Socrates, son of a sculptor and a midwife, lived about 400 years before Jesus and was a Greek philosopher and is known as one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was an Athenian and, he is also known to have been very ugly but had a brilliant mind. But before this, he tried his hand at being a sculptor like his father, and he also led a brave and glorious military career during the Peloponnesian war. He married and had three sons, all of whom he left behind when he refused to try and escape from his execution later in life. Much of what we know about Socrates actually comes from writings of his students like Plato and Xenophon; most notably the dialogues of Plato.
One of the most well known quotes of Socrates is that the unexamined life is not worth living (Apology, 38a), which sums up how he was known for using reason and analysis. Even nowadays “professional philosophers routinely hold him up as a model of the sort of thinker they try to encourage their students to become- free to question anything.” (Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Plato’s Socrates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 188.)
Socrates so emphasized questioning and logic that his method of problem solving, now known as the Socratic Method, is the same approach we use in the scientific method. In the Socratic method one starts with a hypothesis To solve a problem, it would be broken down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distill the answer a person would seek. The influence of this approach is most strongly felt today in the use of the scientific method, in which hypothesis is the first stage.
Perhaps his most important contribution to Western thought is his dialectic method of inquiry, known as the Socratic method or method of "elenchus", which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts such as the Good and Justice. It was first described by Plato in the Socratic Dialogues. To solve a problem, it would be broken down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distill the answer a person would seek. The influence of this approach is most strongly felt today in the use of the scientific method, in which hypothesis is the first stage. The development and practice of this method is one of Socrates' most enduring contributions, and is a key factor in earning his mantle as the father of political philosophy, ethics or moral philosophy, and as a figurehead of all the central themes in Western philosophy.
To illustrate the use of the Socratic method; a series of questions are posed to help a person or group to determine their underlying beliefs and the extent of their knowledge. The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. It was designed to force one to examine one's own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs.
An alternative interpretation of the dialectic is that it is a method for direct perception of the Form of the Good. Philosopher Karl Popper describes the dialectic as "the art of intellectual intuition, of visualising the divine originals, the Forms or Ideas, of unveiling the Great Mystery behind the common man's everyday world of appearances." In a similar vein, French philosopher Pierre Hadot suggests that the dialogues are a type of spiritual exercise. "Furthermore," writes Hadot, "in Plato's view, every dialectical exercise, precisely because it is an exercise of pure thought, subject to the demands of the Logos, turns the soul away from the sensible world, and allows it to convert itself towards the Good."
The beliefs of Socrates, as distinct from those of Plato, are difficult to discern. Little in the way of concrete evidence exists to demarcate the two. The lengthy presentation of ideas given in most of the dialogues may be the ideas of Socrates himself, but which have been subsequently deformed or changed by Plato, and some scholars think Plato so adapted the Socratic style as to make the literary character and the philosopher himself impossible to distinguish. Others argue that he did have his own theories and beliefs. There is a degree of controversy inherent in the identifying of what these might have been, owing to the difficulty of separating Socrates from Plato and the difficulty of interpreting even the dramatic writings concerning Socrates. Consequently, distinguishing the philosophical beliefs of Socrates from those of Plato and Xenophon has not proven easy, so it must be remembered that what is attributed to Socrates might actually be more the specific concerns of these two thinkers instead.
The matter is complicated because the historical Socrates seems to have been notorious for asking questions but not answering, claiming to lack wisdom concerning the subjects about which he questioned others.
If anything in general can be said about the philosophical beliefs of Socrates, it is that he was morally, intellectually, and politically at odds with many of his fellow Athenians. When he is on trial for heresy and corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens, he uses his method of elenchos to demonstrate to the jurors that their moral values are wrong-headed. He tells them they are concerned with their families, careers, and political responsibilities when they ought to be worried about the "welfare of their souls". Socrates' assertion that the gods had singled him out as a divine emissary seemed to provoke irritation, if not outright ridicule. Socrates also questioned the Sophistic doctrine that arete (virtue) can be taught. He liked to observe that successful fathers (such as the prominent military general Pericles) did not produce sons of their own quality. Socrates argued that moral excellence was more a matter of divine bequest than parental nurture. This belief may have contributed to his lack of anxiety about the future of his own sons.
