Great Educators in History (I): Socrates

To kick off our series Great Educators in History, we’d like to introduce Socrates, a philosopher who changed the path of thinking as we know it. We’re going way back, nearly 2,500 years in fact. Born around 470 BCE in Athens, Greece, Socrates lived until about 400 BCE, and these 70 years were enough time to lay the foundation of modern (western) notions of education and knowledge. 

“Socrates Drinking The Conium” after being sentenced to death – Image:

“I know that I know nothing”

Though the son of a stonemason and a man of modest means, Socrates went on to become a highly influential and controversial philosopher and teacher of the time, his students including Plato and Xenophon. His philosophy centred around rational inquiry, fostering the idea that education is not about accepting one existing answer or simply storing information, but involves deep investigation of a subject and critical thinking. He believed truth could be achieved through a process and dialogue of logic and reasoning. However, these very theories led to his death. Besides his refuting the Athenian democratic system, the authorities claimed that he believed that it was Man, not gods, who could achieve the highest intellect, and for that, he was branded an atheist and put to death under the charge of “corrupting the youth”. It was on trial when he said his famous self-contradictory quote, “I know that I know nothing”, in response to the charges. But despite what he knew or didn’t know, his theories did not follow him to the grave, but can be traced through the age of reason and the Enlightenment, up until today.

Influence and legacy

The Socratic method of critical thought and rational inquiry is still a central element of modern thought and education. The longstanding methods of dialectic teaching stem from this, as Socrates introduced dialectics as a process of discerning the validity of ideas through logical reasoning, a view that heavily influenced Aristotle's concepts of pathos, ethos and logos. Resulting from his search for political, ethical and moral truths, the field of ethics, for example, grew out of Socrates’ idea that reason should be used to better society, and this reason comes from logic and rational inquiry within the individual, not theological texts. The field of epistemology, a branch of philosophy involving the study and theory of knowledge, also grew out of Socrates' legacy, who had various debates about what knowledge is, including knowledge as perception, knowledge as true judgment and knowledge as a true judgment of what is knowable. This long theoretical discussion resulted in the Priority of Definition principle, claiming that one must first be able to define an object before one can know anything more about it. Contemporary theorists, such as late Michel Foucault, have taken these long disputed dialogues about knowledge further – for example, discussing the power of discourse and the social construction of knowledge itself. It leads one to ask – if education is the pursuit of knowledge, when can we claim that we truly know something, and what, for that matter, is then truth?

Are you a philosophy enthusiast? If you haven’t already, enrol in the course Political Philosophy before it comes to an end.

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  • Braet, Antoine C. 1992. “Ethos, pathos and logos in Aristotle's Rhetoric: A re-examination”. In: Argumentation, 6(3).
  • Firey, Thomas A. 1999. Socrates’ Conception of Knowledge and the Priority of Definition. Diss. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
  • Miles, Murray. 2003. Inroads: Paths in Ancient and Modern Western Philosophy. University of Toronto Press.
  • Socrates. 2013. Encyclopaedia Britannica website. Available from: [Accessed 29 Jan 2014]
  • The Philosophy of Socrates – A Collection of Critical Essays. 1971. Ed. Gregory VIastos. Anchor Books Doubleday & Co., Inc: Garden City, New York.

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