©2011 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Socrates

Analyst: Bob Burgess


edited 8/18/11


Due to the fact that Socrates (469 B.C.-399 B.C.) wrote nothing, or next to nothing, regarding his philosophical insights and methods, we are left to glean the essence of his works from the writings of others. We also can assume that the major philosophical writings on Socrates, those by Plato and Xenophen, are somewhat tainted due to editorial license and unconscious subjective motivation. There is an accepted way to grade the evidence when evaluating Socrates:

Grade A: Original source

Grade B: Reliable, ancient testimony

Grade C: Unreliable, ancient testimony

Grade D: Later scholarly opinion (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p.11)

When assuming the task of profiling Socrates utilizing these four criteria, one must take as requirement the "Principle of Textual Fidelity" and balance it with the "Principle of Interpretive Plausibility". (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p.99) With the body of work on Socrates being replete with secondhand sources, satisfying these two principles can be tricky.

I. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Socrates believed that there were different kinds of knowledge, important and trivial. He acknowledges that most of us know many "trivial" things. He states that the craftsman possesses important knowledge, the practice of his craft, but this is important only to himself, the craftsman. But this is not the important knowledge that Socrates is referring to. The most important of all knowledge is "how best to live." He posits that this is not easily answered, and most people live in shameful ignorance regarding matters of ethics and morals. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p.30)

Through his method of powerfully questioning his students, he seeks to guide them to discover the subject matter rather than simply telling them what they need to know. The goals of education are to know what you can; and, even more importantly, to know what you do not know.

II. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? A lie?

Socrates makes the claim there are two very different sorts of knowledge. One is ordinary knowledge. This is of very specific (and ordinary) information. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p.118) He claims that to have such knowledge does not give the possessor of said knowledge any expertise or wisdom worth mentioning.

The higher knowledge could possibly be described as definitional knowledge. Socrates is extremely interested in defining words and concepts. He accepts the pursuit of definitional knowledge as a priority to philosophical discussion. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p.118)

Socrates devotes much thought to the concept of belief, through the use of logic. He spars with students early in his career and later with his accusers, at his trial, on the nature of his belief regarding the gods. To define belief, according to Socrates, was to use naturalistic explanations for phenomena traditionally explained in terms of Divine Agency. (Brickhouse & Smith 2, p. 181) His belief in the wisdom and goodness of gods is derived from human logic and his natural skepticism.

Any person who knows what goodness, or truth is, will live that way. The only lie or evil comes about when one is ignorant of good. Man will never knowingly lie even if he thinks he is. It is his ignorance of goodness and truth that prevents him from being a wise and honest man.

III.Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

The being in human is an inner-self. This inner-self is divine, cannot die, and will dwell forever with the gods. Only human beings can distinguish virtue, which is knowledge, from ignorance, which is the root of moral evil. (Easton pp. 72 & 73)  

The human being is so constituted that he "can" know the good. And, knowing it, he can follow it, for no one who truly knows the good would deliberately choose to follow the evil. This is a typically Greek notion, and is attractive to all rationalists. (Easton pp. 72 & 73) Only the human being has these capabilities.

From experience, it can be known that intellectually the human potential is infinitesimal. The mind of man is constantly reaching out for more and more knowledge, just as his will is desirous of more and more love. The search for knowledge varies with the individual, but the race of man has always carried on the quest in accordance with its nature and for the practical and speculative value that knowledge brings with it. (Noonan 1957)

IV. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

Learning is the seeking of truth in matters, and it occurs when after questioning and interpreting the wisdom and knowledge of others, one comes to recognize their own ignorance. Skills and knowledge are acquired by: (1) interpreting the statements of others; (2) testing or examining the knowledge or wisdom of those reputed (by themselves or others) to be wise; (3) showing those who are not wise their ignorance; (4 ) learning from those who are wise; (5) examining oneself; (6) exhorting others to philosophy; (7) examining the lives of others; (8) attaining moral knowledge. (Benson p.17)

V. Theory of Transmission: Who is to teach? By what methods? What will be the curriculum be?

Socrates does not believe that any one person or any one school of thought is authoratative or has the wisdom to teach "things." Socrates repeatedly disavows his own knowledge and his own methods. However, this appears to be a technique for engaging others and empowering the conversator to openly dialogue.

