The Philosophy of Socrates

Socrates (470/469–399 bce), mentor of Plato and founder of moral philosophy, was the son of Sophroniscus (a statuary) and Phaenarete (a midwife). According to a late doxographical tradition, he followed for a time in his father’s footsteps – a claim regarded as apocryphal by most scholars despite the fact that Socrates traces his ancestry to the mythical statuary Daedalus (Euthyphro 11b8–9). He also describes himself as an intellectual midwife who, although himself barren, delivers young men of ideas with which they are pregnant (Theaetetus 149a1–151d3) – an image generally believed to be Plato’s middle-period description of Socrates rather than Socrates’ description of himself. The husband of Xanthippe – and later, according to some sources, of Myrto – he was the father of three sons, of whom two were still infants at the time of his death.


Although intimately acquainted with Athenian intellectual and cultural life, he was mightily unimpressed with both. He had little interest in the philosophical ideas of his predecessors, he disputed the alleged wisdom and moral authority of the poets, he expressed deep misgivings about the truth of Homeric theology, he lamented the lack of virtue in public and private life, and he had a low opinion of the sophists who professed to teach it. He had an even lower opinion of the politicians, whom he denounced as panderers to public taste more interested in beautifying the city than in improving the citizenry. Contemptuous of the opinions of “the Many,” he was an outspoken critic of democracy and exhorted his hearers to ignore the opinions of the ignorant and to attend only to the moral expert who knows about right and wrong (Crito 47c8–d3, 48a5–7). Indeed, among philosophers of classical antiquity, only Plato was more overtly anti-democratic.

Notable for his powerful intellect, he was invincible in argument and, in Xenophon’s awestruck phrase, “could do what he liked with any disputant” (Memorabilia 1.2.14–16). In Meno 79e7–80b2 he is compared to a stingray who numbs people’s minds and reduces them to helplessness. In Apology 30e1–31a1 he describes himself more positively as a gadfly trying to awaken the great Athenian steed from its intellectual and moral slumber. Despite his reputation as the paradigmatically rational man, willing to act only in accordance with the argument best supported by Reason (Crito 46b3–6), he attached great importance to his customary sign (daimonion), which gave practical guidance in the form of periodic warnings. He attached comparable importance to dreams and oracles. Indeed, were it not for one particular and well publicized oracular pronouncement, he might never have attracted the attention with which he has been showered for the past 2,500 years.

It seems that his friend Chaerephon had once asked the Delphic oracle whether anyone is wiser than Socrates and had been told that no one is. Astonished by this pronouncement, Socrates had initially tried to refute the oracle by interrogating numerous people with a reputation for wisdom – including the politicians, the poets, and the craftsmen – in hopes of finding someone wiser than himself. But he had failed. This disappointing venture had convinced him that the god was right: no one is wiser than Socrates, albeit only in the modest sense that, unlike these others, he does not claim to know what he does not know. He concluded that he had been given a divine mission to spend his life philosophizing, examining himself and others, convicting them of moral ignorance, and persuading them that they are in the same deplorable epistemic condition as he. For a variety of reasons, catalogued at some length in the Apology, Athens retaliated. At the age of 70, he was accused of not believing in the gods of the city, of introducing new gods, and of corrupting the youth. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death by hemlock. Having declined the chance to escape from prison, he was executed in 399.

Since Socrates wrote nothing, our knowledge of him is based wholly on the testimony of others. Anyone who undertakes to write about him must take a stand on the so-called “Socratic problem” generated by the fact that our three major sources of first-hand information – Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato – have handed down radically different and unreconcilable portraits. Which, if any, of these very different literary personae corresponds to the historical Socrates?

Scattered exceptions aside, most scholars have opted for Plato’s portrait. Aristophanes was a comic poet, and his Socrates is an obvious caricature. The Clouds is at once a parody of Socrates and a spoof of philosophy, written for laughs rather than as a source of reliable biographical information. Xenophon, on the other hand, was a Socratic apologist. His Socrates is a serious thinker, but he is also something of a bore – an inexhaustible conduit of numbingly predictable and eminently forgettable platitudes. It is hard to understand how so innocuous a person could have attracted the likes of Alcibiades and Critias or why anyone would have bothered to execute him. Plato answers these questions. His Socrates is neither an unabashed clown nor a benign moralizer, but a disturbing philosopher-critic – exactly the sort of person his contemporaries might have judged subversive and worthy of death.

