An Examination of Socrates

Cher Yi Tan
Jul 18, 2018 · 22 min read
Socrates — Wikipedia

Born in Alopeke to a stonemason and a midwife, Σωκρατης (Sokrates, aka Socrates) was, by conventional measures, an unremarkable man. According to his student Plato, Socrates was ugly, unkempt and unhygienic. He possessed a short and stocky frame with bulging eyes, almost never bathed and was smelly all the time.

Socrates was the living antithesis of the Classic’s obsession with confidence, poise, elan, flair and sophistication. Look no further than the majestic busts of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and statues of Pompey, or the powerful rhetoric of Cicero for evidence.

This makes Socrates’ fame and enduring legacy all the more impressive, considering that he made his name in spite of stacked odds. But, as we will come to see, Socrates was anything but popular in his time.

Socrates was historical heavyweight, dubbed the Father of modern Philosophy. He represents an inflection point in the arch of philosophical studies because of his thinking was original and influential — much of what we call ‘common sense’ today (e.g. inductive reasoning) came from this man who lived 2000 years ago.

On the point of originality, Socrates was critical of those who blindly followed common wisdom. His name is derived from σως (sos) meaning “whole, unwounded, safe”, and κρατος (kratos) meaning “power”. I’m no Classicist, but I venture to suggest that ‘Socrates’ might’ve meant ‘uncorrupted by conventional authority/power’. If it did, it is unquestionable that Socrates stayed true to his namesake till his dying breath.

No piece on Socrates can be complete without detailing the most significant event that happened in his life —his death.

Anyone who has a vague impression of the man Socrates might have expected him to have lived out his years peacefully and pass on at a ripe old age. A happy ending for the time-honoured sage.

On the contrary, Socrates was a convicted criminal. Not a petty thief, but a treasonous felon. Instead of being celebrated for his thought, he was brought to trial on the charges of refusing to recognise state-endorsed religions and corrupting the youth. Not by an autocratic, repressive dictator, but by the People themselves. Socrates was found guilty and put to death — a tragic end for a great man.


A weak attempt at foreshadowing has been attempted by this author. It is suggested that when reading this article, it would be prudent to start with this end in mind; that is, the unfortunate death of our protagonist. This will put his life’s affairs in its appropriate context.

Keep that in mind throughout the piece. Hopefully you might wonder out loud: how could a man be so equally revered by future generations and hated by his contemporaries? My article hopes to examine exactly that, and in doing so, answer the ultimate question — Who was Socrates?

The Socratic Problem

To answer the question ‘Who was Socrates’ is no easy feat. Unlike other historical greats, Socrates produced no writings of his own. He believed that thoughts should be articulated and verbalised—and that that is the true good of wisdom. Thus, all that we know of Socrates comes primarily from three secondary sources: Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes.

It would help if these three sources painted a similar image of the man, but alas, each injected their own personal agenda in their portrayal, so it is hard to know for sure exactly who Socrates was.

This is known as the Socratic Problem — since all that we know about Socrates came from secondary sources, it is impossible to verify contradictions between sources.

The Clouds —

For example, Aristophanes, the playwright, writes of a Socrates that is completely unfamiliar to the modern understanding. Though he is the only known source to have written about Socrates as a contemporary, his play The Clouds depicts him as a clownish buffoon.

Aristophanes’ Socrates was inclined towards the sophists — a condemned intellectual academy that teaches its students how to use rhetoric to justify all acts including dishonest ones. The pejorative “sophistry” (noun; the use of clever but false arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving) used today was derived from these sophists.

Thankfully, most of Aristophanes’ other work were parodies, thus The Clouds was probably meant to be a satire and not literal depiction. Many of Socrates’ counterparts came to dislike him intensely, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to think Aristophanes was intentionally trying to defame him.

Plato — Today in Science History

Comparing the two remaining sources, Xenophon and Plato, it has generally been accepted that while Xenophon’s Socrates is a better representation of historical Socrates, Platonic Socrates represents an idealistic Socrates. While one is descriptive, the other is intended to be prescriptive.

Apology, Crito and Phaedo — The Virtual Library

Thus, in studying the thought of Socrates, many have relied on Plato’s writings. Plato’s work on Socrates comes in the form of dialogues between the Philosopher and his various interlocutors. For example, while the Plato’s Apology describes Socrates’ trial and his plea, Crito examines the reasons why Socrates chose to drink hemlock rather than skip town, Phaedo recounts Socrates’ actual death and so on.

