Educational History: Socrates

“You, who are the father of letters have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess…. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding, and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.” Socrates



In the spirit of openness, the reader is advised to do their own reading on historical sources relating to Socrates. This cannot be regarded as a scholarly article nor as comprehensive or especially accurate; it is more a series of notes cobbled together by the author (Alex Dunedin) after finding the stories he had heard fascinating.


Ivory Towers and Mythical Landscapes

In Socrates and his followers we meet the formulators of great philosophies which have constituted the major traditions of Western Civilization. The lesser Socratics, the Platonic Academy, the Aristotelian Lyceum, and the Hellenistic movements have their beginnings here. All later thought has to reckon with these, and a great part of it can be considered to consist essentially of an elaboration or a commentary upon, or a criticism of, these movements.


The questioning method of Socrates was the initial stimulus. There followed the elaboration and interpretation of his suggestions by less important followers; then the writings of Plato and the Academy; and finally, the study of factual details by Aristotle and his school. Meanwhile, some tendencies from the Pre-Socratics continued without being absorbed entirely by the Platonists and Aristotelians. Socrates met the relativism of the Sophists by seeking the conceptions which are common to the positions of those who disagree, thus formulating inductive definitions of the meanings of terms.


He also saw in the effort to lead an intelligent existence the key to the only criterion of virtue acceptable to a rational mind. Socrates lived in Athens from 469 to 399 BCE. The influence of Socrates was felt when the Sophists were at their height. He agreed with them in so far as they insisted that man’s primary interest is man. The attempt to fathom the nature of the universe before man understood himself seemed a hopeless task, and one that was hardly worth while.


The Ancient Greek aphorism “Know yourself” was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – according to the Greek writer Pausanias. Perhaps there is some significant connection between Socrates’ outlook and the influence of this sacred institution of the ancient world. In the late fifth century B.C.E., it was more or less taken for granted that any self-respecting Athenian male would prefer fame, wealth, honours, and political power to a life of labour.


Although many citizens lived by their labour in a wide variety of occupations, they were expected to spend much of their leisure time, if they had any, busying themselves with the affairs of the city. Men regularly participated in the governing Assembly and in the city’s many courts; and those who could afford it prepared themselves for success at public life by studying with rhetoricians and sophists from abroad who could themselves become wealthy and famous by teaching the young men of Athens to use words to their advantage.


Other forms of higher education were also known in Athens: mathematics, astronomy, geometry, music, ancient history, and linguistics. What seemed strange about Socrates is that he neither laboured to earn a living, nor participated voluntarily in affairs of state. Socrates dogged failure to align himself politically with oligarchs or democrats resulted in him having friends and enemies among both, and he supported and opposed actions of both.

Socrates again

The term “gadfly” was used by Plato in the Apology to describe Socrates’ relationship of uncomfortable goad to the Athenian political scene, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse. Thus, he upset the status quo of the Athenians by posing upsetting or novel questions, or just being an irritant. It irritated them to find that their traditional beliefs were neither well founded nor easily defensible.


He embraced poverty and, although youths of the city kept company with him and imitated him, Socrates adamantly insisted he was not a teacher and refused all his life to take money for what he did. Teachers were viewed as pitchers pouring their contents into the empty cups that were the students. As Socrates was not considered as a transmitter of information which others were passively to receive (as one may perceive in the Sophist tradition), he resists the comparison to teachers of his time.


Rather, he helped others recognize on their own what is real, true, and good (Plato, Meno, Theaetetus) a new approach to education. Socrates seemed to have a higher opinion of women than many of his companions had, speaking of men and women, priests and priestesses, and naming foreign women as his teachers. Socrates claimed to have learned rhetoric from Aspasia of Miletus, the lover of Pericles (Plato, Menexenus); and to have learned erotics from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea (Plato, Symposium).


The the socialization and education of males often involved a relationship from which the word pederasty has arisen in which a youth approaching manhood, fifteen to seventeen, became the beloved of a male lover a few years older, under whose tutelage and through whose influence and gifts, the younger man would be guided and improved. It was assumed among Athenians that mature men would find youths sexually attractive, and such relationships were conventionally viewed as beneficial to both parties by family and friends alike.


What was odd about Socrates is that, although he was no exception to the rule of finding youths attractive (Plato, Charmides 155d, Protagoras 309a-b; Xenophon, Symposium 4.27-28), he refused the physical advances of even his favorite (Plato, Symposium 219b-d) and kept his eye on the improvement of their, and all the Athenians’, souls (Plato, Apology 30a-b), a mission he said he had been assigned by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi if he was interpreting his friend Chaerephon’s report correctly (Plato, Apology 20e- 23b), a preposterous claim in the eyes of his fellow citizens.