Actually, there is not one Socrates in the Platonic corpus; there are two. The first is concerned almost exclusively with ethics. This is the Socrates of the early dialogues: the Apology, Crito, Charmides, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis, Protagoras, and Republic I. The second is equally concerned with ethics, but he is also deeply immersed in metaphysics, epistemology, logic, political philosophy, educational theory, and virtually every other area of philosophy. This is the Socrates of the middle dialogues: the Meno, Cratylus, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Republic II–X, Parmenides, Symposium, and Theaetetus. There are, in fact, two “Socratic problems.” Unlike the first, which is traceable to the unreconcilable discrepancies between the respective portraits of Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato, the second is traceable to the very different but equally unreconcilable discrepancies within the Platonic corpus. Many contemporary scholars have opted for a “developmentalist” solution according to which the views espoused by the Socrates of the early dialogues are those of the historical Socrates, whereas the views espoused by his (in many respects very different) counterpart of the middle dialogues are those of Plato.


Socrates’ appearance on the fifth-century Athenian scene marked a radical turning point in the development of Greek philosophy – so radical, in fact, that his predecessors are generically referred to as the pre-Socratics. Abandoning cosmological speculation on the ground that its physicalistic and reductionistic explanations ignore the rational determinants of human conduct (Phaedo 96a6–99d2), he occupied himself exclusively with practical questions. According to Aristotle (Metaphysics 987b1–3, 1078b17–19), Socrates searched for general and universal definitions of ethical terms. The originator of the What-is-F? question – What is piety? (Euthyphro), What is temperance? (Charmides), What is courage? (Laches) – he objected to elucidating moral concepts by appeal to particular cases or commonly held opinions (endoxa) and insisted on exact definitions. According to him, any adequate definition of piety must state the common character (eidos) possessed by all (and only) pious actions by which they are pious. The same is true of all the other virtues. Insofar as such a definition constitutes the necessary and sufficient conditions governing the application of the term under investigation, it serves as a standard (paradeigma) for determining what is and what is not an instantiation of it (Euthyphro 6e3–6). Only such definitions enable their possessor to escape from the epistemically unstable and morally precarious state of mind called belief or opinion (doxa) and to attain knowledge (episteme). Aristotle adds that, unlike Plato, Socrates did not ascribe separate existence to these universals (Metaphysics 1078b30–2) – a remark which has prompted many scholars to conclude that the historical Socrates did not subscribe to the full-blown Theory of Forms set forth in the Phaedo and the middle books of the Republic.

Socrates achieved high visibility (and later notoriety) because of the questions with which he afflicted his contemporaries and the arguments with which he refuted them. His instrument of refutation was the Socratic elenchus – from elencho¯, to examine or refute – that peculiarly Socratic method of argumentation which Aristotle calls “peirastic,” in which the interlocutor is refuted “from [his] own beliefs” (Sophistical Refutations 165b3–4, Topics 100a29–30). The interlocutor asserts a thesis, say, p; Socrates thereupon elicits his assent to further theses, say q and r, and then argues that q and r entail not-p, the negation of the interlocutor’s original assertion. Socrates’ dialectical purpose is variously interpreted: according to some, he is trying to refute his interlocutor’s errors; according to others, he is simply trying to demonstrate inconsistency in his interlocutor’s belief-set. Whichever view one adopts, the final outcome is always the same: the interlocutor, confident at first, is inexorably reduced to aporia – literally, without passage or a way out. According to (the perhaps overly optimistic) Socrates, anyone reduced to this salutary state of mind will acknowledge his moral ignorance and take up the philosophical quest for the knowledge he lacks.

Plato’s early dialogues reflect the Socratic conception of philosophy as a collaborative enterprise – a joint search for moral truth. By a “joint search,” Socrates does not just mean a discussion between two participants. The dialogues of philosophers like Cicero, Augustine, Anselm, and Berkeley satisfy that criterion; but they are not joint searches in Socrates’ sense. In these non-Socratic dialogues, only one participant is searching for truth; the other participant already has it. The interlocutor plays no vital role in the discovery; he merely provides the occasion for the philosopher to communicate truth antecedently discovered – “To deliver a System,” in a Humean (see Hume) phrase.

