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Educational Theory of Socrates

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The purpose of this essay is to give the reader an insight into the educational theories of Socrates. It is rather difficult to gain any information from first hand written accounts of Socrates work as he hardly ever took down notes and the only accounts that have stood the test of time are those that were documented by Plato, a student of Socrates. In actual fact most of what we know is from later people such as Aristophanes, Xenophen, Plato and Aristotle. These accounts are what have been formulated into Socrates theories. This poses some questions as to whether the theories that have been accredited to the man himself were actually his or rather a second hand interpretation from those that came after.

Born in Athens in 469 B.C and thought to have born into a working class family. It is not documented what his father did for a living but the general opinion is that he was a stonemason and his mother was believed to have been a midwife. Socrates fought for Athens in the Peloponnesian war sometimes participating in the politics that ensued after the war had finished. He married and raised one child with his wife but it is thought that he had another two children with his second wife. It was after this that he started to develop his thoughts and theories. He began to question what knowledge was, how it was acquired and what made humans different from animals in their learning and education (see appendix 1). Socrates believed in the individual learning capabilities of his students. By asking them continual questions he would never lead them to an answer but rather enable them to find the answer that they sought themselves.

Only by clearing the mind of prior formed ideas could the student have the space and depth to examine the question and find an answer. He “felt that life is not worth living unless you examine your life to know whom you are, what you believe, and what you want to become. To know yourself should be a major undertaking in your life. If a person is happy simply to exist, then what is the point of life?” (Love to know Corporation 2011) This can be considered similar to the Humanistic approach to learning and the works of Rogers self-initiated learning and Maslow with his theory of self-actualisation where the emphasis on learning is laid with the individual and those directly around them. Likewise the work of Magaluzzi and his Reggio Emilia schools who believe that “Instead of us teaching the children using a slow and boring step-by-step process, we try to let them begin and solve complex problems on their own” (Achtner, W. 1994) can be seen as similar to the theories of Socrates.

Socrates accepted that he knew little and only by accepting what an individual didn’t know could they then be educated “The goals of education are to know what you can; and, even more importantly, to know what you do not know” (Burgess, B 2008) He despised those who sought out knowledge just to appear more intelligent than others. To him becoming a good and truthful person was a product of learning and fed the soul. Lies and evil occurred through ignorance and would prevent one from becoming a good and wise individual. Education was a fluid process for Socrates and he would teach at any given opportunity or when a student would ask a question but never laid a charge on them. This could be in a field or on an open street. He believed that open spaces with plants and beautiful buildings were more conducive to learning and that being close to nature enabled clearer thinking of his students. This is very similar to the beliefs of Maria Montessori and that “The environment has to be ready and beautiful for the child that it invites them to work.

Their play is their work and they are still enjoying it. The adult’s role then is to construct their environment in which they will learn. The development of the child is dependent therefore on the environment he is in, and the environment includes the parents” (Daily Montessori 2009). This is still in education today, the use of natural materials and open spaces with natural daylight. In his development of his theory he claimed that there were two types of knowledge, Ordinary and Higher (see appendix 1) and that the learning capabilities of the human are endless. He referred to the soul as the inner self and as such it held the positivity, goodness and truth that a human required to become wise. With his following becoming greater due to his methods and beliefs he attracted the attention of the authorities who thought that he was influencing the young men with witchcraft, “denying the gods recognized by the state and introducing instead of them strange divinities; of corrupting the young; that he taught the young to disobey parents and guardians and to prefer his own authority to theirs” (Love to Know Corporation 2011) (see appendix 2).

This was considered unacceptable. Unfortunately his views that only the knowledgeable should make the decisions for those beneath them also went against the democratic society of that time. This changed the opinion of some of the Athenian people who at first thought he was a scholar and a wise man to him becoming a social pariah. It is important to mention that Socrates never considered himself to be a teacher more so an educator of men, this was highly unusual at the time as education was very formal and only for those who could afford to pay for it. This is something that could have made him appear sinister in the opinions of the Athenian aristocracy and lawmakers who were to place him on trial. He was found guilty and offered the choice of his own, should he have chosen to be exiled then he may well have lived but instead he appeared to hold the court and the jury in contempt by suggesting that he should be “awarded for his work instead” (EyeWitness to History 2003). Eventually it was passed that he would face the death penalty by drinking poison, in effect committing suicide.

There can be no doubt that Socrates theories have helped to shape the theories of those that have come after. His ideas of free learning and empowering the individual to question their own thoughts and ideas helping to develop their individual learning are still evident in today’s schools of theories and education. Like Freud who in certain areas of thought is considered to be the founding father of psychology it could be argued that Socrates theories of over two thousand years ago are in fact the foundations of modern educational theories and believes today.

Appendix 1
The Educational Theories of Socrates
I. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education? Socrates believed that there were different kinds of knowledge, important and trivial. He acknowledges that most of us know many “trivial” things. He states that the craftsman possesses important knowledge, the practice of his craft, but this is important only to himself, the craftsman. But this is not the important knowledge that Socrates is referring to. The most important of all knowledge is “how best to live.” He posits that this is not easily answered, and most people live in shameful ignorance regarding matters of ethics and morals. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p.30) Through his method of powerfully questioning his students, he seeks to guide them to discover the subject matter rather than simply telling them what they need to know. The goals of education are to know what you can; and, even more importantly, to know what you do not know. II. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie? Socrates makes the claim there are two very different sorts of knowledge. One is ordinary knowledge.

This is of very specific (and ordinary) information. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p.118) He claims that to have such knowledge does not give the possessor of said knowledge any expertise or wisdom worth mentioning. The higher knowledge could possibly be described as definitional knowledge. Socrates is extremely interested in defining words and concepts. He accepts the pursuit of definitional knowledge as a priority to philosophical discussion. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p.118) Socrates devotes much thought to the concept of belief, through the use of logic. He spars with students early in his career and later with his accusers, at his trial, on the nature of his belief regarding the gods. To define belief, according to Socrates, was to use naturalistic explanations for phenomena traditionally explained in terms of Divine Agency. (Brickhouse & Smith 2, p. 181) His belief in the wisdom and goodness of gods is derived from human logic and his natural scepticism. Any person who knows what goodness, or truth is, will live that way.

The only lie or evil comes about when one is ignorant of good. Man will never knowingly lie even if he thinks he is. It is his ignorance of goodness and truth that prevents him from being a wise and honest man. III. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential? The being in human is an inner-self. This inner-self is divine, cannot die, and will dwell forever with the gods. Only human beings can distinguish virtue, which is knowledge, from ignorance, which is the root of moral evil. (Easton pp. 72 & 73) The human being is so constituted that he “can” know the good. And, knowing it, he can follow it, for no one who truly knows the good would deliberately choose to follow the evil. This is a typically Greek notion, and is attractive to all rationalists. (Easton pp. 72 & 73) Only the human being has these capabilities. From experience, it can be known that intellectually the human potential is infinitesimal.

The mind of man is constantly reaching out for more and more knowledge, just as his will is desirous of more and more love. The search for knowledge varies with the individual, but the race of man has always carried on the quest in accordance with its nature and for the practical and speculative value that knowledge brings with it. (Noonan 1957) IV. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired? Learning is the seeking of truth in matters, and it occurs when after questioning and interpreting the wisdom and knowledge of others, one comes to recognize their own ignorance. Skills and knowledge are acquired by: (1) interpreting the statements of others; (2) testing or examining the knowledge or wisdom of those reputed (by themselves or others) to be wise; (3) showing those who are not wise their ignorance;(4) learning from those who are wise; (5) examining oneself; (6) exhorting others to philosophy; (7) examining the lives of others; (8) attaining moral knowledge. (Benson p.17)

V. Theory of Transmission: Who is to teach? By what methods? What will be the curriculum be? Socrates does not believe that any one person or any one school of thought is authoritative or has the wisdom to teach “things.” Socrates repeatedly disavows his own knowledge and his own methods. However, this appears to be a technique for engaging others and empowering the conservator to openly dialogue. Be that as it may, Socrates is widely regarded as one of the great teachers of all time. The Socratic method is one in which a teacher, by asking leading questions, guides students to discovery. It was a dialectical method that employs critical inquiry to undermine the plausibility of widely-held doctrine. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p.53) Socrates devoted himself to a free-wheeling discussion with the aristocratic young citizens of Athens, insistently questioning their unwarranted confidence in the truth of popular opinions, even though he often offered them no clear alternative teaching.

VI. Theory of Society: What is society? What institutions are involved in the education process? To the class of Athenians that Socrates was born into, society existed to provide the best life for the individual. The Athenians of Socrates’ day assumed just as their ancestors had assumed that the best life one could have, required the acquisition of what was called virtue, or excellence. A truly good person succeeded in doing great things for the city, strictly obeyed its law, honoured parents and ancestors, scrupulously paid homage to the gods by strictly obeying the conventions governing prayer and sacrifice. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p. 19) Athens’ political system was a radical, participating democracy in which every Athenian male citizen could-and was expected to-vote, hold office, and serve on the very powerful Athenian juries. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p. 18)

Societies are invariably formed for a particular purpose. Individuals are not self-sufficient; no one working alone can acquire all the genuine necessities of life. Separations of functions and specialization of labour are key. Society is composed of distinct classes (clothiers, farmers, builders, etc.). In addition, there are those that manage society and settle disputes. In Plato’s Republic, he uses the fictional character Socrates as spokesman for explaining the fundamental principles for the conduct of human life. (www.philosophypages.com/hy/29.htm#origins)

Education took place in magnificent buildings such as the Parthenon and Hephaisteion, which adorn the Acropolis and the Agora, the large open area at the front of the Acropolis that consisted of the Athenian market place and Public Square. (Brickhouse & Smith 1, p. 18) However, education took place wherever and whenever, and the concepts of schooling, colleges, and institutions had not yet arrived. VII.Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled? Socrates was the antithesis of elitist mentality. Socrates rejected “the pursuit of knowledge” for its own sake as a delusion and a snare, inasmuch as knowledge, properly so-called is unattainable, and a snare, insofar as it draws us away from the study of conduct (www.2020site.org/socrates) In other words, the pursuit of art, cosmology, or any specific discipline blurred the quest for truth. The practical knowledge that experts had in their respective fields was trivial and unimportant to anyone but they themselves.

He wanted to educate, challenge, question and debate men of ignorance mistaking themselves as knowledgeable, and by doing so, to promote their intellectual and moral improvement. Socrates’ open and non-dogmatic style and his emphasis on what other persons thought rather than on his own ideas led to several individual disciplines going their separate ways. The result was several prominent schools, with the most influential being the Platonic philosophy. Even though Socrates rejected the “pursuit of knowledge” per se, there are many contradictions evident to indicate that he did view himself as an educator whose goal was to see others learn.

VIII. Theory of Consensus: Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence? Socrates’ main focus throughout his public teaching life is the acquiring by the individual of self-knowledge. He believes that goodness and truth, positive essences and pure ethical and moral instincts are placed there divinely in the soul. (www.san.beck.org/c&s-compared.htm#6) However, they are not brought to consciousness unless they are awakened or learned. Therefore, consensus on the important things in life is just below the surface waiting to be acknowledged.

It is the destiny of mankind to seek out virtue such as courage and self-control, or propriety over the desires of ambitions or emotions that cloud the quest for truth. The concept of ignorance is what stands in the way of consensus and that once one realizes that he does not know, a change in any disagreement can occur. If we can recognize the value of virtue, we then can apply it and improve the quality of our lives. It will take precedence over personal power and the gratification of desire and pleasure. The life-long pursuit of self-improvement, the desire for wisdom is only attainable when one can see their own faults and weaknesses and negative tendencies.

Appendix 2
The Accusations Against Socrates
The life led by Socrates was not likely to win for him either the affection or the esteem of the vulgar. Those who did not know him personally, seeing him with the eyes of the comic poets, conceived him as a “visionary” and a “bore.” Those who had faced him in argument, even if they had not smarted under his rebukes, had at any rate winced under his interrogatory, and regarded him in consequence with feelings of dislike and fear. But the eccentricity of his genius and the ill will borne towards him by individuals are not of themselves sufficient to account for the tragedy of 399. It thus becomes necessary to study the circumstances of the trial, and to investigate the motives which led the accusers to seek his death and the people of Athens to acquiesce in it. Socrates was accused (1) of denying the gods recognized by the state and introducing instead of them strange divinities and (2) of corrupting the young. The first of these charges rested upon the notorious fact that he supposed himself to be guided by a divine visitant or sign.

The second, Xenophon tells us, was supported by a series of particular allegations: (a) that he taught his associates to despise the institutions of the state, and especially election by lot; (b) that he had numbered amongst his associates Critias and Alcibiades, the most dangerous of the representatives of the oligarchical and democratical parties respectively; (c) that be taught the young to disobey parents and guardians and to prefer his own authority to theirs; (d) that he was in the habit of quoting mischievous passages of Homer and Hesiod to the prejudice of morality and democracy. It is plain that the defense was not calculated to conciliate a hostile jury. Nevertheless, it is at first sight difficult to understand how an adverse verdict became possible. If Socrates rejected portions of the conventional of the mythology, he accepted the established faith and defense. performed its offices with exemplary regularity. If he talked of a mantic sign, it was divinely accorded to him, presumably by the gods of the state.

If he questioned the propriety of certain of the institutions of Athens, he was prepared to yield an unhesitating obedience to all. He had never countenanced the misdeeds of Critias and Alcibiades, and indeed, by a sharp censure, had earned the undying hatred of one of them. Duty to parents he inculcated as he inculcated other virtues; and, if he made the son wiser than the father, surely that was not a fault. The citation of a few lines from the poets ought not to weigh against the clear evidence of his large hearted patriotism; and it might be suspected that the accuser had strangely misrepresented his application of the familiar words. To the modern reader Xenophon’s reply, of which the foregoing is in effect a summary, will probably seem sufficient, and more than sufficient. But it must not be forgotten that Athenians of the old school approached the subject from an entirely different point of view. Socrates was in all things an innovator, in religion, in as much as he sought to eliminate from the theology of his contemporaries “those lies which poets tell “; in politics, in as much as he distrusted several institutions dear to Athenian democracy; in education, in as much as he waged war against authority, and in a certain sense made each man the measure of his own actions.

It is because Socrates was an innovator that we, who see in him the founder of philosophical inquiry, regard him as a great man; it was because Socrates was an innovator that old -fashioned Athenians, who saw’ in the new fangled culture the origin of all their recent distresses and disasters, regarded him as a great criminal. It is, then, after all in no wise strange that a majority was found first to pronounce him guilty, and afterwards, when he refused to make any submission and professed himself indifferent to any mitigation of the penalty, to pass upon him the sentence of death. That the verdict and the sentence were not in any way illegal is generally acknowledged. But, though the popular distrust of eccentricity, the irritation of individuals and groups of individuals, the attitude of Socrates himself, and the prevalent dislike of the intellectual movement which he represented, go far to account for the result of the trial, they do not explain the Attack. Socrates’ oddity and. demeanor were no new things; yet in the past, though they had made him unpopular, they had not brought him into the courts.

His sturdy resistance to the demos in 406 B.C. and to the Thirty in 404 had passed, if not unnoticed, at all events unpunished. His political heresies and general unorthodoxy had not caused him to be excluded from the amnesty of 403. Why was it then, that in 399, when Socrates’ idiosyncrasies were more than ever familiar, and when the constitution had been restored, the toleration hitherto extended to him was withdrawn? What were the special circumstances which induced three members of the patriot party, two of them leading politicians, to unite their efforts against one who apparently was so little formidable? For an answer to this question it is necessary to look to the history of Athenian politics. Besides the oligarchical party, properly so called, which in 411 was represented by the Four Hundred and in 404 by the Thirty, and the democratical party, which returned to power in 410 and in 403, there was at Athens during the last years of the Peloponnesian War a party of “moderate oligarchs,” antagonistic to both.

It was to secure the cooperation of the moderate party that the Four Hundred in 411 promised to constitute the Five Thousand, and that the Thirty in 404 actually constituted the Three Thousand. It was in the hope of realizing the aspirations of the moderate party that Theramenes, its most prominent representative, allied himself, first with the Four Hundred, afterwards with the Thirty. In 411 the policy of Theramenes was temporarily successful, the Five Thousand superseding the Four Hundred. In 404 the Thirty outwitted him; for though they acted upon his advice so far as to constitute the Three Thousand, they were careful to keep all real power in their own hands. But on both occasions the “ polity” for such, in the Aristotelian sense of the term, the constitution of 411 – 410 was, and the constitution of 404 – 403 professed to be was insecurely based, so that it was not long before the “unmixed democracy” was restore The program of the “ moderates “ which included (1) the limitation of the franchise, by the exclusion of those who were unable to provide themselves with the panoply of a hoplite and thus to render to the city substantial service, (2) the abolition of payment for the performance of political functions, and, as it would seem, (3) the disuse of the lot in the election of magistrates, found especial favor with the intellectual class.

Thus Alcibiades was amongst its promoters, and Thucydides commends the constitution established after the fall of the Four Hundred as the best which in his time Athens had enjoyed. Now it is expressly stated that Socrates disliked election by lot; it is certain that regarding paid educational service as a species of prostitution, he would account paid political service not a whit less odious; and the stress laid by the accuser upon the Homeric quotation, becomes intelligible if we may suppose that Socrates, like Theramenes, wished to restrict the franchise to those who were rich enough to serve as hoplites at their own expense. Thus, as might have been anticipated, Socrates was a “moderate,” and the treatment which he received from both the extreme parties suggests that Socrates attempted a rescue-that his sympathy with the moderate party was pronounced and notorious. Even in the moment of democratic triumph the “moderates” made themselves heard, Phormisius proposing that those alone should exercise the franchise who possessed land in Attica; and it is reasonable to suppose that their position was stronger in 399 than in 403.

These considerations seem to indicate an easy explanation of the indictment of Socrates by the democratic politicians. It was a blow struck at the “moderates,” Socrates being singled out for attack because, though not a professional politician, he was the very type of the malcontent party, and had done much, probably more than any man living, to make and to foster views which, if not in the strict sense of the term oligarchical, were confessedly hostile to the “unmixed democracy.” His eccentricity and heterodoxy, as well as the personal animosities which he had provoked, doubtless contributed, as his accusers had foreseen, to bring about the conviction; but in the judgment of the present writer, it was the fear of what may be called philosophical radicalism which prompted the action of Meletus, Anytus and Lycon. The result did not disappoint their expectations. The friends of Socrates abandoned the struggle and retired into exile; and, when they returned to Athens, the most prominent of them, Plato, was careful to confine himself to theory, and to announce in emphatic terms his withdrawal from the practical politics of his native city.


Burgess, B. (2008). The Educational Theory of Socrates. Available: http://www.newfoundations.com/GALLERY/Socrates.html. Last accessed 20th Feb 2011. Daily Montessori. (2009). Montessori Theory. Available: http://www.dailymontessori.com/montessori-theory/. Last accessed 22nd Feb 2011. ACHTNER, W. (1994). Obituary: Loris Malaguzzi. Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-loris-malaguzzi-1367204.html. Last accessed 22nd Feb 2011. Love To Know Corporation. (2011). The Socratic Method and Doctrine. Available: http://www.2020site.org/socrates/method.html. Last accessed 22nd Feb 2011 http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/greeks/philosophy/socrates.htm “The Suicide of Socrates, 399 BC,” EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2003)

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