SOCRATES (c. 469–399 bce) was a Greek philosopher. Commonly regarded as the father of philosophy, Socrates' influence on Western thought has been huge throughout history. Almost every epoch saw in him a precursor of its own ideas and values, and a model of wisdom and morality.
Socrates is the only Western philosopher who wrote nothing. Hence all first-hand information on his life, personality, and thought derives from reports by those who knew him personally. Among those, a special role is played by his friends and associates who, in a series of dialogues commonly referred to as the Sokratikoi logoi, portray him in discussion with prominent intellectuals and politicians. These writings spread immediately after Socrates' death, becoming a popular literary genre in the first half of the fourth century bce. Unfortunately, from a corpus of hundreds of conversations only those reported by Plato (428/427–348/347 bce) and Xenophon (430–355 bce) survive complete; the Socratic dialogues of other authors are lost except for some fragments. The most substantial of these fragments are from Aeschines of Sphettus; the fragments of Antisthenes, Aristippos, Euclides of Megara, and Phaedo of Elis are scarce.
Plato, the most important among Socrates' associates, wrote almost solely dialogues in which Socrates is the main speaker. Although in these writings Plato seems to present his own philosophy, this happens often under the strong influence of his master. Especially in Plato's earlier dialogues, written soon after 399 bce, it is possible to make out many traits of Socrates' own philosophical thoughts. These dialogues include Apology, Crito, Laches, Charmides, Euthyphro, Hippias Minor, Ion, Republic I, and Protagoras from Plato's first period; and Lysis, Euthydemus, Hippias Major, Menexenus, Meno, and Gorgias from his second period. The middle dialogues (Symposium, Cratylus, Phaedo, Republic II–X, Phaedrus, Parmenides, and Theaetetus ) and the late ones (Timaeus, Critias, Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, and Laws ) are much closer to Plato's own than to his master's philosophy. Unlike Plato, Xenophon was not present at Socrates' trial and death and wrote his logoi many years after 399. His Socratic works are Apology, Symposium, Oeconomicus, and Memorabilia.
Other primary sources outside the Socratic circle are supplied by the Attic comedy. Socrates was used as a comic character in Ameipsias' Connus and Aristophanes' Clouds, two of the three comedies performed for the first time in Athens in 423 bce. Of these dramatic works only Clouds survives complete, though in a revised edition. This version, like most of the evidence coming from the comedians after 423 bce, gives a caricature of Socrates as an atheistic natural philosopher who is both an ascetic moral teacher and a sophist (for instance, in Aristophanes' Birds and Frogs ).
Among the writings of authors who were not personally acquainted with Socrates, most important are those of Aristotle (384–322 bce), who probably learned of him from Plato and others while attending the Athenian Academy. Aristotle's interest in Socrates was aimed at assigning to him a precise place in the history of philosophy, distinguishing the elements in Plato's oeuvre actually belonging to Socrates from those constituting Platonic interpretations of Socratic thought. Major evidence of this is to be found in several passages of Metaphysics, Nicomachean and Eudemean Ethics, and Magna Moralia.
Since all of the later Socratic sources of antiquity rely on the writings of the mentioned authors or on works which were lost, they are far less able to convey the real philosophical thoughts of Socrates. But since in some cases these testimonies contain information that is not elsewhere preserved, they should nevertheless be taken into account. The major Socratic texts occur within a variety of literary genres:
- the philosophers (Cicero, Plutarch, and others);
- Diogenes Laertius;
- the apologetic writers (Aelius Aristides, Libanius, and others);
- the antiquarian writers (Aulus Gellius, Aelian, Athenaeus, and others);
- the anthologists, the lexicographers, and the Suda;
- the early Christian writers.
The only certain fact about Socrates' life is the year in which he was condemned and put to death, in 399 bce. All other circumstances reported about him have no historical reliability, although in many cases their symbolic and philosophic meanings are of great interest.
