No interviews with Real Men of Genius could be complete
unless it included the Greek philosopher, Socrates, who lived c.435-354
The Socratic method of questioning to elicit individual answers is widespread these days, not least in law schools, in order to encourage greater insight and understanding.
We rely on Xenophon, the historian, who recorded Socrates’ ideas after his death, and the philosopher, Plato, for our knowledge of Socrates because no written work of his survives today.
May we start by asking something about your education.
I was taught reading, arithmetic and music, which you would call core subjects, but additionally I studied geometry and astronomy.
As was normal with all pupils at that time, I was also trained in wrestling, boxing and throwing the discus and javelin. In order to develop a sound mind it is necessary to build a perfect body also.
Is it correct that you served in the Athenium army?
Yes; I served in three military campaigns.
It is said that you had differences with many of your contemporaries intellectually, morally and politically. Would you agree with that?
The war between Athens and Sparta polarised Athenian society. The oligarchic and democratic factions employed thinkers and orators, who we called sophists, as propagandists for their views. I considered their views to be shallow and to be deplored.
Two and a half thousand years later the Socratic method of teaching is still in full flow. Could you explain it for us, please.
It seems to me that every assumption must be tested and
interrogated by reason. So we break that
assumption down and examine it with a series of questions and gradually a
defined answer emerges.
We start with a hypothesis and test it scientifically. I believed in the dialectical technique of argument and counter-argument.
But this irritated your critics, didn’t it?
That may be so. In debate I feigned ignorance and put forward simple questions such as What is courage, piety or virtue? As people replied, I would proffer self-contradictory answers and cause the process to start afresh.
That would benefit those who were seeking knowledge whilst, at the same time, expose those whose knowledge was merely superficial. My aim was always to discover the truth and nothing else.
It is reported that you didn’t support the concept of democracy. Would you care to comment on that?
I think that is something you will have to make up your own mind about. Those who made such remarks may have been pursuing their own agendas. Certainly ideals belong to a world which philosophers understand, but whether they are the only ones suitable to govern is open to debate.
I wasn’t keen on conventional politics. It is so difficult to guide others or tell them how to live their lives when you are not sure how to live your own. As a philosopher, I was there to pursue truth and I could not claim to understand it fully.
You were undoubtedly controversial. Athens was endeavouring to stabilise itself after defeat by the Spartans and you are reported to have praised Sparta in your various dialogues. Is that so?
All I did was to advance the views of a philosopher and challenge the notion that might is necessarily right. Each of us thinks he knows a lot and is wise, but the truth is that we know little and are not very wise.
One of your friends asked the Oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than you and the Oracle is said to have described you as the wisest man in the world. How do you reconcile that with what you have just said?
It at first appears a paradox. I consider that whilst supposedly wise men think themselves wise but are not, I know I am not wise at all. As I am aware of my own ignorance, the Oracle must be correct.
It seems that you enjoyed taking the role of what today we would call “devil’s advocate”, but I think you described it as “the gadfly”?
Yes. I believed my role as a philosopher was to challenge those in positions of power. It is right that a gadfly should be there to raise questions that others might overlook.
When I was on trial I pointed out that the gadfly is easy to swat, but the cost of silencing irritating people might be very high. By killing me they would injure themselves more than they injured me.
I think the service of truth requires me to whip and sting people into action.
Prominent Athenians felt that you made them look foolish. What would you say to that?
I cannot be responsible for the way they felt they looked. After the war against Sparta the Athenian government had degenerated.
No doubt they felt threatened because you questioned everything and, at the same time, attracted an enormous following amongst young aristocratic Athenians?
That is probably so.
And there came a time when you were arrested?
Yes; the charge really didn’t bear examination. The so-called democratic government alleged that I was an evil-doer and a person showing curiosity, searching into things under the earth and above the heaven and teaching all this to others.
I wondered if this was really a serious charge. For the greater part of the 5th century BC the Athenians had sought knowledge and been at the forefront of those seeking it. Now I, a fellow citizen, was being charged for doing precisely that.
I suspect it was just a weapon with which to strike me down because of my criticism of the Athenian government.
At your trial you were convicted of impiety and corrupting the minds of the Athenian youth and given the choice of contemplating a fine or drinking hemlock. Your choice is well-known. It is also said that you had the option to escape. Is that so?
I chose the hemlock, of course, and it is right that I had the possibility of escaping. I chose to stay, however.
I believed the right time had come for me to die and, if I fled, it may indicate a fear of death which no true philosopher possesses.
Above all, I would be able to continue my search into truth and knowledge in the next world, and I would be able to find out who was wise and who not.
And did you discover those truths?
That will be for you to find out when your turn comes.
Keep your eyes open for more Real Men of Genius as they are added to this site and also look at Real Women of Genius for further examples.
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