Socrates – part 1: He who knows nothing

Welcome back to our shared journey through philosophy over the years. This time we will be witnessing history! I am happy to point out that we have concluded our journey through the Pre-Socratic philosophers, and we have reached the man, the myth, the legend himself: Socrates.

If my introduction wasn’t enough to highlight his important, I’ll also point out that its not everyone that reaches the standard of having a whole era of history named after you. The fact that all philosophers we have covered so far, despite their revolutionary ideas, are grouped into the “Pre-Socratics” shows how Socrates’ arrival into the philosophy scene inaugurated a whole new era (Kenny, 2010). Socrates’ influence was indeed great to the point that even in modern days some consider him to be the most influential and famous philosopher ever (Adamson, 2014).

But who was Socrates, why is he so important and why should you care?

Straight away, in trying to answer this question, his story grabs our interest. Socrates didn’t actually write anything (Adamson, 2014), thus most of what we know of him comes from the writings of two of his most well-known students: Xenophon and the also famous and also philosopher, Plato (Russel, 1946).

Let’s start by looking at the facts that scholars have reached more certainty about. We know Socrates wasn’t an imaginary figure but an actual person, because besides his two students, he was also referenced in the writings of others, including prominent figures in Athenian society, such as the playwright Aristophanes who made Socrates part of his play The Clouds (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010).

We also know that Socrates was born in Athens, around the year 469 B.C., and he is commonly described as spending his days in the marketplace, surrounded by Athenian youths, with whom he would have conversations and debates, through these teaching them philosophy without requesting payment (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946).

This, however, would be one of the things that would lead to his tragic end. Another certainty about Socrates was that at the late age of 70, he was taken to court under the charges of worshipping gods that differed from those of the state, engaging in sophistry by making arguments fit what pleased his view, and corrupting the youth by teaching them both of these things (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946). However, the plot thickens, as there is said to be another nefarious reason for Socrates’ prosecution: without extending myself beyond the goals of this text into the geopolitical situation of Athens at the time, in simple terms, Athens was then ruled by a group of questionable characters dubbed the ‘Thirty Tyrants’, who Socrates disobeyed as he thought their orders unethical, at the same time as having some of his former students within said ‘Thirty Tyrants’ and refusing to join their political opposition in overthrowing them (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946). Simply put, Socrates managed to annoy everyone important in Athens.

I’ll get to what happened during that trial shortly, but first I need to mention another of the most commonly described facts about Socrates: the prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi. It is said that one of Socrates friends went to ask this oracle if there were any person wiser than Socrates, to which the oracle answered there were none (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946). Now, Socrates, particularly when described by Plato, was known for often saying that he knows nothing and the only wisdom he possessed was knowing that he knew nothing (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1946).

Considering this, you can see how he was initially confused by the answer given by the oracle. Still, he maintained the belief that the gods could not lie, and to try to solve his confusion, he started going around questioning people popularly considered knowledgeable at the time, such as politicians, poets, and artisans, with the aim of finding someone wiser than him who could give him an answer (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946).

Disappointingly, Socrates did not find anyone wiser than him. This however enlightened him: he understood that he was considered the wisest by the oracle not because like all others he knew nothing, but because he knew that he knew nothing (Russel, 1946). This further fuelled his search for knowledge as he interpreted this as being given a message from god to search in himself and others for true knowledge, which was his justification for going around Athens questioning people to wake them up to their ignorance (Russel,1946).

You may start to think he was bold in his defence, but that would be an understatement. Because he didn’t see himself as guilty in any way, like the Chad he was, when facing the death penalty, during his defence speech Socrates questions the moral character and intelligence of both his prosecutors and everyone in Athens; states that he won’t be harmed by his prosecutors ‘…for a bad man is not permitted to injure one better than himself.’; argues that being killed would be a loss to the Athenian state; states that because he his virtuous he would never be foolish to the point of corrupting his fellow citizens intentionally and if he his doing so unintentionally, he should then be educated instead of judged (Russel, 1946). Unsurprisingly, annoying everyone does get you the death penalty.

These were Socrates’ final words in court: “If you think that by killing men you can prevent some one from censoring your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honourable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be disabling other, but to be improving.” (Russel, 1946). He died in 399 BC., following drinking a cup of the poisonous plant hemlock (Adamson, 2014).

Summarising, Socrates was someone very sure of his own qualities, who strictly followed certain moral principles, didn’t care about worldly success, believed to be under divine guidance and held the doctrine that thinking clearly is the most important thing in leading our lives the right way (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1946).

Now you know who this absolute mad lad was and how he stayed true to his values until death. I find his history quite inspiring. It’s not easy to be this true to ourselves, particularly when this is threatening our own life.

In the next text, I will explore in more detail the philosophic contributions of Socrates.

I hope to see you amazing nerds in the next text,

The Physiolosopher


Adamson, P. 2014. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1. 1st edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Kenny, A. 2010. A New History of Western Philosophy: In Four Parts. Reprint Edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Russel, B. 1946. History of Western Philosophy. Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group: New York.

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