Socrates has no system. On the contrary, he disavows all knowledge. Yet although devoid of wisdom, he is a lover of it – a searcher in search not only of truth, but also of other searchers. Unlike other philosophers who employ the dialogue form, Socrates refutes his interlocutors’ false beliefs not in hopes of replacing them with true ones, but in hopes of replacing them with a desire for true ones. But he will not – indeed, cannot – supply them himself. His primary task is to convict his interlocutors of moral ignorance and thereby render them fit dialectical partners. The proximate end of philosophizing is not the discovery of truth, but the realization that one does not have it. The etymological definition of “philosophy” as “the love of wisdom” has become so hackneyed through repetition that it is easy to forget that it originally meant something important. As a lover of wisdom, the philosopher is distinguished from all who claim to be wise. Philosophy is search. According to Socrates, this is not only the best life; it is the only life. The unexamined life is not worth living (Apology 38a5–6). It is in living the examined life, rather than in enjoying the epistemic benefits which result from living it, that the highest human happiness is to be found (Apology 38a1–2). The activity of philosophizing is not a means to happiness, understood as an end distinct from philosophizing and contingently connected to it as a causal consequence; it is happiness.

No account of Socrates would be complete without a brief discussion of his views. Although he disavows all knowledge, certain theses surface, or are alluded to, so often that commentators have not hesitated to ascribe them to him. (1) The soul is more important than the body. By “the soul,” Socrates does not mean some metaphysical entity distinct from the body and capable of existing independently of it. (On the subject of immortality, he remains an agnostic.) The soul is “that in us, whatever it is, which is concerned with justice and injustice” (Crito 47e7–48a1). As such, it is our most priceless possession and its care our most important task. (2) One ought never to requite evil with evil (Crito 49b10–11). Since the soul is benefited by acting justly and harmed by acting unjustly (Crito 47d3–5), one ought never to act unjustly – not even if one has been treated unjustly oneself. In thus repudiating the lex talionis, Socrates dissociates himself from the typically Athenian view – formally refuted in Republic 331e1–336a10 – that justice consists in helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies. (3) It is better to suffer than to commit injustice (Gorgias 474b2–4). Since acting unjustly harms the soul of the wrongdoer, thereby damaging that in him which is concerned with justice and injustice, it is psychologically and morally preferable to endure any amount of unjust treatment than to be unjust oneself. (4) No one errs voluntarily. This thesis – the so-called “Socratic paradox” – constitutes the very heart of Socratic intellectualism. Since everyone desires happiness, and since the good is beneficial and the evil harmful, it follows that all desire is for the good, i.e. that no one desires evil recognized as evil, but only because it is mistakenly judged to be good (Meno 77b6–78b2). Hence, whoever knows what is good and what is evil will never act contrary to his knowledge (Protagoras 352c2–7). In a word, moral weakness (akrasia) is impossible; all wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. (5) The doctrine of the unity of the virtues. Socrates believed that the virtues constitute a unity – not in the sense that each is identical with the others, but in the sense that they are inter-entailing in such a way that one cannot have any single virtue without having all the others, e.g. one cannot be courageous without being wise (Protagoras 360d8–e6).

Socrates’ death inspired the Sokratikoi logoi – a collection of ostensibly biographical but, in fact, bewilderingly diverse and discrepancyridden “Socratic conversations” that contain such an indistinguishable blend of fact and fiction that even Aristotle despaired of assigning them to a precise literary genre (Poetics 1447b8–10). Socrates’ views were subsequently championed by the so-called “Socratics,” the most important of whom were Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Euclides – the founders, respectively, of the Cynic, the Cyreniac, and the Megarian Socratic “schools.” Each focused on one aspect of Socrates’ thought to the exclusion of the rest, and each regarded himself as the genuine perpetuator and true heir of his thought.

Further Reading

Literary Criticism of Aristotle

Benson, Hugh H.: Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates (New York: Oxford, 1992).
Beversluis, John: Cross-examining Socrates: A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato’s Early Dialogues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Brickhouse, Thomas C. and Smith, Nicholas D.: Plato’s Socrates (New York: Oxford, 1994).
Gower, Barry S. and Stokes, Michael C.: Socratic Questions: The Philosophy of Socrates and Its Significance (London: Routledge, 1992).
Gulley, Norman: The Philosophy of Socrates (London: Macmillan, 1968).
Guthrie, W. K. C.: Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971).
Patzer, Andreas (ed.): Der historische Sokrates (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1987).
Plato: Early Socratic Dialogues, ed. Trevor J. Saunders (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987). [Contains Ion, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Euthydemus.] ——: Gorgias, trans. with notes T. Irwin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).
——: Protagoras, trans. with notes C. C. W. Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).
——: The Trial and Death of Socrates, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1975).
Santas, Gerasimos: Socrates, Philosophy in Plato’s Early Dialogues (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979).
Taylor, A. E.: Socrates (Edinburgh: Peter Davies, 1932).
Vlastos, Gregory (ed.): The Philosophy of Socrates. A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971).
——: Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

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