5 Quotes by Socrates Explained

What valuable lessons can we learn from Socrates' quotes about wisdom, self-reflection, knowledge, and the dangers of ignorance?

Apr 1, 2024By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

socrates quotes explained


If you consider yourself a quote enthusiast, then it’s time to brush up on Socrates’ best-known pearls of wisdom. In addition to being one of the most famous Greek philosophers, his work also took Western philosophy to new heights.


But beyond that, Socrates was an enigmatic genius who changed philosophy forever. His teachings have captured people’s imaginations for centuries and continue to inspire millions from all walks of life today. The reason? He used questioning like no other. What are some famous sayings by this ancient Athenian?


1. “The Only True Wisdom Is in Knowing You Know Nothing”

Bust of Socrates, Author unknown, AD 1st–2nd century. Source: Louvre Museum


Socrates was known for his relentless pursuit of knowledge and his willingness to question everything—even things most people took for granted. He knew that knowledge was not stagnant; it evolved over time.


Many claimed to be knowledgeable—wise—but Socrates, with characteristic humility, understood that wisdom does not come from accumulating facts. It comes from understanding your own limitations.

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To illustrate: imagine someone who is convinced they know everything there is to know about something. They might become complacent, thinking they have a complete understanding of the world. This complacency can stop them from learning or growing further.


However, someone who acknowledges their lack of knowledge remains open to new ideas and perspectives because they understand there is always more to learn or explore.


Socrates famously said he was wise only because he recognized how little he truly knew compared with what could be known—not just by him but by everyone else, too.


This willingness to question everything and admit where you fall short sets you up for real intellectual growth and discovery. And it’s not just about pursuing personal enlightenment; it’s also about engaging with other people in a humble way when sharing ideas or debating points with them.


Realizing how little we know ourselves makes us more receptive when listening to different views or opinions (because no matter how much each individual knows on any given subject, there are endless other things each person doesn’t).


Doing so creates space for dialogue and exchange—hallmarks of a culture that encourages intellectual curiosity and growth.


2. “Prefer Knowledge to Wealth, for the One Is Transitory, the Other Perpetual”

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1500. Source: Museo Del Prado


This quote urges us to appreciate knowledge more than wealth, as it is temporary in contrast with the eternal benefit of learning. Material possessions are transient and momentary comforts. They can be earned or spent according to time and willpower.


But knowledge is a form of treasure that cannot be taken away from one’s possession. It is an inherent resource that follows human beings throughout their lives, constantly providing them with information and useful insights about life that influence the person intellectually.


For example, take a rich person who gets happiness and contentment from nothing else other than his wealth. Even if he has all the luxuries that money can afford at his whim, the lack of a will to learn more and be intellectually curious about the world can easily lead to a life of dissatisfaction.


People who value knowledge in their lives find ways for personal growth as well as intellectual satisfaction; they also aim at spreading out horizons of minds and deepening insights. Seeking knowledge throughout one’s lifetime fulfills as it broadens perspectives.


To this, add the reality that wealth is usually gotten by means outside of our control. This includes inheritance or mere fortune in some cases. Knowledge, however, comes directly from effort and one’s capacity for curiosity. We are responsible for seeking knowledge and the ways we can learn and grow, so it is much more reliable as well as empowering.


In essence, knowledge has a permanent nature because it is able to transcend time and space. Unlike material possessions that may be lost, stolen, or damaged beyond recovery, knowledge is something accumulated as an individual grows and develops into something they can impart for posterity.


3. “An Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living”

Path in the Park, Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Source: Kröller-Müller Museum


This Socrates’ quote, simply put, confronts us on the issue of existence. It urges us not to merely live out our life’s actions but to face the very basic human state: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? This maxim is a belief that without self-contemplation, life is desolate and meaningless.


Imagine walking through an amazing garden full of every flower imaginable yet never giving yourself time or space in which to take it all in—the colors and smells and delicate framings left unnoticed as you bulldoze your way down each row.


An unexamined life can be like this, too—as if you’re hurrying through experiences, relationships, and problems without stopping to think about what they might mean or their consequences.


To understand why self-examination is so valuable, consider another scenario: someone immersed in completing a jigsaw puzzle who takes the time to think about each piece’s shape and where it could fit into the whole picture.


This person is detail-focused, has tremendous critical-thinking skills, and possesses an insatiable curiosity that propels them to look at every side. Completing it makes them feel fabulous.


In a way, we piece together parts of experiences, thoughts, or feelings as we examine our lives in the hope of making some sense of ourselves as individual beings who have a place in society.


