Socrates Essay

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Socrates, one of the most significant thinkers and teachers of the ancient Western world, lived in Athens during the time of its greatness under Pericles, as well as the greatly troubled years of conflict and decline that followed Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Most of what is known about Socrates comes to us through the memory and pen of Plato, his most notable student, since Socrates apparently wrote no works himself. His name, however, has been attached to the style of teaching he apparently developed: the Socratic method.

Living a simple life, Socrates embodied the spirit of the inquiring mind and the natural teacher. He sought to engage his hearers in dialogues about topics that would take them beyond the mundane issues of life and lead them to true self-knowledge, fearlessly probing the nature of truth, beauty, virtue, and even the gods themselves. His practice of using searching questions, often laced with irony, to provoke listeners to first state the obvious, and then lead them via further questioning and conversation to a more profound understanding of the matter under consideration, is still known as the Socratic method.

It stood in stark contrast to the more formal instruction of the sophists (“wise ones”) of Athens, who apparently claimed to offer—at a price—an education that would provide the young men of Athens with final answers to all the questions of life. Socrates rejected the label of sophist, preferring the more humble title of philosopher (“the brotherly love of a friend for wisdom”). He also rejected the sophists’ formalization and commodification of learning, believing that their instruction brought any possibility of true learning to an end. Learning and discourse ought to be never-ending, he said, telling the Athenians that “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

In time, Socrates’ teaching and method brought him into conflict not only with the sophists, but also with the rulers of Athens. His willingness to question all things, including the nature of civic virtue and even the religion of Athens, was viewed by his opponents and enemies with consternation and alarm; his undeniable influence over many of the young men of Athens, whom he instructed at little or no charge, led to envy and wrath. He was formally charged with corrupting the youth of Athens by making them question the traditional knowledge of the Athenians, and with impiety for daring to ask questions about the gods.

Socrates defended himself calmly and with fearless wisdom, yet was found guilty. Already 70 years of age, he resolutely refused lesser penalties and chose death by drinking hemlock. True to his calling to the very end, he engaged his friends, students, and even his jailer in his final discourses, ceasing only when his life did.


  1. (2001). The apology of Socrates. In C. W. Eliot (Ed.), Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius (Millennium ed., Vol. 2, pp. 5–30). Norwalk, CT: Easton Press.

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