7 True Socrates Quotes and 1 False One
Funny. 90% of the time I see a “Socrates quote” on social media, I have to think: is this real? (Admittedly though, I find that’s true at least 70% of the time for ANY quote I see on social media…) Pro tip: I’ve found that those with an “inspirational” label are the ones most likely to be false quotes.
Socrates was a philosopher who lived in ancient Athens, and he spent much of his life questioning the wisdom and assumptions of those around him. Apart from all the anger he inspired in the less intellectually agile, he also inspired plenty of admiration. This latter is indicated by the various works written by his friends and students.
But Socrates never wrote a thing in his life. (Plato notes at one point his teacher’s distrust in the value of the written word.) So whatever we label as a Socrates quote is necessarily given to us second-hand.
That being said, there’s good reason to believe we have a fair grasp of Socrates’ most fundamental and important ideas and beliefs. And they can often be communicated in pithy quotes. Below are some of my favorite quotes about justice, about virtue, and about happiness.
The student becomes the master
However, when it comes to Socrates, there’s a further required caveat. The bulk of what we know about Socrates comes from his student, Plato. And Plato was himself a philosopher with his own ideas. He often used Socrates as a character in his dialogues with the intention of conveying his own thoughts, rather than Socrates’.
I go into this more in another post, Socrates vs Plato, but let it suffice to say that just because Socrates expresses an idea in one of Plato’s Dialogues, it does not necessarily follow that Socrates said or believed it in real life. With that out of the way, here are the quotes along with some context and explanation:
” I would choose…that the whole world should be at odds with me, and oppose me, rather than that I myself should be at odds with myself, and contradict myself.
-Socrates (Plato, Gorgias)
In Gorgias, Socrates discusses virtue and justice with a famous sophist of the day, Gorgias, along with a few of his students.
While this quote may come off as a bit arrogant, I see this as Socrates saying that it is of the utmost importance to be true to oneself. First, this idea assumes that truth can never contradict itself. But second – and more important, I think – is that most people conceal their contradictions from themselves. And so every individual can be his own worst enemy, making “Know thyself” that much more important.
This quote is related in premises to the next:
“Whoever learns what is good and what is bad will never be swayed by anything to act otherwise as knowledge bids.”
-Socrates (Plato, Protagoras)
This is an example where pithy fails to communicate the greater context. Taken from Plato’s Protagoras dialogue, Socrates is actually asking a question here rather than making a statement. But it is clear that he stands by this statement – both in the context of the particular scene, and in most of his ideas in other works.
In fact, a more pithy and quotable version of this is, “There is only one good, knowledge; and one evil, ignorance.” And I see this quote all over Google when I do a search. The problem is, no one ever indicates where this comes from, and I don’t think it exists in any written work that we have. And while it rolls off the tongue a bit better than my example, it still can cause confusion.
In a nutshell, Socrates believed that knowledge of that which is true will always lead to virtue and justice. It must be so, because virtue and justice spring from that which is true. There is an objective truth, and there is an objective, knowable morality that leads to value. So when we find someone doing immoral things, it is because he does not have knowledge of what it is to be moral.
Now, that’s not to say that people can’t break rules if they know the rules. It means that one has to understand and believe the value of the rule in order to not wish to break it.
In fact, it may turn out that some rules are wrong when put to the test. And this is why the conservatives and traditionalists of Athens feared Socrates’ questions as much as they did.
“And I would ask you to be thinking of the truth and not of Socrates: agree with me, if I seem to you to be speaking the truth; or if not, withstand me might and main, that I may not deceive you as well as myself in my enthusiasm, and, like the bee, leave my sting in you before I die.”
–Socrates (Phaedo, Plato)
Here’s another quote in line with the first two. Socrates asks his friends to disagree with him if they have reason to disagree. How often do you find that in your day-to-day life? The value for Socrates is not to win a debate. His most sincere wish is that every participant in the conversation discovers the truth.
Plus, I really like the bee metaphor.
This is a quote taken from Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates is moments from drinking the poison that will kill him. It’s one of Plato’s later works, and so much of what Socrates says in this dialogue about the soul is likely Plato’s mischief. But the drama of the scene is beautiful and poetic, and I think we can be confident that this quote is in line with Socrates’ true thinking.
“So violence is not to be expected of those who exercise reason; such conduct belongs to those who have strength without judgment.”
-Socrates (Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates)
It’s probably not surprising that Socrates would make a statement like this. Socrates believed in the power of truth and knowledge, and so he would have understood that reason trumps violence.
That’s not to say Socrates was a pacifist. The philosopher fought in several major battles of the Peloponnesian War with some distinction, as was his duty to Athens. Sometimes violence needs to be answered with violence.
