Was Socrates a Teacher?

In this paper, I will oppose Socrates’ claim that he is not a teacher by referencing subtle contradictions and hidden meanings in statements made by him during his trial and views of teaching prevalent in Athens at the time. The paper will also bring out elements of his actions that can be construed as teaching and will deliberate on the importance of discussing whether Socrates is a teacher or not in the context of the Apology.

Socrates says that he does not “take money” or “instruct mankind” in any way. Since there is no monetary transaction taking place, he denies that he can be formally called a teacher. This is a thinly veiled jibe at the Sophists who were considered ‘professional teachers’ in Athens and charged a fee for their services. In reality, Socrates believes the opposite – by not charging money to men who listen to him, he is able to push their thinking through dialogue without worrying about not being paid if they are unhappy with what they hear. Since these men seek him out without any promise of instruction or pay (once again, alluding to Sophists), Socrates says that he cannot be called their teacher or held responsible for their actions.

Secondly, Socrates says that he himself possesses no knowledge (“I neither know nor think I know”) and only has opinions on moral issues that he speaks about freely to anyone who wishes to hear him. As he possesses no knowledge, he cannot be a teacher. A key point to note here is that Socrates is most likely referring to the knowledge of how to live a good life while nearly all Athenians at his trial would assume that he is talking about the kind of knowledge that Sophists transfer to their students.

Socrates deeply questions the people he converses with and challenges them in an effort to help them reason and reach a higher plane of thought. During our classroom sessions, we discussed about how a great teacher is one who teaches students how to think and not what to think – this is precisely what Socrates does when he guides and probes the minds of his interlocutors. The power of his (Socrates) methods are so profound that, to this day, there is a dialectical method named after him which is recognised as an excellent way of engaging in teaching critical thinking. Therefore, while Socrates denies being a teacher, many of his actions and techniques in interacting with men fall under the ambit of ‘teaching’.

On Socrates’ second point, knowledge need not only be restricted to knowledge of the good – mankind survived through the ages by picking up knowledge on how to survive in the wild which did not rest purely on the knowledge of the good. It is incorrect to say that an adult ‘teaching’ a child something new has only opinions and not knowledge. I will assume that there is a person with a strong conceptual understanding of the basics of perimeter and area of squares/rectangles. Through activities with real life objects and actual drawing and measurements, he/she shows a child how to understand and derive the relevant formulae for calculating these attributes. There is a transfer of knowledge of a mathematical concept from the adult to the child through an engaging mode of instruction. The adult, child and engaging mode of instruction are nothing but the teacher, student and teaching respectively. It is inaccurate to call the adult’s knowledge about area/perimeter merely an opinion. In fact, going through life would be practically impossible if we only had opinions and no knowledge to back it and I contend that knowledge exists, is teachable and broader than just the knowledge of the good.

With regards to the issue of money being collected in lieu of a service rendered, one of the ancient systems of schooling in India was the Gurukul system in which students (called shishya) lived with their teacher (or Guru) in a residential form of schooling (kula) where they studied under his guidance and helped him in running the Gurukul. The Guru-shishya relationship was a sacred one; the Guru did not accept fees or any form of monetary payment from the shishya. Thus, centuries before Socrates and Plato were born, there was a successful system of teaching in another part of the world that was not guided by money. Such a system that encourages learning without a financial contract would resonate with Socrates/Plato who both, at some level, believed that teaching is a gift that must not be commoditised. This was in complete opposition to the view of the Sophists who teach the opinion of the majority for a sizeable fee and pass that off as knowledge.

Socrates denies having a close relationship with the men who come to listen to him. On further investigation, this is contradicted at the trial as, if fathers or brothers can readily identify that young men from their families have associated with Socrates, it is fair to conclude that those relationships must be more than casual, informal exchanges. This notion is further backed by the line “For I say that there will be more accusers… …accusers whom hitherto I have restrained…” which points to a close bond shared by a pupil and teacher. The only way that Socrates would be able to restrain these young accusers is if they felt a strong sense of loyalty towards him and this could only have been realised through consistent, deep and meaningful associations.

Socrates says “…whether he turns out to be a bad man or a good one, neither result can be justly imputed to me; for I never taught or professed to teach him anything” – this argument is fallacious as it implies that he (Socrates) may inadvertently say something inciting during a dialogue but is blameless if he (the man) interprets it in a way that leads him to commit a wrong. This stance that Socrates adopts is particularly problematic in the context of the Apology as he was charged with being responsible for corrupting the youth and seems to be avoiding this responsibility altogether. Socrates appears to be trying to make a distinction between ‘philosophising’ (what he claims to do) and ‘teaching’ (what the Sophists do) but Plato does not satisfactorily bring out the difference between the two in the Apology. For instance, Socrates also says “…I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy” which further blurs the lines between what constitutes teaching and philosophising and remains an unanswered question at the end of the Apology.

Socrates remained true to the words he uttered at the start of his trial – “…I would have you regard me as if I were really a stranger (to the court), whom you would excuse if he spoke in his native tongue” – and spoke as he would at the agoras of Athens. At some points, his words (“…I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God”) could easily have been interpreted as arrogance that would have angered the jury. All in all, Socrates fails in his defence because of such statements coupled with the fact that his irony was far too subtle for his time.

The words spoken by different people during Socrates’ trial reveal a lot about the educational climate in Athens at the time which is important in understanding the relevance of the debate about whether Socrates is a teacher or not. The nature of education and teaching lies at the heart of Socrates’ defence and is referenced at multiple instances and in different contexts leaving the reader to construct his/her own definition of teaching. The fact that Socrates is able to claim that “I did not go where I could do no good to you or to myself; but where I could do the greatest good privately to every one of you…” indicates that traditional education in Athens was already susceptible to outside influences. When Meletus takes the stand during the trial, he says that “the laws” are the improver of youth and goes on to add judges, senators and the assembly to the pool of improvers – basically everyone but Socrates. So, education (in general) and teaching (in particular) was not as cut and dried as it seemed. There were many factors that contributed to shaping a young man – his family, the kind of citizens he was exposed to, the laws, poets and their verses, Sophists and philosophers. It seems that, prior to sentencing Socrates to death, there should have been a discussion on the goal of education and the elements that Athenians regarded as fundamental to teaching and education. Plato is suggesting that answering these fundamental questions will lead man closer to having knowledge of the ‘good’. Without that, the accusation of Socrates as a corrupter of youth and teacher of blasphemous ideas rested on flimsy grounds and silencing his voice did not resolve the societal issues that plagued Athens at the time.


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Jowlett, B. (n.d.). Apology (translated). Retrieved from http://literaturepage.com/read/plato-apology.html

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This essay was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the course EDU S105 - Philosophy of Education completed by the author at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The word limit was 2500 words.