Category: Persons

Socratic Schools

Socrates’ personality had a strong impact not only on Plato but also on the so-called minor Socratic philosophers. This group includes Antisthenes, an Athenian, Aristippus of Cyrene, Euclides of Megara and Phaedo of Elis, all members of the Socratic inner circle; following the death of Socrates in 399 BC, they all pursued the continuation of the Socratic tradition. Their teachings gave rise to the Cynic, Cyrenaic, Megarian and Elian schools of philosophy respectively (4th century - second half of the 3rd century BC.). These intellectual movements comprise the so-called Socratic schools.

Greek philosophy in the early 4th century BC is inseparable from the personality and teachings of Socrates. Their personal relationship with Socrates (and especially their first-hand experience of his stance in the face of his indictment, his trial, and the death sentence he received from the polis) left an indelible mark on all the members of the Socratic circle. Although Socrates deliberately refrained from writing anything at all in his lifetime, in the wake of his death many of his students devoted themselves to writing dialogues in which he was the protagonist, with the aim of defending his memory and refuting the charges against him. In doing so, they created a new literary genre, the so-called “Sokratikoi logoi”. However, out of all the specimens of this new genre, only works of Plato (429–347 BC) and Xenophon (427-355 BC) survived intact.

The dominant position attained by the dialogues of Plato in the history of western thought has obscured the character and significance of the philosophical thought and the writings of the other Socratics. Nevertheless, Antisthenes, Aristippus, Euclides, and Phaedo not only developed their own philosophical ideas but also “founded” their own distinct “Schools” of philosophy (the Cynic, Cyrenaic, Megarian and Elian school respectively), unlike some other companions of Plato, such as Xenophon or Aeschines, who were not associated with the emergence of separate intellectual movement.

The various Socratic schools flourished from the early 4th century until the mid-3rd century BC. Sharing the life and thought of Socrates as their common fountainhead, each one still followed a different direction. However, all of them were claiming exclusivity of Socratic heritage for themselves (as did Plato and the Academy). Yet all of them more or less endorsed the Socratic link between knowledge and virtue, assigned fundamental importance to virtue for the pursuit of happiness, and believed that the practice of philosophy is essential for the molding of one’s personality and the attainment of self-control.

To the extent that the sources that we have at our disposal only furnish us with fragmentary and indirect evidence, it is not easy to determine the exact positions of each and every of these schools (not to mention delineating subtle differentiations between members of the same school), to trace the originality of a thesis, or to establish the purported Socratic origin of opposing conceptions of the Good (e.g. hedonism / antihedonism). It is not always possible to draw clear distinctions between the first generation of Socratics and the subsequent Socratic schools. And we can only speculate about the intellectual struggles among 4th century philosophers that preceded (and gave rise to) the doctrinal «establishment» of the schools. Moreover, when it comes to the Socratic schools this term does not in fact denote an established institution (such as was, as least in a certain sense, Plato’s Academy). Rather, in this context the term “School” refers more generally to a body of inherited teachings or even to a tradition of thought that is maintained through an uninterrupted “succession” of teacher-pupil relations, having as their point of origin whichever companion of Socrates is identified as the alleged founder of the school in question. Each head of a school (scholarchēs) safeguards the transmission of the founder’s teachings to the next generation of followers. The alleged chains of “succession” are certainly the creation of the “doxography” of the Hellenistic period. Thus, the utilization of ancient sources and reports concerning the Socratic schools calls for increased caution.

The Socratic Schools


Diogenes of Sinope (c.403-c.323 BC) was the typical representative of Cynic philosophy and the first to whom the appellation ‘Cynic’ was applied (‘dog-like’, from the Greek word for dog), denoting what was perceived as his utter shamelessness (anaideia). Diogenes was the founder of the “School” of the Cynics, although certain sources allege that it was rather Antisthenes (c.446-c.366 BC) who was the first Cynic and teacher of Diogenes. The indirect influence of Antisthenes on Diogenes is undeniable, but a more direct relation between the two is dubious. Most prominent among the early Cynics of the 4th and 3rd century was Crates of Thebes (c.365-c.285 BC), but also Hipparchia and Metrokles of Maroneia, Bion of Borysthenes and Menippus of Gadara. The Cynic movement maintained a presence in the Roman world until the 6th century AD. No Cynic writings have survived; all we have are indirect reports on the movement from later sources.