Also, according to A. A. Long, "There should be no doubt that, despite his claim to know only that he knew nothing, Socrates had strong beliefs about the divine", and, citing Xenophon's Memorabilia, 1.4, 4.3,:
According to Xenophon, he was a teleologist who held that god arranges everything for the best.
Socrates frequently says his ideas are not his own, but his teachers'. He mentions several influences: Prodicus the rhetor and Anaxagoras the philosopher. Perhaps surprisingly, Socrates claims to have been deeply influenced by two women besides his mother: he says that Diotima (c.f. Plato's Symposium), a witch and priestess from Mantinea, taught him all he knows about eros, or love; and that Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, taught him the art of rhetoric. John Burnet argued that his principal teacher was the Anaxagorean Archelaus but his ideas were as Plato described them; Eric A. Havelock, on the other hand, considered Socrates' association with the Anaxagoreans to be evidence of Plato's philosophical separation from Socrates.
But Socrates reasoning and logic, while a well known and popularized aspect of his life, is only one aspect. From the writings left behind, there is also much evidence of his deeply spiritual nature.
Socrates exhibited many traditional signs of deeply spiritual people. He would often spend time in meditation, and sometimes would go into deep meditational trances where he did not move for hours. (Symposium, 175a-b, 220c) He received messages in his dreams and he always followed these messages. (Crito, 44a; Apology, 33c; Phaedo, 60e) He might have been initiated by a woman shaman, Diotima. (Symposium, 201d) He was totally unconcerned for money, power, or status, and spent all his time on his spiritual work. (Apology, 23b) Like Indian monks, he had great powers of enduring physical hardships. While on military campaigns with other Athenian soldiers, he walked over ice barefoot, marched in the winter cold with just regular clothes, and outdid every other soldier in enduring the lack of food. (Symposium, 219e-220b) He had total self-control so that he was never drunk (Symposium, 220) and although the young beautiful men sometimes tried to seduce him, he would just laugh and scorn them. (Symposium, 219c) When it was time for him to die, he had no fear of death at all. (Phaedo, 117a-118a) He also had such tremendous charisma that the young men of Athens would flock to him.
The best-known of his spiritual characteristics, however, was his divine messages. Socrates received many spiritual messages from his daimonion, or divine sign. (Sometimes this is called his daimon or demon, but in the original Greek it is daimonion and the “ion” at the end of the word makes it a little daimon). In Plato’s Apology, he said this “something divine or spiritual” sign was “a sort of voice” that has come to him since childhood. (Apology, 31d) He also said this voice always tells him not to do something he is thinking of doing, but never tells him to do something. (Apology, 31d) For example, Socrates was about to leave a place when his divine sign came to him, telling him not to go. So he just sat down and waited, and in a little while some people he was happy to talk to showed up. (Euthydemus, 272e-273a)
Another student of Socrates, Xenophon, said that Socrates’ divine sign told him both to do things and not to do things. (Memorabilia, I.I.2-4 & 4.3.12) Xenophon even said this divine sign told him to tell other people to do some things or avoid other things. Xenophon said that the people who followed Socrates’ urgings were always happy and those who did not repented. (Memorabilia, I.I.4)
Socrates unquestioningly followed his divine guidance because he assumed these divine messages would guide him well. Although he never spelled out why he assumed this, it is based on the assumption that “gods know all things” (Memorabilia, 1.1.19) and are truly wise. (Apology, 23a) As he thought wisdom and virtue was the same thing, this meant the god was completely good and virtuous. He also thought all good things came from god. (Euthyphro,15a; Republic, 379c)
The extent of his trust in god’s guidance through his daimonion or divine sign is revealed when he faced death. After he has been condemned to death by the Athenians because he would not stop examining people, Socrates said death must be a good thing. He said this because his divine sign never opposed him as he was about to give his defense to the jury. He said that “which has happened to me [being condemned to death] is doubtless a good thing, and those of you who think death is an evil must be mistaken. A convincing proof of this has been given me; for the accustomed sign would surely have opposed me if I had not been going to meet with something good.” (Apology, 40a-c)
