The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates
As a classical educator, I am often confronted with the question of why should we care about Socrates? What can we learn from Socrates today in the globalized 21st century? Can’t we move on from Socrates and the tiny Greek city-state of Athens? My response is no; we can’t, and here is why.
To begin, let’s jog memories on some background. Socrates (470-399 BC), son of stonemason and midwife, studied human behavior and ethics. He was famous for his ability to argue and challenge ideas through question after question, which became known as the “Socratic method.” Socrates believed in certain essential truths about being human. His questioning focused on the search for these fundamental truths, which he thought was the most important thing a person could do. Of course, questioning everything all of the time can sometimes get one into trouble. Socrates was definitely a case in point. After Athens lost the Peloponnesian war, Socrates became a scapegoat because of his questioning of the decisions of the Athenian leadership. As a result, he was put on trial for corrupting the youth and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. Socrates could have easily escaped but refused because he thought as a citizen of Athens that he should live and die by the laws of the city-state.
We would know little about Socrates if it wasn’t for his friends. Socrates never wrote down his thoughts because “you can’t know whom to address.” He thrived on face to face dialogues in the streets of Athens. So we are fortunate that his students and friends, Plato and Xenophon, cared so much for the man that they devoted their lives to detailing his conversations in their writings.
Socrates declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Different from the pre-Socratics, Socrates brought philosophy to the individual. As a Roman orator, Cicero once observed, “Socrates called down philosophy from the skies and implanted it in the cities and homes of men. Socrates urges individuals to “know thyself” through critical thinking about the challenges of life and living in the world. This critical thinking is driven by seven essential questions that underlie classical education. These fundamental questions are:
- What is virtue?
- What is moderation?
- What is justice?
- What is courage?
- What is good?
- What is piety?
- What is friendship?
These questions are embodied in human experience daily. And when these essential questions are interwoven into a curricular framework both implicitly and explicitly, they have the power of connecting directly to the lives of students and becoming part of deep and embedded learning and understanding.
This explains what we can learn from Socrates and his importance. In the past 2400+ years, many have learned from him beginning with Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. The early church fathers thought Socrates to be a pre-Christian saint. Moving into modernity, Erasmus, Montaigne, Ben Franklin, and Kierkegaard looked to him continually. Even the postmodern nihilists, Nietzsche and Foucault, admired Socrates and his search for essential truths of life. And I would dare say that Socrates will remain in the cultural consciousness of humanity until the end of time because of the vital questions of existence that he asked which will never cease to be asked regardless of the century.
Below are some recommended biographical texts on Socrates which might interest those wanting further reading.
- Socrates: A Man for Our Times – Paul Johnson
- Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths – Robin Waterfield
- The Trial of Socrates – I.F. Stone
- The Trials of Socrates: Six Classic Texts – trans. C.D.C Reeve
- Socrates Against Athens – James Colaiaco
Below is a great clip on Socrates from the documentary The Greeks featuring Alexander Nehamas of Princeton University. It is a great clip and well worth the watch.