Branch: Epistemology

Approach: Socratic Dialogue

“The life that is unexamined, is not worth living”

Socrates is often pointed to as being one of the founders of western philosophy. It is strange then that this man left behind no writings or established any formal school. It is perhaps only thanks to his student Plato, that any of his ideas still exist to this day. What we do know about Socrates was that he was born in Athens to parents of modest means. It is believed he was a stonemason before serving in the Athenian military during the Peloponnesian War.

Socrates existed as a public lecturer more than anything else. He made it a mission to debate commonly held beliefs with the people of Athens. Many of these beliefs were taken for granted and had become ingrained with tradition. While many citizens assumed they knew what concepts such as “justice” were, Socrates exposed their ignorance through the process of extensive discourse. As it turns out, we may think we know what “justice” is. However when we try to explain it, we run into some problems. we may give some examples of things that are just, however it is difficult to describe what the thing really is. Socrates exposed this ignorance, gaining himself enemies in the process.

This method of engaging in intense dialogues is known as The Socratic Method. By attempting to get at the core of what something really is, we become more knowledgeable in the process. A dialogue might look like this:

Q. Do the gods know everything?
A. Yes, of course
Q. Yet they disagree sometimes?
A. Very true, the are always fighting
Q. So they might disagree about what is right and wrong?
A. I suppose
Q. So the gods don’t know everything!

Socrates believed that concepts such as “good” and “evil” were not subjective ideas, but rather eternal concepts. It was our responsibility to discover these ideas through rigorous examination. By becoming wiser, we may understand what is true morality. In this way morality and knowledge are linked. To Socrates, the only good was knowledge and the only evil was ignorance.

He believed that humans should make it a priority to pursue knowledge no matter the cost. The alternative would be to live ignorantly, which to Socrates, was unacceptable. Although Socrates sought to enlighten the minds of his fellow citizens, he would ultimately die for his efforts. He was tried for and found guilty of “corrupting the minds of the youth and believing in strange gods”. Even when given the option for exile, Socrates willingly drank poison rather than denounce his beliefs. It is commonly held that Socrates would become the first intellectual martyr of western history.

Click the links to read more about Socrates
-The Spirituality of Socrates
-Socrates’ Justice: Law and Disorder
-The Death of Socrates and the State that Killed him
-The Probing Philosopher Kings