Socrates - the first good coach in the world?


Coaching Blog-Socrates-The first good coach
„The death of Socrates”, Jacques-Louis David, 1787.

Socrates (469-399 BCE) is, next to Plato and Aristotle, considered the greatest philosopher of antiquity. He was such an important figure that periods in the history of philosophy can be divided into pre-Socratic and post-Socratic.


The Socratic Method, ascribed to him, is a way of conducting dialogue and at the same time reaching the truth. Its principles are still valid today and you can quickly notice a connection with modern coaching. I wrote about it, among others in a dedicated post Did coaching come before Christ?


Socrates was a thinker who was not interested in postulating truths, but in examining the very foundations of thought. He did not take anything for granted, and that is what makes his famous statement:


"I know that I know nothing."

As Wikipedia writes, Socrates played the role of a simpleton who hungered for real knowledge (gr. eironeia, irony, an attitude of "mock modesty"), who apparently expects his interlocutor (gr. alazoneia, an attitude of "boastful vanity") to be instructed and assisted in the search for truth.


In the discussion, Socrates used the maieutical and elenctic methods he had developed. Believing that he himself did not know anything and that he was just looking for real knowledge, he tried not so much to convince interlocutors of his views, but to point out the wrongness of their views or to extract hidden knowledge from them.


  • The elenctic method consisted in checking the values and refuting the statements of the interlocutor by deriving consequences from them, leading in the end to an absurd thesis or contradicting the original thesis. It was a negative method, which indicated uncertainty and a lack of grounding in what the interlocutor considered knowledge, and what in fact turned out to be only an opinion. The conversation was conducted until the interlocutor admitted that he did not know anything about the topic.

  • The maieutic ("obstetric") method was in turn a positive method. He applied it only to people in whom unconscious knowledge was dormant. Through discussion, Socrates tried to help this knowledge "come into the world". So he was not an educator, but only a helper who also learned himself.

Doesn't that sound like the essence of modern Coaching ?!


In philosophy, he was mainly interested in a man. He did not study the nature of being or the cosmos. He mainly taught in the street, having numerous conversations and taking frequent walks. He was looking for a definition of concepts and an understanding of virtues that could become a certain, undeniable basis for a good life.


He himself was an example of great integrity - living in accordance with his chosen vocation and professed values. Even if the price was to be death, which will be discussed later in this column.


He did not leave any works, and we can learn about his profile and history thanks to the writings of his greatest student, Plato (who made Socrates the main character of most of his dialogues) and the writings of Xenophon (Defense of Socrates, Memoirs of Socrates, Feast).

Hence much more can be said with certainty about his views and methods than about life itself.


The life, activity, and death of Socrates

He was born in Athens, his father was a stonemason and participated in the construction of the Parthenon. Socrates' mother was a midwife whom the philosopher considered his mentor. Hence, perhaps, the name of the maieutical method created later, in which Socrates acted as the Academician of Truth.


In his life, he dealt not only with philosophy. For example, he fought as a soldier of Athens. In 440 he participated in the pacification of the island of Samos, and later took part in the Peloponnesian War, fighting in the battles of Potideja (429), Delion (424), and Amphipolis (422). According to legends, he showed great courage in these battles. He was saving wounded comrades. He left the battlefield in peace, which inspired his enemies to respect him. He believed that whoever flees the battlefield is afraid of death, and whoever is afraid of death does not truly understand the meaning of life.


Later in life, he married Ksantypa, known for his difficult character, and had three sons with her.

He walked around the agora barefoot and in an old coat. As a rule, he looked for interlocutors, attracting mostly young people from wealthy families. Unlike the Sophists, he did not take money from the students.


One story tells how a wealthy Athenian wanted to hire him to educate his son. The philosopher asked him to pay 500 drachmas. It seemed, however, too high a price to the wealthy. He said he could buy a donkey for that kind of money. So Socrates advised him to buy the animal - then he would have two donkeys in the house.

In line with his views, he also played public roles. For example, as a senior official, he courageously opposed the Athenians, who unlawfully demanded that the fleet commanders be put to death after the victorious battle near the Arginuz Islands (in 406). He showed similar civil courage when he failed to obey the order of thirty tyrants to arrest the Democrat Leon of Salamis.


Brave and steadfast in his convictions, Socrates became more and more inconvenient for the politicians of the time. In 399 B.C.E. he was accused of impiety, spoiling the youth, and imprisoned. There he was accompanied by friends and students. He did not take advantage of the escape they had prepared for him. To the end, he wanted to be faithful to the law, even to what he considered imperfect. He spent thirty days in prison waiting for his sentence, talking and constantly studying the truth. Ultimately he was sentenced to death. Then he calmly drank the cup of hemlock (as shown in the image in the header of this post).


The beauty and character of Socrates

He was just ugly. He had bulging eyes, and a pouted lip, and to put it mildly, he was not a slender person. As he himself put it, his belly was "too large". Neither did he attach any importance to his outward appearance or costumes, and therefore many Athenians considered him a weirdo. And regardless of the weather, in winter and summer, he wore the same coat and the same sandals or walked barefoot.


His physical health was legendary, both in the war, when he served as a soldier, and at the symposium, when no one was able to match him in drinking. After an all-night feast, the next day, from the very morning, he was the first one ready to philosophize.


Every day he practiced the virtue of courage, temperance, humility, and controlling the needs of the body and mind. He did not consider himself a sage.


Knowledge, truth, good

Perhaps the above information will allow us to better understand why for Socrates virtue was an absolute good (which was what he opposed to the relativism of the Sophists). For him, virtue was also the highest good that a man should strive for, disregarding dangers and death.


He strove to acquire knowledge, but it was not just art for art's sake. He believed that truth was behind knowledge, and good and virtue were behind the truth. Without knowledge, one cannot do good or be happy. On the other hand, evil is committed either unconsciously or because of a lack of knowledge.


By good, he understood a moral good common to all mankind, such as justice, courage, or the ability to control oneself. By distinguishing them, Socrates actually became the creator of ethics.


And which, rarely the case, was a walking example of the virtues he professed, e.g. courage:

  • philosophical courage in talking and leading oneself and people to the source of truth,

  • civil courage manifested in faithfulness to its principles and not succumbing to pressure from anyone,

  • physical courage in the face of hand-to-hand combat, threats to life and natural conditions (cold, hot, rain),

  • the courage to be yourself, to accept yourself as you are, in your unique beauty and imperfections

  • Socrates always insisted that he himself does not know the best definition of virtue and that his wisdom lies only in knowing what he does not know. He never treated the interlocutors as enemies. He wanted through common reasoning to discover universal values.


He believed that we could learn the most by engaging in dialogue with other people. According to him, the fastest way to reach knowledge (and behind it is the truth behind which is good) is through discussion and asking questions. And he was so convinced of it that he used to repeat the following words:


"Flowers or trees will teach me nothing, but only the other person."

See also:

David Clutterbuck-the father of modern mentoring in Europe