What is the legacy of Socrates? For not leaving any writings behind, he had a tremendous impact on those who followed him1.
Of the various dialogues that we have referenced thus far, these were all written by Socrates’ pupil Plato. One could say that Plato was a scribe recording for us what happened to Socrates. As I mentioned in previous blogs, Socrates philosophized against the backdrop of the Presocratics and the corruption of the Athenian authorities.
Socrates and the Sophists
But I did not yet bring up another important element in the story: the sophists. Many of the sophists were charlatans and gave philosophy a bad name.2 They used language and rhetoric for the purpose of trying to acquire money, fame, and popularity. They cared nothing for the search for wisdom and truth. It was a game to them. They knew that they didn’t know anything, but enjoyed the challenge of trying to get people to think a certain way through crafty speech.
The state paid them healthy salaries to create arguments to win people over to the way the state wanted them to think. Sound familiar? This is the exact role that the media plays in the United States today. Socrates not only exposed the corruption of the state, but he also opposed the chicanery of the sophists. He said the following to them that speaks loud and clear to us today:
“Are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom and truth, or the best possible state of your soul?”3
– Apology 29e
Socrates’s Unanswered Questions
Another aspect of his legacy is that in addition to not leaving any writings, he did not really give us any answers to the questions that he was asking. He left people with more questions than answers. It is a paradox that such a person could leave such a powerful legacy. Why is this? Part of the reason is that he cleared away a lot of the clutter left by the Presocratic philosophers.4 Being more naturalistic in their approach, they did not see the most important purpose of philosophy. Socrates honed this purpose to a clear objective – the purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to have a good life. And by good, he meant a virtuous life. After the Presocratics had become aimless, Socrates set philosophy back on track. He changed the purpose of philosophy. This is probably his most important legacy.
In addition to that, Socrates leaves us frustrated. He asks important questions, but does not really give us any answers. Also, he was not purposely trying to irritate people, he was simply trying to find answers on important matters such as justice, piety, and truth. He was hoping that someone would have the answers, but after a while realized that the people that he was asking knew nothing. They were just as ignorant as he was. So in effect, Socrates cleared the clutter and wiped the slate clean so that others like Plato and Aristotle could come along and build a true philosophical structure on that foundation. So in essence, he put the search for truth back on a firm foundation that others could build upon.
In summary, Socrates’ two most important legacies were that:
1) He changed the purpose of philosophy to that of living a good, that is, virtuous, life.
2) He cleared the clutter of the Presocratics and the noise of the Sophists in order to put the search for truth back on a more firm foundation.
I will discuss more about his legacy on the next blog.
Almost 2500 years later, it seems that we have come full circle. Modern philosophy is similar to that of the Presocratics with its naturalistic approach. For example, modern philosophers, by and large, view the discipline of metaphysics as a waste of time. They also have abandoned the pursuit of virtue as the main objective of philosophy. As a result, modern philosophy has become overly technical. The common person sees it as esoteric and irrelevant. I think that Socrates, as well as Plato and Aristotle, saw philosophy as something that would benefit everyone, even if not everyone understood it completely.
Secondly, the public discourse has been taken over, not by reasoned discussions, but by modern sophists and demagogues who seek to manipulate the masses for their own selfish purposes. We make public policy based on pragmatism and selfish desires fueled by emotion. We never stop to ask the important questions that would help guide us to make important policy decisions. For example, what does it mean to be human? What is the purpose or end of man? In other words, why are we here? And most importantly, what does God require of us?
“A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time.5
Finally, consider the following question:
Does modern philosophy need a Socrates? Please leave a comment below. Thank you!
- Kraut, Richard. “Socrates”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 23 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Socrates. Accessed 24 May 2021.
- Gress, Ph.D., Carrie, “Lecture 3 Socrates,” from the course A Survey of the Philosophy of the Good, the True, and Beautiful, Master of Sacred Arts Program, Pontifex University, https://www.pontifex.university
- Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, pp. 33-34, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
- Gress, Ph.D., Carrie, “Lecture 3 Socrates”
- Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed.,32a, p. 36
Bibliography and Sources:
Coppleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, An Image Book, Doubleday, New York, 1985
Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York, 2019
Hughes, Bettany, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life Paperback – Illustrated, Vintage Publishers, 2012, New York City
Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, second ed., Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, Revised Ed., Harold Tarrant (Editor, Translator, Introduction) and Hugh Tredennick (Translator), Penguin Classics, New York, 2003
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: The World of the Polis, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018
Wilson, Emily, The Death of Socrates, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Waterfield, Robin H, Editor and Translator; Tedennick, Hugh, Translator, Penguin Classics, Ney York, Revised ed., 1990