Socrates’ Philosophy

To Socrates, the purpose of one’s life is to examine life itself. To him, this self-examination that leads to learning about oneself is the highest of virtues.

The Virtue of Self-Examination

Widely known as the father of western philosophy, Socrates’ left an influence on modern thought that prompted scholars to call the time before him as pre-Socratic. After his death, his most brilliant student, Plato, wrote down his own thoughts, which were heavily entangled with his teachers’ ideas. And it is from Plato’s writings that we mostly see a representation of Socrates’ philosophy.

Since Socrates did not write down any of his philosophical ideas, scholars have no way of knowing how accurate Plato was in presenting his teacher’s thoughts. It is difficult to imagine that Plato wrote down Socrates’ speeches word for word, and so he might have elaborated somewhat in his writings called dialogues. In one of his dialogues entitled Meno, a character named Meno has a conversation with Socrates about the meaning of goodness. They have a healthy discussion and ultimately reach two different meanings on the nature of goodness. However, they did not end their conversation on what goodness really is. This uncertain result of conversations is characteristic of Socrates, who was always ready with a series of questions but not really obsessed with ultimate answers.

Socrates and the Advent of Precise Reasoning

During Socrates’ time, democracy was very much alive and allowed anyone who had the persuasive skills to advance in politics. As a result, many people who were skilled in argumentation offered to teach others their skills in exchange for a fee. These people were called Sophists, and they taught oratory, logical argumentation, and rhetoric to anyone who would pay them. Although their business thrived, people looked down on them because it was not an acceptable notion in ancient Athens to taint one’s education with money. Furthermore, the ancient Athenians despised the Sophists’ manner of arguing, which focused more on the complications of language and argumentation in order to prove a point and not necessarily to pursue the truth. Today, this kind of argumentation is derisively called sophistry.

Socrates despised the Sophists and frequently battled with them in debates. Although Socrates can also be said to be a sophist, he did not expect any payment from any of his conversation partners. He was genuinely after knowledge and showed people what careful argumentation was like. And he did successfully impress people with his speaking skills, his irony, and his ability for deep thinking. It was said that the Oracle of Delphi once pronounced Socrates, the wisest man in Greece. When Socrates heard of this, he did not become boastful but instead was surprised. He found the Oracle’s words puzzling, so he went about to prove them wrong. He had conversations with people whom he thought were knowledgeable about many things. He noticed that they were all too eager to make a show of their supposed wisdom, but they all seemed to be merely skilled talkers without substance. In frustration, Socrates simply thought to himself that he could not be the wisest man in Greece, not because he knew many things but because he knew he was ignorant of many things.

The Socratic Method

Socrates said that it is important to be humble in the pursuit of knowledge. He practiced his own advice when conversing with other people. He assumed an air of ignorance and asked his conversation partners questions on many subjects. People who talked with him thought he was indeed ignorant, and so they arrogantly put forth their arguments. Socrates then would ask more questions to the over-eager conversation partner until he spotted logical contradictions in the answers. This is the dialectic method, the art of investigating the truth of opinions. The philosopher, Zeno of Elea, was the first one to use dialectics in philosophy, but it was Socrates who practiced it so effectively that today, it is called the Socratic method. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates and his friends seldom arrive at a final agreement, but they always end up more knowledgeable than when they started their conversation. 

The Care of the Soul as the Highest Good

Socrates was not obsessed with science or mathematics. Instead, he gave great thought to what he believed to be the most important part of man — the soul. As a result, Socrates gave many instructions on how people should lead their lives and how they should take care of their souls and others’ souls. His guidance on these matters can be found in his ideas on courage, justice, piety, and wisdom. Socrates felt it was his duty to make other people aware of their mistaken notions. He instructed that people should pay more attention to their souls and not to the amassing of wealth or the collection of material things. He reminded people that wealth does not make you good, but being good makes you wealthy. He added that it is better to be the recipient of an offense rather than the one who committed it because committing an offense harms the soul. In these ways, Socrates believed he was doing his fellow Athenians a great service. And he lived by his words because he was a man of conviction. He never possessed much money and never asked for money in exchange for philosophical services. He never owned many material things and was known throughout Athens as a poor man. He stood by his convictions even during his trial. He could have escaped the death sentence if he had been flexible about his beliefs, but instead, he adhered to them, and this led to his death.


Although Socrates did not initiate philosophical thought in the western world, he is widely accepted as the father of western philosophy because he shone a critical light on what many believed were self-evident truths, beliefs that people thought did not need further proof. He died a martyr for his philosophy, and as a result, the modern world now lives under the influence of his thoughts.