Some sources report that Socrates, of the Antiochid tribe and the deme of Alopeke, was born on the birthday of the goddess of midwives, Artemis, the sixth Tragelion. He was the son of the midwife Phaenarete and the statuary Sophroniscus, with whom he worked during his youth. His family was likely wealthy, since he served several times in the heavy infantry, where he had to provide himself weapons and armor. During his later life, however, it seems that he became extremely poor, probably due to his absorption in philosophy, which left him no time for attending to his personal affairs. It is reported that he married Xanthippe, famous for her bad temper. His three sons Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus were still young at the time of his death, and were probably sons of another wife named Myrto, whose marriage to Socrates is variously described as preceding, following, or bigamously coinciding with his union to Xanthippe.
Throughout the literary and the iconographic sources of antiquity Socrates is renowned for the ugliness of his physiognomy. He had a snub nose, broad nostrils, protruding eyes, and an overly-dimensioned mouth, with extremely thick lips. Furthermore, he was bald, his neck was short and thick, and his belly was huge. His appearance was thus compared to that of a satyr or silenus. His physical toughness and endurance were known to be exceptional: he was able to practice extreme continence or abstemiousness as well as to outdrink anyone without ever getting drunk himself. He bathed infrequently and wore ostentatiously simple clothing, always went barefoot, and never became ill; he could go without sleep for days and sustain prolonged, trance-like spells of intense mental concentration. During the Peloponnesian War (431–404 bce) he gave proof of his bravery in the campaigns of Potidaea (432–429 bce), where he saved the life of Alcibiades (432 bce); Daelium (424 bce); and Amphipolis (422 bce).
Except for these military campaigns and two other trips to Samos and the Isthmian games, Socrates stayed always in Athens. Due to his extraordinary charisma he gathered around him a circle of friends and associates, who saw in him a "truly divine and marvelous man" (Plato, Symposium 219c). In 423 bce he was a well-known personality in Athens, portrayed in Aristophanes' Clouds as a leading representative of a new kind of education. His fame reached even Archelaus of Macedonia, Scopas of Krannon, and Eurylochus of Larisa, whose invitations to their courts he declined.
In 406 bce Socrates belonged to the Athenian Council of Five Hundred when the so-called trial of the Arginusae took place. In it, the generals of the Athenian fleet faced charges of neglect of duty following the naval battle of the Arginusae Islands during the Peloponnesian War. Athens won, but a storm wrecked several ships afterward, and the officers failed to rescue the survivors. In Socrates' tribe the assembly made the illegal proposal to condemn the generals to death collectively instead of individually, as required by law. Whereas the other members all accepted the proposal, Socrates refused, thus demonstrating loyalty to the laws of his city. Two years later, when the Thirty Tyrants attempted to involve him in criminal political activities by securing his complicity in the arrest of Leon of Salamis, he refused, for which he would have been put to death, if the Thirty had not been overthrown in time (Plato, Apology 32d and Xenophon, Memorabilia IV, 4, 3).
Five years later Anytus, a prominent politician of the restored democracy, together with the obscure Lycus and Meletus, brought the following indictment against Socrates: "Socrates is guilty of not recognizing the gods which the city recognizes, and of introducing other, new divinities. Further, he is guilty of corrupting the young. The penalty is death" (Favorinus, in Diogenes Laertius II, 40). Found guilty on both counts (by votes of 280-220 and 360-140), he was sentenced to death by hemlock. Having declined the alternative penalty of exile, and the opportunity to escape from prison (as his associates urged him to do), he was executed in 399 bce.
Philosophy and Religion
As was common in Athenian wealthy families, Socrates was educated in the traditional disciplines of mousike ("education of the spirit") and gumnastike ("education of the body") and in Ionian natural sciences. The sources report that he became a disciple of the physicist Archelaus, through whom he was introduced to the theories of Anaximenes and Anaxagoras. Though he was apparently fascinated by them, the more he deepened his studies, the more he became aware of the limits of natural philosophy. He noticed that this discipline was not able to obtain any certain knowledge of the natural phenomena because of its mechanistic character—that is, its habit to explain one cause with another—without ever finding a supreme principle of being capable of "holding together any other thing" (Plato, Phaedo 99c). Disappointed, he left his studies in Ionian science and started looking for a "second sailing" in research (Plato, Phaedo 99c).