Nevertheless, scholars have recognised that the Platonic Socrates is probably not a perfect representation of the man (for one, Plato was nowhere near Socrates when he died, so how’d he know of his dialogue in Phaedo?). Plato was a literary artist skilled in the art of rhetoric. He likely embellished Socratic thought, enhancing it at times and probably even adding things on his own.

As Socrates’ avid student/follower, Plato felt uneasy about his mentor’s trial. It is conceivable that he furnished the Socratic dialogues in order to glorify his teacher’s reputation and to protest his mentor’s unjust conviction.

Plato and Socrates — The Great Courses

Moreover, as Plato was famously more concerned with the ‘Form’ (eidos) (briefly, the argument that the non-physical, substantial forms/ideas represent the most accurate reality) of things rather than actual facts, he might have over-exaggerated Socratic thought at times to make it clearer and more logical.

“Plato, the idealist, offers an idol, a master figure, for philosophy. A Saint, a prophet of ‘the Sun-God’, a teacher condemned for his teachings as a heretic.”

British philosopher Martin Cohen

(Interestingly, Plato’s famous theory of forms might have gained inspiration from his teacher’s aforementioned ugly looks. Plato does not fail to point out that Socrates possessed a very unconventional type of attractiveness: his charming intellect, brilliant debate and penetrating thoughts. A sharp contrast between Socrates’ ‘horrific’ physical features and his beautiful disposition could have been the foundation for Plato’s own thesis that ideals should be valued over reality.)

While the Socratic problem will never be solved per se, it is still nevertheless useful, in examining Socratic thought, to use Platonic Socrates as a starting point. Though it might not be historically accurate, but Socrates the Philosopher is slightly more interesting than Socrates the Man. In any case, this article will examine the Philosopher mostly based on Plato’s writings.

The Good Life

The trial of Socrates requires some context. He was born circa. 470 BCE and lived in Athens during a time of strife — the Peloponnesian War, a stretched-out conflict on the Greek peninsula between two Greek states, the incumbent hegemon Athens and startup state Sparta. Click here to Understand Classical Greece.

The Peloponnesian War — Venngage

Socrates initially was conscripted as a soldier for Athens — a low level infantry trooper known as a hoplite. He was recognised for his heroism and valour when he saved Alcibiades’ (an Athenian general) life at the risk of losing his own. This fearlessness of death would follow Socrates to his trial; he bravely stood his ground, unwilling to prostitute his beliefs, and paid the ultimate price as a result.

Socrates and Alicibiades — Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

Perhaps scarred by the horrors of war and witnessing the fragility of life firsthand, Socrates was obsessed with what it meant to live a good life.

Here, there are many parallels between the origins of Socratic thought and Confucianism/Taoism. Both the East and West experienced a peak in spiritual concerns during a period of war and chaos because of the growing despondency within the populace. Click here to Understand Chinese Philosophy.

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates admonishes Callicles,

“For you see what our discussions are all about — and is there anything about which a man of even small intelligence would be more serious than this: what is the way we ought to live?”

Most of us moderns don’t consciously contemplate this question of how life ought to be lived, maybe because we’re all trapped in an eternal rat race and can’t spare a second for introspection. Or maybe greater life expectancy and lasting periods of peace/stability brought about a callousness toward living.

Either way, we react to stimuli rather than design our responses.

Our reactions are shaped by many factors, including evolutionary instinct and more insidiously, cultural values. These so called ‘heuristics’ overpower conscious decision making — this might have been beneficial to our Stone Age ancestors who relied on quick fight/flight responses, but not so much to moderns who end up sleepwalking through life.

In contrast, look no further than to our man Socrates in Plato’s Apology, who famously claims,

“The unexamined life is not worth living”

Indeed, as with Confucius in the East, Socrates was fixated on the cultivation of the self — gazing inwards to one’s own nature and improving one’s knowledge of the self. In the First Alcibiades, Socrates states,

…once we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves, but otherwise we never shall.”

In a similar vein, Socrates thought happiness to be the supreme good that we all strive toward — and that the only way of achieving it was through knowledge. Allow me to (try to) explain.

The Socratic use of the word ‘knowledge’ is very different from the modern English understanding. It does not bore itself with memorising facts about the world; indeed Socrates seemed to possess a disdain for those who claimed supremacy in this respect. Rather, I think ‘knowledge’ here meant something deeper, something more intimate.

