Who Was Socrates, and Why Should We Care?

Sep 16, 2022 | Posted by Jennifer

Living approximately 2500 years ago (c.470‒399 BC), the Athenian philosopher Socrates is shrouded in the mists of time. He isn’t known to have written anything, yet his life sent massive ripples in the formation of Western civilization and thought. Who was the man who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”? Why is he still considered to be such an important figure today?

What we do know of Socrates is largely due to Plato and Xenophon, two of his students who wrote down Socratic dialogues that are still read today and are assigned reading in pretty much any introduction to philosophy class. Socrates was at the head of an impressive triumvirate of philosophers that included Plato and Aristotle. Together the three are known for utilizing Socratic dialogue. What is this type of discussion? Essentially, it is the art of posing open-ended questions about a subject and then seeking possible answers to those questions via a back and forth conversation.

In the article “The Colloquium Environment,” Andrew Pudewa describes implementing this type of approach in a regular colloquium he held for students back when his own children were teenagers. He writes:

During our colloquium sessions … students meet and discuss great books. My role is that of facilitator, not instructor. To accomplish this, I must do a few things: (1) Set a projected schedule for readings and meetings; (2) Find the time to read the books I ask them to read; (3) Pencil out a few questions to start a discussion each week; and (4) Discipline myself not to dominate the conversation, inadvertently changing the conversation into a lecture.

The Socratic method does not need to be reserved solely for literature. No subject is too lofty nor too lowly: math, politics, literature, religion, and even something as simple as knitting. If you can craft a discussion question around it, you can engage in it Socratically.

Socrates eventually angered the Athenian leaders. They levied two charges against him: impiety against the gods (because he spoke of there being just “one god”) and corruption of the youth. Sentenced to either permanent banishment or death, he chose death and, surrounded by his followers, drank a concoction consisting of poisonous hemlock, which sealed his doom.

His ideas lived on through his students, and the art of Socratic dialogue is still an integral part of many teachers’ instruction. If you would like to learn more about how you can implement this approach with your students, you can investigate these links.

“The Colloquium Environment” Andrew Pudewa’s article describes his approach to facilitating a colloquium on literature with teenage students.

Reading Comprehension from Seuss to Socrates” This presentation, given by Adam Andrews, describes five ways you can lead your students in Socratic discussions.

Teaching the Classics This teacher training program explains how to use Socratic questioning in literary analysis to sharpen students’ critical thinking skills.

“Just You and Me and Socrates” This blog post shares how to include delight-driven literary analysis with your students, whether they are in the home, at a co-op, or in a school setting.

Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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