The direction of this new approach was indicated to Socrates by a religious experience which marked a turning point in his life. According to Plato's account, around 430 bce Socrates' friend Chaerephon went to the oracle of Apollo in Delphi and posed the question whether anyone was wiser than Socrates. The oracle answered that no one was. When Chaerephon went back to Athens and told his friend of this response, Socrates was puzzled, since he thought that he possessed no expertise at all. In order to decipher the oracle's meaning, he set about to find someone wiser than himself among people with reputations for their wisdom. Upon questioning them systematically he realized that they in fact lacked the knowledge they claimed, and were therefore less wise than he, who at least knew that he knew nothing. He thus understood that the wisdom meant by the oracle consisted exactly of this peculiar knowledge, the awareness of ignorance. He came also to understand that the oracle had chosen him to propagate this knowledge by showing every human being that his claims to substantive wisdom were unfounded. From that moment until the last day of his life Socrates felt compelled to fulfill this "divine mission" in honor of Apollo, the god who praises the virtues of humility and restraint (as is evident in the famous Delphic inscription, "Know thyself!").
This enterprise of questioning, examining, and refuting other people in order to make them aware of their ignorance is commonly known as the Socratic elenchus. Its most important achievement consists of understanding and in making others understand the fallible, that is the human nature of wisdom (anthropine sophia ), juxtaposed to the absolute wisdom of the gods (theia sophia ), which is altogether unreachable for humankind. To this philosophical acknowledgment everyone is compelled, since "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being" (Plato, Apology 38a). Elenchus is the only possible source of intellectual and moral well-being, since it improves the most valuable part of man, the seat of all his virtue and knowledge: the soul (psuche ). Unlike the traditional conceptions of the Orphics, the Pythagoreans and the Ionians, Socrates is the first to identify the psuche both with the entire and real self and the "Igo" of consciousness and personality. The supreme duty of a human being is to "care for it" (Plato, Apology 29e and Xenophon, Memorabilia I, 2, 4–5), a task best accomplished by "purifying" it through intellectual training and elenchtic testing.
Though aimed at improving the soul, the practice of elenchus is not merely destructive. Socrates' disavowal of scientific knowledge implies that from a practical point of view he knows exactly what knowledge is. As Aristotle points out, this knowledge is of a "different kind" if compared to that of the experts or the physiologists (Eudemean Ethics 1246b 36). It has a non-epistemic character, since it is confined to make out what is good (agathon ) for the soul in an immediate, concrete, and practical sense. Both in Plato and Xenophon, Socrates identifies this good with what is beneficial (ophelimon, chresimon ). Virtue, as the real application of this good, is thus founded on knowledge that is the goodness of the soul. Once the soul knows what is good in a given situation, it has the correct focus for its actions, a focus that eventually turns out to be beneficial as well.
Major evidence for Socrates' firm faith in the practical effects of the knowledge of the good is provided by his theodicy. As shown by Xenophon, Socrates believes in unwritten laws that have a divine origin (Memorabilia IV, 4, 19–25). Unlike the human laws, which can be violated without necessarily incurring punishment, the unwritten laws contain the punishment within themselves. They are a cosmic rule, deeply rooted into the profundity of reality. This conception occurs also in Plato's Apology, when Socrates replies to the menaces of his accusers by saying that "the goddess Themis will not allow that a good man will be hurt by a worse one" (30c), or when, immediately after he has been sentenced to death, he declares that "a good man cannot suffer any harm, neither in his life nor after his death, because the gods take care of him" (41d).
Socrates' conception of the divine is closely linked to his search for the goodness of the soul. This becomes clear in the teleological proof of God's existence reported by Xenophon (Memorabilia I, 4, 1–19 and IV, 3, 1–18; cf. Plato, Gorgias 507e–508a): since everything that is good is beneficial, it has to be necessarily the product of intelligent design; this entails the existence of one or more intelligent designer-creators possessing the wisdom and the power necessary for producing the orderly and beautiful universe; therefore, these beings must have an entirely benevolent and caring attitude toward the world they created, ruling it in a fashion analogous to the way the human soul rules the body. And because of its intrinsic theoretical capacities this very soul "partakes of the divine" more than any other thing in the universe (Memorabilia, IV, 3, 14), and the man who practices its capacities through philosophy is at the same time "virtuous" and "pious" (Memorabilia IV, 3, 16–18). Piety itself is strongly connected to morality, since it is a service to the gods that helps them to promulgate goodness in the universe (Plato, Euthyphro 14b). For Socrates there is no split between philosophy, ethics, and religion; they all call for acts directed to improve both the human soul and the universe.
