"I know that I know nothing."

Socrates

Socrates (lived c. 470 – 399 BC) was a classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, and as being the first moral philosopher, of the Western ethical tradition of thought. An enigmatic figure, he made no writings and is known chiefly through the accounts of classical writers writing after his lifetime, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon. Other sources include the contemporaneous Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Aeschines of Sphettos. Aristophanes, a playwright, is the only major source to have written during his lifetime, though a fragment of Ion of Chios’ Travel Journal provides important information about his youth.

Plato’s dialogues are among the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates to survive from antiquity, though it is unclear the degree to which Socrates himself is “hidden behind his best disciple”. Through his portrayal in Plato’s 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, or elenchus.

Socrates exerted a strong influence on philosophers in later antiquity and in the modern era. 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”, 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 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.

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.

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 protégé, another important 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.

While “Socrates dealt with moral matters and took no notice at all of nature in general”, in his Dialogues, Plato would emphasize mathematics with metaphysical overtones mirroring that of Pythagoras—the former who would dominate Western thought well into the Renaissance. Aristotle himself was as much of a philosopher as he was a scientist with extensive work in the fields of biology and physics.

Socratic thought which challenged conventions, especially in stressing a simplistic way of living, became divorced from Plato’s more detached and philosophical pursuits. This idea was inherited by one of Socrates’s older students, Antisthenes, who became the originator of another philosophy in the years after Socrates’s death: Cynicism.

The idea of asceticism being hand in hand with an ethical life or one with piety, ignored by Plato and Aristotle and somewhat dealt with by the Cynics, formed the core of another philosophy in 281 BC—Stoicism when Zeno of Citium would discover Socrates’s works and then learn from Crates, a Cynic philosopher.

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.