Instead of knowledge, the word I propose to use is wisdom. ‘Wisdom’ encapsulates a holistic version of intellect — including the more curious Socratic paradigm of wisdom through ignorance and wisdom of virtue rather than simply google-able facts.

Here we examine the wisdom of virtue. Socrates thought that happiness was not dependent upon external things, but on how these things are used. These days, this (almost) goes without saying, especially on the bookshelves in the ‘Self-Help’ section, but 2000+ years ago, it was less of a norm than an exception to one.

He derived his conclusion from the following observation: There are both rich and poor people in this world, and yet happiness is not only found in the higher echelons of societies. Thus, it must be that happiness is not linearly correlated with monetary gains.

Instead, he thought that regardless of wealth, a wise person will use money the right way, taking into account virtue and self-actualisation (the holistic concept of Socratic wisdom), while the ignorant one will be wasteful. Money is hence merely a conditional good.

From this, Socrates concluded that wisdom (of virtue) should be our main pursuit in life, instead of monetary gains, should we be serious about attaining ‘happiness’.

From Plato’s Euthydemus,

“So what follows from what we’ve said? Isn’t it this, that of the other things none is either good or bad, and that of these two, wisdom is good and ignorance bad?”

He agreed.

“Well then let’s have a look at what’s left,” I said. “Since all of us desire to be happy, and since we evidently become so on account of our use — that is our good use — of other things, and since knowledge (wisdom) is what provides this goodness of use and also good fortune, every man must, as seems plausible, prepare himself by every means for this: to be as wise as possible. Right?”

‘Yes,” he said.

In the Apology,

“Most excellent man, are you…not ashamed to care for the acquisition of wealth and for reputation and honor, when you neither care nor take thought for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?”

Acting morally and virtuously is thus in one’s own self interest. Socrates must have thought this to be obvious, but it wasn’t. Sticking to his guns eventually got Socrates killed.

The last thread of Socratic thought in this respect is the belief that the root of all evil was ignorance. This comes as a corollary to the importance of knowledge in order to act virtuously. He thought if people knew enough (or were wise enough), they wouldn’t commit to any immoral acts.

“My own opinion is more or less this: no wise man believes that anyone sins willingly or willingly perpetuates any base or evil act; they know very well that every base or evil action is committed involuntarily.”

Today, it is hard to take this conviction to its logical end. As a student of law to-be, my limited understanding of criminal law is that generally, two elements have to be present: the act (actus reus) and a criminal state of mind (mens rea).

iPleaders Blog

For something to be stigmatised as ‘criminal’, not only must a positive act be committed, the defendant must also have a blameworthy state of mind, whether it be intent, negligence or pure recklessness.

By extension, it must thus be possible for people to keep to the law and breaching it has to be a conscious decision.

If, as Socrates says, people are ‘involuntarily’ committing all sorts of evils, then how can the law justify the harsh treatment of criminals?

After all, we wouldn’t condemn a passenger riding on a crowded subway who inevitably contacts another because it would go against all principles of natural justice. We can only hold people account for their actions.

Whilst in theory Socrates might have a point, in practice it is impossible to scale his conviction.

Ignorance and the Socratic Method

Up till now, Socratic philosophy is harmless to the good order of society. There was nothing inherently subservient about ‘wisdom’ and virtue. Thus to understand why exactly a ‘good’ man like Socrates was condemned to death, it is important to understand his other main strand of thought.

While the virtuosity and the good life were his substantive philosophy, Socrates is more famous for his procedural philosophy — that is, the Socratic way of thinking.

Socrates was insufferable. Plato labelled him a ‘gadfly of the state’ (gadflies are pests that sting horses — annoying, but essential in spurring the horse into action…a pain in the ass), and not without good reason.

One of the famous stories of Socrates was his encounter with the Oracle of Delphi. To the Oracle, who was said to be an all-seeing prophet, Socrates’ friend asked who the wisest man in the world was.

The Oracle — Ancient Origins

The Oracle replied “Socrates”, and having learned of her response, Socrates was shocked because he believed that he did not possess any wisdom at all. So he hit the streets, marketplaces and the agon (Greek public square) to try to find a man wiser than him.

He approached those who were going about their lives, especially the self-proclaimed intelligentsia, and asked them about their beliefs.

