Socrates’ Accomplishments

The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia by Nicolas-André Monsiau

Socrates is widely considered to be the father of western philosophy, having introduced his philosophy to his fellow Athenians through ordinary conversations. Socrates did not write down his philosophy, and his thoughts are known to us today only through the people who knew him, who recorded his ideas on rational thinking and self-examination. His accomplishments in rational thinking reach out to us today by their sheer depth and truth. 

Socrates’ Paradoxes

Socrates is famous for ideas that have been attributed to him, and one of them is ideas that seem to contradict each other. These ideas are called Socratic paradoxes. Today, the most well-known among these paradoxes is, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” In this sentence, Socrates states that he knows nothing but, at the same time, expresses that he knows his ignorance. With these paradoxes and mental puzzles, Socrates introduced to the world the limitations of self-knowledge and, at the same time, its capacity for self-awareness.

The Development of Plato’s Philosophy

Socrates looked down on writing as an unnatural activity for humans and therefore did not record his thoughts. However, his student, Plato, felt his mission was to recall Socrates’ views and write them down for the next generations to appreciate. Plato wrote down his teacher’s ideas in what is now known as his dialogues. As a result, his ideas are hard to disentangle from those of Socrates’. Much of Plato’s dialogues may simply be Plato’s interpretation of Socrates’ words and may not be an accurate representation of Socrates’ ideas. This is further aggravated by Socrates’ habit of asking questions and not providing an answer, waiting for others to think for themselves. Despite all this, Plato would not have developed his own philosophy without Socrates’ spoken philosophy. And for this, the modern world owes Socrates for Plato’s philosophical works.

Expose’ of the Flaws of Democracy

Socrates was notorious in his own time because of his opinions that ran counter to society’s cherished values. An example of this is his disdain for democracy. During Socrates’s time, Athens was very proud of its political life. Athenians felt their democracy was the greatest way of life for any people. They felt democracy was the system that best exemplifies equality — equality of opportunity for everyone to run for or be voted for any public office. But Socrates was aware of the fickleness of the people and expressed that the selection of a ruler should not be left to the masses. He said the people were easily led by demagogues who talked their way to the highest office in Athens. According to Socrates, the problem was that the best talkers did not necessarily possess the knowledge to rule a nation. Ruling a state requires special knowledge, in much the same way that a doctor heals patients with his special knowledge and how a captain of a ship sails a vessel with his necessary knowledge.


Socrates said that people should assign more value to being good rather than to accumulating wealth and material possessions. He recommended that people exert more effort in cultivating personal relationships and enjoy each other’s company. Socrates believed that genuine personal relationships were one way to improve the state’s people. Despite having expressed his dislike for democracy, he nonetheless respected the will of the majority. This was exemplified when he peacefully accepted the death sentence as a penalty for offending the majority’s values. In many of Socrates’ teachings, he discussed the subjects of morality and good conduct. He emphasized that an individual should possess good moral principles to be an important part of his community. Socrates affirmed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Humility in the Pursuit of Knowledge

Socrates’ admission that he only knew one thing that he did not know anything was his admission of his own ignorance and an unmistakable sign of humility. He claimed that intellectual honesty is an important requirement if a person needs to reach a conclusion on any subject. Socrates said that judgment, prudence, and good sense are essential ingredients of intellectual honesty. He added that people who do bad deeds only do so because they think they are doing good deeds.

Socrates did not believe that humans were capable of grasping real knowledge. He said that that sort of capability was only reserved for the gods. However, he maintained that there was a real difference between ignorance and learning.

Socratic Ethics

With all the importance that he assigned to morality and good conduct, Socrates had in mind the belief that philosophy could change the individual and, therefore, change the world. Socrates is known to us today only through the depiction of his admirers, and even they believe that he was convinced that individual decisions could change society. He felt that individuals could effect real changes in the world, even in their daily lives. 

Socratic Irony

Socratic irony is when a person feigns ignorance about a certain subject and maintains his ignorance while he asks another person questions about that subject. This way, he could trick the other person into making claims that could then be attacked. Socrates played his own game very well, often making the other person feel superior in knowledge while he made it look like he knew nothing about the topic being discussed.

Debate and the Fundamentals of Reasoning

To Socrates, a person would do well in a debate if he was equipped with knowledge of the fundamentals of reasoning. To him, careful thinking and precise reasoning result in a good, healthy debate. He said that people who converse or debate should focus on the arguments and their depth. Nonetheless, he emphasized that people should not be worried about their lack of knowledge but instead counter this through intellectual honesty — admitting what they do not know.

Suffering an Injustice is Preferable to Committing one

In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates infuriates a philosophic figure named Polus when he says that it is preferable to suffer injustice rather than be the one doing it. According to Polus, the opposite is true — it is surely bad to do anyone an injustice, but it is certainly worse to be the one to suffer it. But Socrates firmly believed that one bad action would cause another, more wicked action. This, he says, is damaging to the soul, which is the most important part of a person. Bad actions corrupt the soul and it is the worst thing that a person can do to himself. Socrates further states that if a person had done another an offense, it is best for that person to willingly submit himself to the penalty because the penalty would purge him of his wrongdoing.

The Socratic Method

The Socratic method is Socrates’ most meaningful legacy to western thought. This method is a strategy for debating a point, characterized by a string of questions to which the answers lead to an outcome. The method is used by two people, cooperatively trying to reach the root of the topic they set out to explore and gradually eliminate notions and theories as they progress with their questions and answers. If both participants keep in mind Socrates’ other advice about intellectual honesty and humility, they would be able to scrutinize their own beliefs and be open to each others’ refutations.

 Today, Socrates is considered the father of western philosophy, and his Socratic method is considered a vital part of the American justice system.