Learning from the Master: Socrates’ Examined Life

Chad Bochan

Start reading about the Athenian philosopher Socrates (c. 470–399 BC), and you will probably be filled with all sorts of questions. He provokes a reaction: critical, comical, challenging, infuriating, Socrates forged a public image, kindled a public reaction, brought philosophical technique before the public eye. It was not so much his ideas that provoked, but rather his brand new way of questioning, challenging, refuting. Even today when reading Socrates’ refutations, we feel a sort of Schadenfreude – a delight in seeing commonplace beliefs, held by some rather important people, challenged so openly. And we have questions. You may find yourself asking different questions from others: that is part of the magic of engaging with the Classical world, each of us in our own way. Take Socrates’ famous claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living”[1]: if Socrates said this to you, what would you ask him, if you had the chance? 

Frisbee Sheffield, in a fascinating article here on Antigone, asks a great question: “How did Socrates think that examination, of the kind he practised, could make us better?” It’s as if she asks Socrates, “Why should we examine as you did?” I would love to know this too, but would ask Socrates a different question: “How can we learn to examine as you did?” Answering this question – learning to see a conversation through Socrates’ eyes, and to challenge conversational partners using his techniques – could help us have more deeply-engaged discussions on the most vital issues of the present.

Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, François-André Vincent, 1837 (Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France).

I still remember the day that I first asked this question. Walking through my school library many years ago, I walked past a copy of Plato’s Republic, walked back, picked it up, and started reading. Socrates’ way of examining others opened my eyes to something completely unlike anything I had read previously (or have read since!). We didn’t have Classics available at my school, or at my university, where we were taught instead about the great philosophers and how to analyse an argument, using the tools of logic. Whenever I asked how to challenge ideas methodically, however – rather than how to test or understand claims and arguments already made – I was told “there isn’t really a method: each philosopher does this differently.”

Much has been written about Socratic refutations – why Socrates refuted others, how they reacted, what results (if any) these refutations produced – everything other than how to do it oneself. It is as if one learned everything about Italian cuisine, other than how to cook Italian food (I speak on good authority when it comes to the inability to cook). Did anyone in the ancient world write a manual of Socratic method? Not as far as we know. Aristotle (c. 384–322 BC) wrote a debating manual, the Topics, which gives many starting points for arguments. However, you cannot use it to challenge ideas like Socrates did: in a way, it is like a cookbook listing the ingredients for arguments but missing the recipes. Socrates himself never explained how to challenge ideas as he did: he mentions here and there, in the pages of Plato, a few general tips for philosophical method; nothing, however, that one could use as a method.

Plato keeps a wary eye on the Long Room of Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland.

What we do have in these dialogues, however, is a rich set of Socratic refutations. Time and time again, Socrates engages with others in conversations and refutes their claims. “Why not,” I thought, “try to reconstruct the Socratic method from these?” Rather than taking some critical-thinking tools from modern books and looking for examples of them in Socratic conversations (as some have done, trying to fit a square peg into a snub hole), I thought Socrates’ refutations should be dealt with on their own terms. Using a ‘bottom-up’ approach, I took each conversational refutation apart, figured out how it worked, looked for patterns, and created techniques for producing new arguments on the same models. This exercise in reverse engineering was like how the Romans worked out how to build warships by taking apart a wrecked enemy warship, figuring out its secrets plank by plank, and making a whole new fleet from this single example.[2]

It turns out that there are deep patterns running through Socrates’ examinations, which we can use ourselves in our own examinations of ourselves and others. Just as in chess, where there are certain strategies for an opening, others for the endgame, and yet others for the game in between, the Socratic method has different tools for different conversational challenges. I will describe in this article just one of the techniques in Socrates’ method, and how we can use it in conversations today.

Nintendo’s 1979 chess boardgame, Socrates.

Socrates listened very carefully and checked whether his conversational partners answered what he asked, or whether they instead answered a different question. (Students the world over know how one needs to read an exam question carefully to avoid giving the wrong type of answer. Socrates’ interlocutors often get caught out here.)

“What is courage?,” Socrates asked Laches, who replied that if someone was willing to defend themselves against an enemy, standing in their assigned spot and not running away, they would be courageous (Laches 194e). An examiner would mark a red cross here: the man didn’t reply to Socrates’ question. Socrates asked what courage was. A correctly formed answer might run, “courage is…” But the reply came back that someone defending themselves while standing in a certain spot was courageous. The reply didn’t define courage (as Socrates requested), but described a certain type of warrior, giving him a property (courageous). 

