Why Did Socrates Focus on Self-Knowledge and Introspection?

Fundamental to Socrates’ philosophy was his insistence on learning as an internal process of self-discovery.

Mar 10, 2024By Brian Daly, BA Philosophy, BA English

socrates focus on self knowledge introspection


Socrates had a profound impact on the trajectory of Western philosophy despite insisting “all I know is that I know nothing.” This claim alone could be misconstrued to suggest Socrates didn’t think there was anything that could be known, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The existence of eternal truth is fundamental to Socrates’ philosophy and Ancient Greek philosophy as a whole. It is almost paradoxical that this hope for possessing real knowledge—something so far outside oneself—is supported by the realization that learning is a deeply internal process.


Living a Good Life

The Feast of Acheloüs by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, c. 1615. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Socrates’ main goal throughout his life was figuring out what it meant to be a good person. The culture of 5th century Athens was incredibly social; as much as the presence of aristocrats and festivals shaped the character of ancient Athens, it was also responsible for cultivating superficiality and indulgence. Nonetheless, Socrates loved Athens and Athenians, regularly engaging in conversations with his fellow citizens and preserving an authentic yet counter-cultural presence.


For Socrates, living a good life meant acting in a good and just manner, rather than just pursuing pleasure. He believed that the only sure way to act properly was to know what goodness or justice was. Looking for clarity, he turned to friends and fellow Athenians, asking them what their answers to such nebulous questions were and what reasoning was behind them. Nobody, not even Socrates, had conclusive answers. However, Socrates was never one to accept inconclusive matters and move on. His conversations aimed for profound, resolving answers, and while Plato’s dialogues show how evasive these answers are, they also reveal some strong convictions Socrates held with near certainty.


Death Before Dishonor

The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David, 1787. Source: Met Museum


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Socrates never compromised on doing what he thought was the right thing to do, even when his life depended on it. During his trial, Socrates argued against accusations of impiety and corrupting the youth when expressing regret and pleading for mercy would have likely spared him a death sentence. In the Crito, one of Socrates’ friends, Crito, sneaks into his prison cell before his execution with a plan to help Socrates flee Athens and avoid an unjust death. Socrates refuses to accept this offer unless they can both agree that fleeing would be good and proper recourse.


Crito by Jacques Louis David, c. 1786. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


As they talk, they both first agree on the importance of always acting in a good and just manner. Socrates takes this further by addressing whether the opinions of all others matter, or only the opinions of those who are good and just (or at least act as such). Crito’s main counterpoint is that the opinions of the masses, namely, Socrates’ jury, are responsible for his death sentence. Even if others are unwise, their opinions must be considered for the sake of self-preservation at least. Socrates doubles down, asserting that a good life be valued above all other possibilities.


View of Delphi with a Procession by Claude Gellée and Claude Lorrain, 1673. Source: The Art Institute of Chicago


Socrates must accept his fate, because avoiding it would mean throwing away his goal of a good life. He argues that he has lived in Athens all his life, having been nurtured and supported by the state to become who he is, and that this has always represented his acceptance of all the laws of Athens. Had he been dissatisfied, he could have left legally or tried to change any unjust laws. Now that it is too late for either, fleeing would only suggest that his good character and actions were never more important than his own self-interest. Furthermore, Socrates could not resume his way of life in any other city, since the people there would know that he fled Athenian persecution, and this alone would render anything he has to say about virtue and justice insincere.


The Immortality of the Soul

The Adoration of the Skulls by Michel-François Dandré-Bardon, c. 1733. Source: The National Gallery of Art


Considering the Crito alone, Socrates would have needed some other motivation for staying true to his values. If he were pursuing a good life for the sake of others’ opinions towards him, he likely wouldn’t have been sentenced to death in the first place. His motivation comes from within, and the importance of a good life depends on more than the time he has on earth. The final moments of Socrates life are narrated in the Phaedo, where he describes death as a separation of the body and the soul.


For Socrates, being a philosopher has meant being attracted to wisdom, ideas, and truth. Death gives the soul its chance to be freed from the body’s desires and intellectual inefficacy, meaning that it can finally grasp the knowledge and eternal truths which Socrates, like all true philosophers, has spent his life searching for.


Philosopher (from the series On Death II) by Max Klinger, c. 1898. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


The concept of an immortal soul comes up in many of the Platonic dialogues. While the chronology of these dialogues does not match up perfectly with Socrates’ life, this doesn’t further confound the question surrounding the soul. The latter half of the Phaedo explores the quandary by explaining the duality of opposites, namely, the material and immaterial world. While the soul and its vessel can be analogized to other things (e.g., fire is to the body as heat is to the soul), this is not enough to conclusively prove what happens to a soul after death, or if it is truly indestructible. There is agreement in the Phaedo of the soul’s preexistence, which is addressed in other dialogues with greater reference to individual experience. 


Virtue and Knowledge as Objects of the Soul

Allegory of Virtue and Vice by Lorenzo Lotto, 1505. Source: The National Gallery of Art


The Phaedrus also explores the immortality of the soul as Socrates tries to account for all people, the passions and drives they show, and how these correspond to divine exuberances. Better yet, the Meno focuses on the nature of learning and knowledge itself to suggest an immortal soul. When Socrates and Meno discuss what all virtues have in common, their dialogue shifts from explaining how specific virtues are often conditional, and that for any individual, they must recognize their own virtue within; it isn’t enough to just be told they’re virtuous.


Virtue Overcoming Avarice by Jan van den Hoecke, 1637. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Socrates and Meno agree that virtue is unlike any other field of inquiry because it cannot be taught. However, even knowledge which can be taught is never imposed onto a student or pupil, but rather brought out from within them. It is that universal feeling of a concept or lesson finally clicking which suggests both the existence of an immortal soul and a nexus of objective knowledge which the soul accesses. The Greek word for this is “anamnesis,” the idea that all learning is actually recollection—a gap being bridged between an immaterial soul and immaterial truth. Both exist before individuals live, yet their reunion is fundamental to the human condition.

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By Brian DalyBA Philosophy, BA EnglishBrian holds BAs in Philosophy and English from Quinnipiac University and currently lives in New York. Whether through writing, teaching, or tutoring, he is always eager to spur interest in pondering and discussing complex ideas. His other interests include writing poetry, listening to music, and gardening.