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Socrates' Practice of Philosophy as a Contribution to the Development of Philosophy

Updated on June 6, 2010

The Death of Socrates


Socrates of Athens was born around 469 B.C. According to Plato, Socrates was seventy years old at the time of his death. He was the son of Sophroniscus and Phaenarete of the Antiochid tribe and the deme[1]of Alopecae. Unlike his father who was a sculptor of stone, Socrates’ interests were deeply rooted in philosophy. During his early twenties, his philosophical views gradually turned away from the cosmological speculation about nature, (as was the main concern of the Ionians) and towards an inquiry into ethics. Like his sophist[2]contemporaries, Socrates shared a concern for practical issues, especially for education. He himself paid special attention to questions of moral education and moral character and held the view that the pursuit of moral improvement was the most important human task.

Throughout his early life, Socrates’ attention was focused on the theories of Ionian science. Founded by the Milesians in the sixth century and beginning with Thales’ theory, Arché.[3]This science was the very foundation to the discovery of nature and eventually leading to Aristotle’s theory of causality. Socrates himself was never really satisfied by the given explanations on the origins of causality. More so, he was drawn to the why rather than the how of its happening. Having been exposed to the writings of Anaxagoras[4]concerning the nature of causality and that the world had been ordered by an intelligence (mind or nous), Socrates’ hopes were lifted to a higher degree of enthusiasm. The result of this however, led him to renounce the intelligible system of nature and divert his attention from the study of external things.

Socrates’ Teachings

Socrates never considered himself a teacher or in anyway wise among men, but according to himself, experienced the prompting of an inner voice or daimonion which accompanied him throughout his life: ‘I have a divine sign from the gods…This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but it never encourages me to do anything.’[5](31c-d) In Plato’s Apology, Chaerephon[6]states that, according to the Delpic Oracle, Socrates was to have been the wisest of all living men. Contrary to this, Socrates in his ironic state of confusion goes about the city of Athens cross-questioning certain citizens about things that he himself does not know. Having conversed at great length with the politicians, the statesmen, the poets and the tradesmen, on inquiries such as: what is true knowledge? And having not been made any the wiser; Socrates realised that unlike him, who was very much aware of his own ignorance, they were not. This confirmed for Socrates what the oracle had said was true. Of course the aftermath of this proved disastrous.Those who were subject to Socrates’ practice of questioning became irreversibly irritated by him and eventually a common hatred for him began to form among the peoples of Athens.This in turn led to accusations of impiety and corruption of the youth, resulting with a trial, and eventually with the cost of his life.

The Socratic Problem

Having never written a book, Socrates’ main sources have been the subject of his contemporaries: Xenophon, Aristophanes, Plato and Aristotle. The various accounts of his philosophical teachings vary from one philosopher to another, especially in context with the views of his aforementioned contemporaries. According to Frederick Copleston,S.J., the problem with Socrates is the problem of ascertaining what exactly is the source of his philosophical teaching.[7]On the other hand, Gregory Vlastos, a modern Socratic scholar, would argue that the most profound written accounts on Socrates’ philosophical teachings come from the pen of his most devout disciple, Plato.

At the time of Socrates’ death, Plato was around his mid-forties and was deeply influenced by Socrates’ quest for truth, centred towards the concept of being. A view from which the sophists at that time had turned away from. It was only after the catastrophe of Socrates’ death that Plato began to re-create and present to the world, the incomparable personality of his beloved master. From him comes Socrates, the epistemologist of the highest order.

Recollection of Knowledge

In the Meno, Socrates claims that all knowledge is recollection. Using the example of the slave boy, Meno is to observe that the boy will ‘discover’ the answer to a geometrical problem.[8]As an example Socrates draws a square on the ground and asks the boy to establish a way of doubling the area size of the existing square. In response to this the boy proposes that by doubling the side lengths of the square, the square naturally doubles in size. Of course this is incorrect, it quadruples in size. But when Socrates draws what could be called the line of insight; a straight diagonal line from the opposite internal corners of the square, the boy gains insight as if he has suddenly recollected knowledge that he initially has been acquiring all along. This is in someway an example of how Socrates used what he called, ‘Socratic mid-wifery,’ a metaphorical term that he adapted from his mother who was a midwife.

Socrates’ Concept of the Soul

Socrates presents the concept of the soul or physché as something of supreme importance. He sees the soul as that which is not of the external world, but more so, from a spiritual essence that should be appeased in contrast to the things that are pleasing to the gods. In truth Socrates sees the perfection of one’s soul as being far more important than the acquisition of wealth, reputation or honour. In giving service to the soul, service is given to God. This issue is concretised in the Apology when Socrates states that he has been obedient to the command of the gods by: “going around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul, as I say to you: ‘Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence brings about wealth and all other public and private blessings for men.’ ” (30a-b) In their state of ignorance the Athenians are at a greater risk, more than Socrates himself. Here, he is in danger of being put to death, something that he must eventually face anyway, and who knows, maybe a blessing for him. On the other hand, the Athenians run the greater risk of putting an innocent man to death, a greater form of evil.