But in fact it was an ambush; he bombarded them with questions, and the more these men answered, the more self-contradictions became evident. Socrates provided no substantial opinion of his own, yet was able to expose fraudulent beliefs. These were the same men who claimed to be ‘intelligent’, ‘capable’, ‘superior’.

After his misadventures, Socrates famously concluded that he was indeed the wisest person in Athens. His logic? No one else knew anything at all. They were too conceited to examine their own knowledge and see the self evident flaws within it.

On the other hand, though Socrates too claimed to not know anything, paradoxically, that made him the wisest of them all. This is known as the Socratic Paradox.

In Plato’s Apology,

“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

And his classic quote,

“I know that I know nothing”

He realised that true wisdom could only be found in a wholehearted admission of ignorance, and that those who claimed to be ‘smart’ simply haven’t asked themselves the right questions.

Following this, he made himself a permanent fixture on the streets of Athens, engaging passersby as they came. He would lure them in with seemingly simply, straightforward questions then proceed to turn their own cherished assumptions against them.

Unlike conventional debates, where both parties would present their views and argue on the basis of it, Socrates started out from the position of false ignorance (when in fact he probably knew more, or knew enough to know that his interlocutor was wrong).

Pretending to know less possibly goaded his interlocutor on, who initially might’ve thought they had the upper hand. But Socrates used questions to lure out the fundamental premises of their beliefs, then thoroughly exposed innate contradictions that lay hidden.

Not only were Socrates’ escapades revenue-free (his wife was allegedly unhappy with Socrates’ ill-paying occupation as a philosopher), it also drew him the ire of all the intelligentsia.

Being openly questioned by an unkempt lowlife in public, and worse still, to find themselves to fumbling about rationalising contradictions in their own thought, was embarrassing, to say the least. It revealed a lack of intellectual rigour.

Slowly but surely, Socrates was earning his title as ‘gadlfly of the state’ and public enemy number One. His method of dialogue, known as the Socratic method of questioning (elenchus), was supremely annoying, and to some, disrespectful of their social status.

Today, the ‘Socratic method’ is enshrined as an enlightened method of teaching that help children learn more effectively. Instead of barraging them with facts, teachers today pride themselves on using questions to challenge some of the students’ fundamental assumptions, and in its place, feed them with an alternative, more accurate picture of reality.

Socrates would have argued otherwise: he thought that the Socratic method was anything but a form of education. In another of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates describes his role as a midwife, rather than a teacher.

Midwife — Women in Antiquity

Like a midwife who is usually reproductively barren, Socrates claimed to be intellectually barren — he simply helped others understand certain truths on their own accord. Think of it this way: Socrates was more of an intellectual guide who could help you navigate tough terrain without owning a map himself.

In reality, however, Socrates did have some intellectual beliefs on politics which we now turn to examine.

Socrates on Politics

Today the noun ‘democracy’ no longer merely describes the way a country is governed. Rather, it has become almost synonymous with being forward thinking, progressive, fair and just.

The wave of democritisation that swept the world after Communism’s spectacular downfall was seen to be a step forward in the evolution of society.

And while democracy was being crowned as sacrosanct and a human right, authoritarianism was being labelled as regressive, backward and ‘cavemen thinking’. The two antagonistic institutions moved in opposite directions.

Socrates might not have agreed with these associations. He was famously critical of democracy in Athens, where it was pioneered. He didn’t think that everyone deserved to vote, and that the perfect regime should be one led by philosophers.

Just like how we wouldn’t trust simply anyone to surgically cut open our bodies, we shouldn’t trust simply anyone to have a say in governance. And in effect, this is what democracy is: everyone having the power to decide how the country should be governed. (Though in Athens at the time, there were severe restrictions on who could vote. But the general principle holds true.)

On paper, this was the view of the legendary Socrates. Rather condescending, isn’t it?

Some suspect Socrates’ anti-democratic leanings were an over-exaggeration on Plato’s part. Part of the aforementioned Socratic Problem, there has been an ongoing debate about Socrates’ opinion on democracy, and there is some merit to the opposing school of thought.

For one, this is seemingly contradictory to Socrates’ general position of humility. Even where Socrates was evidently wiser than most people he met, he did not venture to tell people how to live their lives. Instead, he helped them discover it on their own. Remember, he was not a teacher, but a midwife. Could such a person be so snobbish and supercilious?

