What Is the Philosophy of Socrates?

Helen Akers

The philosophy of Socrates is mostly documented through the writings of one of his students, Plato. As one of the few Greek philosophers who didn't leave any written contributions, Socrates believed in challenging the status quo. His philosophy is primarily based on the idea that dialogue can uncover knowledge and that individuals only commit virtuous acts if they are aware of what is good and what is evil.


As a student of the philosophy of Socrates, Plato revealed some of the ideas of his former mentor in his own philosophical teachings. Socrates held the belief that he himself was unaware of the truth and did not possess any tangible knowledge. The philosopher thought that conventional knowledge was not necessarily the truth. He also held the conviction that truth and knowledge had to be discovered.

Socrates asked the citizens of the ancient Greek city state of Athens to question how they evaluated truth.
Socrates asked the citizens of the ancient Greek city state of Athens to question how they evaluated truth.

According to Socrates, one of the ways to discover truth and knowledge was through two-way communication. Discussions about widely accepted and practiced beliefs as well as traditions and institutions helped uncover and challenge the premises behind them. The discussions were not meant to discredit or shame a particular person or belief. Rather they were a means of questioning what had previously been blindly accepted as truth.

Many at the time found the philosophy of Socrates to be controversial. Some of this was due to the fact that although Socrates openly questioned conventional theories and beliefs, he did not have an alternative answer to them. His process of opening up the possibility that another alternative existed caused those who benefited from conventional thinking to become upset with his influence. Socrates did not believe in gaining material profit from his philosophical work and he ended up taking his own life to avoid public execution.

An important aspect of the philosophy of Socrates is the fact that he believed that individuals do not commit harmful acts out of temptation or spiritual weakness. Socrates thought that harmful and wrongful acts stemmed from an unawareness of what good and evil were. Essentially, individuals did hurtful things because they did not have the knowledge and tools to know any better.

Socrates strongly opposed the idea that certain behaviors should be done to please an external deity or god. He thought that morality or good doing should not be defined by the supposed teachings of a spiritual icon. The Greek philosopher upheld the idea, however, that individuals should not deliberately act out against the laws of the government.

Plato's work provides much of what we know about Socrates' philosophy.
Plato's work provides much of what we know about Socrates' philosophy.

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Discussion Comments


The idea of doing wrong because you know it has always been the lifestyle of man, hence I give Socrates the credit for his idea. However, I do doubt his idea of belief.


@SkyWhisperer - Socrates was certainly unconventional for his day. I’ve never understood why he chafed at the notion of pleasing God, considering his culture was rife with gods of one sort or another.

I don’t think religious duty or conviction is a stifle on the free flow of ideas necessarily. Some things we simply can’t know on our own, like where the universe came from. Yeah, there’s plenty of speculation along those lines but that’s all that it is, speculation. I guess that’s the only area where I would disagree with Socrates.


@nony - There is much about the life of Socrates life that I am sure we can commend and agree upon. However, there is no way I can buy into his views on good and evil.

The idea that people commit wrongdoing simply out of ignorance does not sit well with me. On the contrary, I think that the more people are aware of evil, the more powerful are the influences that motivate them to commit it.

In other words, all I have to do is say, “Don’t touch this,” and the next thing you know you have a strong desire to touch it. That’s the way temptation works, as I think human history has attested.


@Charred - Whether or not you accept the Greek philosophy of Socrates, I think we can all agree on the importance of two-way dialogue and communication to uncover ideas. I think we need more of this in academia.

Unfortunately I am convinced we get too little of it. Rather, college professors tend to use their classrooms as bully pulpits to sound off on their own philosophies, political or otherwise.

Dissenting students are silenced or brushed off; at least that was my experience in college, and I’ve heard from others that there is kind of a chilling suppression of intellectual diversity on college campuses.

What are these professors afraid of? Socrates had no fear. Let the best ideas win in the open marketplace of philosophical discussion.


I loved reading Plato’s Dialogues and the Republic when I was in college. Plato had his own interpretation of Socrates’ ideas. The most famous was the allegory of the cave. In this allegory, we are all living in a cave, and all we can see are shadows on the cave. The light is on the outside and the light represented the truth.

I think this is a fair representation of truth and of the process of individual enlightenment. I realize that when you talk about Socrates and philosophy people think that he is antithetical to religion.

Outwardly I suppose he was, but the idea of the cave and the shadows is quite similar in my opinion to the Apostle Paul’s words that we “see through a glass darkly.” Of course Paul believed in divinely revealed truth but Socrates said truth had to be arrived at experientially.

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