Ninth Edition CoverGraziano & Raulin
Research Methods (9th edition)

Socrates (ca 470-399 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher and teacher. He left no written works, nor did he establish a clear school of philosophy. He is known primarily through the works of two of his pupils--Plato and the historian Xenophon. 

Imagine having Plato as one of your students? According to Fuller (1950), Socrates’ influence stemmed not only from the range and quality of his thinking, but also from his unique personality. Socrates is described as a man of great courage, not only in military battle, but also in his highly principled refusals to carry out certain government orders when he served as a public official. 

Socrates believed strongly in always doing what he considered to be moral, even at high personal cost. He was a man known for his extraordinary self-control (or, in Socrates’ terms, temperance--a condition of internal harmony). This self-control drew on his belief that reason has absolute dominion over bodily appetites. 

According to Fuller (1950), Socrates was also a man of great sociability. He was ”…kindly, genial, witty, a great talker, and a famous diner-out. And most of his friends he could drink under the table without so much as turning a hair himself.” (Fuller, 1950, p. 108). This unique and brilliant man attracted a number of disciples, who continued to expound his views after his death in 399 B.C. at the age of 71.

The Socratic method of discourse, still applied today in education, is an approach to discussion and understanding of any topic. It consisted of Socrates’ asking a question, then following that answer with discussion. Then another question was posed, now focused on the answer that had been given. This process continued until the issues had been resolved. 

This method often uncovered the weakness or absurdity of a person's position. Socrates liked to corner people in public places and then systematically exposed their erroneous thinking. He was particularly critical of government officials and their policies, and he repeatedly exposed their follies, distortions, and vices. This upset many Athenians, and Socrates came to be viewed with considerable irritation and anger. He was also viewed as a growing threat by those in power as his popularity increased.

In 399 B.C., Socrates was arrested and charged with “impiety” for his religious views, which were critical of the state religion. He was also charged with “corruption of the young” for leading them into different and dangerous thoughts. The charges were vague. The real issue was the years of growing irritation by those in power with his questioning and criticisms. The political resentment and fear of Socrates’ popularity and influence, more than any specific illegal acts, led to his conviction and execution.

Socrates’ views are known to us primarily through the works of Plato and Xenophon. It is not clear how much of the ideas attributed to Socrates are actually those of Plato, using Socrates as his vehicle to express his own ideas. In Plato’s Dialoges, Socrates is both a moralist and metaphysician (i.e., a philosopher with highly abstract ideas). As a moralist, he is concerned with determining human conduct that is in the best interests of humanity; as metaphysician, he sought the ideal of an abstract universal human good or state of virtue. He systematically pursued the understanding of the human virtues of wisdom, temperance, custom, and judgment. 

Virtue is a condition of having knowledge that leads to ideal ends. In the perfect man, reason rules. Conversely, Socrates believed, all vice is ignorance (no person is willfully bad, but can be ignorant). Thus, virtue is within us, and we can seek it out. This idea became the basis for later rationalistic ethical systems, which hypothesized that reason determines what is right or wrong. In a very real sense, what is virtuous and good is what is useful in human life. For Socrates, if one examined all of the variations in philosophies and rules of morality, they would ultimately be revealed as having some common definitions of virtue that can be applied universally--that is, to all persons, places, and times. For Socrates, true morality and virtue are not relative, which put him at odds with the much later concept of cultural relativity.

It is virtually impossible to distill philosophies into a few paragraphs, or to put ancient terms (e.g., wisdom, virtue, good, soul, etc.) into modern usage. In order to appreciate Socrates or Plato, we recommend reading Plato’s Republic, particularly Book One. It is one of the classics, and every educated person ought to be familiar with it. It is also fascinating reading.

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