This paper shall talk about the influence of Socrates, one of the greatest ancient Greek philosophers, throughout the history of Western philosophy. Socrates is perhaps the most influential man in the world of philosophy because of his position in the development of this discipline. His teachings constituted the first major turning point in the history of Western philosophy. For this reason, Socrates is often revisited by scholars because the richness of his ideas often yield new insights as they are applied today.
The life and works of Socrates
Socrates (469-399 BC) is perhaps one of the most enigmatic and yet influential figures in the Western world, having singlehandedly changed the course of philosophy and the way we think about philosophizing. His teachings have presented us with valuable insights into the human mind and the way we think about the world across different historical periods and in the midst of various social contexts. In fact, Taylor (2000) wrote that Socrates is the very embodiment of the philosophical way of life, a person whose words and works matched and who showed remarkable courage tenacity even in the face of a gruesome death.
Socrates is known to us today by virtue of the writings of his most talented student, Plato, who tried to immortalize the lessons and teaching styles of his master, and who in turn had also helped shape the earliest beginnings of philosophy. Plato was also a great teacher in his own right, and has in fact tutored young Alexander the Great, another important historical figure in the Western world.
Taylor (2000) noted that had it not been for Socrates’ influence, Plato would not have become a philosopher and this small turn of events would have led to a different kind of Western philosophy as we know it today. The life and death of his master had shaped Plato’s world-view and eventually driven him to take the road least travelled at that time in human history-to devote oneself completely to the study of philosophy and the nature of man as he experiences the world around him.
However, because Socrates himself had not written anything about his ideas, he is considered to be one of philosophy’s most elusive and least known figures in this discipline. There is also some doubt in some academic circles whether the teachings of Socrates as Plato have recorded them are actually the original thoughts of the master, or if these have already been colored by Plato’s own opinions on the matter. Because of the constant confusion of conflicting claims on the original ideas of Socrates as distinguished from those of Plato and of other notable thinkers, the whole issue is now referred to as the Socratic problem.
Nevertheless, the trial and subsequent death of Plato in the midst of Athenian democracy has served to consolidate his position in philosophy as it is considered the founding myth of this study (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2009). If anything, this particular event in Socrates’ life only served to reaffirm his greatness and influence.
Apart from his contributions to philosophy as we know it, Socrates also developed a radical style of teaching his students, or what is now called the Socratic Method. A classroom employing this method would have the students and the teacher engaged in a critical dialogue that seeks to look through and beyond the accepted ways of conceptualizing the world (Kemerling 2006). Thus, Socrates asks that his student learn more about the world in order to appreciate the fact that we know next to nothing about it. The virtue of philosophy is in the fact that we do not settle for what we think is true, but that we continuously strive to seek out this elusive truth to the best of our ability.
Socrates was also different from the other ‘great teachers’ of that time in that he refused to receive payment for his services. He preferred to talk about his views openly in public places such as the market and the ampitheater, where the people walking by could hear him and engage him in an adversarial conversation if they wished. In this way, Socrates urged the need to give true meaning to free speech within a democratic society like the city-state of Athens by letting people talk about whatever they want and in the most conspicuous places possible, where ideas can be discussed, refined, and analyzed.
What perhaps stands out the most in Socrates’ life story is his trial at the hands of the contemptuous elders of Athenian society, who felt endangered by Socrates’ constant questioning. They feared that he was trying to reverse the social order by making the people think and look twice, literally, about the values and norms that they hold dear. At about the time of his death, Socrates was also becoming more and more famous in the world of ancient Greece.
Plato’s Apology details Socrates’ defense speech before this tribunal of hostile judges (Kemerling 2006), preaching to them that the act of the evil man is most deeply felt by the evil man himself, and not the person to whom such scornful feelings have been inflicted upon. Socrates therefore makes the proposition that man is naturally good, and that the evil in us is a kind of aberrant and exceptional impulse that must be curtailed.
He believed that the person who commits a wrong upon another makes a graver sin against himself by going against his good nature. In a way, Socrates was trying to invoke the idea of conscience or a built-in moral map within everyone that guides their actions. Other philosophers at different points in history have tried to re-assess this concept of ‘man as good’, but Socrates was probably the first thinker outside of a religious context to have forwarded this concept.
Another important work featuring Socrates’ tenacious adherence to his own teachings is Crito, where one of his closest friends tried to convince Socrates to escape from prison and go to another city where he could live as a free and beloved man. Socrates, however, declined this last effort to save himself because he believed in the sanctity of the established rules of society, even if these be wrong to a certain degree. He knew that his conviction and death sentence was incorrect, and yet he is willing to abide by the law and let the people do to him as they wish, if it meant that his action would serve to affirm the existing social order and respect for rules.
Moreover, he said that he cannot stomach the idea of fleeing from his city and living in another place where, even if he was welcomed, he would always be a stranger. Athens was his city and he would not turn his back to it. He believed in justice, and even if the justice that was served him was wrong, Socrates was ready and willing to take it all in stride.
In this sense, Socrates was trying to come across with one important message-that the search for truth is man’s greatest success in life, but that embarking on this journey is a perilous one. Like many other significant historical figures, Socrates went against the ‘natural’ order of things and brought a new and exciting vision to the world. And while his teachings had cost him his life, his legacy still lives on in all aspects of philosophy and even outside of it. Others have also lived and died for their ideas but Socrates was exceptional for being a teacher among teachers and a man who is true to his words.