At the core of Cynisism is an ideal of living in accord with nature; such a way of life was conceived in terms of austere, virtuous self-sufficiency (autarkeia). A blatant, unconventional defiance toward social conventions and hierarchies became a distinguishing mark of the Cynic principle of action, as illustrated by several famous anecdotes (Diogenes living in a jar, his frankness [parrhēsia] in his dialogues with Alexander the Great, the accusation of defacement of currency, etc.). The Cynics used the power of reason to criticize established conventional knowledge and teaching, and they adopted a cosmopolitan outlook. The exercise (askēsis) of soul and body empowers the individual to assert his independence vis-à-vis everything superfluous, and strengthens his character against the attraction of pleasures. A process of «unlearning» facilitates the individual’s rejection of cultural values that hinder living in accord with nature. The emblematic portrait of the cynic wise-man is the wandering beggar whose only possessions were his stick, a wallet, and a rough cloak.


Aristippus the Elder (435-355 BC) was known as the founder of Cyrenaic hedonism. Nevertheless, it is more likely that the founder and head (scholarchēs) of the Cyrenaic school was, in fact, his grandson Aristippus the Younger (born c.380 BC), also known as “mother-taught” (his mother Arete was the daughter of Aristippus the Elder). Apart from the younger Aristippus, other well-known later Cyrenaics included Hegesias, Anniceris and Theodorus, each an exponent of his own version of Cyrenaic hedonism (c.330-c.270 BC).

Pleasure plays a key role in Cyrenaic ethics, and Cyrenaic hedonism analyzes in detail the motions of pleasure and pain (“smooth” and “violent” respectively) and the subjective experiences associated with these motions. There are two main interpretative approaches to Cyrenaic ethics. Many consider Cyrenaic hedonism as the only Greek ethical theory incompatible with ancient eudaemonism, to the extent that it equates the moral end to individual momentary bodily pleasure. Others argue that there are ways of reconciling the two theories. In this context, the significance of Cyrenaic subjectivist epistemology is fundamental. The Cyrenaics, without denying the existence of the external world, believed that one can not possibly acquire knowledge of the properties of objects in the external world. Knowledge is limited to conscious subjective experiences, one’s own pathe.

Elians and Eretrians, Megarians and Dialecticians

Phaedo of Elis (b. ±420 BC), one of Socrates’ interlocutors (also known from Plato’s dialogue named after him), founded his own school of philosophy at his native town in the Peloponnese. In Zopyros and Simon, two Socratic dialogues he composed, he argues for the beneficial influence that philosophy can have on all humans, regardless of their physical or cultural predispositions and external circumstances. He asserts the essential role of philosophy for attaining virtue (which, however, is not deemed incompatible with those pleasures that stem from virtuous actions). After Menedemus from Eretria (344-260 BC) became scholarchēs, the school was renamed and his followers were called Eretrians.

Menedemus was especially interested in the Socratic question regarding the unity of virtue, and he focused on logic, theory of language and metaphysics. It seems likely that he identified the good with virtue, and argued that the many, diverse names of the different virtues are essentially synonymous and refer to virtue as a single thing.

Euclides of Megara (c. 450-380 BC), founder of the Megarian School (known from the introductory scene in the platonic Theaetetus) argued for the unity of goodness using Eleatic vocabulary. The Megarians did not shy away from logical inquiries, and later became famous for various logical puzzles. Stilpon of Megara (360-280 BC), Euclides’ successor, also argued against the use of the copula. Nevertheless, ethical questions remain at the core of the Megarian philosophy. By contrast, Clinomachus of Thurii, pupil of Euclides and founder of the Dialectical school, developed an independent interest in the theory of dialectics. Diodorus Cronus, and Philo (who dealt with the logic of proposals) and Dionysius of Chalcedon (who was interested in the theory of the definition) were some of the other prominent Dialecticians. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was a student of both Stilpon and Diodorus.

In the Hellenistic era, the Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics progressively gained intellectual ascendancy to the point of hegemony, and as a result the Socratic schools declined. Yet, these schools, and the Stoics predominantly among them, also invoked a Socratic origin and laid claim to the Socratic legacy.

Author: Lampros Spiolopoulos
  • Algra, K., Barnes, J., Mansfeld, J., Schofield, M. eds. The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge, 1999.
  • Goulet-Cazé, M-I, Branham, B. eds. The Cynics. The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and its Legacy. Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1996.
  • Döring, K. Die Megariker: Kommentierte Sammlung der Testimonien. Amsterdam, 1972.
  • Giannantoni, G. ed. Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae 4 vols. Nάπολη, 1990.
  • Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 3. Cambridge, 1969.
  • Morrison, D. R. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • McKirahan, R., Tsouna, V. "Socratic Origins of the Cynics and Cyrenaics." Vander Waerdt, P.A. ed. The Socratic Movement. 1994.
  • Tsouna, V. The epistemology of the Cyrenaic school. Cambridge, 1998.
  • Vander Waerdt, P, The Socratic Movement. Ithaca, NewYork, 1994.
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