This love for open-mindedness is a crucial characteristic of Socrates himself; his questioning was relentless and made him notorious within his lifetime. He was always ready to find the truth by subjecting all assumptions or beliefs (including his own) to close and relentless scrutiny.


Socrates believed true knowledge comes from rigorously testing what we believe against evidence and from critically evaluating our values or assumptions alongside other people’s.


4. “Wisdom Begins in Wonder”

Creation of Adam in the Paradise, Jan Brueghel the Younger, 17th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


To truly grasp how profound this quote is, let’s break it down. The term “wisdom” refers to a deeper level of understanding and insight. It represents an accumulation of knowledge and contemplation that goes beyond factual information.


Socrates suggests that wonder is the first step towards wisdom—the sense of curiosity and amazement that prompts us to investigate, question, and find out more.


Think about when a young child sees their very first rainbow. They’re fascinated by the spectrum of colors adorning the sky, so they start asking questions: Why does a rainbow appear? How? This initial sense of wonder breeds enthusiasm for learning—something that can be nurtured all through life.


There’s something else, too: wonder encourages an open mind. It allows us to challenge preconceptions and think outside the box; it pushes us to explore new ideas and fresh perspectives on things. By being genuinely curious, we take control over our own education—actively seeking knowledge rather than waiting for someone to impart it on us.


Consider some famous examples from history: scientists who made groundbreaking discoveries or philosophers who came up with game-changing theories. All of them possessed an insatiable appetite for learning; they wondered deeply about their surroundings; they questioned conventional thinking; they had a true thirst for wisdom.


And then there’s Socrates himself: his questioning technique aimed at getting people to consider deeper truths involved him approaching conversations with genuine curiosity (wonder) where he’d challenge assumptions while looking for as well as encouraging more meaningful answers from those he was talking with.


If he hadn’t been so genuinely interested in finding out stuff (wondering), he would not have been able to engage in the profound philosophical discussions we admire to this day.


5. “The Only Good Is Knowledge, and the Only Evil Is Ignorance”

School for Boys and Girls, Jan Steel, c. 1670. Source: National Galleries of Scotland


Let’s reflect on another interesting quote by Socrates: “The only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance.” With these powerful words, Socrates directs us to think about what actually constitutes goodness and evil at the very core—as well as just how much value he placed on knowledge.


By arguing that knowledge is the only thing one needs to be good, Socrates has provided intrinsic value to understanding. Knowledge enlightens our minds; it broadens our perspectives and makes us capable of rational decision-making. It helps differentiate between right and wrong, or truth and falsity. In short, it helps one become a better individual and improve society altogether.


Take this example: two individuals get caught up in a moral dilemma. One of them goes about making bad decisions because they do not understand the likely consequences for others; that is, they lack knowledge.


Another person has an enlightened understanding of ethics and takes action accordingly, mindful of the well-being of other people. This interpretation can be used to depict the meaning of the quote: a learned or knowledgeable individual does good things with their actions; an unknowledgeable one, through action, might cause harm to others.


Ignorance alone is actually evil. Ignorance holds back understanding—and limits enlightenment when it comes to decision-making. It can give birth to prejudice and injustice or even maintain harmful beliefs and behaviors.


Think of situations where misinformation quickly spreads in society, resulting in stereotypes, discrimination, and even violence. Ignorance breeds division! Enlightenment dispels it into knowingness, creates empathy, and fosters inclusivity.


Socrates believed that knowledge is not just a mere collection of facts; it involves knowing yourself, your values, and the world you live in. Knowing who you are in the world around you makes one good.


So, What Did Socrates Teach Us?

The School of Athens, Raphael, 1509-1511. Source: Vatican Museums.


Socrates left behind a wealth of wisdom through his thought-provoking quotes. From ‘The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing’ to ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ and ‘The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance,’ Socrates makes statements that are as relevant today as they ever were.


Through his teachings, Socrates tried to get across the importance of two things: humility and self-reflection. True wisdom comes from understanding our own limits—recognizing what we don’t know—so we can continue learning. By being open-minded about our intellectual shortcomings, we increase our chances of growing intellectually.


Socrates also urged us to examine our lives—inside and out. We need to think deeply about why we behave as we do: what motivates us and how well we act on these motivations. Such self-introspection helps drive personal growth, make wiser choices, and give life more meaning.


Knowledge matters hugely in life (again, something Socrates would have agreed with). It enables people to tell right from wrong, make better ethical decisions, and solve problems more effectively, which is one reason why extreme ignorance can lead people into conflict with others who see things differently.

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.