The development of philosophical thought becomes possible due to the activity of courageous people that are not afraid of challenging long-term traditions and views of life. Socrates, one of the most famous Greek thinkers, is an example of an individual who revolutionized philosophy and stayed committed to his principles in any circumstances. His key contributions to the field include the Socratic Method that facilitates the critical analysis of hypotheses, ideas about morality and wrongdoing, and the concepts of immortal soul and preexistence.
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Socrates’s Life and Career
Many centuries have passed since the birth of Socrates, but he is still regarded as a source of wisdom and an inspirational figure in the world of philosophy. Socrates was born in Athens circa 469 BC and died in 399 BC at the age of seventy (D’Angour 5). Some popular myths state that Socrates came from an economically disadvantaged background and had limited educational opportunities.
However, based on the common themes found in his disciples’ works, Socrates was a son of relatively well-off parents and grew up being surrounded by the Athenian elite of the time (D’Angour 12). As a child, Socrates dreamed about becoming a strong warrior or a successful politician, and years later, he had a chance to demonstrate his talent in military arts (D’Angour 12). In addition to that, he had other gifts that contributed to the popularity of his philosophical views.
Being a teenager and then a young man, Socrates always had a thirst for knowledge and worked hard to develop new skills. He learned a lot from the best music teachers and political advisors, including Damon, and practiced the art of singing and playing the lyre (D’Angour 13). Additionally, it is presumed that at a young age, Socrates was trained to follow the trade of his father and become a stonemason (D’Angour 12).
His earliest participation in armed conflicts was around 447 BC, when one of the most known battles of the Peloponnesian War, the Battle of Coronea, was fought (D’Angour 5). During his service, he gained the reputation of a polemist that could not be beaten in an argument and did not care about material possessions. Unlike other philosophers, he did not produce written works to express his principles of life.
Due to his self-righteousness and the ability to find the best words to defeat his opponents verbally, Socrates was a character of some comic plays that aimed to expose his mistakes and exaggerate them. For instance, in 423 BC, Aristophanes caricatured him in the play titled Clouds (Moore 534). In this literary work, the philosopher is portrayed as a person who teaches a young man to distort the truth to reach his own goals. In particular, the student learns how to use the art of rhetoric to tire money-lenders with idle talk and distract them from his debts (Moore 534). Therefore, the critics of Socrates depicted him as a sophist and an unprincipled teacher.
Socrates’s fidelity to his principles admired many of his peers and cost him a life. His death was related to political reasons since after the Thirty Tyrants came to power, the situation in the state changed drastically (Saxonhouse 17). In 399 BC, after the Tyrants’ defeat, Socrates was accused of supporting anti-democratic views and corrupting young people in Athens and placed on trial (D’Angour 6; Saxonhouse 17). In Plato’s Apology describing the events, Socrates is presented as a shameless person who gives a speech to prove his wisdom instead of invoking people’s mercy (Saxonhouse 18). As a result, the court found him guilty of blasphemy and erosion of value and traditions, and the philosopher was executed by poison.
Ideas and Contributions to Philosophy
The Socratic Method, Moral Knowledge, and Wrongdoing
Socrates was extremely different from other philosophers of the time since he did not produce writings to immortalize his key ideas. The so-called Socratic Method of inquiry is among the key contributions that he made to the philosophical thought of the next centuries, especially moral philosophy. Socrates was one of the first thinkers focusing on the notions of morality and immorality, and the discussed method outlines the steps to be made when evaluating moral concepts (Boghossian and Lindsay 246). Based on Plato’s works, the dialectic method used by Socrates has five stages, with “wonder” being the first one (Boghossian and Lindsay 246).
During this stage, a question for discussion is offered, and it usually refers to the definition of some abstract concept or its social importance (Boghossian and Lindsay 246). Then, the stage of a hypothesis takes place, and a philosopher provides his first answer to be evaluated and supported later.
