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Socrates; More than just the method

Who was Socrates? Many people claim they know who he is, “The Socratic
Method Man, Duh!” Nevertheless, there is much more to Socrates then that. He was a
conversationalist, a teacher, a philosopher, and a martyr among other things. Socrates was
not just the dude that created the Socratic Method, but he was also the philosopher that
changed western philosophy forever.
Socrates was born in 469 B.C. to a stonemason and a midwife in Athens. He was
born into a respectable but middle class family. During his youth, he was the pupil of
Archelaus and science fascinated him. Later on, however, he abandoned studying the
physical world to study what made him famous. He was sent off to war at age 38 as a
well-equipped infantryman. How well he dealt with the horrors of the war was legendary.
He would not complain and he shunned personal comforts. He strived through personal
and physical hardships without murmuring. Some claim that he was so oblivious to
danger around him that he would seem indifferent when people dropped dead around
him, even in a retreat. When he arrived back home from the war he refused to talk about
it insisting that his friends tell him the more important matters like how the search for
truth was going. Socrates, at some point in time, did get married to a nagging woman
named Xanthippe and settled down and had some children. When Socrates’ father died,
he gained a large enough inheritance to devote himself fully to philosophy. The life of
Socrates was somewhat interesting but very full.
There is, however, a more interesting story in his life; how he developed the
Socratic Method. A defining moment in Socrates’ life was when a friend informed him
what the Oracle of Delphi said. She said that there was no man wiser than Socrates was.
Socrates confirmed his friend’s story but refused to believe it. He questioned everyone he
could possibly question in the attempt to find a man wiser then himself. Later on, he
realized what the Oracle meant; that he was superior not because of his wisdom but
because of his knowledge of his own ignorance. From then on, he believed it was his duty
to question people from all walks of life about their knowledge and help them realize
their own ignorance therefore making them wiser. Thus the Socratic Method was born.
The Socratic Method does have a purpose. The basis is to question people
repeatedly, trying to make them admit the fact that they do not know everything and see
the truth. The repeated questioning can get frustrating because it frequently leads to dead-
ends but Socrates still felt that something was accomplished, even when the questions
lead nowhere. Some people jokingly theorize that Socrates developed this annoying and
tedious method from his wife. There was also an aim to this seemingly useless
methodology. Socrates attempted to aid individuals achieve a better understanding of
themselves. This method also aimed at trying to understand things and becoming
virtuous. Socrates used the method to destroy the notion that humans comprehend the
world around them and utilized it to force people to accept their own ignorance. He
reasoned that those are keys steps to gaining true knowledge. This method has a deeper
meaning then to just aggravate or bother someone.
Socrates had an interesting relationship with the Sophists. The Sophists were a
loose group of thinkers who taught wealthy Athenians how to argue effectively. Socrates
fervently rebuked them for accepting money for their insights. Even though Plato works
hard to clarify that Socrates was not a Sophist, sometimes it was hard to tell if Socrates
was one or not. He used the wordplay of the Sophists but he employed it in the pursuit of
truth instead of the pursuit of money. Socrates attempts throughout his life to expose the
Sophists as ‘lazy thinkers’ who make assumptions without careful assessment. Because of
his frequent arguments with the Sophists, he was mistaken to be one himself. The most
notable case of this was by Aristophanes. In Aristophanes play ‘The Clouds’, Socrates is
portrayed as the head of an institute called ‘The Thinkery’ which teaches Sophists how to
talk senselessly. Socrates is the supposed master of meaningless wordplay and ambiguous
phraseology. The charges made against him in this play came back to bite him in his later
life. Socrates had many encounters with the Sophists.
Socrates’ philosophy is somewhat uncertain. Socrates believed that philosophy
was a living and breathing subject that did not need to be written down, so he never wrote
any of his own philosophies down. Most of our knowledge about Socrates comes from
his pupil Plato. There is one problem with relying on Plato; he was a philosopher himself.
Even though Plato had his own philosophies, it is believed that Plato is, for the most part,
truthful about what Socrates believed. Socrates believed that the source of evil is
ignorance and an education makes people moral. He also thought that virtue is knowledge
and people are virtuous if they know the true definition of virtue. Socrates theorized that
the soul was a combination of a person’s intellectual abilities and his character. Socrates
also theorized that conversing with the common man about important issues of life and
virtue are key to any life that has any merit. He strongly believed that ‘The unexamined
life is not worth living.’ He would rather die than to abandon his principles. Socrates
speculated that the only opinion that matters is the opinion of someone who knows what
he is saying. Truth alone ought to be one’s basis for deciding something. As far as
historians can tell, this is what Socrates believed.
Socrates also conceived the notion that one should obey his state. Socrates
reasoned that one ought never to do wrong and one should act righteously to live morally.
Even when someone is wronged, it is immoral for him to wrong another. Socrates then
speculated that since it is wrong to do wrong, it is also wrong to disobey the state. The
state is like a parent to a child. When a child disobeys his parent, it is wrong. The way
Socrates can justify his criticism of the state is that children grow up and make their own
decisions on what is right or wrong. Nevertheless, it is still wrong for an adult to disobey
his parents. This conviction of obedience to the state is so strong that when Socrates’
friends tried to ‘break him out’ of jail, he refused to leave because that would be
disobedience to the state. Socrates was a strong believer in this principle.
Unarguably the most intriguing chapter of Socrates’ life was his death. This story
starts when Sparta defeats Athens and establishes an oligarchy of thirty tyrants, throwing
democracy out the window. These tyrants purged the city, sparing the lives of only the
most loyal to them. Many scholars believe that the tyrants spared Socrates because some
of them were his former students. By associating with these tyrants, Socrates made
himself an enemy of democracy and a scapegoat for when democracy was restored.
The charges made against Socrates were impiety and corruption of the youth.
Convicting Socrates of impiety was effortless because he professed that the gods have to
be good or else they are not gods. This contradicted almost all of Greek Mythology.
Charging this ‘method man’ with corruption of the youth was a different matter. It was
fiercely debated whether Socrates should be held responsible for the actions of his former
apprentices. Socrates himself did not help the matter any by telling the jury that he has
only done good and was placed there to annoy the officials of Athens in order to create
progress. This angered the jury and they convicted him with the charges. They allowed
Socrates to suggest his own punishment for him to show remorse and lessen his sentence.
What Socrates suggested would be the nails in his coffin (if they had coffins in ancient
Greece). Socrates said that he should receive the highest honors and get free food just like
the Olympian athletes. This infuriated the jury and they sentenced him to death.
The final hours of Socrates were tense for everyone, except Socrates. His friends
tried to get Socrates to escape but he refused because it would be disobedience to the
state. He talked to his closest friends about the immortality of the soul trying to comfort
them. Socrates faced his death with blatant unconcern. As his friends lamented and
pleaded with him frantically, Socrates rebuked them for their ruckus. He drank the
hemlock with eerie calm and died with dignity. In dieing instead of giving up philosophy
and his search for the truth, he became the standard at which all philosophers from all
eras are compared. Socrates died for what he believed in; he died a martyr’s death.
Socrates was quite an interesting character. He goes from being a man of modest
beginnings, to a man of war, to a man of thought, to a man of senseless wordplay, and
then to a dead man. However, in death, Socrates became the man of his philosophy. He
refused to turn his back on his convictions and on philosophy. Socrates is someone
everyone who believes sincerely in his own convictions must respect. Socrates was so
much more than the man who created the Socratic Method; he is the beginning of the
western philosophy we recognize today. However, why is he mainly remembered as ‘The
Method Man’?