Study Guide

Socrates in The Republic

By Plato

Socrates

Socrates is a man of mystery. We know he's a historical figure, and we know he was a famous philosopher, but we don't know a whole lot else. Why?

Well, it's partly because he's become so famous for being a character in Plato's dialogues that we aren't able to separate fact from fiction. Since Socrates didn't leave us any of his own writings—he was supposedly kind of suspicious of the written word—we only know what Plato (and this other dude named Xenophon, who also wrote about him) wanted Socrates to say and think. So are we reading Socrates or Plato? It's an age-old question, and we'll probably never know.

The good news for us is that just because Socrates is a character Plato is using to tell us about philosophy, that doesn't mean that he isn't super important and super interesting. In fact, he might even be more interesting as a character than as a real dude, so let's investigate.

Know Thyself

Inscribed on the doors to the Delphic oracle (your go-to fortune tellers in Ancient Greece), the phrase "know thyself" is pretty much Socrates's personal slogan. This phrase inspired him to devote his entire life to philosophy, and it helped him understand the most important thing he could possibly know: that he doesn't know anything.

Yep, Socrates was all about pointing out his own (and everyone else's) ignorance. How do much do we really know, anyway?

As you can probably imagine, Socrates's need to constantly remind everyone that they didn't actually know anything didn't win him any popularity contests. In fact, he made a lot of people very angry. So angry that they ordered him killed for corrupting young people and not worshiping the gods (it's unclear how seriously those charges were made).

Socrates gave a famous speech in his own defense, and Plato recorded it in a work called the Apology. It's here that Socrates famously said that "the unexamined life is not worth living." And he meant it. Instead of fleeing the death penalty as his friends urged, he drank the poison hemlock given him and became a martyr for philosophy, showing that even unfair laws need to be followed.

So, even if "you're ignorant" isn't the most inspiring thing you've heard today, it's worth keeping in mind that Socrates meant it as reminder to always think critically and to never accept things at face value. He genuinely saw it as a guide to leading the most authentic and happy life, one that would be always and constantly in need of scrutiny and examination.

Really, Socrates's story ends happily, since today he's most famous not for being an annoying pest but for inventing the Socratic method of question-and-answer... and for, you know, utterly changing the history of Western philosophy.

Socrates and His "Imaginary Friend"

Fine, Socrates doesn't literally have an imaginary friend, but he has something kind of similar, and that's his "daimon."

Daimons are just like spirits or minor gods in Greek religion. They were associated with specific individuals and didn't have their own name or job (unlike, say, Zeus), and they often acted as a conduit between the human world and the divine world as a source of inspiration.

(Sound a little familiar? You might be thinking of Philip Pullman's young adult novel series called The Golden Compass, which features a modernized version of these nifty little creatures.)

Socrates doesn't bring up his daimon a whole lot; it's probably not the best conversation starter. In the Republic, the subject only comes up once, where Socrates likens his relationship to his daimon to a kind of possession: "Now the men of who have become members of this small band [of demonically inspired people] have tasted how sweet the blessing of a possession it is" (496c). And that's about all we get, so don't worry if it doesn't make complete sense—it's not supposed to. Unlike Socrates's usual interest in being as precise and rational as possible, his daimon definitely brings out his more obscure side.

(By the way: yes, we do get the word "demon" from these creatures, but demons and daimons are not the same thing.)

For this reason, Socrates's daimon often surprises people. Could Mr.-Logic-and-Philosophy-No-Time-for-Poetry have this spiritual, divine, totally unrational side to him? While it's hard to say what exactly to make of this phenomenon (after all, we know so little about the Greek world), it's worth considering whether there might just be something irrational or spiritual about Plato's philosophy, and maybe even philosophy in general.

Isn't It Ironic?

Socratic irony is definitely not what Alanis was singing about. (She's not really singing about any kind of irony, actually, but don't get us started.) In fact, Socratic irony isn't even regular-old irony; it's a special kind associated just with him.

Essentially, Socratic irony is just another name for the Socratic method, the process of question-and-answer that you see Socrates using throughout the Republic to get to the truth of things. It usually involves challenging something that might seem obvious. Through a painstaking attack on all these tiny, seemingly obvious aspects of something, the truth emerges.

The whole Republic is essentially structured this way. Take poor old Cephalus, who thinks he's just having a nice simple chat with Socrates about old age and mentions, rather in passing, the concept of justice. Big. Mistake. "But as to this very thing, justice," replies Socrates, "shall we so simply assert that it is the truth and giving back what a man has taken from another, or is it to do these very things sometimes just and sometimes unjust?" (331c). Nothing is "simply asserted" here: Socrates loves pointing out how something is actually its opposite. Phew.

But this isn't just an empty exercise in confusion; it's had a big impact on the history of Western thought. For all those would-be lawyers out there, you might want to get practicing, because the Socratic method is the foundation of legal education in the U.S. to this very day. It's also very common in classrooms (maybe even yours).

As you can see, Socrates has made a pretty big and lasting impact, even well outside of the field of philosophy. As the Republic makes clear, Socrates's interest in self-knowledge reaches every single aspect of human life and every major discipline: mathematics, science, music, and so on. Seriously, there probably isn't a discipline today that hasn't been influenced by this guy in one way or another. So what Socrates believed really has turned out to be true: critical thinking and self-examination can change the world.