The third step needed to implement the Socratic Method into practice can be regarded as the representation of the deep meaning and innovative nature of this approach to arguments. It is called the elenchus or the argument of refutation and involves a series of questions from the facilitator that highlight the answer’s potential flaws (Boghossian and Lindsay 246). Also, these questions are to point at the circumstances in which the hypothesis becomes inconclusive. After “surviving the elenctic process,” the answer does not necessarily become knowledge, but the elenchus allows checking its quality and defeasibility (Boghossian and Lindsay 246). Thus, a hypothesis can be accepted and become a new principle only if it cannot be disproved.
Next, the fourth stage depends on the outcomes of the elenchus. If the hypothesis has been destroyed, the process is to start again with a different answer to the same question. If it has not been undermined, it is necessary to end the conversation or introduce additional elenctic questions to make conclusions on the hypothesis (Boghossian and Lindsay 246). Finally, to implement the fifth stage, all participants are to revise their beliefs and apply new moral knowledge to their lives and actions.
The critical approach to evaluating other people’s views made Socrates the key contributor to Western philosophy. During the pre-Socratic period, prominent thinkers focused on retrieving the arche or the source of everything, but they did not have a system helping to assess hypotheses (Georgoulas 143; Kenny 24). The method used by Socrates changed the perception of arguments and laid the foundations for critical thinking in philosophy, thus replacing the previously used ways of confirming beliefs (Kenny 24). Also, the method was applicable to sensitive topics and principles to guide one’s life.
Due to that, Socrates contributed to the development of moral philosophy or a set of theories aimed at distinguishing between right and wrong actions (Kenny 25). Therefore, the willingness to take hypotheses critically to check if they present knowledge is among the key principles that made Socrates a great thinker of his time.
Socrates’s important contributions to Western philosophy also include his attempts to connect moral knowledge and wrongdoing. He believed that the willingness to commit harmful actions always stemmed from the absence of knowledge helping to evaluate intentions and their consequences (Kenny 25). According to this principle, all people want to live a happy life. They can do the wrong things only unintentionally, just because they have no idea what is right in some situations (Kenny 25). Consequently, they need instruction instead of punishment in order to understand their mistakes (Kenny 25). This idea contributed to the discussion of human nature and inspired other thinkers to offer their opinions on rationalism in ethics.
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Mind, Body, and Preexistence
Apart from the mentioned concepts, Socrates facilitated further evolution of philosophy by offering a new perspective on physical and immaterial things related to human experience. During the pre-Socratic era, the distinction between the physical and non-physical components of living creatures did not receive much attention (Georgoulas 138). The philosopher being discussed was among the first thinkers to regard the soul and the body as two separate entities that are interconnected (Kenny 32). Based on his ideas, unlike the body, the human soul is immaterial and immortal (Kenny 32).
In the philosopher’s opinion, the soul presents the initial source of life and exists even before a person’s birth (Kenny 32). These ideas highlighted the superiority of the soul over the body and provided the basis for further discussions of life, death, and immortality in philosophy.
To sum it up, Socrates was a philosopher that used the approaches to thinking and evaluating arguments that were innovative at the time. Being a master of rhetoric and a talented warrior, he increased the perceived importance of critical thinking by applying the Socratic Method or the elenchus during conversations with his disciples. Together with the method, his ideas concerning morality and wrongdoing as a result of ignorance also changed the philosophy and set the path for its evolution.
Boghossian, Peter, and James Lindsay. “The Socratic Method, Defeasibility, and Doxastic Responsibility.” Educational Philosophy and Theory, vol. 50, no. 3, 2018, pp. 244-253.
D’Angour, Armand. Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.
Georgoulas, Stratos. The Origins of Radical Criminology. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Kenny, Anthony. An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy. 20th ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.
Moore, Christopher. “Socrates and Self-Knowledge in Aristophanes’ Clouds.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 2, 2015, pp. 534-551.
Saxonhouse, Arlene W. “A Shameless Socrates on Trial in Democratic Athens.” Readings of Plato’s Apology of Socrates: Defending the Philosophical Life, edited by Vivil Valvik Haraldsen et al., Lexington Books, 2018, pp. 17-36.