The soul in itself assumed a new reality through the eyes of Socrates. He believed that like the body, the soul was a cosmos in itself. Therefore this led to the analogy of the soul extending to what the Greeks called virtue or arête.[9]For him the soul was the source of the highest value in life and through obedience to it (care of the soul), man attains harmony with the nature of the universe. In this obedient way, he attains happiness or eudiamonia, which in turn achieves excellence or arête for the welfare of his soul.[10]

Criticism of the Athenians

During his trial, Socrates criticises the ambiguities of the Athenians’ attitude to death, and in doing so, convicts them of not caring for their souls. With this view, Socrates assesses that their attitude to death differ between the expectations they hold of heroes and soldiers and that of defendants in court. To explain this, Socrates uses the example of Achilles who defied death to avenge the death of his friend Patroculus.[11](28b-c) Judging this, Socrates sees this concept of death to be the greatest form of evil and was not to be viewed in such a way by the Athenians. They (the Athenians) believed that any person who would suffer such an evil were to be considered as brave, with their name to be upheld in honour by all the people.In contrast to this he uses the view of the defendants in court: ‘Perhaps one of you might be angry as he recalls that when he himself stood on trial on a less dangerous charge, he begged and implored the jury with many tears, that he brought his children and many of his friends and family into court to arouse as much pity as he could, but I do none of these things.’ (34c) Socrates thought that their attitude to the defendant in court was based on a different concept of death. From this, he concluded that there was an inconsistency in their attitude to death. Although Socrates claimed that no one really knew whether death was an evil or not, but was probably inclined to think of it as a good.Yet in the latter he was quite sure that to avoid death at the cost of suffering evil was to show a complete disregard for the care of one’s soul.

Socratic Virtue

Aristotle states that there are two improvements in science, which can justifiably be attributed to the practice of Socrates’ philosophy: ‘inductive arguments and universal definitions.’[12]His practical method of inductive argument was one of ‘dialectic’ or conversation. Aristotle repeated several times in his writings that Socrates believed that a ‘single virtue is a science.’ (1144b28) This however, was not to be interpreted in the Socratic sense as a valid statement, for Socrates would protest that it is only possible to know how virtue is acquired when one knows what virtue is. In the context of reason, Aristotle would agree that Socrates was partly right in saying that reason is virtue, but incorrect in identifying the two. His argument was that ‘incontinence’ was too definite and was inadequate in terms of its allowance for weakness of will and the lack of self-control. But in view to this, Socrates’ outlook would be that men face danger with knowledge of fear. In knowing what they are facing is not evil, but more so, it is beneficial rather than cowardice to the real self, the soul or physché. For Socrates, no man would willingly do harm to his most precious possession, (his soul) for every evil act oraction is committed involuntarily. In this strange paradox, Plato maintained its reasonableness throughout, whereas Aristotle opposed it strongly on the grounds that it no longer makes men masters of themselves.


Recapping on Socrates’ practice of philosophy within the context of his times, his contributions to the development of philosophy were:

a. To come away from the Cosmological speculation of nature, as proposed by the Ionians, towards an inquiry into ethics.

b. He never claimed to be a teacher or in any way wise among men. But yet pursued himself to understand the meaning to the Oracle’s statement and in doing so, lost his own life.

c. He greatly influenced Plato, who in return presented the main Socratic dialogues that carry the traditional insight into the philosophy of Socrates.

d. Socrates was the creator of the Greek soul and give supreme importance to the state of its welfare. In doing so, he criticised the Athenians for not caring for their souls, especially in the light of their attitudes towards death.

e. His practice of philosophy was through ‘inductive and universal argument.’ This method was one of ‘dialectic’or conversation.

[1] Deme was the Greek term given to a ‘Ward’ or ‘Area.’

[2] Sophists were wise, knowledgeable people in ancient Greece.They were experts in the more advanced disciplines of study, e.g., law, politics and grammar. It was mainly through the Sophists and Socrates (*mostly Socrates) that philosophy turned from the study of nature to the study of man.

[3] Arché: The theory of Thales’ the first philosopher, was that water was the origin of all things.

[4] Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was a sophist and the first philosopher in Athens. He is attributed with the concept that mind is the principle of philosophical explanation.

[5] All references and quotes taken from ‘The Apology’ in: Classics of Moral and Political Theory, Ed., Michael L. Morgan. (Hackett Publishing Company, 1992) p.15.

[6] Chaerephon was a devoted friend of Socrates who asked the Oracle of Delphi if there was any man wiser than Socrates. The answer in return was ‘No’.

[7] Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1. ‘Greece & Rome.’ Part I. (Image Books: Garden City, New York, 1962). P.120.

[8] Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1991.) p.118.

[9] In the Greek polis, courage, prudence and justice are excellences for the soul just as beauty, health and strength are excellences for the body.

[10] With this view in mind, it is reanonable to express Socrates’ conception of ‘the good’ in relation to that of the soul. ‘The Good’ is, for Socrates, that which we ought to will or do for its own sake: Werner Jaeger, Paideía, Vol. II. (Oxford University Press,1986) p.44.

[11] Hector killed Patroculus in battle. There was a prophecy that whenever Hector died, Achilles would be next. Knowing this Achilles gives up his life and gains honour from the Athenians for doing so.

[12] ‘Universal Definition’: The attaining of fixed concepts. However, it is to be understood that Socrates did not make the universals or the definitions exist apart. Plato, however gave them separate existences, and this was the kind of thing they called ‘Ideas.’

© Niall Markey 2010


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    • ceciliabeltran profile image


      8 years ago from New York

      Big fan of Socrates! not such a big fan of Plato.


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