The interdependence between the human and the divine sphere in Socrates' teleology was thus eminently practical and non-epistemic. With it Socrates tried to reform religion from an ethical point of view. This meant rejecting the moral imperfections of the Homeric gods, foremost their enmities and lies. The chasm between human and divine ethics had to be eliminated, in order to restore the lost faith in the nobility of the gods and to make them thus more believable. Socrates' anthropocentric teleology was perhaps the last attempt in Greek history to achieve this. In an epoch characterized by an increasing number of particular cults often in open conflict with each other, he gave a new impulse to Greek religion, establishing homogeneous criteria for mortals and gods. He did this while remaining on the solid ground of tradition: his "moralized" gods were still the gods of the city, whom he called to witness his oaths and worshipped with prayers and sacrifices, communicating with them through dreams, divination, and even poetic inspiration. Despite the orthodoxy of Socrates' religious behavior, however, in 399 he was tried, convicted, and condemned to death for impiety.
Socrates was first accused of not recognizing the gods of the city. According to Socrates' own account of the reason he was charged, this indictment was not for having moralized the gods, but mainly because the accusers assimilated these gods to the natural elements which were studied by the Ionian physiologists during those years (Plato, Apology 18b–c, 19a–d, 23c–d, 26d, and Aristophanes' Clouds ). Since few years earlier Anaxagoras had already been declared guilty of the same charge due to his affiliation with the Periclean circle, it is likely that the accusers against Socrates also had a political rather than a religious background.
The second charge was that of introducing "new divinities" (hetera daimonia kaina : Plato, Apology 24c, and others). It is probable that the target was the daimonion of Socrates, although the use of the generic plural form daimonia may indicate that the accusers wanted to include in the charge also other divinities, or that they themselves did not have a clear idea of which gods exactly were worshipped by Socrates. The daimonion ti (literally: the "daemonic something") was one of the most peculiar traits of Socratic religion. According to the sources, Socrates regarded it as a divine "sign" or an "interior voice" which had been his companion since childhood. It gave him advice which was merely dissuasive, particular, personal, and practical (according to Xenophon the daimonion also prescribed advice to Socrates' friends). Since Socrates considered the counsel of the daimonion unfailingly correct, he always followed it, even if it urged him against something of which he was fully convinced. This particular circumstance showed that in Socrates' view the daimonion could be stronger than discursive thinking, but was perfectly compatible with it: Although its advice sometimes seemed to contradict the elenchus, eventually it turned out to be perfectly rational. The privilege of Socrates' exclusive relationship with the daimonion was likely considered suspect by his accusers; still, in the religious context of ancient Athens, which was extremely tolerant towards the introduction of new or even foreign divinities, this alone could hardly have led to a prosecution.
It seems therefore probable that the reason for Socrates' conviction was merely political, since the religious accusations were unfounded. In fact, the most serious charge brought against Socrates was that of corruption of the youth. The practice of elenchus entailed a new education, which could subvert social morality. This was evident in the Socratic circle, where men like Critias and Alcibiades were famous for their antidemocratic political attitude. To the newly restored democracy Socrates and his circle were a danger to be eliminated as soon as possible. This may have been the reason why the pious Socrates, who believed in the goodness of the gods, was eventually condemned for impiety.
A complete bibliography of the Socratic literature from antiquity until 1988 is to be found in Andreas Patzer, Bibliographia Socratica (Freiburg, Germany, 1985), and Luis E. Navia and Ellen L. Katz, Socrates: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1988).
A comprehensive survey on the most important Socratic testimonies in English translation is delivered by John Ferguson, Socrates: A Source Book (London, 1970); see also the complete editions of Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Aristotle in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.). The ancient sources can be divided into primary (A), that is the texts of authors who knew Socrates personally or could hear from him indirectly, and secondary (B), which consist of later writings, mostly founded upon the primary sources.
