Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates upset many people in his day by questioning their knowledge. This brief introduction to his thinking outlines how asking ‘why’ led to his death.
Socrates is philosophy’s martyr. Sentenced to death in 399BC Athens for ‘corrupting the minds of the youth,’ Socrates never wrote anything down. We know of his era-defining thinking only through the writings of his contemporaries, particularly his student Plato.
Plato’s Socratic dialogues — some of the most wonderful works in the history of philosophy — feature Socrates in lively conversation on a wide range of subjects, from justice and virtue to art and politics. The central theme in Socrates's thinking, however, concerned the nature of knowledge — specifically, on how none of us really have any. As a statement often attributed to Socrates puts it:
True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.
During Socrates's life, the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed him the wisest of all people. Socrates, regularly declaring absolute ignorance as he did, could not agree. He therefore set out on a quest to find someone wiser to prove the Oracle wrong.
Socrates approached influential Athenians considered wise by the people of the day — statesmen, poets, and teachers. He conversed with these individuals using what is now known as the Socratic method, a form of cooperative dialogue that uses incisive questioning to stimulate critical thinking and draw out presuppositions.
A more straightforward way to think about the Socratic method is to imagine a relentlessly curious child asking ‘why’ after every single explanation an adult offers, seeking a truly foundational response to a question rather than an endless chain of unsatisfactory causal reasoning. Unfortunately for Socrates, being a quite famously ugly adult male, he was not afforded the same good grace a child might have been.
By using his method of bottomless questioning, Socrates soon discovered that, in fact, nobody really knew anything about anything they claimed to know — be it on art, ethics, politics, justice, the self, or the true nature of the world around us. He thus concludes, as reported in Plato's Apology, that the Oracle of Delphi may have been right in her judgement of his wisdom:
For my part, as I went away, I reasoned with regard to myself: I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know.
In other words, Socrates believes himself to be wiser than those he speaks to because, unlike them, he admits his ignorance. This thought is encapsulated by the paradoxical statement:
I know that I know nothing.
Known as the Socratic paradox, this phrase is not one that Socrates is recorded as saying, but thought to be derived from the passage in Plato's Apology outlined above.
Regardless, it's a significant statement for epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge. Socrates's discussions over two thousand years ago set in motion the profound doubting, the uncertainty as to what we can know — the uncertainty as to whether the foundations for human knowledge ultimately rest on anything other than tradition and custom — that came to the fore with 17th-century philosopher René Descartes's famous cogito ergo sum.
Socrates’s failure to find anyone wiser than himself, though perhaps noble in its pursuit of knowledge, made a lot of powerful people in Athens look very foolish. Death is a harsh punishment, but it is perhaps not surprising that authority figures wanted Socrates silenced.
Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates, which includes dialogues covering Socrates’s imprisonment, trial, and death, reveals how Socrates went on annoying his accusers until the very end, with wonderful expositions on justice, piety, and the value of questioning what we know. For more of Plato’s best works depicting the philosophy of Socrates, check out our Plato reading list.
Everything we know about Socrates, presented as he is through the writings of others, must be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, his legacy as the brilliant martyr of philosophy remains secure, decorated by an epitaph of his own making:
The unexamined life is not worth living.
If you’re interested in learning more about the human capacity for knowledge generally, and in exploring what the ultimate limits to our knowledge might be, we've compiled a reading list consisting of the best writings on epistemology, the study of knowledge. It features philosophical classics from Plato, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and more. Hit the banner below to access it now.
The Top 9 Books to Read
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