Formerly, scholars would divide the history of philosophy into before and after Socrates. This should illustrate the importance of Socratic thinking. That’s because, before Socrates, philosophy was mainly interested in physical and natural issues, things that are studied today by the natural sciences. You had things like the Ionian school, who wanted to find out what the essence of the matter is; the Eleatics, who pondered the problem of the reality of motion, whether it was fact or illusion; not to mention those interested in the nature of change… Things like ethics and politics were subjects, at best, treated marginally.
That’s where Socrates comes in. He brings human problems to philosophy, which today are studied not only by philosophy, but also by the human sciences. It was with Socrates that “human affairs” began to take central treatment, giving philosophy the face it has today. Socrates liked to use his example as a pedagogical tool, letting his life be his work. For this reason he did not write any books, and most of the records we have of his philosophy come to us from Plato, his student, himself a user of dialectical logic.
In historical terms, Socrates was the son of a sculptor and a midwife and distinguished himself in a military career before dedicating himself to philosophy. His method consisted of what he called maieutics, which consisted of simply asking directed questions, so that the interlocutor could, “by himself”, conceive truth. This method has two advantages: first, it saves you from becoming embarrassed, because it’s easier to embarrass yourself by exposing an idea than by just asking and pretending to be just interested in learning; second, it’s easier to push a person to their limits through questions, as they test how much the person really knows about the subject.
This method of argument drew the ire of the powerful, because it showed that the politicians, poets, and artisans of Socrates’ day did not know about their own crafts and careers as much as they claimed to, which reduced their credit to the lay population. So, to put an end to this discomfort, they decided to accuse Socrates of corrupting the youth and of being an atheist. Things ended up in the popular court and Socrates was, by a small margin of votes, sentenced to death.
Before Socrates, the focus of philosophy was nature, with “human affairs” being a secondary concern. With the sophists and Socrates, philosophy becomes concerned with human action. We can then say that Socratic philosophy is humanist (this is the so-called “Socratic humanism”). Socrates talked about a number of problems: ignorance, self-knowledge, methodology, death, among a few others.
On the problem of ignorance, Socrates was appointed by the oracle as the wisest man in the city. But Socrates felt that he was ignorant. How, then, could he be the wisest man in the city? Had the oracle messed up that time? He then went out to talk to politicians, artisans and poets.
With the politicians, Socrates tried to have a conversation about politics. But when he started asking politicians questions about their own opinions, he realized that politicians don’t always know enough about their own positions and what they stand for. He then turned to poets. Poets produced great texts and plays, so they must be wise. But Socrates quickly became disappointed in them, because the poets he talked to could not sufficiently explain what they themselves had written. Finally, talking to the artisans, Socrates realized that many of them, because they felt that they were good at their craft, also thought they understood subjects they had not studied, such as politics.
And then Socrates understood what the oracle meant: Socrates was the only one in the city who was aware of his own ignorance. Everyone else thought they knew enough and didn’t need to learn anything else. This is bad because it prevents the person from correcting themselves. After all, if he already feels “right”, he will not seek further improvement or fix himself from his own mistakes. It is precisely because Socrates was aware of his ignorance that he was both willing to abandon his own mistakes and was also willing to seek more knowledge. This possibility of improvement, which can only come from the science of ignorance itself, was the only thing that made Socrates the wisest man in the city.
The moral of the story is that you must always admit your own ignorance, in order to make your own improvement possible, because anyone who already thinks he knows everything will never correct himself (and this is the worst kind of ignorance).
But then, a dilemma arises: can an ignorant person teach someone anything? It’s possible. When an ignorant person asks you a question, of course the question will prompt you to answer. If you don’t know the answer, you become aware that you don’t know about that, which encourages you to seek the answer, if that’s important to you. To produce this effect, however, it is necessary to ask the right questions, the ones that are most likely to make the subject think.
There was this boy with political aspirations, Alcibiades. He loved Socrates. To the point of being embarrassing. Alcibiades wanted very much to be ruler someday. So Socrates asked him what it takes to be a ruler. After a dialogue, they conclude that the good ruler must keep the people in the best possible condition and seek the improvement of his subjects. But you can only do this if you know what a man is.
If you don’t know what human beings are, you won’t know what to do, neither to improve them nor to preserve them. Such a person is not only unable to govern his own life, he is also unable to govern other beings as human as himself. Thus, anyone who aspires to a position of power absolutely needs to know the human condition. Knowing yourself in what you have in common with others (your humanity, which is the essence of being human) is the first step to being able to govern and improve yourself and others. Without it, you will manage your own life poorly, as well as the lives of others, if you reach a position of power.
But how to know oneself? According to Socrates, you know your body by looking in the mirror, but you can only know your own soul by seeing yourself reflected in another. Getting to know the human race requires that you see yourself in others, using their eyes as mirrors to see your own soul. Note that this is an analogy, not something literal. What he is trying to say is that knowing mankind, and therefore ourselves, requires community life. You will not learn about the human race by isolating yourself or thinking you are too good to participate in socializing with others.
Knowing what man is, you will know what is best for them and how to improve them. That would be the best kind of government: one that not only governs subjects, but also improves them. The person who does not know what man is also does not know what is best for the human race, for himself or for others, being a terrible manager even of his own life.
As we have learned, Socrates was sentenced to death, but he was not afraid of death. For Socrates claimed that death can only be one of two things: a long dreamless sleep or the soul’s going to another place.
Suppose the first case is correct. Death would then be a cessation of sensation. It would be no different from sleeping. We all sleep and no one thinks it’s bad. So why would death be so bad? On the other hand, if the second case is correct, then there is nothing to fear, as life would continue after death. Death would then be a null act. In both cases, however, death is a pain for the living, never for the dying. There is no need to be afraid of dying.
With this, Socrates mocks the death penalty. If death is not an evil, the death penalty is really only a “penalty” for those who are ignorant and do not know that death is not the worst thing there is.
Obviously, self-improvement must always be recommended. There is a lot of talk that Socrates told us to know ourselves, but he didn’t just say that to stop us there. In the context of Alcibíades I, the goal of self-knowledge is self-improvement, first as an individual, but also as a species.
In addition, we also need to admit our own ignorance of what we don’t know, rather than wanting to keep up an air of wisdom while actually being dumb, which can cause embarrassment. People do this because they fear the shame of seeming ignorant. But recognizing one’s ignorance is the first step in learning. Now, learning is not a cause for shame. Furthermore, by talking about what is not actually known, you will be misleading the listener who puts faith on you.
Finally, investing in ways to overcome the fear of death is useful for times when radical decisions need to be taken, such as war, famine or pandemics. I am not saying to expose ourselves to risk, as that would be reckless. But even a person who does not fear death understands the importance, in the case of a pandemic, of not infecting others and that, even if death is not to be feared, life is certainly a better state. Nevertheless, losing the fear of death prevents us from suffering (from anguish or anxiety) even without being physically ill.