Socrates (470 BCE399 BCE) is widely considered to be one of the founders of Western philosophy.

Stonemason, soldier, citizen, philosophy’s first ‘martyr’, Socrates helped shape one of the major intellectual foundations on which Western civilisation has been built. Yet, no work of philosophy bears his name as the author. All we know of him is derived from the work of others – especially Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes.

The rise of ethics

Prior to Socrates, ancient philosophy tended to focus on questions that today might be considered the domain of physics. ‘Pre-Socratic’ philosophers tended to focus on fundamental questions about the nature of the universe – like the building blocks of matter or the nature of time and motion.

When Socrates came along, he proposed a completely different set of questions for philosophical deliberation. He drew attention away from questions about how the world is and towards questions about how we are to be in the world. While he made valuable contributions to the evolution of thought about epistemology and politics, it is this turn toward ethics that introduced a fresh practical dimension to philosophy.

Earlier philosophical debates of Thales, Anaximander and Democritus, for example, were all theoretical. Human knowledge and understanding might have advanced, but nothing in the world was directly changed by their deliberations.

Socrates’ focus on ethics was intended to generate practical outcomes. He expected philosophical work might lead to a change in both attitudes and (importantly) actions of people. In turn, this was intended to produce effects in the world. Although we have only come to see Socrates through the eyes of others, his friends (like Plato and Xenophon) and foes (like Aristophanes) agree he wished to have an impact on the people around him and the kind of society they were creating as a result of their choices.

What friends and foes disagreed on was Socrates’ motivation. His critics lumped him in with the Sophists who were looked down on as philosophical guns for hire.

A new focus on ethics repositioned philosophy as something relevant to everyday life. Socrates’ core question, ‘What ought one to do?’ does not apply in a limited set of circumstances. It is a question of general application to any situation where a choice is to be exercised – and is applicable to every person, whatever their station in life.

In some sense, this is what made Socrates such a troublesome – or dangerous – person. In one fell swoop, he brought philosophy into the agora (the marketplace), making it relevant and accessible to people of all ages and degrees.

This upset hierarchies and orthodoxies. As we know, a gadfly is rarely welcome. Socrates was eventually executed for crimes of ‘impiety’ and ‘corrupting the youth’ – in short, for teaching and encouraging them to question established norms and think for themselves.



The virtue of ‘constructive ignorance’

On being asked who the wisest person in Athens was, the Oracle of Delphi nominated Socrates. Socrates was astounded – he believed himself to know nothing. To prove his relative ignorance, Socrates sought to find wiser folk amongst the citizens of Athens, questioning them at length about the nature of things like justice and love.

His questioning had practical implications. At that time in democratic Athens, citizens were actively involved in enacting laws or judgements in the courts.

In the end, Socrates came to believe the Oracle of Delphi was correct – but only because his superior wisdom lay in his realising the limits of his knowledge.

Along the way to this realisation, Socrates developed the process of elenchus (the ‘Socratic method’). It is a distinctive form of questioning designed to open space for insight and self-knowledge. The idea we have much to learn about ourselves and the world might suggest we are ignorant. Such a view could position the Socratic method of questioning as a mean spirited exercise. Those subjected to it did not necessarily enjoy the experience or see it in a positive light. This no doubt contributed to the belief Socrates was an impious trouble maker.

The importance of the examined life 

Although Socrates contributed many insights that are still drawn upon today (but not necessarily accepted), one of his most famous and profound is his claim that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.

This claim goes beyond being a recommendation we should think before we act – which may be a prudent thing to do. Socrates is attempting to draw our attention to a deeper truth about the human condition. He encourages us to participate in a form of being that has the capacity to transcend the requirements of instinct and desire in order to make conscious – that is, ethical – choices. Socrates claimed if we fail to do this, we live a lesser life.

One of the effects of examination is, according to Socrates, the development of phronesis (practical wisdom) which is the foundation for virtue. For Socrates (and later for Aristotle – in a slightly different form), the possession of virtue is not just a matter of interior orientation. It is essential to being able to see the world as it is and be able to make good decisions.

Like Aristotle, Socrates sees vice as the source of defective vision. Socrates thought people make bad choices and do bad things out of ignorance. He thought if people could only ‘see’ what is good, they would choose it.

This all finally comes together in the way Socrates challenged the status quo. To live an examined life is to reject things ought to be done just because they have always been done.

Instead, Socrates is an early exponent of an inner voice that (in Socrates’ case) is supposed to have warned him against making an error. Socrates called this voice his ‘daimōnic sign’ – something Aquinas would call ‘conscience’ over a thousand years later.

It may be difficult to distinguish the real Socrates from the versions of the man created by others – which were either celebratory or lampooning. But this we know. When given the chance to escape and avoid the sentence of death imposed on him by the Athenians, Socrates chose to stay. In defence of his ideas and in conformance with his ideals Socrates drank the hemlock and died.

He can hardly have imagined the impact he would have on the world.