470 BCE: a midwife and a stone mason have a child. He grows up to work as a stonemason, for a while, before fighting in the Peloponnesian War. Eventually this child becomes the man who is considered the pinnacle of Western philosophy: Socrates. Socrates revolutionised philosophy, being the first Greek philosopher who was concerned with ethics and morals, whereas the sophists that came before him, in what is now dubbed the pre-Socratic era, were concerned more with metaphysics and the Greek Gods. His influence is still relevant now for much of what he said over 2500 years ago rings true today.

However what is worth noting is that much of what we know about him comes not from him but rather from the writings of his students such as Xenophon and more famously, Plato. Socrates loved to talk, but not so much to write. He would often be found in conversation with a range of characters in Plato’s dialogues, pondering various different ambiguous questions, such as “What is piety?” in Euthyphro. In these he’d often pose the question, listen to the answer and then, accepting it as true, find a contradiction in it, proving this answer incorrect. By this process of elimination he would try to reach the correct answer, though more often than not he was unsuccessful. This form of dialogue is called the Socratic Method.

One of Socrates’ most famous doctrines is his belief that “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” He considers himself in no way superior in intelligence to his peers based on knowledge, but rather because he recognises the huge lack of knowledge all humans have. He also has a strong conviction that knowledge is virtue and that “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” However critics today recognise that paired with his other belief, this would mean none are virtuous for none are knowledgeable, unless the recognition of ignorance is knowledge but this leads one down a dark and deeply unsatisfying paradox.

Another one of his strong beliefs was that the democratic system was flawed, a conviction his student Plato shared. In Plato’s The Republic Socrates falls into conversation with a character called Adeimantus, to whom he attempts to explain why he is not in favour of democracy by comparing society to a ship. He asks him if he were to travel on a ship soon who would he want deciding the person who is in charge of the vessel: just anyone or someone educated in navigation and seafaring. Adeimantus replies, “The latter of course.” “So why”, says Socrates, “do we think absolutely anybody fit to judge who should rule a country?” To him, an opinion only holds value if it has keen knowledge and understanding behind it, and so does a vote. He doesn’t think only a select few should vote but only those who are educated and have thought rationally and deeply about their decision should be allowed to do so. This is a distinction between an intellectual democracy and democracy by birth right. The latter can lead to demagoguery, as is seen with Alcibiades, and with many leaders today, unfortunately.

Eventually Socrates fell prey to the democracy he hated and feared so much. He was incredibly unpopular for he did not advocate for the Gods and rather pointed out flaws in his peers’ beliefs. Socrates was put on trial on three charges: refusing to acknowledge the Gods recognised by the state, importing strange divinities of his own and corrupting the young. In "The Apology" by Plato, Socrates defends himself against these charges but his suspicions of the democracy were proved right as 500 Athenians voted on his fate, and 280 chose to condemn him. He was made to drink hemlock, and though presented with the opportunity to escape by his friend Crito, he chose not to, for he did not want to flout the law. Thus ended the life of Socrates. Perhaps his early death was a profound loss for the world of philosophy, or perhaps he had already done all that he could ever do. However there is no way of knowing, for the only thing I know is that I know nothing!

By Kinnary Patankar, Henrietta Barnett School