(A) The major primary source are Plato's dialogues, edited in Greek by John Burnet (Platonis Opera, Oxford, 1900–1917; reprinted 1976). The English translations are numerous, one of the most recent being the Complete Works edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis, Ind., 1997). The most accessible English translation of Xenophon's Socratic writings is that of Hugh Treddenick and Robin Waterfield, Conversations of Socrates (London, 1990). For a scholarly edition of Aristophanes' Clouds see Kenneth J. Dover, Oxford, 1968. Aristotle's references to Socrates have been collected by Thomas Déman, Le témoignage d'Aristote sur Socrate (Paris, 1942).
(B) The Greek and Latin texts of all the Socratic sources except Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes are to be found in the Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae, edited by Gabriele Giannantoni (Naples, 1990).
Modern scholarship on Socrates starts with Friedrich Schleiermacher's "The Worth of Socrates as a Philosopher" (1815), translated by Connop Thirlwall, The Philological Museum 2 (1833): 538–555. In this essay arises for the first time the question of which sources, if any, can be reliable for a reconstruction of Socrates' thought. This question, commonly referred to as the "Socratic problem," has been answered in many different ways, spawning a vast amount of literature. Useful guides to it are: Der historische Sokrates, edited by Andreas Patzer (Darmstadt, Germany, 1987), and Mario Montuori, The Socratic Problem (Amsterdam, 1992). For a survey on the reception of Socrates throughout history see Herbert Spiegelberg, The Socratic Enigma (New York, 1964).
Classical works on Socrates are: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1833), translated by Elizabeth Sanderson Haldane (London, 1963), vol. 1: pp. 384–448; Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates (1841), translated by Lee M. Capel (New York, 1965); George Grote, Life, Teachings, and Death of Socrates (1850, reprinted, New York, 1859); Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), translated by Clifton P. Fadiman (New York, 1954); Eduard Zeller, Socrates and the Socratic Schools (1889), translated by Oswald J. Reichel (New York, 1962); Karl Joël, Der echte und der xenophontische Sokrates (Berlin, 1893–1901); Heinrich Maier, Sokrates. Sein Werk und seine geschichtliche Stellung (Tübingen, Germany, 1913); Guy C. Field, Socrates and Plato (London, 1913); John Burnet, Greek Philosophy. From Thales to Plato (London, 1913), pp. 102–156; Frances M. Cornford, Before and after Socrates (Cambridge, 1932); Alfred E. Taylor, Varia Socratica (Oxford, 1911), and Socrates (Edinburgh, 1933); Werner Jaeger, Paideia (1933), translated by Gilbert Highet (New York, 1939), vol. 2: pp. 13–75; Olof Gigon, Sokrates. Sein Bild in Dichtung und Geschichte (Bern, Switzerland, 1947); Vasco de Magalhães-Vilhena, Le problème de Socrate. Le Socrate historique et le Socrate de Platon, and Socrate et la légende Platonicienne (Paris, 1952); Norman Gulley, The Philosophy of Socrates (London, 1968); William Keith Chambers Guthrie, Socrates (London, 1971); Mario Montuori, Socrates. Physiology of a Myth (1974), translated by J. M. P. Langdale and M. Langdale (Amsterdam, 1981); Gerasimos Santas, Socrates' Philosophy in Plato's Early Dialogues (Boston, 1979); Luis E. Navia, Socrates, the Man and His Philosophy (New York, 1985); Richard B. Rutherford, The Art of Plato (London, 1995), and Christopher Charles Whiston Taylor, Socrates (New York, 1998).
Important essays have been collected in the following volumes: The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Gregory Vlastos (Garden City, N.Y., 1971); The Socratic Movement, edited by Paul A. Van der Waerdt (Ithaca, N.Y., 1994); Socrates: Critical Assessments, edited by William J. Prior (New York, 1996), 4 vols. More essays are to be found in Der fragende Sokrates, edited by Karl Pestalozzi (Stuttgart, Germany, 1999), and Sokrates, edited by Herbert Kessler (Kusterdingen, Germany, 1993–2001), 5 vols.
