Socrates: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on Socrates. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.

Who Was Socrates?

“About 2,400 years ago in Athens a man was put to death for asking too many questions. There were philosophers before him, but it was with Socrates that the subject really took off. If philosophy has a patron saint, it is Socrates. Snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange, Socrates did not fit in. Although physically ugly and often unwashed, he had great charisma and a brilliant mind. Everyone in Athens agreed that there had never been anyone quite like him and probably wouldn’t be again. He was unique. But he was also extremely annoying. He saw himself as one of those horseflies that have a nasty bite – a gadfly. They’re irritating, but don’t do serious harm. Not everyone in Athens agreed, though. Some loved him; others thought him a dangerous influence.

As a young man he had been a brave soldier fighting in the Peloponnesian wars against the Spartans and their allies. In middle age he shuffled around the marketplace, stopping people from time to time and asking them awkward questions. That was more or less all he did. But the questions he asked were razor-sharp. They seemed straightforward; but they weren’t.” – Excerpt from A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton.

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The Examined Life

‘“The unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology 38a5–6). That familiar statement of Socrates, perhaps the most provocative ever uttered by a philosopher, encapsulates the essence of his philosophy and his way of life. Socrates presents himself – or, rather, Plato presents him – as the embodiment of an examined life. To see what such a life demands of us, we must look to the example Socrates sets, as this is captured on Plato’s page. That demand can either inspire or repel us – precisely the effects Socrates had on his contemporaries. The fascination and nobility of his ideal would be diminished, had he said that the unexamined life is one lifestyle among many, something we should choose only if we feel so inclined. At the same time, there seems to be something absurdly demanding, perhaps even a contemptible severity, in Socrates’ insistence that we all live as he lived. In any society, at most a few can spend all of their days in ethical discussion, as Socrates did. Do all of the others really lead worthless lives? Does Socrates have good reasons for criticizing the way so large a portion of humankind conduct themselves? And in any case, what value can an examined life have, if only a few people devote themselves to it, and they have as little impact on the lives of their contemporaries as Socrates did? For that matter, precisely what is so good about an examined life, for someone who is able to live it? Even if we all could manage it, why should any of us even try?’ – Excerpt from the article The Examined Life Examined by Richard Kraut from A Companion to Socrates.

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Socratic Ignorance

“The oracle at Delphi told Socrates’ friend Chaerephon, “no one is wiser than Socrates” (Apology 21a).  Socrates explains that he was not aware of any wisdom he had, and so set out to find someone who had wisdom in order to demonstrate that the oracle was mistaken.  He first went to the politicians but found them lacking wisdom.  He next visited the poets and found that, though they spoke in beautiful verses, they did so through divine inspiration, not because they had wisdom of any kind.  Finally, Socrates found that the craftsmen had knowledge of their own craft, but that they subsequently believed themselves to know much more than they actually did.  Socrates concluded that he was better off than his fellow citizens because, while they thought they knew something and did not, he was aware of his own ignorance.  The god who speaks through the oracle, he says, is truly wise, whereas human wisdom is worth little or nothing (Apology 23a).” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Socrates by James M. Ambury.

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Unity of Virtue

“Socrates argues that [the virtues] come as a package deal or not at all. His arguments typically proceed by trying to show that some particular virtue cannot work properly unless another is present as well. Courage, for instance, requires wisdom. It is no good being daring if you are foolish, for such would-be courage will degenerate into mere rashness. And all the other virtues are intertwined in similar ways. One of them, namely the virtue of wisdom, plays a special part. For without some degree of wisdom, people will be too bad at seeing the consequences of actions to be able to tell what is right and what is wrong, which is the fundamental prerequisite for virtuous living. Without wisdom they will be unable to be truly happy either, because every benefit that has the potential to make one happy also has the potential to be misused and thus do the opposite. One therefore needs wisdom both to reap the benefits of good things and to be virtuous.” – Excerpt from the article Socrates by Anthony Gottlieb from The Great Philosophers.

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No-one Does Wrong Willingly

“Socrates famously declares that no one errs or makes mistakes knowingly (Protagoras 352c, 358b-b).  Here we find an example of Socrates’ intellectualism.  When a person does what is wrong, their failure to do what is right is an intellectual error, or due to their own ignorance about what is right.  If the person knew what was right, he would have done it.  Hence, it is not possible for someone simultaneously know what is right and do what is wrong.  If someone does what is wrong, they do so because they do not know what is right, and if they claim the have known what was right at the time when they committed the wrong, they are mistaken, for had they truly known what was right, they would have done it.” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Socrates by James M. Ambury.

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The Socratic Method

“Anyone who has spent time in a classroom, whether as a teacher or a student, has probably encountered the Socratic method. It means, of course, teaching someone by asking them questions—perhaps leading questions, but questions nonetheless. When practiced rigorously, the Socratic method requires that the teacher never says anything apart from questions. This can descend into parody pretty quickly. The student asks for the dates Plato was born and died, and instead of saying that he was born in 427 BC and died in 347 BC, the teacher says, “Well … when do you think he was born and died?” But practiced in moderation, the Socratic method is an excellent way to teach. It forces the students to figure things out for themselves, rather than passively sitting there waiting to be filled with knowledge, as if teaching were like pouring wine into the empty vessels that are the students’ heads.” – Excerpt from Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 1 by Peter Adamson.

To learn more:

  • Plato’s dialogue Meno contains a perfect example of the Socratic method. It’s also short, easy and actually rather funny. In it, Socrates teaches an uneducated slave boy the Pythagorean theorem using nothing but a series of questions. You can read it online here, or listen to an audiobook version here. Highly recommended.
  • Gregory Sadler also has a few videos on the Meno including this general overview of the dialogue [53:29].
  • Listen to M.M. McCabe on Socratic Method [13:02] from the Philosophy Bites podcast.

Why is Socrates Worth Studying?

“Socrates is the patron saint of philosophy. Although he was preceded by certain philosophical poets and surrounded by some learned sophists, he was the first real philosopher. If you wish to know “What is philosophy?” one good answer is that philosophy is what Socrates did and what he started. Socrates was a revolutionary. He revolutionized the intellectual method by searching for rigorous definitions of concepts such as “courage” and “justice.” He revolutionized values by arguing that what matters most to human happiness is not money or fame or power, but the state of one’s soul. He revolutionized ethics by insisting that a good person will never harm anyone. He was a spiritual revolutionary who remained obedient to the law; unjustly condemned to death, he refused his friends’ offer to break him out of jail and lead him to exile.

Socrates was a revolutionary who began a tradition. He wrote nothing. What we know of him comes from several sources. He had the good fortune to number among his devoted followers one of the greatest geniuses, and most gifted prose stylists, of all time – Plato. Socrates is the major character in most of Plato’s dialogues. The historical person Socrates exerted his greatest influence on history by way of the literary figure “Socrates” in Plato. The greatest of Socrates’ followers was Plato; Aristotle was a dissident Platonist; later, the Stoics and Skeptics saw themselves as heirs of Socrates; many of the Church Fathers christianized Plato; and so on through history.” – Excerpt from The Cambridge Companion to Plato edited by Donald R. Morrison.

Further Reading

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

Miscellaneous Resources

Videos

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Existential Comics

Video Game


If you are interested in the ideas of Socrates, the following pages may also be of interest: