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. Some like Protagoras were true philosophers, but many were just smooth talking rhetoricians. 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 redefined the purpose of philosophy as the practice of virtue.
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.
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?
We are Socrates’ Legacy
Socrates has cast a long shadow over history. The lessons that he teaches are not just for philosophers, but really for anyone who would listen to and desire to put in practice his ideas. In fact, I would say that his legacy is really for the common man over and above the philosopher. We know this by the example of his life. Plato’s early dialogues tell us that he indeed had discussions and debates with other philosophers. But at the same time, the example of his life shows us another side of him.
He spent much of his time canvassing the streets of Athens, looking for those that he could enter into a meaningful discussion with, and this included the young people of Athens. He took the time to have conversations with those that the elite of Athens would not have the time for. In this way, he was a philosopher for the common man. It reminds me of Jesus who, even though he spent time teaching his disciples and debating with the religious leaders of his day, he spent a good portion of his efforts among the downtrodden and outcasts of society. That is why he was even accused of eating “with tax-collectors and sinners” by the religious leaders of his day. I can understand eating with sinners, but associating with tax-collectors is another thing all together. If asked to go to lunch with my local IRS agent, I think I would pass.
The point is that if Socrates were alive today, we would find him in a local coffee house just as much, if not more, in the faculty lounge or lecture hall of a university. We can stake a claim to Socrates just as much as any academic can. Really then, we are the legacy of Socrates. He lived and died as an example for us, how we can influence those around us for good.
What Does God Require of Us?
Socrates didn’t desire to eliminate religious practice, just to refocus it. He directs us to eliminate superstition and purse virtue. Jesus states this in a different manner:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”-Matthew 5:23-24
Notice that Jesus does not say to dispense with religious practice, only to consummate it in the way we treat others. So too, Socrates did not seek to eliminate religious practice as some claim, but to establish right religion along with character development in practicing the virtues. Why is religious devotion important? Because it gives honor to God, acknowledging him as supreme above all else. To practice love toward others without religious practice is simply secular humanism. It is primarily a horizontal endeavor, whereas a complete life is one that is oriented both horizontally and vertically.
What does God require of us? To reformulate Socrates’ teaching through a Christian lens it is to honor God through the right worship of him and to love our fellow man. Both are essential. In reference to the Ten Commandments, the first four are God oriented and the other six are oriented toward other people. Some would argue that the command to honor our parents is also oriented to God since to obey the authorities that God established whether parents or government, is to obey God.
Our Duty to Society
We have a duty then, not just to God, but to other people as well. This duty is not just toward individuals, but to the society as a whole, the body politic as Aristotle would refer to it. It is imperative that we become good citizens. For those of us today in American, this usually takes the form of voting. We consider our obligation fulfilled if we vote, but many people are gifted for more.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all considered the duty as a citizen a very serious matter, not to be taken lightly. For those who have the talent and opportunity to get involved, but don’t often use the excuse that politics are too corrupt. In a way, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By good people not getting involved, it is inevitable that things will go from bad to worse. Yet where does one jump in when things are so messy?
To answer this, we have to consider the life of Socrates. Socrates said that he was prevented by God from entering politics. By implication, he would have more influence on Athens and eventually the world, by not getting involved in politics. We have to be careful that, by trying to imitate Socrates, we don’t try to imitate him in everything. Since we are alive now, we know that God has a purpose for us in this particular time. Just what that purpose is, is for each one of us to determine. Socrates was prevented from entering politics. Maybe our purpose is to hold political office.
How do we determine that purpose? A good place to start is by following Socrates’ example and seeking divine guidance.
“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 and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!
From Amazon: “It is philosophical. Its exercises expose students to many classical quotations, and additional chapters introduce philosophical issues in a Socratic manner and from a commonsense, realistic point of view. It prepares students for reading Great Books rather than Dick and Jane, and models Socrates as the beginner’s ideal teacher and philosopher.”
- 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
Kreeft, Peter, Socratic Logic: A Logic Text using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles, St. Augustine Press; 3rd edition (September 15, 2010)
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