"I know that I know nothing."

Socrates

Socrates was born in Athens c. 470 BC  and died by drinking the conium in 399 BC. He was the most famous of ancient Greek philosophers credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, and as being the first moral philosopher, of the Western ethical tradition of thought. Socrates is a rather enigmatic figure as he left no writings behind and is known mainly through the accounts of classical writers writing after his lifetime, mostly his students Plato and Xenophon.

We learn the most about Socrates through Plato’s dialogues. Through these dialogues, Socrates has become renowned for his contribution to the fields of ethics and epistemology. It is this Platonic Socrates who lends his name to the concepts of Socratic irony and the Socratic method.

Socrates was extremely influential on most philosophers of later antiquity and of the modern era, especially in the western world. Depictions of Socrates in art, literature, and popular culture have made him one of the most widely known figures in the Western philosophical tradition.

What is Socrates known for? The influence and legacy of Socrates.

Socrates is known for creating the Socratic irony and the Socratic method (elenchus). He is best recognized for inventing the teaching practice of pedagogy, wherein a teacher questions a student in a manner that draws out the correct response. Socrates has had a profound influence on Western philosophy, along with his students Plato and Aristotle.

The Socratic method

Perhaps his most important contribution to Western thought is his dialectic method of inquiry, known as the Socratic method or method of “elenchus”. Socrates applied this method to the examination of key moral concepts such as the Good and Justice. In order to solve a problem, the teacher breaks it down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distill the answer the student is seeking. The development and practice of this method is one of Socrates’s 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. The Socratic method has often been considered as a defining element of American legal education.

The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination. By steadily identifying and eliminating those hypotheses that lead to contradictions, new and better hypotheses are found. The Socratic method is designed to force one to examine one’s own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs.

Influence and legacy

Some of Athens’ controversial and anti-democratic tyrants were contemporary or posthumous students of Socrates including Alcibiades and Critias. Critias’s cousin Plato would go on to found the Academy in 385 BC, which gained so much renown that “Academy” became the standard word for educational institutions in later European languages such as English, French, and Italian. Plato’s student, another important philosophical figure of the Classical era, Aristotle went on to tutor Alexander the Great and also to found his own school in 335 BC—the Lyceum—whose name also now means an educational institution.

Socratic thought challenged conventions and stressed a simplistic way of living. Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ older students, evolved this philosophical idea into another philosophy called Cynicism, in the years after Socrates’s death. The idea of asceticism being hand in hand with an ethical life formed the core of another philosophy called Stoicism led by Zeno of Citium,

While some of the later contributions of Socrates to Hellenistic Era culture and philosophy as well as the Roman Era have been lost to time, his teachings began a resurgence in both medieval Europe and the Islamic Middle East alongside those of Aristotle and Stoicism.

Socrates influence grew in Western Europe during the fourteenth century as Plato’s dialogues were made available in Latin by Marsilio Ficino and Xenophon’s Socratic writings were translated by Basilios Bessarion. Voltaire even went so far as to write a satirical play about the trial of Socrates.

To this day, different versions of the Socratic method are still used in classroom and law school discourse to expose underlying issues in both the subject and the speaker.