Socrates was born around 469 BC and is widely regarded as the most important contributor to Western philosophy as we know it today. Due to the ancient times in which he lived, there is no empirical evidence or direct historical account of Socrates and his works but rather accounts mainly from his students Xenophon and Plato and plays by Aristophanes, his contemporary. It is believed by many historians that Plato provides the most comprehensive commentary on Socrates.
He was born and grew up in the Athenian region of Greece at a time where Athenian rule and superiority was initially challenged and ultimately defeated by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War. It was at this time that Socrates was somewhat critical of the democracy that was prevalent in Athens at the time and no doubt this was a contributory factor in his trial and subsequent death circa 399 BC at the age of 71.
Contributing to his downfall, Socrates’ intellectual, political and moral beliefs were opposed to most of his contemporary Athenians. When he was tried and executed for the crime of corrupting the minds of young Athenians, he used his “Socratic Method” to highlight to the jurors that their own moral compasses were out of alignment. He proposed that the jurors were concerned with their own families, political interests and careers when they should be thinking about the “welfare of their souls”. He openly criticized the form of democracy prevalent in Athens, that which promoted self-gain over the well-being of others, a concept that people try and live up to in today’s times and often still fail. This type of thinking and moral stance set Socrates apart from other philosophers of his time and most others that have followed him.
Many people believe that Socrates most important contribution to modern thinking was his method of questioning or inquiry which became known as the “Socratic Method” or “Method of Elenchus”. He used this method to examine crucial concepts in his time, such as justice, morality and good. The approach to solving a problem would be to break it down into a number of individual questions which when answered, bring the questioner closer to the answer that they are looking for. As well as being a method used for inquiry it is also an effective method for debate between parties with opposed viewpoints. It is used to discuss the viewpoint of an opponent with the intention of that participant contradicting themselves and in doing so strengthening the inquirers own point.
Socrates is also widely credited with saying, “I only know that I know nothing” and although this is a simple paraphrase, it conveys his thinking clearly in that for a person to start to learn wisdom, they must first admit their own ignorance. This line of thought can be expanded in considering that people who profess their own wisdom are already closed to further learning and growth. These thoughts still hold true in modern thinking, another important facet of modern thought that can be accredited to Socrates.
Most modern governments today are elected by the people for the good of the people. The history of most countries contain references of individuals and groups pursuing their own gains at the expense of others. Europeans conquered America and the wealthy landowners used slavery for their own profit and gain, whilst England saw hundreds of years of landed gentry who ruled over the serfs and peasants. Today most developed countries recognize the form of democracy that was introduced and espoused by Socrates; Governments pass laws and govern for the good of the people, the very idea that Socrates discussed as being the only way that people could effectively form a community and grow together as a population.
It is plain to see why many informed people consider Socrates to be the father of Western Philosophy. He is responsible not only for an integral piece of rational questioning, one on which we base the modern scientific method where the initial stage is known as the hypothesis. Socrates also had a number of students who were extremely influential in their own right, students which included Xenophon and Plato. Socrates is also attributed to being the first thinker and philosopher to discuss modern moral and philosophical questions and set standards that still apply to today’s modern world.