Socrates (c. 469 BCE-399 BCE) is so significant to the history of Western philosophy, that all those who came before him are commonly lumped together under the term “the pre-Socratics.”
Unfortunately we know only bits and pieces about Socrates’ life, and bits and pieces about his philosophy. The most elaborate accounts of Socrates come from his student Plato, though these are suspect to varying degrees due to Plato’s putting so much of his own philosophy in Socrates’ mouth. Socrates is also mentioned at least briefly in surviving writings from Xenophon, Aristotle, and Aristophanes among others, but he remains a tantalizingly mysterious figure in many respects.
Still, from the evidence we do have, mostly from Plato, there are a few things we can say with at least some degree of confidence about the philosophy of Socrates. Let’s take a look at some of the main, recurring themes in his thought:
* In the ancient world, a “philosopher” was pretty much any wise or learned person, regardless of whether his field of inquiry was what we would nowadays recognize as philosophy, or more what would today fall under the category of science. The pre-Socratics, in fact, from what little we know of them, seemed to emphasize metaphysics and very speculative scientific-type theorizing, such as what is the ultimate nature of reality, what basic elements combine to form the material world, what are the smallest “atoms” that matter can be divided into, etc. Socrates went primarily in another direction. Rather than speculate about descriptive matters he regarded as remote from human concerns, he focused more on normative, ethical matters and on human psychology.
* Socrates valued an honest understanding and appraisal of oneself and one’s life. Two of the phrases most associated with him are “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and “Know thyself.”
* Socrates taught that striving for virtue and excellence is of greater importance than material success. He held that to believe the truth and to do what one believes is right is a greater duty even than preserving one’s life, as evidenced by the fact that he was martyred for sticking to his principles.
* Socrates is strongly associated with a dialectic style of philosophizing, which is truth-seeking not by way of the written exposition of a single person, but through a question-and-answer dialogue among two or more people-philosophy as a social activity. In fact, Socrates wrote no works of philosophy, at least none that survive.
* Socrates was an early proponent of what in the 20th century came to be known as “conceptual analysis,” which means he sought to understand the essence of certain key concepts. Generally his approach had a normative edge to it, such that when he inquired “What is an X?” he meant something like “What would it mean to be a true, or perfect, or ideal X?”
* While he was not a hardcore or absolute skeptic-he certainly didn’t deny the existence or value of truth, for instance-Socrates did tend toward the skeptical in many respects. He denigrated the opinions of the masses and was far from a strong proponent of democracy as a political system. He believed that even the minority who have achieved some degree of wisdom-usually of practical matters-should be very humble and very aware of their own fallibility, and should avoid thinking their wisdom extends into other areas. He believed the same about himself, and indeed was far more apt to expose the imperfections in someone else’s alleged knowledge than to claim knowledge himself. He compared himself to a “gadfly” who hovers around people, stinging them out of their complacency, reminding them that they don’t have all the answers yet and must continue searching for truth.
* Socrates held that in a sense all that we regard as evil is really a form of ignorance. That is, that no one ever does wrong intentionally. Wrongdoing is always at its core a matter of the wrongdoer lacking moral knowledge, rather than being evil or weak.
* Though what exactly he meant by it (presumably not absolute pacifism and nonviolence, since, for one thing, he served in the military), Socrates taught that it is wrong to return evil for evil, that you may not do wrong to someone even to punish or counteract their wrongdoing. This is over 400 years prior to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, by the way.
* Though Socrates was not materialistic, not focused on luxury, his was not a philosophy of asceticism (where asceticism means rigid abstinence, austerity, self-denial, purifying oneself through voluntary suffering, etc.). To live a principled life, to value wisdom and moral excellence above all else, is compatible with friendship, humor, irony, good fellowship, pleasure, etc. Philosophy is something to live, something to enjoy, not just something to study.