Yet if men would search for truth in earnest, violence would no longer make sense. Reason would adjudicate interests justly on its own.
This is a quote that comes from Xenophon – another admirer of Socrates, though less talked about. Not known for his philosophical bent, he was an aristocrat who was interested more in politics and military affairs. I thought it would be good to include one of his quotes from his writings about Socrates.
“That man is best prepared to live who makes everything which concerns his happiness depend upon himself, or nearly so, and does not hang on other men, whereby with their rise and fall his own fortunes also inevitably sway up and down.”
–Socrates (Plato, Menexenus)
Here we have an important aspect of Socrates’ ethics. For what is the point of ethics if it’s not meant to point a person in the direction of happiness and the good life?
Socrates understood, I think, that happiness results less from what we have, and more from what we expect. And our expectations are often dependent on the control we believe we have. If one anchors his expectations in that which is fully within his control, he is more likely to be happy.
Here we can see how Socrates’ life had a larger impact than just on Plato and his mode of thought. While this does come from one of Plato’s dialogues, one sees the seeds of Stoicism here. And while we don’t have much of what he wrote, Antisthenes – whose thought ultimately resulted in Stoicism – was an important friend and student of Socrates.
“For to fear death is nothing else than to appear wise, without being so; for it is to appear to know what one does not know. For no one knows but that death is the greatest of all good to man; but men fear it, as if they well knew that it is the greatest of evils.”
— Socrates (Plato, Apology)
This is a quote that communicates at least three of Socrates’ most important ideas and beliefs: it is irrational to believe we know the truth when we do not; it is immoral to choose that which is bad over that which we do not know to be good or bad; and it is better to suffer some evil than to commit it against another.
This quote is taken from Plato’s Apology – a short work that is mostly a monologue where Socrates speaks at his trial for impiety and corruption of the youth. The first part is Socrates telling his judges that the crimes levied against him are ridiculous. And the second part – after he’s been found guilty – is Socrates more or less daring them to put him to death. The Athenian jury takes him up on the dare.
I commonly see part of the above quote meme-ified in the social-media-sphere – the part about death being the greatest good for man. You can see here though that without the context of the rest of the quote, it does not have the same meaning. Socrates is not saying that death is a good thing. He is saying that no man has any knowledge of death, so it is not possible to know whether it is good or bad.
One thing he knows to be bad, however, is to stop pursuing philosophy. And so Socrates will not agree to stop doing what he has done all of his life – which is to question those who think they are wise, and put traditional values under a microscope. This he knows would be immoral, so if it’s a choice between death and immorality, he will choose death.
If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you read Plato’s Apology – it’s a relatively easy read, and quite interesting. And if you want to experience Socrates’ story in a more narrative and visual format, you should definitely grab Part 1 of the graphic novel HERE.
“Philosophy should be wooed by true men, not bastards.”
–Socrates (Plato, The Republic)
This quote has always struck me as funny and surprising. You would not expect the Socrates that I think I know to say this. And frankly, I don’t believe he would have said anything like it. This sounds much more like it would come from Plato.
This is a quote taken from Plato’s Republic – probably the most famous and popular of his Dialogues. Here we find many of the iconic ideas we attach to either or both philosophers: the Philosopher King, the Allegory of the Cave, the Theory of Forms – all of which, I think, have more to do with Plato than with Socrates. In fact, when I first read The Republic in high school, I thought of him as quite the innovator of bad ideas. (This was with no small thanks to my interest in Ayn Rand). It was only later that I learned you could separate Socrates from Plato; and you could appreciate the one and frown upon the other.
For a quote like the above, it should be fairly obvious that it would come from an aristocrat like Plato, rather than a scrappy craftsman and everyman like Socrates.
But this is NOT the false quote I promised!
While I think the above quote is unlikely to have been uttered by Socrates, it is still a quote from one of the texts we rely on to figure out what he said. Yet–somehow–with the treasure trove of material out there to come up with quote memes, I see a bunch online that have nothing at all to do with Socrates! And it boggles my mind.
Could Socrates have said something like the above? Because he’s a champion of reason? I suppose I can see some logic in the mistaken belief. However, apparently this mistaken belief has also attached itself to Eleanor Roosevelt, and other famous folks. And it turns out, no one knows who came up with it originally, as explained HERE.
I just want to know: who are the assholes who start the chain in the first place? What do they have to gain by spreading false meme quotes?! I understand that most people are suckers, and reposts are easy – but who benefits from the original lie?
Eh. It’s a pet peeve of mine…
Thanks for reading!