Thinking of a name for my brand-new site, I pedantically decided on a motto in Latin –although I don’t even know Latin. I just felt it looked classy for a site on philosophy. But then this week one of my professors told me about a German philosopher, who wrote that in fact, the use of Latin ruined philosophy, the genuine philosophical language being Greek.
Indeed, the history of western philosophy goes back to the great Greek philosophers. Their works are still being studied. Sadly, this is not the case with one of the greatest among them, Socrates. (470 – 399 BC). He wrote nothing. All we know of him comes to us through other writers, one of them his most renowned student, Plato.
After two centuries of Greek philosophy about the nature of the cosmos, Socrates focuses on human life. Plato pictures Socrates walking around Athens, talking to people, making them state some belief, to then incite them to analyze what they just said. Socrates says that he acts as a midwife, helping others to give birth to new thoughts. This we call the Socratic method. In most cases, questions are being refined, definitions sharpened, untenable positions dismissed. There is no real conclusion, but nobody cares, since the real value lies in thinking as such.
Socrates claimed that true wisdom existed in knowing you know nothing, calling for some modesty in an era when many learned men came to Athens to sell their knowledge and their rhetorical abilities to sons of rich families. Socrates himself didn’t ask any money, holding that knowledge bought was worth nothing.
Nonetheless, some considered his continuous questioning to be a danger. In 399 BE he was brought to trial on a dubious charge of spoiling the youth and failing to acknowledge the city’s gods. He was sentenced to death by poison.