Socrates is the first well-documented Greek philosopher, no thanks to his own writing activity. He is known to have lived from 470 to 399 BC. His student Plato has carefully documented his words and methods. Socrates’ method was a radical breach with the past. Until then, philosophy’s interest was into explaining the cosmos through reason. Philosophers wanted to know our origine and made rational theories on the origin of matter, the celestial bodies and life. Sophism was the first school of thought to bring Greek philosophy to earth and teach people to form themselves a theory, about any topic at all, and propagate it to others with the use of convincing reason. Sophism lifted philosophy to a methodology at professional scholastic level and skipped the in their eyes unanswerable question concerning creation. Socrates was the first to make man center of philosophic interest. The main question for man to solve, is how to live a proper and responsible life. Important knowledge, therefore, is knowledge of man and society. Man has to ask himself firstly: How can you know anything, when you don’t know yourself?’ ‘Know yourself’, 'Gnote Sauton', was his first rule, for other knowledge comes from self-knowledge and who knows you, after all. 'The unexamined life is not worth living'. Wisdom is acquired self-knowledge. An important aspect of that, is knowing your own boundaries: Awareness of your own ignorance and the fields where knowledge is missing. Self-knowledge is the starting and reference point for any other gathering of knowledge. You must ask yourself questions and test the answers’ validity, firstly. Further knowledge comes from communicating with others, as a way to exchange your knowledge with other people’s knowledge. Your and other people’s knowledge must be mirrored and tested on its truthfulness and durability. Socrates' second rule, the Socratic Paradox, was that ‘the only thing I know is that I know nothing’ and from many detailed facts it is possible to work towards knowledge, a search method we call induction. Exchanging and thus gaining knowledge is made possible by asking the right questions through encouragement to carry on or to stop and sideway pushing with the right remarks. Socrates called this communication technique the midwive’s technique, maieutike techne; his mother and wife Xantippe both were midwives. Knowledge, according to Socrates, had to be authentic and his questions were only meant to test the solidity of acquired knowledge. Finding truth is possible by asking the right questions and in the process digging deeper into the subject by a new question following the answer. His technique of questioning people to test their knowledge has become known as the dialectic or Socratic dialogue. Socrates not only teached his students; he could be found in open air, having his dialogue with an audience, too. Socrates’ favorite topics were justice, self restraint, piety, bravery and wisdom. It is possible to find a general truth and ethical standards for human behavior, the ‘essentials’, by research on other people’s knowledge and behavior, and then, gathering the answers.
Through insight and knowledge, it is possible to find virtue, and virtue being a matter of intellect, can be achieved by everyone. This thinking is called ‘ethical intellectualism’. Virtue is not necessarily obedience to a good public rule. Virtue mainly is knowledge. When a person knows and understands what true virtue is, he may act within general principles, instead of self-interest. Socrates tried to make his students aware of their actions being self-interested, even though everybody agrees that the general interest has priority over self-interest. Goodness and virtue aren’t built on nice words by a clever spokesman, but on being shared by everyone. It is at the field of morality, that people have the least self-knowledge. The word-artists (the sophists!) have an easy job here in convincing others of their moral standard. Goodness and virtue come from a life of learning and teaching. Good people never stop learning and studying. Another part goodness is made of, is beauty. Masculine beauty and its benefits, lead to intellectual wisdom; feminine beauty similarly leads to a good body and thus to procreation, according to Socrates.
The ultimate goal of all action, according to Socrates, is finding happiness. If a student has gained enough knowledge of a desired goal, he or she is bound to act virtuously. Incorrect action is a consequence of insufficient knowledge of virtue. Virtue is, for both the state and the individual, the only way to happiness. Socrates did not believe in deliberate evil. Evil action comes from ignorance and everyone at least has the will to find out what is truly good for him or her. Truth is the same as goodness. The state must strive towards justice, not to power and wealth, and knowledge is the only guidance for just actions. Power without knowledge can only lead to unhappiness. ‘Ideals belong in a world only the wise man can understand’. Socrates finds it therefore necessary to elect leaders for their knowledge, not for their wealth of descent, and the ordinary civilian lacks the knowledge to elect competent leaders. Socrates disapproved of any state system, all of them giving no answer to who might possess the most intellectual baggage for leadership. Philosophers should govern the state.