Socrates acknowledged a rather strange personal phenomenon, a daemon (daimonion) or internal voice that prohibited his doing certain things, some trivial and some important, but none related to matters of right and wrong; the implication that he was guided by something he regarded as divine or semi-divine was suspect to other Athenians.


The word daemon are Latinized spellings of the Greek word, used purposely today to distinguish the daemons of Ancient Greek religion, good or malevolent “supernatural beings between mortals and gods, such as inferior divinities and ghosts of dead heroes” (as in Plato’s Symposium), from the Judeo-Christian usage demon, a malignant spirit that can seduce, afflict, or possess humans.


Socrates was usually to be found in the marketplace and other public areas, conversing with a variety of different people – young and old, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor – with virtually anyone he could persuade to join with him in his question-and-answer mode of probing serious matters. Socrates’ lifework consisted in the examination of people’s lives, his own and others’, because the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being, – as he says at his trial (Plato, Apology 38a).


Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him; and Athenian youths imitated Socrates’ questioning style, much to the annoyance of some of their parents.


He had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates’ irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion.


With the Sophists he agreed that the obligation of man as the thinking animal is to ask questions about things, and exempt nothing from his questioning. ‘The unexamined life is not to be lived’, is attributed to Socrates. He was known for confusing, stinging and stunning his conversation partners into the unpleasant experience of realizing their own ignorance, a state sometimes superseded by genuine intellectual curiosity.


An interesting comparison of lines of thought can be made of the thinking of Rene Descartes and Socrates. The basic tenet of Skepticism was the belief that human efforts to know are futile. Rene Descartes found in the Greek suggestion ‘Know Thyself’ a way to escape from the objections of the Skeptics. In formulating his classic phrase ‘cognito, ergo sum’  , translated as, ‘I think, therefore I am’, Rene Descartes presents doubt as evidence of his own existence.


This he famously proposed this in his Discourse on Method (1637), Meditations (1641) and Principles of Philosophy (1644). For Descartes, here was the absolute beginning for all thought. Truth is to be reached by following out the implications of one’s own experience of inner certitude. Bacon’s suggestion that the observer eliminate himself from experience, is impossible according to Descartes position.


The argument might be considered a rendering of Socrates view that all knowledge comes ultimately from within. In the Socratic view, the function of questioning is not destructive but constructive. It is destructive only in so far as rebuilding beliefs clears away the untenable. Inquiry should be for the purpose, first of all, of clarifying concepts. Without clear meaning for the terms we use no one knows what we are talking about.


Such clarification is inductive; it is an attempt to find the universal priniciple which pervades the varied instances and cases to which terms are applied. The common core of meaning is the real meaning of a concept, its basic intention.


The function of language is to communicate from individual mind to individual mind. Instability of meaning results in ambiguity. Understanding rests on univocity. Socrates was, thus, the advocate of clarity of ideas and inductive procedure.


Protagoras, the oldest of the Sophists, considered civic virtue to be his speciality. This was a practical subject and practical success was his chief aim as he had lost confidence in human ability to attain absolute truth. He argued that there are always two sides to every question and stated “Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.


In Protagoras view, opinions are tested by the practicality they exhibit at work. Those that work are acceptible; those that fail are not. An opinion of his of such questions as the existence of the gods is: I know not whether the gods exist or not; the question is difficult and life is short. For this idea Protagoras was accused of impiety and banished from Athens.


He agreed with Protagoras that man is the measure of all things, but man as the thinker in terms of universal concepts, not man as the creature of sense impressions which differ from each other as well as from the sense impressions of other persons. These concepts lie latent within the soul of man and are brought to explicit awareness by the process of questioning. This process he likened to the art of midwifery (maieutic) practiced by his mother.


Socrates studied with the Sophist Prodicus but could afford only a short course, however, he did send other pupils to him. Prodicus lived around 430 BCE at Ceos, in Athens and was a Sophist who’s special interest was that of correct terminology, in which way he influenced science. He taught ethics and civic affairs and served frequently as ambassador to Athens.


Prodicus claimed that the Sophist combined the virtues of the stateman and the philosopher. He gave instruction in rhetoric and oratory to many wealthy young men, whom he charged large sums. In teaching rhetoric, Produs advocated moderate length for speeches. A version of rhetorical exercise called the Choice of Heracles (between pleasure and noble work) was preserved by Xenophon.


