1.6 The Legacy of Socrates


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • Three of Socrates’ most famous teachings.

Socrates’ final words about owing a debt to Asclepius were likely meant ironically. Not only was Asclepius a god of healing, but Socrates’ final gesture to a god was in direct contradiction to the charges of impiety for which he had been condemned. Or, again, perhaps Socrates is simply suggesting that life is the disease from which his death will now heal him.

Whereas earlier philosophers had speculated about nature and its changes, Socrates turned the conversations of philosophy to an examination of the human condition and human society. His personality in the dialogues reveals that for him philosophy was not a dry, academic pursuit but a convivial, witty, and at times humorous exchange between friends. Yet it was a serious endeavor. He believed full well that the way to human fulfillment was through self-questioning, self-discovery, and self-knowledge. He believed this so fervently that he chose to die before renouncing his teaching. Rarely in later ages would we find anyone willing to sacrifice his or her life for the sake of philosophy.

Probably the best way to understand his legacy is by looking at his three most famous principles:

1. The unexamined life is not worth living.

In the Apology Socrates, after he has been sentenced to death, proclaimed to the jurors that “the unexamined life is not worth living for human beings.” He insisted that all citizens ought to pursue philosophy and come to know themselves more deeply. In a sense, Socrates here reversed the tables on the Athenians. Having just been convicted as a defendant, he now becomes the prosecutor and accuses them of not paying enough attention to the inner life.

The model for this self-examination was to be found in the dialogues to which Socrates had devoted his entire career. Clarity of thought, recognition of inconsistencies, and the give and take of dialectical conversation, all of these brought the individual closer to the truth, closer to an understanding of what it meant to be human.

Such self-knowledge, Socrates argued, should be the very purpose of human existence. Not that our other human aims – careers, family, wealth, health – were to be forgotten, but without a deep awareness of one’s inner motivations such pursuits were often in vain and were sometimes even harmful. The examined life should become the anchor that would secure the soul as it navigated the ebbs and flows of life. The purpose of the examined life was to reflect upon our every day goals and values and to inquire into what real value if any, they held. If they had no worth, our inner exploration would redirect us to pursue those things that were truly valuable.

2. The most important task in life is caring for the soul.

Throughout the Apology, Socrates repeatedly insisted that a human person must care for his or her soul more than for anything else. Socrates saw that his fellow Athenians cared more for things like wealth, reputation, family, and their physical appearance while failing to see to the well-being of their souls. The God of Delphi had, he believed, commissioned him to persuade them that the most important good for a human being lay in caring for the health of the inner person. Externals like prosperity, he insisted, did not bring about human excellence or virtue, but the care for the soul made wealth and everything else of less import for human beings. If the inner life was strong, the vicissitudes of the outer life would be far less concerning.

Socrates believed that his mission of caring for souls extended to the public sphere as well. A city could be soul-sick too. He argued that “the god” gave him to the city as a gift and that his mission was to help improve the city of Athens.  He argued he was not guilty of impiety to the city deities specifically because everything he had done was in response to the oracle and in the service of Apollo.  This god had sent him to be a “gadfly” to sting the “sluggish horse” of the Athenian public which had become stagnant and complacent in its democracy. Only a community of virtuous people could sustain this form of government. If he could sting enough citizens into self-examination, he believed the city would continue to prosper.

3. A good person cannot be harmed by others.

Socrates in the end denied that his punishment was an injury to him. “Be well assured, then, if you put me to death, being such a man as I say I am, you will not injure me more than yourselves. For neither will Meletus nor Anytus harm me; nor have they the power; for I do not think that it is possible for a better man to be injured by a worse. He may perhaps have me condemned to death, or banished, or deprived of civil rights, and he or others may perhaps consider these as mighty evils; I, however, do not consider them so….” (Apology).

For what would it mean to harm a man of virtue? In our chapter on ethics, we will explore the concept of virtue in more detail, but in essence, Socrates is here claiming that no external factors can cause one to be truly harmed, to be weakened in virtue. If the soul is strong, no one can do it harm. True, others can injure the body, slander one’s reputation, cause loss to one’s possessions, and even betray our confidences, yet if one has dedicated one’s life to the care for the soul, as Socrates had, these things cannot truly harm.

In fact, those like Meletus or Anytus, his prosecutors, in unjustly attacking a just man were harming themselves. Socrates believed that the only way to truly harm the soul was to engage in immoral behavior. This meant that a person could experience real harm only if it was self-imposed. A soul could not be harmed by others but could harm itself. In acting viciously and unjustly, the Athenian jurors were doing just that, harming themselves.

Taking it to the Streets:

Ask a couple of friends if they agree with these three lessons left us by Socrates.

  • Is self-examination the key to happiness, or can we do too much of that?
  • Is caring for oneself the most important task in life, or are other duties more important?
  • Can a good person still be harmed by others?

Engage them in conversations. Play the “devil’s advocate” by gently taking the position opposite theirs. Try using counterarguments to theirs with phrases like “Yes, but what if….”What do your investigations lead you to conclude about Socrates’ three most famous sayings?



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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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