Most of the principles embodied in the Constitution and Bill of Rights were developed in England centuries ago in response to the tyranny of the monarchy. But many of the ideas that gave rise to such principles go back even farther in time. More than 2,000 years ago Greek philosophers seriously examined such topics as freedom and justice.
Socrates was one of the 1st Greek thinkers to focus his attention on ethical conduct. Socrates was far more interested in the study of the individual – who and what we are – than in the study of the universe.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to know exactly what Socrates thought and taught because he left no written record. Thus, we must rely on the writings of others, such as Plato, to discern Socrates’ teachings.
There are several teachings scholars attribute to Socrates which are quite relevant to law and ethics. “An unexamined life is not worth living” is a statement attributed to Socrates. Socrates directed his thought inward, believing that wisdom lay within.
Socrates search for wisdom was guided by the inscription written on Apollo’s temple in Delphi, “Know Thyself”. He believed that true wisdom began with an examination of one’s self. To Socrates, a person’s true self and his soul were one and the same. He also believed that the individual must acquire wisdom in order to live a virtuous life.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates greets a fellow Athenian, saying
“Most excellent man, are you, who are a citizen of Athens, the greatest of cities and the most famous for wisdom and power, not ashamed to care for the acquisition of wealth and for reputation and honor, when you neither care nor take thought for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?”
According to Plato, Socrates taught that we should forget the world with its glory, honors and possessions, and direct our endeavors to the perfection of one’s soul, because aside from it, nothing ultimately matters. (See Socrates, A Life Examined, by Luis E. Navia, p. 192)
I believe these teachings attributed to Socrates provide valuable guidance to attorneys today. The practice of law should be more than just a job. It offers us a valuable tool to “Know Thyself”, and to lead a more virtuous life.