1 Chapter 1: Classical Philosophy: Socrates

This chapter introduces students to Socrates through the writings of Plato. Socrates left no written work. Hence, we know Socrates only through the work of others. The Apology, written by Plato in 360 BC, is Socrates’s defense against his accusers who charged him with impiety in 399 BC –for not believing in the state’s gods and for allegedly corrupting the minds of young men through his persistent questioning. Socrates did not attempt to impose a specific ideology or dogma on others. Rather, he claimed ignorance and sought truth from others in a relentless form of questioning that deconstructed traditional beliefs, established institutions, and conventional knowledge. While he claimed to have no wisdom, Socrates’s gadfly approach made him a menace to powerful individuals. His pursuit of knowledge through the Socratic Method portrayed a façade of humility on his part and episodic humiliation on the part of his interlocutors. Socrates’s method serves as a foundation for Western Philosophy, and analyzing the Apology introduces contemporary students to a form of critical analysis and education that transcends centuries of human civilization.


Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Understand the Socratic method of dialogue and its educational value
  • Understand and be able to reflect upon the circumstances that led to Socrates’s trial and death
  • Understand and be able to articulate distinctions between appearances and being, as well as perceptions and reality
  • Understand and reflect upon the meaning of citizenship
  • Develop a philosophy of education related to Socratic citizenship
  • Extrapolate criticisms of Socrates’s approach
  • Articulate why Socrates’s approach may be viewed by a society as threatening
  • Articulate how Socrates’s approach to dialogue is educative

Part One, Chapter One: Preface to Readings

Preface to Readings

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787

It is in the Apology where Socrates is quoted as famously declaring, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This quote illustrated Socrates’ unwavering commitment to the critical examination of assumptions, preconceived worldviews, and beliefs, which resulted in his state-imposed death. Socrates prioritized the pursuit of knowledge and informed citizenship as a moral and intellectual commitment that transcended any ideological or dogmatic basis upon which societies rest. He would argue, in other words, that all societies should be subject to critical analysis, which has made Socratic dialogue a timeless feature of western thought. Socrates was not concerned with making men moral according to some predetermined ideological belief or dogma. While serving as “a ‘gadfly,’ an irritating moral and intellectual conscience to his city,” according to Villa, Socrates “question[ed] the dominant concepts of virtue and ‘good behavior” thereby “undermining authorities, purging opinions, and creating a general puzzlement where previously there had been a firm faith in the soundness of ‘traditional values.’” More importantly, “he did it…by enacting thinking in conversation.” As Villa asserts, Socrates “applied…scrupulous intellectual honesty (and irony) to the ‘unquestionable’ grounds of his city’s moral culture.” Socrates’s method of citizenship “is radical because it suggests that civic virtue and morals, unaccompanied by intellectual hygiene…are the invariable accomplices of injustice and immorality.” (Villa, 2001, xii).

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates asserts that he has no wisdom, despite the declaration made by the God of Delphi that there was no man wiser. Socrates justifies his relentless questioning of others on the basis that he is not wise and that he correspondingly sought truth from others. However, by engaging his interlocutors in his relentless questioning, he would leave them perplexed and confused. This would often result in their questioning the very bases of their customary or conventional views. Put differently, Socrates’s method can be a used as a form of societal critique; a method of investigation and analysis of a society’s given assumptions and traditions. All societies develop and perpetuate stories, histories, customs, and ideological frameworks that provide meaning to their members and that buttress certain kinds of knowledge over others. Regarding issues related to the individual, the family, associations and institutions within a state, questioning what has been accepted or practiced for generations can be threatening. Strategically however, Socrates claimed to know nothing and he never approached his interlocutors with the intention of persuading them to adopt a pre-defined ideology; rather, he constantly utilized a process of continual questioning in order to break down the incongruity or irrationality of a person’s beliefs.

Questions to Consider

  • Why was Socrates charged with impiety? What were the specific charges made against him?
  • Within the first few pages, Socrates mentions that he selected a politician, poets, and artisans to examine (to exchange in a Socratic dialogue). What were Socrates’s conclusions about these conversations? How does this represent part of Socrates’s philosophy of education?
  • How does Socrates respond to each accusation?
  • What is Socrates’s tone and attitude throughout the dialogue?
  • In Socrates’s opinion, what activity personifies a good person?
  • Why does Socrates conclude, “That no evil can happen to a good man”?
  • Can you think of similar examples today that parallel Socrates’s position?
  • Do you recognize any parallels with Socrates’s arguments and the objectives pursued by the social reconstructionists discussed in the introduction to this course?
  • Why is critical thinking and critical analysis often perceived as threatening?
  • Many attempted to convince Socrates to escape prison before his death, and many expressed guilt and shame after Socrates’s death. Why would so many come to regret the loss of Socrates?
  • Philosophers since Socrates have contemplated the problem between appearances and being. Socrates concludes that it is important for individuals to appear to others as they are, and not to present false appearances. Integrity is key in this recommendation. How is this idea fleshed out in the Apology? To offer a different perspective, a more cynical approach was adopted by Niccolo Machiavelli during the sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance, which goes something like this: “‘Never mind how you are, this is of no relevance in the world and in politics, where only appearances, not true being, count’” (Arendt, 1990, 101).
  • How does Socrates prioritize the moral authority of the individual over the moral authority of religion, social custom or the political authority of the state?
  • Is Socrates’s dialectical approach to dialogue patriotic or is it unpatriotic and disloyal?
  • What does Socrates’s trial and death tell us about how political authority views individual criticism and critical thinking?
  • Would you consider the Socratic method as a democratic form of education? Explain.
  • Socrates and others clearly prioritize reason over other forms of knowledge. Does such a focus on reason result in our inability to find truth at all?
  • Is the Socratic method an effective teaching tool?


Arendt, Hannah. (1990). On Revolution. New York: Penguin Books.

Plato. (1992). Plato: The Trial and Death of Socrates, Four Dialogues. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Sabine, George H. and Thorson, Thomas L. (1989). A History of Political Theory, Fourth Edition. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers.

Tannenbaum, Donald G. and Schultz, David. Inventors of Ideas: An Introduction to Western Political Philosophy. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Villa, Dana. (2001). Socratic Citizenship. Princeton University Press.

Wolin, Sheldon S. (2004). Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Expanded Edition). Princeton University Press.


Part 1, Chapter 1 Activity Ideas

Have students discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the Socratic method of dialogue. Small groups of students may be able to practice Socratic dialogue before making conclusions about its effectiveness or its weaknesses.

Have students research other historical figures who were punished, ostracized, or executed for criticizing conventional ideas and beliefs.

Have students discuss the educational value of Socratic dialogue with regard to their preconceived worldviews that they bring to the classroom.

Have student reenact the trial of Socrates.

External Readings & Resources

Plato’s Meno

Supplemental Materials

Socrates in America: Arguing to Death (The Economist) Raphael’s School of Athens

Raphael’s School of Athens (Vatican Museum) Socrates

Socrates (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization

The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (Public Broadcasting System) The Reception of Socrates

The Reception of Socrates (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Raphael Woolf on Socrates

Raphael Woolf on Socrates (History of Philosophy without any gaps) Method Man: Plato’s Socrates

Method Man: Plato’s Socrates (History of Philosophy without any gaps)

Navia, Luis E. (2007). Socrates: A Life Examined. New York: Prometheus Books.

Plato. (1992). Plato: The Trial and Death of Socrates, Four Dialogues. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Plato. (1976). Meno. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Villa, Dana. (2001). Socratic Citizenship. Princeton University Press.

Xenophon. (1990). Conversations of Socrates. New York: Penguin Books.


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