Socrates was not enthralled by modern non-traditional spirituality which emphasizes people’s supposed oneness with God. In fact he thought his divinely-given mission in life was to counter this way of thinking. When a friend of his went to the oracle at Delphi and asked if anyone was wiser than Socrates, the oracle said no. (Apology, 21a) Socrates could not understand this as he did not think he knew anything. After long puzzling about this (oracles were known for their cryptic messages whose meaning had to be puzzled out), he came to the conclusion that no one was wiser than him because while he knew he did not know anything, other people did not know anything but still thought they did. (Apology, 21b-23c) Thus he was the wisest because he was the humblest. For him, “human wisdom was of little or no value,” while god alone was wise. (Apology, 23a) He thought there was such a big separation between men and god that he said “the wisest man is to a god as an ape is to a man.” (Hippias Major, 289b)
Socrates then decided god meant for him to help other people realize they knew much less than they thought they did. God wanted them to be humble and give up their pride. He saw this as a service to god. (Apology, 23b) He spent his life examining other people’s basic assumptions about how they should live their lives. He would use logic and reason to get people to see the implications of their ways of thinking and acting. This helped them see they knew less than they thought they did and he tried to get them to care for their soul. He said concern for wealth, reputation, honor, were trivial matters and we should instead care for virtue and “the perfection of the soul.” (Apology, 29e-30b)
Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. (Apology, 38a) So much was he known for using reason and analysis that nowadays “professional philosophers routinely hold him up as a model of the sort of thinker they try to encourage their students to become- free to question anything.” (Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Plato’s Socrates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 188.) Scholars often forget, however, that this emphasis on critical thinking and logic was deeply connected with a spiritual view of life. Socrates said he examined people, not because he loved logic or critical thinking, but because god had told him to do it. In Plato’s dialogue Apology, (which is Socrates’ speeches to the Athenian jury which was trying him for impiety), he said “when the god gave me a station with orders to spend my life in philosophy and in examining myself and others, then if I were to desert my post through fear of death or anything else whatever, it would be a terrible thing.” (Apology, 28e-29a) He says that it is evil to disobey god and that if the Athenians were to let him go on the condition that he stop examining people he said he would not agree to the condition. He said, “I shall obey the god rather than you . . . for the god commands me to do this.” (Apology, 29e-30a)
Interestingly, he just took all of his spiritual assumptions for granted. He never examined them or questioned them. Nor did he give arguments for why he believed in any of these spiritual matters. One scholar said he had “an astonishing lack of intellectual interst in critical inquiry regarding religion.” (Brickhouse and Smith, 189)
Some people find it hard to reconcile Socrates’ emphasis on reason and critical thinking with his many spiritual ideas. It seems to me obvious that he is much more committed to his spiritual ideas and his critical thinking comes second. Other scholars wonder about this. Here are some papers on the wonderings of these scholars.
Scholars often forget, however, that this emphasis on critical thinking and logic was deeply connected with a spiritual view of life. Socrates said he examined people, not because he loved logic or critical thinking, but because god had told him to do it. In Plato’s dialogue Apology, (which is Socrates’ speeches to the Athenian jury which was trying him for impiety), he said “when the god gave me a station with orders to spend my life in philosophy and in examining myself and others, then if I were to desert my post through fear of death or anything else whatever, it would be a terrible thing.” (Apology, 28e-29a) He says that it is evil to disobey god and that if the Athenians were to let him go on the condition that he stop examining people he said he would not agree to the condition. He said, “I shall obey the god rather than you . . . for the god commands me to do this.” (Apology, 29e-30a)