When considering the life and the philosophical teachings of Socrates, it is necessary to consider that Socrates himself does not appear to have written down any of his ideas. The only philosophical teachings and discussions believed to have originated with Socrates actually come from the written works of other people who knew him or knew of him. Socrates is written about by a number of people, each offering different insights into the man, his character, and his philosophies. These works combine t paint a portrait of a complex man with an insatiable desire for learning and an overwhelming fascination with the nature of virtue, morality, and truth. It is clear that Socrates was a compelling figure who had a significant impact on all those he met. By examining the life and teachings of Socrates it is possible to gain insight into the time in which he lived, and to better understand why he cast such an enormous influence over the entire realm of philosophical thought.
Because Socrates is only known through the writing of others, it is necessary to form an impression of the man and his views based on a composite of written portraits that are often completely contradictory. Historians refer to this as the “Socratic problem,” and no clear consensus has emerged to definitively describe Socrates. Some of the documents and other written works about Socrates are, however, given more weight than others, and some are viewed through the perspectives of those who wrote them, with the understanding that the writer may be projecting some of his own beliefs or ideas on Socrates. Still other portraits are believed to be purposefully exaggerated, and as such historians attempt to peer through the exaggerated details to see the real man inside them. In truth, there is very little evidence to prove that Socrates even existed, though that is understandable for someone who lived so long ago. It appears likely, though, given the extent of his legacy, that he was a real person and that he was well-known, if not always well-liked by hs contemporaries and peers.
The conflicting portraits of Socrates can be found in works such as the two different Apologies written by Plato and Xenophon and in the play Clouds by Aristophanes. Of all the existing resources that mention Socrates, Plato’s Apology is perhaps the most well-known and well-regarded. Historians believe that some of the words that Plato ascribes to Socrates in his Apology may more accurately reflect Plato’s own philosophical views and his interpretations of Socrates’ philosophies. Generally, though, it is believed that Plato’s Apology offers the fullest account of Socrates and of his philosophical ideas. The nature and structure of the Apology work well for the purpose of learning about the entirety of Socrates’ life and teachings, as it is intended to describe the occasion when Socrates addressed the Athenian court when he was on trial for his life.
What is interesting about the Apology is that it does not show Socrates in a typical light. In the Apology, Socrates delivers a rather lengthy speech to the Athenian court in which he addresses the charges against him and attempts to explain his own views and perspectives on these charges. In general, however, Socrates was not known for making long speeches to those who listened to or followed his teachings. Instead Socrates engaged in a process called elenchus, which amounts to a dialogue between Socrates and himself wherein Socrates guides the course of the discussion by asking a series of questions. The basic framework for such an elenchus on the part of Socrates would begin with Socrates asking someone to define or explain their views on an idea such as morality or virtue. As the other person offered a response, Socrates would continue to ask questions in an effort to draw out more ideas and opinions from the other person.
In the address to the court, by contrast, Socrates spoke for some time, and explained his own views on a number of matters. At the heart of Socrates’ defense of his own actions was hiss insistence that he did not consider himself a teacher. He was accused of corrupting the youth of the city, acting in the role of a teacher. Socrates countered that he was not a teacher, and instead positioned himself more as a pupil. He was, he asserted, always trying to learn more, and the one thing he knew well was that he did not know everything. It was this self-awareness, Socrates claimed, that indicated that he was in fact a wise man. By having the wisdom to know the limits of his own knowledge he possessed the sort of wisdom he felt was lacking in so many Athenians. It was, of course, this same attitude that led directly to the charges against him.
Socrates’ philosophical views were at odds with the sophists and some others that had come before him or that were his contemporaries. Many philosophers were concerned with understanding the natural world and giving consideration to the workings of the universe. Socrates rejected this approach, and was much more concerned with seeking wisdom by looking inward. The famous phrase attributed to Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” is a direct way of explaining his philosophy. Socrates was only concerned about the natural world to the extent that it could offer insight into the human condition. He was much more concerned with the nature of the human soul or spirit, and with understanding the principles that set man apart from the natural world. Socrates spent his life considering the meanings of concepts such as virtue, morality, and justice, and believed that those were the only sorts of things that mattered for philosophical purposes.
At the end of his life, when the Athenian court found him guilty and sentenced him to die, Socrates professed that he was not afraid. Either death was a final end, or it was the start of a new journey. Either one of those options would have pleased him, as the former would have meant he could no longer be concerned about anything anyway, while the latter meant an opportunity to learn more. That was his hope for any possible afterlife: that he have the opportunity to engage in elenchus with the great figures of history. On a personal level, the teachings of Socrates offer a new perspective on life. The most important lesson is the one he shared at the trial about his insistence of hs own ignorance and his desire to always keep learning. That is a valuable lesson for individuals and for the entire world of philosophical thought. If there is no more to learn, then there is no purpose in living. Socrates serves as a reminder to see life as a series of endless possibilities and opportunities; that is a legacy worth remembering.
Navia, Lewis E. (2007). Socrates: A life examined. Prometheus Books. Amherst, NY.
Navia, Lewis E. (2002). Socratic testimonies. University Press of America. Lanham, MD.