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Socrates: Midwife of Western Philosophy

Socrates: Midwife of Western Philosophy

Author: Meghan Hatalla

• Why the author is important to literature
• How to read – read dialogue aloud, hidden meanings, etc.
• Brief history of author

Socrates is one of the founders of Western philosophy. Though Socrates never wrote anything down, his ideas are known to us primarily through the writings of his star pupil, Plato.

The core of Socrates' teachings is that the only real wisdom is knowing you know nothing. In addition to this humbling thought, Socrates is notable for originating the Socratic Method and his philosophical beliefs around paradox, knowledge, virtue, politics, and mysticism.

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Who was Socrates?

Bust of SocratesThere's not a lot that can be verified about Socrates, mostly because he never recorded anything himself.  His words and teachings were recorded by students Plato and Xenophon. In the same period, comic playwright Aristophanes parodied Socrates in several plays.

What is known for sure is that he was born in 469 BC, and for the first part of his life he worked as a stone-carver in ancient Athens.

"As for me, all I know is that I know nothing."
--From Plato's Republic

Sometime in his forties, Socrates began to wonder about things, particularly ethics and logic. He began to ask questions, like:

  • What is wisdom?
  • What is piety?
  • And most importantly, Why?

Socrates began to ask these questions to people, and continuously drilled down on the subject in order to show people the flaws in their logic.  Socrates began to teach young men (without charging the exorbitant fees that were customary in ancient Athens).

Or, since Socrates claimed that he did not know enough to teach, he began to question them. Thus was born the Socratic Method, a popular teaching method in law schools that asks a series of questions, revelling in individual respones and providing insight into topics.

The Socratic Method

The Socratic Method is used by law school professors in the same manner that Socrates employed it--to show how much we don't know. This clip from "All About Law School" gives insight into what it's like to be quizzed in this way.

The Trial of Socrates

The politicians of the day heavily disliked Socrates' methods. They taught people to think, and analyze, instead of follow the masses.  This lead to the trial of Socrates.

"The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being"
-- from the Apology of Socrates

Socrates was found guilty of two notoriously ambiguous charges:corrupting the youth and impiety (the latter was based off a failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges and introducing new deities). Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock potion.

The trial and death of Socrates, as documented by Xenaphan and Plato, have provided endless philosophical debates regarding democracy and justice. Just another part of his legacy which includes predominant themes of:

  • Paradox
  • Knowledge
  • Virtue
  • Politics
  • Mysticism

Since Socrates left no writings of his own, it's up to the reader to discern what it Socrates, and what is the author. This is particularly tricky with Plato's works. Before becoming a philosopher, Plato was a playwright. His writings take the form of dialogues; and though critics believe he accurately portrayed Socrates in his earlier works, his later dialogues present a characterization of Socrates that is more Plato than what we think is the real Socrates.

Recurring Socratic Themes

There are five recurring themes in Socrates' work:
- Paradox
- Knowledge
- Virtue
- Politics
- Mysticism