Another Sophist, Gorgias, agreed with Protagoras that man has no absolute knowledge and took the view that the best one can do is make one’s views as persuasive as possible. In this way, if he can win men to his opinions he can have his way in life. Regarding knowledge of the external world, Gorgias is said to have maintained that there is no evidence producible to show that anything exists. There is a gap between objects and the mind, and another gap betwen the mind’s knowledge and the language which would express it.


He believed these gaps as unbridgable, therefore each individual is shut up within the walls of their own life. Human experience plays upon the surface of things, hence the use of the term ‘sophistry’ has come to mean the superficial treatment of any matter and the making of verbal distinctions that are of no real importance, and so forth.


Socrates took the position, since the distinctive feature of the human animal is to think and the primary moral obligation is for man to make himself the finest specifimen of manhood possible, it must follow that intelligence is the key to and the essence of virtue. To such extent that men are evil, they lack good judgement.



No one would deliberately choose what would harm him. The trouble is that men do not understand what is their real good. So the situation seemed to Socrates. Claiming to have no knowledge himself, he went about questioning people, especially those who professed to know, in order to learn whether or not he was really right. He differed from the Sophists in that ignorance was not the end of his work, but rather the beginning. He was the perpetual student because there was always something more for him to learn, at least one more question to ask.


His position was misinterpreted, as by the comic poet Aristophanes in Clouds, to be the culmination of Sophistry. In the second half of the 5th century BC, particularly at Athens, “sophist” came to denote a class of itinerant intellectuals who taught courses in “excellence” or “virtue,” speculated about the nature of language and culture and employed rhetoric to achieve their purposes, generally to persuade or convince others.


Sophists claimed that they could find the answers to all questions. Due to the importance of such skills in the life of Athens, practitioners often commanded very high fees. The practice of taking fees, along with the sophists’ practice of questioning the existence and roles of traditional deities (this was done to make “the weaker argument appear the stronger”) and investigating into the nature of the heavens and the earth prompted a popular reaction against them.


The attacks of the Sophists against Socrates (in fictional prosecution speeches) prompted a vigorous condemnation from his followers, including Plato and Xenophon, as there was a popular view of Socrates as a sophist. Their attitude, coupled with the wealth gained by many of the sophists, eventually led to popular resentment against sophist practitioners and the ideas and writings associated with sophism.


Taking advantage of unfavourable public opinion, a group of young politicians accused Socrates of corrupting the youth and teaching unlawful ideas about the gods. He was convicted, by a narrow margin, and, since his action was considered a capital offense, was required to drink the poison hemlock. Socrates died a martyr to the right of freedom of thought.


Socrates despite having written nothing, is considered one of the handful of philosophers who forever changed how philosophy itself was to be conceived. All our information about him is second-hand and most of it vigorously disputed. His trial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy represents the founding myth of the academic discipline of philosophy. His life is widely considered paradigmatic for the philosophic life and, more generally, for how anyone ought to live.



The extant sources agree that Socrates was considered profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man  and resembling not at all the statues that turned up later. He had wide-set, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass.


He was impervious to the effects of alcohol and cold, but this made him an object of suspicion to his fellow soldiers on campaign. Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style, even while Athens and Sparta were at war, and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and looking arrogant. He didn’t change his clothes but efficiently wore in the daytime what he covered himself with at night. Something was peculiar about his gait as well, sometimes described as a swagger so intimidating that enemy soldiers kept their distance.


The Socratic problem refers to the fact that various people wrote about Socrates whose accounts differ in crucial respects, leaving us to wonder which, if any, are accurate representations of the historical Socrates. There inevitably is, and always will be, a Socratic problem when looking back on a history between ancient and contemporary times.


Among the difficulties are that all those who knew and wrote about Socrates lived before any standardization of modern categories of, or sensibilities about, what constitutes historical accuracy or poetic license. All authors present their own interpretations of the personalities and lives of their characters, whether they mean to or not, whether they write fiction or biography or philosophy, so other criteria must be invoked for deciding among the contending views of who Socrates really was.


Even among those who knew Socrates in life, there was profound disagreement about what his actual views and methods were. Apart from three primary sources, there were those called ‘minor Socratics’, not for the quality of their work but because so little or none of it is extant, about whose view of Socrates we shall probably never know much.


The difficulty of distinguishing the historical Socrates from those of the authors of the texts in which he appears and, moreover, from the Socrates’ of scores of later interpreters, that the whole contested issue is generally referred to as the Socratic problem. One way or another, this is an archetypal figure in knowledge, freedom and education; how could we forget to mention Socrates and the Sophists as great educators ?


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