Moreover, Socrates was respectful of democratic ideals. For example, as we will come to see, he made peace with the obviously unfair verdict that he received during his trial partly because it was the decision of his fellow citizens as jurors. He didn’t try to run or weasel his way out of jail. Instead, he respected their views at the cost of his own life.

The academic Andrew David Irvine also raises another valid point:

“During a time of war and great social and intellectual upheaval, Socrates felt compelled to express his views openly, regardless of the consequences. As a result, he is remembered today, not only for his sharp wit and high ethical standards, but also for his loyalty to the view that in a democracy the best way for a man to serve himself, his friends, and his city — even during times of war — is by being loyal to, and by speaking publicly about, the truth.”

How, then, can we explain Platonic Socrates’ anti-democratic leanings? Some historians feel that this view is better attributed to the writer instead of the subject.

Plato was angry at what the jury did to his beloved mentor, and in his mind, the jury was a microcosm of democracy. Both involved putting the man-on-the-street in charge.

It is here that he might have lost faith in putting important decisions in the hands of the ‘ignorant’. Consequently, it is conceivable that he borrowed his old mentor’s name to rally against the institution that was responsible for Socrates’ death — democracy.

In any case, Socrates’ supposedly anti-democratic views was not his only politically controversial line.

During the Peloponnesian War, small independent Greek states were asked to take sides in an increasingly bipolar region. Melos was one such polis.

Melian Dialogue — Wikipedia

She was pressured by the Athenians to surrender her autonomy and pledge allegiance to Athens. The Athenians sent diplomats to the island to negotiate their surrender in what would infamously be known as the Melian Dialogue.

As expected, there was less reasonable dialogue than there was unreasonable demands. The Athenians were adamant in their dictates. Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian, writes of the discussions:

Athenians: “…we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses — -either of how we have a right to our empire…or are now attacking you because of the wrong that you have done us — -and make a long speech that would not be believed; …since you know as well as we do the right, as the world goes, is only in question between equal power,

while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Melians: “you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right….”

But of course, the unaccommodating Athenians were not persuaded and sieged the city of Melos after they refused to surrender.

The Siege of Melos — Alchetron

Socrates, ‘gadfly of the state’, was critical of the way Athens handled the conflict. Unpersuaded by so called political realism, he was fiercely independent of ‘conventional wisdom’ and unwilling to blindly support the government’s decisions.

The Siege of Melos went against the Socratic considerations of justice, virtue and the pursuit of goodness. He admonished the Athenian authority for behaving in a morally reprehensible way and thought that they were being bullies. He was even noted to have praised Sparta, Athens’ arch nemesis, and their virtuous leadership.

Socrates offended the Athenian populace. But at some level, they knew he was right — might is not always right and coercion is deplorable. Most were just too blinded by herd mentality and perverted their morals to fit the thinking of society. They took the path of least resistance.

And as Socrates famously observed, life is easier lived out unquestioned.

Unfortunately for Socrates, he was one of the brave few who dared to abandon the popular assumption that ‘My side is always correct’. He called out things for what they are. As a result, his namesake sos kratos, ‘unwounded by conventional authority’, literally followed him from cradle to grave.

Socrates on Death

Socrates’ contentious view on politics, stubborn take on justice and virtue, and his disrespect for the self-proclaimed intelligentsia turned him into public enemy number one. Instead of thanking Socrates for enlightening a generation, public disdain against the philosopher culminated in a series bogus charges, like corrupting the youth, being levied against him.

Plato’s Apology documents the trial of Socrates most clearly. It claims to be an accurate transcript of Socrates’ speech, but the title is a misnomer. ‘Apology’ used in this context is not a translation of the original Greek title Apologia, but an anglicized transliteration. ‘Apologia’, in the original Greek meaning of the word, meant defence, rather than an apology. This will help explain the dialogue’s contents where Socrates does everything but apologise.

He was put to trial, and most frustratingly, instead of trying to acquit himself, Socrates was adamant that what he did was correct. Some thought that with his superior intellect and rhetoric, he could have successfully defended himself. Instead he chose to stick to his guns.

Socrates refused to grovel or beg for his life. He even mocked the jury in Plato’s Apology,

“…are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”

In another infamous anecdote, when asked to propose his own punishment, not only did Socrates not plead for a light sentence, he even sarcastically suggests that the government should be paying him for his service, thanking him as a benefactor to Athens with free dinners for the rest of his life.

