You’ve just been convicted of a rather serious crime. The prosecutor has called for the death penalty (or if there is no death penalty where you live, a life sentence). Fortunately, you have an opportunity to speak to the jury before sentencing, to try to lighten the punishment (you know, maybe do some community service instead?)! What do you do?
Many people would plead innocence, try to get a lighter sentence, or get angry. Socrates asked to be honoured by his city for his contributions and paid. Unsurprisingly, he was sentenced to death. Surprisingly, it’s been more than 2 000 years since he died and we’re still talking about him!
Why is that? What is it about a guy who basically asked for death that makes us want to talk about him more than 2 000 years after he bit the dust? Mainly, it’s his philosophy.
Socrates had a few main philosophies that he was really famous for, and probably a lot more. Unfortunately, we only know about him through the writings of Xenophon (wrote plays in which he was a comical character, so biased), and another famous philosopher, Plato (could be even more biased considering he’s using Socrates’ ideas to push his own). Basically, we only know a very limited amount of information about someone who’s ideas have lasted for centuries. (Come on, Socrates! Carve them into stone or something!)
Socrates was rather famous for, as it’s now called, the Socratic method. Some people like to pick fights with their fists. Socrates did the same thing with words. He would walk up to someone, anyone, anywhere, ask them a (usually loaded) question, and then aggressively question their response, over and over, until they conceded that his thinking was superior. Of course, his intent wasn’t to pick a fight. It was to constantly learn, and to understand other people’s points of view, as well as create greater self-understanding. This method usually led to rational victory, but sometimes did not produce genuine conviction in those he applied it to.
Hey, that’s what he would have said. Interestingly, someone once told Socrates that he was the wisest man in Athens. He then set out to prove them wrong (just take the compliment!), and after conversing with the nobility and other philosophers in Athens, he concluded that he was smarter than them all (see, you should have just taken the compliment!). This is not because he knew more history than them, rather, he possessed a different wisdom. Socrates understood his own ignorance.
Take a moment to let that sink in. Understanding your own ignorance. You don’t know what you don’t know. Kind of confusing for many people, but the idea is that you need to understand the limits of your knowledge. Only then can you realize where it is you need to learn, work, improve, etc.
This idea of understanding your own ignorance is actually used by some of the world’s smartest (and richest) people! (But they call it a circle of competence, check out this article on mental models to learn more!)
Truth > Literally Everything You Can Think Of (Including Chocolate Chip Cookies)
I may not fully agree with this (nothing beats chocolate chip cookies), but if I said that to Socrates... The important thing to note here is that Socrates believed in always knowing the complete truth.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates
Socrates believed that public discussion of the great issues of life and virtue was a necessary part of any valuable human life. (Because some human lives aren’t valuable? Take everything he says with a grain of salt.) Socrates believed in questioning everything, from sand to stars to life itself. This was one of the key points of his Socratic method: to understand more. This principle has somehow survived and actually thrived, with some really smart people using it today!
Socrates’ philosophy may not have been 100% accurate, but most of it has survived for over 2 000 years, and it’s being used by the world’s smartest people! His philosophy about questioning everything has made a huge impact on the world after centuries. Socrates may not be alive right now, but he is still one of the world’s most influential people.