Be that as it may, Socrates is widely regarded as one of the great teachers of all time. The Socratic method is one in which a teacher, by asking leading questions, guides students to discovery. It was a dialectical method that employs critical inquiry to undermine the plausibility of widely-held doctrine. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p.53)

Socrates devoted himself to a free-wheeling discussion with the aristocratic young citizens of Athens, insistently questioning their unwarranted confidence in the truth of popular opinions, even though he often offered them no clear alternative teaching.

VI. Theory of Society: What is society? What institutions are involved in the education process?

To the class of Athenians that Socrates was born into, society existed to provide the best life for the individual. The Athenians of Socrates' day assumed just as their ancestors had assumed that the best life one could have, required the acquisition of what was called virtue, or excellence. A truly good person succeeded in doing great things for the city, strictly obeyed its law, honored parents and ancestors, scrupulously paid homage to the gods by strictly obeying the conventions governing prayer and sacrifice. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p. 19)

Athens' political system was a radical, participating democracy in which every Athenian male citizen could-and was expected to-vote, hold office, and serve on the very powerful Athenian juries. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p. 18)

Societies are invariably formed for a particular purpose. Individuals are not self-sufficient, no one working alone can acquire all the genuine necessities of life. Separations of functions and specialization of labor are key. Society is composed of distinct classes (clothiers, farmers, builders, etc.). In addition, there are those that manage society and settle disputes. In Plato's Republic, he uses the fictional character Socrates as spokesman for explaining the fundamental principles for the conduct of human life. (www.philosophypages.com/hy/29.htm#origins)

Education took place in magnificent buildings such as the Parthenon and Hephaisteion, which adorn the Acropolis and the Agora, the large open area at the front of the Acropolis that consisted of the Athenian market place and public square. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p. 18) However, education took place wherever and whenever, and the concepts of schooling, colleges, and institutions had not yet arrived.

VII.Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Socrates was the antithesis of elitist mentality. Socrates rejected "the pursuit of knowledge" for its own sake as a delusion and a snare, inasmuch as knowledge, properly so-called is unattainable, and a snare, insofar as it draws us away from the study of conduct (www.2020site.org/socrates) In other words, the pursuit of art, cosmology, or any specific discipline blurred the quest for truth. The practical knowledge that experts had in their respective fields was trivial and unimportant to anyone but they themselves. He wanted to educate, challenge, question and debate men of ignorance mistaking themselves as knowledgeable, and by doing so, to promote their intellectual and moral improvement.

Socrates' open and non-dogmatic style, and his emphasis on what other persons thought rather than on his own ideas led to several individual disciplines going their separate ways. The result was several prominent schools, with the most influential being the Platonic philosophy. Even though Socrates rejected the "pursuit of knowledge" per se, there are many contradictions evident to indicate that he did view himself as an educator whose goal was to see others learn.

VIII. Theory of Consensus: Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

Socrates' main focus throughout his public teaching life is the acquiring by the individual of self-knowledge. He believes that goodness and truth, positive essences and pure ethical and moral instincts are placed there divinely in the soul. (www.san.beck.org/c&s-compared.htm#6) However, they are not brought to consciousness unless they are awakened or learned. Therefore, consensus on the important things in life is just below the surface waiting to be acknowledged. It is the destiny of mankind to seek out virtue such as courage and self-control, or propriety over the desires of ambitions or emotions that cloud the quest for truth. The concept of ignorance is what stands in the way of consensus, and that once one realizes that he does not know, a change in any disagreement can occur. If we can recognize the value of virtue, we then can apply it and improve the quality of our lives. It will take precedence over personal power and the gratification of desire and pleasure. The life-long pursuit of self-improvement, the desire for wisdom is only attainable when one can see their own faults and weaknesses and negative tendencies.

Death of Socrates


1. Brickhouse, Thomas C., and Nicholas D. Smith. 2000 The Philosophy of Socrates. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press

2. Brickhouse, Thomas C., and Nicholas D. Smith. 1994 Plato's Socrates. New York: Oxford University Press

3. Benson, Hugh C., 2000 Socratic Wisdom. New York: Oxford University Press

4. Easton, Stewart C., 1966 The Western Heritage. New York: Holt Rhinehart & Winston, Inc.

5. Noonan, John P., 1957 General Metaphysics. Chicago, Ill. Loyola University Press

6. www.philosophypages.com/hy/29.htm#origins

7. www.2020site.org/socrates

8. www.san.beck.org/c&s-compared.htm#6