It isn’t so bad that the whole world was against him. At times, it even seemed like he was against himself. Unsurprisingly, Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death by way of hemlock poisoning.

This was not the end, however. Both Xenophon and Plato agree that Socrates was actually given a way out before he died. His loyal pupils had enough money and influence to bribe the prison guards and guarantee his mentor’s escape from Athens and from certain death, but ultimately Socrates did not take it. Just like how Socrates refused to defend himself at the trial.


Superficially, he was afraid for the security of his friends, who might have been arrested for abetting his escape. Moreover, even he if fled Athens and resided elsewhere, there is no guarantee that they will be accepting of his philosophy.

But venturing deeper, Socrates thought that it was unprincipled to break his social contract with the state — that a citizen is obliged to respect the laws of the country. He accepted the verdict by his peers, unfair as it may be, because it was within the state’s prerogative.

Moreover, such a flight would indicate a fear of death which is something that Socrates thought to be irrational.

“Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.”

And in Phaedo,

“[a]ll of philosophy is training for death”

Socrates was indifferent toward his ultimate end. In Phaedo, Plato recounts the actual death of Socrates through the narrative voice of the fictional character Phaedo. Throughout the scene, Socrates maintains a stoic attitude even as he faces imminent demise.

The Death of Socrates — Jacques-Louis David

While Socrates’ companions, notably Crito and Apollodorus, were tearing up, obviously heartbroken at the impending loss of their dear friend, Socrates was calm, aloof, and at times, even cheerful.

Phaedo recounts:

‘I understand’, he said, ‘we can and must pray to the gods that our sojourn on earth will continue happy beyond the grave. This is my prayer, and may it come to pass.’ With these words, he stoically drank the potion, quite readily and cheerfully.

“Readily” and “cheerfully” aren’t exactly words one would associate with a man who was forced to administer his own death. And yet ironically, Socrates was the only one in the room to be unaffected by the gravity of the situation. He even says:

‘You are strange fellows; what is wrong with you? I sent the women away for this very purpose, to stop their creating such a scene. I have heard that one should die in silence. So please be quiet and keep control of yourselves.’

and reminds his friend to settle some petty affair, instead of giving some big philosophical sermon, expressing his lucid and carefree state of mind.

“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

After drinking the poison to the last drip, Socrates walked around the room until his legs felt heavy. He laid down, and the attendant began to examine his feet by squeezing it hard. Socrates said he felt nothing. Then moving up, squeezing his calves. Nothing. Then his waist. Nothing.

The poison reached his heart, and then Socrates became cold and stiff. It was over. The attendant pronounced him dead.

An End

Socrates utterly changed the landscape of philosophy. Before him, philosophy was an esoteric field of study, suitable only for intellectuals and rich men with lots of time to spare. But Socrates made philosophy accessible to the common man.

As Cicero put it,

Socrates “wrested philosophy from the heavens and brought it down to earth.”

He was more concerned about self-exploration and individual fulfillment rather than the big metaphysical questions like ‘is the world made up of one or many substance?’. In other words, Socratic philosophy was proto-humanistic.

In this manner, Socratic philosophy is not so much about discovering the world, as his contemporaries tried (with limited success), but about discovering yourself.

He valued self-awareness and honesty. There is no shame in being ignorant, he said, but there is in thinking that you aren’t.

Bertrand Russell expresses similar sentiments:

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Or Voltaire:

“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”

I think that the trick is to learn how to be at peace with what you actually know, and who you actually are. There is no need to pretend to know something you actually don’t, or to be someone you actually aren’t. Even if you can convince the world, you will never be able to convince yourself. One needs to have the intellectual honesty and rigor to thoroughly examine the validity of one’s own beliefs.


Who was Socrates?

Socrates was a fifth century BC Greek philosopher who lived in Athens.
He was ugly, smelly and unkempt.
He was a brave soldier for Athens.
He thought about wisdom, about virtue and about happiness.
He might’ve been anti-democratic.

But most importantly,
He loved asking questions.
He readily admitted ignorance.
He was uncorrupted by conventional wisdom.
And died on his feet, not on his knees.

Dialogue & Discourse

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Cher Yi Tan

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I like learning about the past, thinking about the present, and dreaming about the future. 21, law student at Cambridge.

Dialogue & Discourse

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