Socrates, also known as the Father of Western Philosophy, was a Greek philosopher, who was born in 470 BC and died when he was roughly 70 years old.
He became extremely popular for having moved the subject of philosophy from the physical world to the abstract one. Socrates was, in fact, concerned with issues of ethics and morality rather than science and physics like his predecessors.
The Father of Philosophy was also known for his teaching method, even though he did not consider himself a teacher. This is because he claimed he didn’t possess any knowledge that could have been transmitted to his pupil.
Socrates believed that nobody knew anything and admitted his complete ignorance. His method consisted in showing his students how to think critically rather than impart a set of predefined knowledge. He would normally let his students start from a given assumption and then keep asking questions to prove them wrong.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any text written by this philosopher, and all we know about him is derived from the books written by his students.
Despite this, we still have a pretty accurate idea of his contribution to philosophy. This is why we decided to make a list of the nine most important contributions of Socrates to society and philosophy.
1. The Socratic method
One of Socrates’ most important contributions to our society and philosophy is surely the Socratic method. This method is frequently used in universities to stimulate debate and help students reflect on their held beliefs.
Most of the books that have been written by Socrates’ students about their teacher make in fact use of this method and this is probably how Socrates himself used to teach. But what does the Socratic method consist of?
The Socratic method is an argumentative dialogue in which two or more people start by asserting their thesis. An extra person then tries to dispute these theses by asking several questions that lead people to contradict their original claims. This method was often used by Socrates to prove that his interlocutors did not know the topics they were discussing.
The Socratic method is still used nowadays, especially in law school, by several teachers to teach students how to use critical thinking and apply it in and outside of court.
2. From the physical to the abstract world
Socrates is often referred to as the Father of Western Philosophy, but why is this the case? He is surely not the first Greek philosopher known to us, so why are his teachings often regarded as the starting point of Western philosophy? This is a great question as plenty of philosophers, such as Milesians Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Democritus lived before him.
The truth is that even nowadays we refer to these people as philosophers, Anaximander, Democritus, and the many others who lived before Socrates were way more concerned about what we now consider ‘physical science’.
For instance, Milesians Thales was mostly interested in finding the substance of which the whole universe, including our world, was composed. In his opinion, this was water. Similarly, Democritus claimed that everything surrounding us is composed of fundamental and undividable units that he proceeded to call atoms.
Unlike his predecessors, Socrates was interested in more abstract concepts such as ethics and morality. His aim was not to understand the laws that govern our world but the people who inhabit it.
Socrates was the first to center his philosophy on human nature and how to live a virtuous life, shifting the interest from the physical world to the abstract one. This is why he is considered the Father of Western Philosophy.
3. I know that I know nothing
The most famous quote by Socrates is without a doubt ‘I know that I know nothing.’ This is in itself a paradox. In fact, if you know nothing, you cannot possibly know that you don’t know.
Scholars now agree that Socrates himself used to say that he believed he knew nothing. In this way, the paradox is, in fact, solved.
The father of Western philosophy claimed that nobody has the capacity to know anything for sure and that humans live in a constant condition of ignorance.
This saying is also connected to a story regarding the Oracle of Delphi. According to the legend, Pythia, one of the high priestesses at the Oracle of Delphy, once affirmed that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens.
This surprised the philosopher, who thought that nobody knew anything. How could he, in fact, be the wisest person in Athens, if he was just as ignorant as everybody else?
Socrates managed to resolve this paradox by affirming that even though nobody knew anything whatsoever, he was the wisest man in the city as he was the only one who recognized his own ignorance.
4. It’s never right to do wrong
Socrates believed that humans are inherently good, and as a consequence, no one would ever choose to do wrong intentionally.
According to him, if someone truly knows the meaning of concepts such as virtue, self-control, and justice, he will always act accordingly. From this, we can easily derive that people who act otherwise do so only due to ignorance.
Not surprisingly this claim was disputed by several other philosophers following Socrates’ death. One of these was Aristotle, who affirmed that people can willingly act against ethics and virtue for their personal good. He called this theory the ‘moral weakness’.
5. The unexamined life is not worth living
‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ is another popular quote attributed to Socrates. According to the literature currently available, Socrates spoke these words during his final sentence.
In 399 BC, Socrates was given the choice to either stop preaching his philosophy or die. He famously opted for the latter stating that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.
With this sentence, Socrates means that to make a life worth living, people should regularly practice introspection and self-examination. Humans who choose not to do so live a meaningless existence, not too different from the many animals who simply follow their instincts.
As a consequence, when the right to self-examination and introspection is denied there is no reason to live. That’s why Socrates decided to die rather than give up his teachings.
But this sentence also has a second meaning. In fact, by choosing death over compromise, Socrates demonstrated his deep dedication to his own philosophy.
‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ is therefore also representative of the power of our ideas and the persistence and dedication needed to follow our own values.
Socrate also gave immense value to politics. According to him, ethics cannot exist without politics and vice versa.
The father of Western philosophy was not interested in how politicians should obtain power or maintain it but rather in how they should serve their citizens and improve the society they govern.
Socrates was also known for being against all sorts of political systems from oligarchy, democracy, hereditary aristocracy, and tyranny.
According to him, civilizations should be governed by what he called a ‘philosopher-king’. This figure is a philosopher whose only aim is to serve the needs of the polis and its citizens.
7. Don’t judge a book by its cover
Unlike many of his predecessors, Socrates was also famous for his complete waiver of all material things. He used to live in complete poverty on the streets of Athens despite being one of the most famous philosophers of his time.
Socrates did not give great importance to social status or money and talked to everybody regardless of their social class.
Many of his students reported that he was often seen in conversation with all sorts of people ranging from women to slaves, and servants, as well as people belonging to high social classes.
8. Care of the soul
Socrates believed that his contemporaries were too interested in futile things such as their reputation and wealth rather than what he considered important issues. According to him, every man and woman should take care of his or her ‘soul’.
But don’t let this term confuse you. By ‘soul’ Socrates did not mean our spiritual self. In fact, by stating that men should take care of their souls, Socrates implies that we should all try to live our lives as ethically as possible.
9. Socratic Irony
Socrates was also particularly known for his irony. Even though we do not have access to any book written by this philosopher, texts such as ‘The Dialogues’ and ‘The Symposium’, written by Socrates’ pupils, contain great examples of what we now define as Socratic irony.
Socrates would often make use of the so-called Socratic irony to prove how his interlocutor was wrong in his assumption.
He would start by pretending he had no knowledge of the argument at stake and then keep asking detailed questions until his opponent would reach a contradiction disproving his initial thesis.
This is a fundamental part of the Socratic method, as only by stating his complete ignorance on a certain subject and keep asking questions to the people in front of him, Socrates was able to disprove their initial thesis.
This type of irony is still sometimes used today in the courtroom to prove whether people are lying or not.
Socrates died in 399 BC after being accused of corrupting the youth with his philosophy. He was condemned to drink a poisonous drink which he did despite having a chance to escape from this unfair punishment.
Socrates’s philosophy was based on the fact that every good citizen should always follow the law even though this may be unjust. That’s why Socrates chooses death instead of escaping.
But even though Socrates died, his teachings did not. In fact, to this day, he is still considered one of the most influential philosophers of the Western World and the father of Western philosophy.
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