The Truth Behind Socrates and the Socratic Method

September 23, 2019 Updated: October 1, 2019

Everyone has probably heard of Socrates and will know that he was a great philosopher in ancient Greece. But what exactly did he teach to earn that status?

What he is most remembered for is teaching people to question—what he called “examine”—their assumptions in the search for truth and justice. The most widely circulated Socrates quote is “The unexamined life is not worth living,” as Plato noted in his “Apology.”

Sure enough, he found life wasn’t worth living when he was forced to stop his examining. In 399 B.C., Socrates was put to death and forced to drink poison because he refused to be quiet.

Socrates’s questions, and those of his students, had apparently upset some powerful people in the ancient Greek city of Athens. Indeed, Socrates himself gloried in saying that the role he played in Athens was that of a gadfly—an annoying insect that constantly pecks at a lazy horse. He implied that he was keeping the lazy horse (the Athenians) aware, active, and safe from wandering off the right path.

Not impressed by the metaphor, Athenians voted by a relatively small majority to have him put to death.

Death of Socates with followers
“The Death of Socrates,” 1787, by Jacques Louis David. Oil on canvas, 51 inches by 77 1/4 inches. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It’s also likely that some Athenians didn’t like that he claimed to be the wisest man around. He famously was told by the Oracle of Delphi—who received her wisdom directly from the god Apollo—that he was the wisest man in Greece.

Socrates felt that he did not know much and went out to prove the god wrong by visiting wise men. Unexpectedly, he found the god was right. These men who claimed to have wisdom weren’t wise at all.

According to Plato, Socrates said, “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have a slight advantage over him.”

The Socratic Method

Today, Socrates’s examining and open-minded style are immortalized through the Socratic Method, a standard tool of discussion and teaching. The method looks at a point of dispute and then seeks to define it and better understand it, often leading to the discovery of contradictions and the overturning of one’s assumptions.

In the present day, one might, for example, begin a discussion on abortion by defining “human life.” What is it? When does it begin?—at conception? when there’s a heartbeat? at birth? In actual practice, by the end of such questioning, there is not necessarily a right answer that is reached and accepted. Rather, the idea is that participants can gain a better understanding of their own thinking and of others’ thinking, and can at least move closer toward truth in some way.

Socrates’s teachings would lay the groundwork for his student Plato and, by extension, Plato’s student Aristotle and Aristotle’s student Alexander the Great, who would conquer much of the Western world.

In some way, Socrates’s ideas conquered much of Western civilization as well. His method of questioning with an open mind and seeking truth and justice seems to be embedded in all of the Western educational system: from questioning one’s design imperfections in artistic, literary, and historical disciplines to the constant questioning and testing of the variety of scientific and technical disciplines. The entire Western academic and educational system seems to owe Socrates a great debt.

Beyond the Popular Understanding

The above is the extent of the popular understanding of Socrates and the Socratic Method. However, looking at the actual history of Socrates and what he taught, and the values that formed the basis of his method, we find that this popular understanding is severely lacking. There is generally little or no mention of the morality, the virtue, the belief in the objectively good, or the belief in God or gods that Socrates held and that were central to him and his method.

Quite possibly, this is the fault of his student Plato. Socrates’s views are not easy to find since he did not write anything himself. What he said was only recorded by students like Plato. But Plato is usually unreliable for understanding Socrates since he often used the persona of Socrates in his dialogues—like a character in a play—to explain his own ideas rather than to create an accurate historical record of Socrates.

Nonetheless, looking at the writings of another of Socrates’s students, Xenophon, reveals what seem to be genuine attempts at a historical recording of what Socrates was really getting at. From these writings, we find the basis of what is perhaps more rightfully called the Socratic Method.

Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure
“Socrates Tears Alcibiades From the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure,” 1791, by Jean-Baptiste Regnault. (Public Domain)

A Rejection of Sexual Deviance and Debauchery

Why was Socrates forced to drink poison? Why exactly were some powerful Athenians so upset with him?

A prominent clue comes from the example of Critias, who was one of the 30 rulers of Athens. Xenophon describes him as “a man extremely addicted to debauchery.” He was also a former student of Socrates, who once protected Socrates from execution. Critias had formed an inappropriate sexual relationship with a handsome young man.

After Socrates’s mild criticisms were ignored by Critias, Socrates rebuked him. Xenophon writes that Socrates “out of an ardent zeal for virtue, broke out in such language, as at once declared his own strong inward sense of decency and order, and the monstrous shamefulness of Critias’s passion.”

As for drug abuse or drinking too much, Socrates posed the situation of choosing a general or servant. One would never choose “a man given to wine or women, and who could not bear fatigue and hardships” to defend his country and his life or choose such a man to be his servant.

Why, then, should we expect less of ourselves? He says that such a degenerate person or “debauched man” is worse than a thief, who at least enriches himself while hurting someone else. The degenerate person hurts both himself and others. Socrates explains:

Who, then, can take delight in the company of him who has no other diversion than eating and drinking, and who is better pleased with the conversation of a prostitute than of his friends? Ought we not, then, to practice moderation above all things, seeing it is the foundation of all other virtues; for without it what can we learn that is good, what can we do that is worthy of praise? Is not the state of man who is plunged in sensual pleasure a wretched condition both for the body and soul?

Socrates teaching Alcibades
Socrates tried to teach young men known for their extravagance and loose morals, such as Alcibiades. “Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates,” 1776, by François-André Vincent. Musée Fabre. (Public Domain)

Belief in God and the Supernormal

It is now sometimes the case that traditional religious beliefs are viewed as being at odds with academia and science. Yet such atheistic views themselves are at odds with Socrates and the Socratic Method. Looking at the plain history and facts, Socrates’s questioning and the Socratic Method were never intended to question the existence of God or gods, the institution of religious belief, and the supernormal.

