legacy:

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