Welcome to this week’s Friday Philosophy post! Today we open up a new chapter in our investigations into some of philosophy’s biggest ideas with a look at Socrates, one of the most famous philosophers of all time. Unlike many of the presocratics we’ve been looking at, we know quite a lot about Socrates, mostly from the writings of his student Plato.
Who Was He?
Socrates (470-399 BC) was an itinerant (wandering) philosopher who was born in Athens and lived during a time of great political unrest in the city. He taught solely by means of oratory and public discussion, so we don’t have any written works of his to investigate.
Scholars have struggled to discern how much of Plato’s writing represents Socrates’ thought, and it remains a grey area to this day. Socrates died as a rebel after he was put to death for allegedly corrupting the youth and not believing in the city gods. Those who are interested can read the fascinating account of the events leading up to Socrates’ death in Plato’s dialogue named Phaedo.
What’s the Big Idea?
There are many significant ideas that Socrates is remembered for. Many consider him to be the founder of the branch of philosophy called ‘ethics’, as he was less concerned with the metaphysical speculations of his predecessors and more concerned with personal conduct and how individuals and societies should live. But the big idea we’ll look at for the purpose of this article is Socrates’ claim that the only thing he was sure of was his own ignorance. The so-called ‘Socratic paradox’ is expressed in various slightly different forms, but is essentially this – “The only thing I know is that I know nothing”.
The Socratic paradox can be interpreted in different ways. Some believe Socrates was simply referring to the fact that the potential for knowledge is so vast that we can only know relatively little. Others believe it was a more literal statement of philosophical logic. In any case, it raises the question of what can be known; a predicament which would subsequently have an entire branch of philosophy – epistemology – dedicated to it.
In contrast to the Socratic paradox, I actually believe there are certain things that can be known. I can say with total certainty that I exist, and that God exists. Existence is a brute fact, albeit an incredibly mysterious one! I also believe that there are certain things that are absolutely true about God. For instance, God has the attribute of aseity (see this post); He is eternally existing and unable to be destroyed. That’s a fact.
On the other hand, an atheist would naturally take issue with what I have claimed in the previous paragraph, saying that my assurance that God exists is just a subjective belief not grounded in reality. The atheist might claim that some scientific facts are objectively true, but the existence of God isn’t.
While we might then conclude that any objective truth claim is actually subjective, the very fact that we can have this discussion means that at least one thing is true – there is some kind of reality in which we are having this discussion. Perhaps all of us, including Socrates, could agree on that.
Next week we’ll continue our look at the philosophers known as ‘the Academics’ with another great name – Plato. If you’re interested in reading that post, please be sure you’re subscribed to this blog so you receive an email with each new post. Thank you for reading!