Greek philosopher and educational reformer of the fifth century B.C.; born at Athens, 469 B.C.; died there, 399 B.C. After having received the usual Athenian education in music (which included literature), geometry, and gymnastics, he practised for a time the craft of sculptor, working, we are told, in his father's workshop. Admonished, as he tells us, by a divine call, he gave up his occupation in order to devote himself to the moral and intellectual reform of his fellow citizens. He believed himself destined to become "a sort of gadfly" to the Athenian State. He devoted himself to this mission with extraordinary zeal and singleness of purpose.
Socrates never left the City of Athens except on two occasions, one of which was the campaign of Potidea and Delium, and the other a public religious festival. In his work as reformer he encountered, indeed he may be said to have provoked, the opposition of the Sophists and their influential friends. He was the most unconventional of teachers and the least tactful. He delighted in assuming all sorts of rough and even vulgar mannerisms, and purposely shocked the more refined sensibilities of his fellow citizens.
The opposition to him culminated in formal accusations of impiety and subversion of the existing moral traditions. He met these accusations in a spirit of defiance and, instead of defending himself, provoked his opponents by a speech in presence of his judges in which he affirmed his innocence of all wrongdoing, and refused to retract or apologize for anything that he had said or done. He was condemned to drink the hemlock and, when the time came, met his fate with a calmness and dignity which have earned for him a high place among those who suffered unjustly for conscience sake. He was a man of great moral earnestness, and exemplified in his own life some of the noblest moral virtues.
At the same time he did not rise above the moral level of his contemporaries in every respect, and Christian apologists have no difficulty in refuting the contention that he was the equal of the Christian saints. His frequent references to a "divine voice" that inspired him at critical moments in his career are, perhaps, best explained by saying that they are simply his peculiar way of speaking about the promptings of his own conscience. They do not necessarily imply a pathological condition of his mind, nor a superstitious belief in the existence of a "familiar demon".
Socrates was, above all things, a reformer. He was alarmed at the condition of affairs in Athens, a condition which he was, perhaps, right in ascribing to the Sophists. They taught that there is no objective standard of the true and false, that that is true which seems to be true, and that that is false which seems to be false. Socrates considered that this theoretical scepticism led inevitably to moral anarchy. If that is true which seems to be true, then that is good, he said, which seems to be good. Up to this time morality was taught not by principles scientifically determined, but by instances, proverbs, and apothegms. He undertook, therefore, first to determine the conditions of universally valid knowledge, and, secondly, to found on universally valid moral principles a science of human conduct.
Self-knowledge is the starting point, because, he believed, the greatest source of the prevalent confusion was the failure to realize how little we know about anything, in the true sense of the word know. The statesman, the orator, the poet, think they know much about courage; for they talk about it as being noble, and praiseworthy, and beautiful, etc. But they are really ignorant of it until they know what it is, in other words, until they know its definition. The definite meaning, therefore, to be attached to the maxim "know thyself" is "Realize the extent of thine own ignorance".
The Socratic Method
Consequently, the Socratic method of teaching included two stages, the negative and the positive. In the negative stage, Socrates, approaching his intended pupil in an attitude of assumed ignorance, would begin to ask a question, apparently for his own information. He would follow this by other questions, until his interlocutor would at last be obliged to confess ignorance of the subject discussed. Because of the pretended deference which Socrates payed to the superior intelligence of his pupil, this stage of the method was called "Socratic Irony". In the positive stage of the method, once the pupil had acknowledged his ignorance, Socrates would proceed to another series of questions, each of which would bring out some phase or aspect of the subject, so that when. at the end, the answers were all summed up in a general statement, that statement expressed the concept of the subject, or the definition. Knowledge through concepts, or knowledge by definition, is the aim, therefore, of the Socratic method.
The entire process was called "Hueristic" [a 'rule of thumb', or general guide] because it was a method of finding,and opposed to "Eristic", which is the method of strife, or contention. Knowledge through concepts is certain, Socrates taught, and offers a firm foundation for the structure not only of theoretical knowledge, but also of moral principles, and the science of human conduct, Socrates went so far as to maintain that all right conduct depends on clear knowledge, that not only does a definition of a virtue aid us in acquiring that virtue, but that the definition of the virtue is the virtue. A man who can define justice is just, and, in general, theoretical insight into the principles of conduct is identical with moral excellence in conduct; knowledge is virtue.
Contrariwise, ignorance is vice, and no one can knowingly do wrong. These principles are, of course only partly true. Their formulation, however, at this time was of tremendous importance, because it marks the beginning of an attempt to build up on general principles a science of human conduct.
Socrates devoted little attention to questions of physics and cosmogony. Indeed, he did not conceal his contempt for these questions when comparing them with questions affecting man, his nature and his destiny. He was, however, interested in the question of the existence of God and formulated an argument from design which was afterwards known as the "Teleological Argument" for the existence of God. "Whatever exists for a useful purpose must be the work of an intelligence" is the major premise of Socrates' argument, and may be said to be the major premise, explicit or implicit, of every teleological argument formulated since his time.
Socrates was profoundly convinced of the immortality of the soul, although in his address to his judges he argues against fear of death in such a way as apparently to offer two alternatives: "Either death ends all things, or it is the beginning of a happy life." His real conviction was that the soul survives the body, unless, indeed, we are misled by our authorities, Plato and Xenophon. In the absence of primary sources — Socrates, apparently, never wrote anything — we are obliged to rely on these writers and on a few references of Aristotle for our knowledge of what Socrates taught. Plato's portrayal of Socrates is idealistic; when, however, we correct it by reference to Xenophon's more practical view of Socrates' teaching, the result cannot be far from historic truth.