As Christ’s trial and death gave birth to Christianity, Socrates’ trial and death – as the story goes – gave birth to philosophy. Both were killed by democratic mobs.
For Plato, the trial exposed democracy’s dark side—its capacity for mob mentality. In the story, Socrates describes himself as arguing with shadows. These are the shadows of Sophistry. According to the most famous Sophist, Protagoras, Man is the measure of all things, which is to say, there is no ultimate truth – what we say is truth, is truth. The Sophists were not from Athens, but their philosophical framework empowered an approach to democracy that prioritized convincing the popular culture over finding truth or doing right.
Despite the accusations, this is exactly what Socrates stood against. He did not believe in alternative or personal truths, nor did he assume he KNEW. Through his response to the Oracle of Delphi, he discovered the lynchpin of philosophical discourse: knowing one does not know. As the beginning of European philosophy is associated with Cartesian doubt, Socratic doubt initiated Greek philosophy. Only the doubting mind can demand a high standard for truth.
This leads to the Socratic Method, which is not about arguing a point, it’s about guiding someone from their unexamined belief to a recognition of its incoherence – to a recognition that they do not know.
This is when the conversation begins – when discourse renews.