Athens those days experimented with democracy. However, a true democracy, it was not. Women, slaves and foreigners (they might be Greeks from outside Athens) were excluded from the right to vote in the general assembly (the Ekklesia), an institution which existed since it was founded by statesman Clisthenes (ca 570 – 507 BC). Men and women leaded secluded lives and erotic relations between boys and young men were more or less approved of. Finding beauty and wisdom among men, had educational intellectual worth, provided a man was not ‘enslaved’ by his physical ‘passions’. After marriage, men had to find physical beauty in women. Procreation was seen as an important part of that. Homosexual relations among adult men met more disapproval. However, pederastic relations between adult men (eromenos) and boys (erastes) were commonplace and were considered a patronage relation. Nowadays, in modern standards, we would recognize aspects of prostitution in them. Socrates and his students lived in this world and are known to have made approving comments on homosexuality. Sexuality, even masturbation, were displayed more openly in Ancient Greece, than after the arrival of Christianity. Slavery was another part of a natural and ethical world order. A slave could be as noble as a free man, but human relations are naturally determined by dominance; some people are braver and stronger and, therefore, are able to provide patronage to others. In Classical Greece, slavery gained a formal absolute status. Socrates and Aristoteles both made acquiescenting comments on the phenomenon. Freedom of religion only went so far. The state religion allowed for non-dogmatic and equal worship of several deities, mostly ancient traditional deities, among whom important leaders and thinkers, to be allowed into the ‘pantheon’, the temple for all religions. But, it was not allowed to either reject a deity or introduce a new one without official consent, or reject the pantheon itself. Many a philosopher was put to trial and banned or executed. This fate also fell on Socrates. He was accused of rejecting the city’s gods, introducing new deities and rejecting Athens' democratic institutions. Socrates was not a man to run from civil law he had paid allegiance to. As a consistent thinker, he saw it as his moral duty to undergo the verdict, which he could have avoided through many legal channels. So, finally, he was executed.
Socrates’ sayings were recorded by his students, mostly Plato, but also by Xenophon, Aristotle and Aristophanes. It is uncertain, how reliable their accounts are; it is said, that some writings reflect the ideas, admiration or criticism of the authors, rather than Socrates’ exact words.
Also today, universities and institutions in the western world like to work within Socrates' principle. They use his name in their programs. The Socratic dialogue is anything but obsolete. Institutions say, it can bring awareness, that learning should last a lifetime and never finishes -- an attitude greatly appreciated also nowadays. A new aspect, however, is democratisation of knowledge. A quote of a teacher site at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Universiteit van Amsterdam, and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences has said:‘Socratic method is not the art of teaching philosophy, but of teaching how to do philosophy; it's not the art of teaching about philosophers, but to make pupils into philosophers’ (Leonard Nelson) This teacher, Kristof van Rossem, offers training courses in Socratic Dialogues on many institutions over Europe, as many others do. Van Rossem thinks, the Socratic dialogue is a good tool at school, even primary schools, as it stimulates citizenry in young people: A good citizen actively participates in a society based on knowledge and professionalism. A teacher as leader of a Socratic dialogue is rather a stimulating, democratic facilitator than an expert who brings dogmatic knowledge. Van Rossem mentions several differences between a discussion and a dialogue, the first being ‘aimed at shaking out, it is rhetoric, aimed at decisions and actions, judging, attacking and defending, going for your own right, convincing, taking a standpoint, defensive or offensive in attitude, answering; it's speed and individualism oriented’. A dialogue would be ‘aimed at knowing via, be dialectic, aimed at insight in the value of judgements; suspending judgements, investigating and checking, wanting to know the truth, investigation, listening to yourself and others, attitude of taking the other’s point of view, questioning, slowness and community oriented’.
A next question could be: is any part of Islamic revelation suited for a Socratic dialogue?