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Socrates and Theory of Knowledge

1] Life of Socrates (469-399 BC)

Socrates PSIR

We do not know much about the early life of Socrates. However, there are two important events in his life that all historians agree upon. The first is, declaration of Socrates as ‘the wisest man in the world’, by the Oracle (religious shrine) of Delphi (a settlement in ancient Greece) and the second event being the death of Socrates.

When Socrates was praised by the priest at Delphi, he went on to search for the meaning of this title conferred on himself. For this purpose, he would engage with scholars and politicians of Athens… as he explains about his one encounter with a politician –

“…When I conversed with him, I thought this man seemed to be wise both to many others and to himself, but that he was not; and then I tried to show him that he thought he was wise, but was not.  Because of that he disliked me… but I went away thinking to myself that I was wiser than this man; the fact is that neither of us knows anything beautiful and good, but he thinks he does know when he and I don’t know and don’t think I do: so, I am wiser than he is by only this trifle, that what I do not know I don’t think I do.”

“I know that I know nothing”


Upon realizing this, Socrates made the mission of life to educate others about this truth i.e. making them realize their own ignorance. This, however, was not taken with good spirit by his fellow Athenians. He would engage in many public and private debates and make people in high positions, aware of their ignorance. This irked many. Further, the teachings of Socrates challenged the conventional wisdom and sought to change the society. All of this was not tolerated by the elites of Athens and eventually Socrates was charged with ‘religious impiety and corruption of the youth’. On the same charges, he was found guilty and given a death punishment, which he happily accepted by drinking hemlock (poison).

More than his life, Socrates is known for his ideas. Although Socrates wrote nothing down, we find his teaching in the writings of Plato and ancient Greek scholars. In this topic, we will try to understand the prominent ideas of Socrates which have a bearing on politics and Plato.

2] About Ancient Greece

Socrates and Ancient Greece Athens and Sparta

Athens and Sparta were the prominent cities of Ancient Greece. Plato, Socrates and later Aristotle, all belonged to Athens. Unlike today’s nation-states, what existed was the practice of city-states. The loyalty of a person was towards his city and not a nation.

It was an agrarian society with the practice of slavery and belief in natural inequality. Like most ancient cultures, it was a patriarchal society. The citizenship of the state was conferred only upon adult males (slaves, of course, were not included), while women were limited to domestic affairs and had no right to own property.

The states often fought against one another for supremacy in the region. The Peloponnesian War (431 BCE – 404 BCE) was fought during the times of Socrates and Plato, between Athens and Sparta, influencing political developments of the period. In the war, Sparta defeated Athens. The defeat of Athens at the hands of Sparta is considered one of the major factors behind Plato’s turning towards philosophy.

To understand the context, it is also important to understand the Sophists. It was a group of teachers who would roam from town to town, offering their services for a fee.

Sophists would teach young people from rich families about politics and the art of rhetoric (speech). To summarize Sophist teachings, their emphasis was how one can get ahead in politics, and utilize the power to achieve personal goals. For sophists, virtue (excellence) is the ability to acquire things that give oneself pleasure. Thus, the art of speaking well (rhetoric) formed an important part of their teachings since it would allow a politician to swing the public opinion to his side.

To justify their teachings, Sophists engaged in a critique of society and state, which they preached as unnatural and restricting the growth of individuals. ‘The rule of the strongest’ is a natural law and the state seeks to create artificial equality, by giving individuals equal rights. This becomes evident in one of the Sophist arguments:

“We take the best and strongest of our fellows from their youth upwards, and tame them like young lions, enslaving them with spells and incantations, and saying to them that with the equality they must be content, and that the equal is the honourable and the just. But if there were a man born with enough ability, he would shake off and trample under foot all our formulas and spells and charms, and all our laws which are against nature; the slave would rise in rebellion and be lord over us, and the light of natural justice would shine forth.”

3] Socrates’ Theory of Knowledge

While for Sophists, virtue is to acquire power, for Socrates, it was not enough to know how to acquire power, but how we ought to live our lives. Rather than knowing what constitutes life, it was more important to know what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘virtuous life.’ The objective of life is to lead a ‘good life.’ And in order to lead a good life, we should have ‘the knowledge’ of ‘good life.’ In the words of Socrates, “Unexamined life is not worth living.”

“Unexamined life is not worth living”


Socrates argued that a restless search for pleasure will produce just the opposite. Knowledge, rather than power and pleasure is the basis of of human happiness. Thus, while Sophists argued that state and society are unnatural, Socrates believed that society is natural since humans are social animals and not egotistical individuals.

However, Socrates also does not accept the social order uncritically. For him, while the law is natural (ethical), some of it may violate the ethics. Thus, it is our purpose to reform the state and the laws in accordance with ethical standards. Thus, society, government and laws are natural to the extent they embody ethical truths. Thus, Socrates both defended and attacked society at the same time.

As we see in the life of Socrates, for him, the awareness of one’s ignorance was the first stage in order to acquire knowledge. In a Socratic sense, such a person was already ‘wise’. The virtue (excellence or knowledge) cannot be taught or learned according to Socrates, it can only be drawn out for such a knowledge is already within us. Thus, lecturing does no good.

To bring out this knowledge, Socrates proposes the method of dialectics. Dialectic is a method of questioning, arguments and counter-arguments that will challenge the initial understanding of the student (opinion) and bring out the true knowledge from within. In dialectics, a teacher will ask the student about his opinion on the subject matter, then he would counter his understanding by asking certain questions. This will elicit a response from the student, which will be further countered by the teacher. This will go on till the student ultimately learns the fallacy of his initial opinion and ultimately recognizes the true knowledge. The dialectics works, however, only when the student is ready to learn i.e. he has realized and accepted his own ignorance.

Socrates makes a distinction between two types of knowledge. The first type i.e. opinion is the exact opposite of knowledge. It is not conceptual. It is ignorance appearing as knowledge. The second type, true knowledge is a result of dialectics. It is conceptual and unshakable. In the words of Socrates, ‘everyone has opinions, but the philosopher alone has knowledge’.

‘Everyone has opinions, but the philosopher alone has knowledge’


4] Test Your Knowledge (MCQs)

1] What did Socrates find after interviewing many great people?
a) They knew everything
b) They were completely ignorant
c) They were ignorant about their ignorance
d) They were aware of their ignorance

Show Answer

Ans: c) They were ignorant about their ignorance

2] According to Socrates, what is the ultimate source of knowledge?
a) Reason
b) Soul
c) Nature
d) Religion

Show Answer

Ans: b) Soul

3] According to Socrates, true knowledge can be achieved by
a) Meditation
b) Observation
c) Listening to others
d) Dialectics

Show Answer

Ans: d) Dialectics

4] According to Socrates, the focus of philosophers should be to know about?
a) The physical properties of life
b) The good life
c) Science
d) Mathematics

Show Answer

Ans: b) The good life

5] Socrates is known as the father of
a) Ethics
b) Political Philosophy
c) Political Science
d) Sociology

Show Answer

Ans: a) Ethics

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Excellent sir