Socrates gave an intense defense of God’s existence when talking to Aristodemus, who was said to never pray to the gods or consult the oracles and laughed at those who did. Socrates began with the classic argument that livings beings, nature, and the universe are so well-ordered as to necessarily require that the great unseen Creator must exist. Socrates said, “How wisely is the ear formed to receive all sorts of sounds, and not to be filled with any to the exclusion of others.”

Socrates then took the argument one step further:

Do you then think that there is not elsewhere an intelligent being? Particularly, if you consider that your body is only a little earth taken from that great mass which you behold. The moisture that composes you is only a small drop of that immense heap of water that makes the sea; in a word, your body contains only a small part of all the elements, which are elsewhere in great quantity. There is nothing then but your understanding alone, which, by a wonderful piece of good fortune, must have come to you from I know not whence, if there were none in another place; and can it then be said that all this universe and all these so vast and numerous bodies have been disposed in so much order, without the help of an intelligent Being, and by mere chance?

Socrates’s elegant point here was surprisingly ahead of his time. Like the earth and moisture he referred to, we do indeed find all of the chemical elements and atomic elements that make up humans to be elsewhere in the universe, and because of them, we also find a far greater level of complexity required for life. This makes Socrates’s argument for the existence of the Creator even more powerful today. His reference to “mere chance” also seems to foreshadow the rise of evolutionary theory, which depends on almost innumerable random mutations—chance, we might say.

Socrates also appealed to the plain fact that people throughout history (even when he looked back as we look back at him) all believed in divine beings and found belief in them and the supernormal, such as oracles and omens, to be generally useful and good.

He says, “Do you not know that the most ancient and wisest republics and people have been also the most pious, and that man, at the age when his judgment is ripest, has then the greatest bent to the worship of the Deity?”

Today, we may say the very same of Socrates’s belief in God and the exquisite arts and culture of the Greek golden age in which he lived.

Freedom from Addictions and Attachments

Socrates sincerely valued hardship and breaking free from addictions, and believed that through “constant exercise” one could overcome one’s own weaknesses. He boasted of himself, “I ask you, is there anyone else you know of less enslaved than myself to the appetites of the body?”

On a separate occasion, the wealthy Athenian Antiphon made fun of Socrates, saying that Socrates lived a miserable life with poor food and drink, with the same clothing in summer and winter, and without accepting any money from those he taught. Antiphon joked, “You live at such a rate that no footman would live with a master that treated him in the same manner.” He also took a jab at Socrates’s students, saying that they were only learning from Socrates how to make their lives miserable.

Instead of being offended, Socrates praised his own Spartan-like simplicity, his ability to bear hardships, and his rejection of sensual pleasures. He said, “I spend my time more delightfully in things whose pleasure ends not in the moment of enjoyment, and that make me hope besides to receive an everlasting reward … Now, do you think that from anything whatsoever there can proceed a satisfaction equal to the inward consciousness of improving daily in virtue, and acquiring the acquaintance and friendship of the best of men?”

Further, Socrates asked Antiphon if he would rather have someone like himself or someone like Socrates as a soldier defending his life. Antiphon could make no reply. The answer, of course, is that Socrates’s ability to endure hardships and his freedom from addictions provided a model for the perfect soldier and citizen. Socrates had the better and stronger view, both literally and figuratively.

Finally, in his dialogue with Antiphon, Socrates differentiated Antiphon’s brand of happiness from his own:

One would think, Antiphon, that you believe happiness to consist in good eating and drinking, and in an expensive and splendid way of life. For my part, I am of opinion that to have need of nothing at all is a divine perfection, and that to have need but of little is to approach very near the Deity, and hence it follows that, as there is nothing more excellent than the Deity, whatever approaches nearest to it is likewise most near the supreme excellence.

Thus, for Socrates, it seems that true happiness is the giving up of one’s earthly attachments.

It is worth noting too that Socrates valued the ability to give up addictions and attachment but did not go out of his way to find hardship. He did have citizenship (which was a great privilege in ancient Athens), some wealth, land, a wife, and sons, and he enjoyed food and drink as others, but he was not controlled by them.

Xenophon wrote that Socrates had not, like others, “so frequent occasions for sorrow and repentance” because of them. He had served his country in war honorably and was also an appreciator of fine arts, such as painting—of which he said that painting good and honest things gives the most pleasure—and ancient Greek sculptures, which he praised for their “wonderful vivacity.”

Beyond Philosophy

As can be seen, the teachings of Socrates and what can properly be called the Socratic Method are grounded in morality. Rigorous, impartial questioning alone is not enough. In his time, Socrates was called a philosopher and we call him that today.

In fact, looking from the perspective of the present, this may be entirely the wrong term. It would be more accurate to call him a holy sage, a great master of profound teachings that have been passed down from heaven. He himself insisted, Plato said, that he did what he did out of his duty to God and that “only God is wise.” Socrates said, “God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men.”

Such a searching, grounded in traditional morality and spirituality, far exceeds that academic discipline known today as philosophy and the boundaries of what is today called the Socratic Method. Such a profound mission is crucial to understanding the real Socrates and the real Socratic Method.

Giambettino_Cignaroli_-_The_Death_of_Socrates
“The Death of Socrates,” first half of the 18th century, by Gianbettino Cignaroli. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. (US-PD)

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from Xenophon’s “The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates.” Quotes may have been slightly adapted for style by the author. 

 Evan Mantyk is an English teacher in New York and president of the Society of Classical Poets.