Nobody will ever know how Socrates would feel about his significance as a historical figure and philosophical innovator. In his life he was one of one, and neither he nor the people of Athens could have expected his curiosity and punctuality to make him relevant still to this day. If it weren’t enough that he lived and died as a man of irreplicable character, some of his most profound influences on philosophy don’t quite match up with how he practiced it.
Socrates: Character and Context
Socrates’ legacy is due in equal part to his individual character and his historical context. He lived in Athens during the fifth century BC, when political and social activity thrived under the rule of Pericles. In disbelief of the Delphic oracle’s claim that he was the wisest man in Athens, he inserted himself into the city’s public scene by engaging citizens in difficult conversations.
Socrates would approach people with questions about the meaning of values and how they correlate to living a flourishing life. He never failed to see the faults in others’ explanations of concepts like justice, beauty, morality, and friendship, and was always able to ask more questions and unveil the complexity of obtaining true knowledge of these ideas. After seeing that everyone else claimed to know something which they did not, he saw that recognizing his lack of knowledge was enough to make him wiser than his peers.
Phases of Philosophy
Socrates’ character and the significance of his life is amplified in relation to the phases of philosophy which came before and after him. The fact that Greek philosophers before him are called the Presocratics should make this evident, but it’s worth recognizing how what Socrates was doing was brand new in the Western tradition. The Presocratics primarily concerned themselves with the behavioral and material character of the universe, and people had to study under them to stimulate thought or conversation about these concepts.
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Socrates’ focus on ethical and epistemological problems combined with his demonstration that anyone can explore such problems independently breathed new life into philosophy. His student Plato ran with these kinds of questions, but ultimately deviated from Socrates by considering abstract concepts real, fixed, metaphysical entities, fit for buttressing an explanation of the way the world is. This system-building approach would prevail throughout the Western tradition of philosophy.
Socrates and Philosophy as an Individual Pursuit
The Roman politician and philosopher Cicero in the Tusculan Disputations wrote:
“Socrates was the first who brought down philosophy from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, and good and evil.”
Looking at this quote alone, we can begin to understand how Socrates’ personal use philosophy can’t be entirely personal. Part of the human condition is living without a clear and undeniable presentation of the values that help us structure our lives. Our own concerns, convictions, and investigations are ultimately ours to bear alone, but all these impulses eventually compel us to try and look beyond our internal and external experience. Cicero credits Socrates with giving humanity the tool to bridge the gap between our own perception and the noumenal realm, i.e., the realm of things in themselves.
Socrates’ seemingly juxtaposed precepts of “know thyself” and “all I know is that I know nothing” reflect this dynamic. Once we become oriented towards the prospect of possessing knowledge, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by how much there is to find out and how small we are in comparison. We are nonetheless responsible for our own apprehension, and the progress we make depends on how well we know the limits of our intellect, and how willing we are to test and push past these limits. It might seem like an impossible task, but the trajectory of Western philosophy hinges on this relationship between the capacity of cognition and the mysteries of the world firmly believed to be verifiable.
Dialogue and Philosophical Form
Most of the written records of Socrates come from Plato, whose writings portray the kind of thorough conversations his mentor was known for. This format allows for two or more different answers to a problem to be presented on a level plane. During this time speech was seen as better for communication than writing because of its vulnerability to rebuke and rebuttal, so writing which shows this happening gives readers an example of optimal philosophical inquiry. Several other scholars and philosophers wrote dialogues to express new ideas such as David Hume, G.W. Leibniz, and Galileo. However, it’s difficult to be unbiased as the sole author and contributor to a written dialogue, and easy to use to praise one idea and diminish another.
Regardless of this drawback, Plato’s written dialogues preserved Socrates’ genius and thus preserved his masterful use of logic, effective for spoken and written philosophy. As a subfield of philosophy, logic can be traced back to a few basic principles which we see in these dialogues. It is impossible to learn anything new without starting from what you already know. Progress is either made by induction, when you start from particular observations and move outward towards broader statements, or deduction, when you start from a general principle and move towards a smaller and more specific statement. Many philosophic texts follow this structure, and it can be very effective for outlining the progression of thought and constructing a philosophical argument.
By Brian DalyBA Philosophy, BA EnglishBrian holds BAs in Philosophy and English from Quinnipiac University and currently lives in New York. Whether through writing, teaching, or tutoring, he is always eager to spur interest in pondering and discussing complex ideas. His other interests include writing poetry, listening to music, and gardening.