The home page of this professional ethics CPE course features the Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC). He was a citizen of Athens, which had no public universities at that time. Socrates roamed the streets and central markets engaging crowds of young people in philosophical conversation and debate. He called these forums “thinking shops.” Socrates’ rhetorical style of posing questions to every student’s answer focused on the critical reasoning behind their claim of knowledge and/or virtue.
This deliberate, logical questioning method was intended to explore the core personal values of the students. As such, it offered a refreshing alternative to the then traditional one-way lecture method of teaching. Socrates’ view was that the moral core values of virtue, justice and piety affect more than just religion but also one’s relationship with peers and democratic civilization as a whole.
The freedom of thought and expression that Socrates nurtured promoted individual self-knowledge and intellectual independence. He believed that vice arises from ignorance but that truth, citizenship participation and virtue are promoted by knowledge. Knowledge and virtue were acquired not only through substantive lecture but also through questioning the students' rational basis for their philosophical positions. Answers were explored deeply for meaning and ethical implications. Socrates believed that this thinking shop promoted knowledge and core ethical values while serving to reinforce and reaffirm the virtues found within us all. Socrates referred to this as a person’s “inner voice” and stressed that above all else, a person should “know thyself.”
Unfortunately, the Greek authorities eventually came to regard this thinking shop as contrary to the common order and blasphemous toward the official state religion. Socrates was charged and convicted of “neglecting the gods of the state and introducing new divinities.” His friends planned his escape from prison and voluntary exile but Socrates felt bound by the Athenian rule of law. His final day was spent conducting a thinking shop with his best friends and favorite students. That evening Socrates fulfilled his sentence by drinking a cup of hemlock potion according to the traditional Athenian procedure of self-administered execution.
Socrates himself was not a famous author and his contribution to the “Golden Greek” school of ethical development was primarily through the students he influenced. His most famous student was Plato (427-347 BC) who founded the popular private Academy University near Athens. It was here that Plato energized his student Aristotle (384-322 BC) with the teachings and philosophy of Socrates. Aristotle, in turn, tutored Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) at the Macedonian court. In the next 16 years, Alexander the Great established the Greek Kingdom throughout all the Mediterranean area south to Egypt and east to Persia and India; this series of conquests was the predecessor to the Roman Empire. The Latin translation of Aristotle’s works praising the Socratic method of intellectual inquiry is regarded as one of the most important historical foundations in the development of current ethical philosophy.
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