Socrates (469 - 399 B.C.)
How to pronounce “Socrates.” (36.0K)
Socrates was known as the gadfly of Athens because of the controversy he provoked by trying to get people to think more deeply than they were accustomed.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
    His passion was to get them to do just that.

    To examine their LIVES
    To examine their THINKING

Not to just accept ideas uncritically, because they were vogue or popular.

He wanted to lead them to a sort of self-critical analysis. To challenge assumptions that were accepted just by the transfer from one generation to the next.

A critical period in history

Some have argued that ancient Greek civilization was at such a critical moment, that he not only saved Greek civilization, but that he at least temporarily saved western civilization.

Socrates was born in 468 B.C.

He was born and grew up in Athens, and lived 1) in the period of the highest success and power of the Greek nation, up until that point, and particularly 2) during the greatest success of Athens.

But is was also during his life that the wars came to pass between the city state of Athens and the city state of Sparta.

Sparta defeated Athens.
What followed was an unraveling of the Greek culture, and a period of great skepticism and disillusionment that gripped the people of Athens.

It wasn’t just the political and military circumstances that brought this malaise to the culture of Athens. It was also connect to the philosophical impasse that arose between Heraclitus and Parmenides.

Seeking ultimate truth seemed to the common person to be a lost cause. They reasoned that perhaps the skeptics were right and such truth is beyond the scope of our ability to discover it.

So, Given the decay of the military power, the political power, the economic power, coupled with the sense of frustration in trying to find out the nature of ultimate truth, the culture disintegrated, and grew inward.

Pragmatism (Truth is not defined as what is, but rather, what works.)
The focus of their thinking was on “this world” - on concrete practical matters. “We can’t figure out these ultimate matters of truth, but we’re still faced with the day to day issues of how to make a living and how to figure out the necessities of living.

So this results in the birth of ancient pragmatism. It was also the birth of ancient humanism (not to be confused with humanitarianism, which is a completely different thing).

There was also a disillusionment with religion. The gods had failed them. So what followed was a presocratic rise of secularism.

If one looks at that ancient culture, one sees that in many ways it mirrors our own. Perhaps we can learn from them.

From the Greek word sophia, which is the word “wisdom.”

Sophists considered themselves sages - learned people. With the decline of the civilization came the corruption of the Sophist movement.

With the rise of the democratic process, there were elections. The judicial system used juries. Trade required persuasion. The result was that the art of public speaking was now at a premium (rhetoric). Those who were most articulate and the most persuasive (moving emotions and passions) would have the most success in this culture.

Persuasion, not truth became most important. All part and parcel of what we see today.

Protagoras (A leading Sophist): “Man is the measure of all things.” (homo mensura)

Gorgias (an early skeptic) He said that that which is good (right) is whatever men perceive to be what works for their own vested interest.

Note how similar this is to our own day with lobby groups, unions, etc. Just like the Greeks, we have reduced the good or right to human preferences.

Socrates was passionately concerned about the problems discussed above. He understood that this thinking would be fatal to science, the pursuit of truth in any area, to the dignity of the court system, and of the political structure. At the heart of it, he saw the wholesale loss of virtue.

(We see the same loss of virtue in our own culture.)

Socrates was not willing to accept this as the fate of Athens.

He went around the streets engaging people in deep conversations trying to awaken them to the deeper questions of truth and the great issues that faced his society.
Socratic Method
The method of dialogue. Through asking questions of the people he encountered, he could get them from their superficial position of sophism and get them to a deeper consideration of truth.

He was the original paradigm of education. His goal was to educate.

Educate means to lead out of ignorance.

Socrates understood that the very first thing that must happen for true knowledge to take place, for anyone to gain virtue, and to be truly educated, was the admission of ignorance.

Once the person admits that they are ignorant, the possibility exists to lead them to truth.
Understanding of Virtue (understanding of the good and the right) was the primary goal of Socrates.

He meant this in a concrete way. How we act and behave is in the first analysis a matter of proper knowledge.

The problem is that we don’t know what right behavior is. In order to act right, we must understand what good behavior is.

What is honesty, industry, justice, etc.

He would push them beyond the self-interested motivations to come to the deeper understanding of these concepts by which human life, human virtue, and the virture of a society stand or fall.

Final comments
One could look at Socrates’ life and say that it was a failure. He was executed. He was charged with being an atheist because he rejected the pagan deities of the city, but more seriously, with corrupting the youth of Athens because he challenged their ideas. So, he was forced to drink the hemlock.

Plato was his most famous student. Plato recorded the trial and death of Plato. He met with Socrates in his cell and discussed his impending death with him, and was overwhelmed with his remarkable calmness and confidence that he had with respect to the life after death.