How does Socrates examine Laches? He first brings out the red pen: “Perhaps I’m to blame (not having spoken clearly) – you didn’t answer the question I meant, but a different one” (190e). What next? Does he, like a helpful teacher, show his conversational partner exactly what kind of answer he was looking for (“Try to finish this sentence: courage is…”)? No, that would not be Socrates’ way. Instead, he shows how someone running away can still be courageous (191a-b). Laches described a courageous person, but there are other types too; none of these answers the actual question that Socrates asked: “What is courage?”

Globe-trotting Socrates.

We see the same pattern of argument in other dialogues. In one, the Euthyphro, Socrates asks his eponymous interlocutor what “the pious” and “the impious” are. Euthyphro replies that not prosecuting a murderer (even one’s own father) would be impious (5d-e). Once again, Socrates brings out the red pen: “You didn’t teach me adequately when I asked what on earth “the pious” is; instead, you told me that what you’re doing now happens to be pious – prosecuting your father for murder” (6c-d). Euthyphro’s reply has the wrong form: it doesn’t define “the pious and the impious” (as Socrates requested), but describes a certain type of action, giving it the property “pious”.

Is this technique relevant to us today? In conversations about important issues, do we always directly respond to key questions put to us? Politicians today often do not: studies have found over 30 different ways that certain politicians have failed to respond to questions in political interviews.[3] We too, outside politics, can easily fall into the same trap, especially when discussing issues on which many have strong and principled positions:

A: But what do you mean by unfairness?

B: I’ll tell you what’s unfair: taking … from …!

Do you see how B here has failed to respond to A’s question, making the same mistake as Laches and Euthyphro? A could get the conversation back on track by bringing out Socrates’ red pen, showing B how other things are unfair too, and gently nudging the conversation back to the actual question at issue – what unfairness is. Reading Socratic conversations can help us improve our own. This is just one of the many techniques in the Socratic method. Dozens of refutations lie waiting in the pages of Plato for us to take apart and use ourselves, if we wish to live an examined life as he did.

Sketch of Socrates, William Blake, 1819/20 (Huntingon Library, CA, USA).

Socrates’ way of life has been held up across the centuries as a paragon of virtue, a superhuman ideal: he mastered the whims of his body throughout his life, and held to his philosophical principles even on the day of his death. His way of examining, however, is within the reach of us everyday mortals. Do we need it today? I think we do, or something like it: when public discourse has become an exercise of shouting rather than engaging, of claim against claim in a match of brute force rather than deep engagement, when assertions suffer less examination if put forth with more vehemence, the importance of challenge remains. Not just challenge, but challenge done well.

Socrates’ method could still have its uses. There is still so much to learn from this unique figure in the Classical world, both for those who devote their careers to the Classics, and for the rest of us on the outside – us who have never sat in a Classics classroom, and yet who are gripped just as tightly by a fascination with the past, and who have just as many questions to put to it. 

Chad Bochan is a non-Classicist who loves the Classics. He is incredibly thankful to all the Classicists across the globe who have so generously shared their time and thoughts with him, over email and online.

The recreation of Socrates’ appearance that stands at the head of this article is reproduced by kind permission of the artist, Robert Kubus.

Further Reading

For a fascinating take on Socrates’ curious life, see Armand D’Angour’s Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher (Bloomsbury, London, 2019). To learn more about his conversations, there are many excellent secondary resources, but why not go straight to the source? Plato’s writing is beautiful and compelling; the ideas may sometimes be hard, but his language is smooth and flowing, largely avoiding technical terms. Perhaps start with the Crito, a short and powerful conversation between Socrates and his friend, on whether Socrates should escape prison (Crito is for, Socrates against), easily readable on the Perseus website here. If you want to learn the Socratic method yourself, I have had a go at creating the first manual of Socratic method (as far as I know) – turning all the conversational refutations in the Socratic dialogues into a systematic technique with step-by-step instructions – in a personal study, How to Challenge Ideas Like Socrates (2019).


1 ὁ… ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ, Apology 38a5.
2 Polybius, Histories 1.20, accessible in Greek and English here.
3 See for instance Chapter 7 (Equivocation) in Peter Bull’s The Microanalysis of Political Communication: Claptrap and Ambiguity (Routledge, London, 2003).