A turning point in Socratic studies was settled by Gregory Vlastos (Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher [Ithaca, N.Y., 1991], and Socratic Studies, edited by Myles Burnyeat [New York, 1994]). The Socrates renaissance that began in North America in 1990 owes much both to his scholarship and teaching: Charles H. Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (New York, 1996); George Rudebusch, Socrates, Pleasure and Value (New York, 1999); Alexander Nehamas, Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates (Princeton, N.J., 1999); Hugh H. Benson, Socratic Wisdom: The Model of Knowledge in Plato's Early Dialogues (New York, 2000); Gary A. Scott, Plato's Socrates as Educator (Albany, N.Y., 2000); Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Oxford, 1989), Plato's Socrates (New York, 1994), The Philosophy of Socrates (Boulder, Colo., 2000), and The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies (New York, 2002).
See also the collections of articles: Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates, edited by Hugh H. Benson (New York, 1992); Socratic Questions: New Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates and Its Significance, edited by Barry S. Gower and Michael C. Stokes (New York, 1992), and Does Socrates Have a Method? Rethinking the Elenchus in Plato's Dialogues and Beyond, edited by Gary Alan Scott (University Park, Pa., 2002).
Studies especially dedicated to the topic of Socrates and religion are: Robert M. Wenley, Socrates and Christ (1889, reprinted, London, 2002); John Burnet, "The Socratic Doctrine of the Soul," Proceedings of the British Academy 7 (1915–1916): 235–259; Greek Religious Thought, edited by Frances M. Cornford (New York, 1923): pp. 158–187; James Beckman, The Religious Dimension of Socrates' Thought (1943, reprinted Waterloo, Ont., 1979); Ehrland Ehnmark, "Socrates and the Immortality of the Soul," Eranos 14 (1946): 105–122; Antonio Tovar, Vida de Sócrate (Madrid, 1947); Wilhelm Nestle, "Sokrates und Delphi," in Wilhelm Nestle, Griechische Studien (Stuttgart, Germany, 1948): pp. 173–185; Francesco Sarri, Socrate e la genesi storica dell'idea occidentale di anima (Rome, 1975); Socratic Piety and the Power of Reason. New Essays on Socrates, edited by Eugene Kelly (Lanham, Md., 1984); Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Sokrates' Frömmigkeit des Nichtwissens" (1990) in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 7 (Tübingen, Germany, 1991): pp. 83–117; Michelle Gellrich, "Socratic Magic: Enchantment, Irony, and Persuasion in Plato's Dialogues," Classical World 87 (1994): 275–307; Mark. L. McPherran, The Religion of Socrates (University Park, Pa., 1996); Robert Parker, Athenian Religion (Oxford, 1997): pp. 152–217; Paul W. Gooch, Reflections on Jesus and Socrates (New Haven, Conn., 1997); Jean-Joël Duhot, Socrate ou l'éveil de la conscience (Paris, 1999): pp. 73–163; Silvia Lanzi, Theos Anaitios. Storia della teodicea da Omero ad Agostino (Rome, 2000): pp. 97–101; Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy, edited by Nicholas D. Smith and Paul B. Woodruff (New York, 2000); Ernst R. Sandvoss, Sokrates und Jesus (Munich, 2001); and Minoura Eryō, "Ein Aspekt der griechischen Religion. Űberlegungen zur Methode der religionsgeschichtlichen Forschung nach Sokrates," in Unterwegs. Neue Pfade in der Religionswissenschaft, edited by Christoph Kleine, Monika Schrimpf, and Katja Triplett (Munich, 2004): pp. 197–205.
Alessandro Stavru (2005)
Often called the "father of philosophy," Socrates (470–399 b.c.e.) is known to modern readers only through the written works of other philosophers and historians. It is unclear whether Socrates himself ever wrote down any of his philosophical views, but it is certain that any of his works that were created have since been lost. Fortunately, a good deal was written about Socrates both before and after his death. The main source of the philosophical viewpoints of Socrates comes from his disciple Plato, who first recorded the dialogues of Socrates and later used the persona of Socrates in his writing to promote his own philosophy. Three of Plato's most famous dialogues—the Apology, the Crito and the Phaedo—recreate Socrates' last days before he was put to death on charges of impiety and corrupting the young. All three works focus on different areas of philosophy: the Phaedo discuss death, life, and the morality of suicide; the Apology constructs a defense of philosophy in general and an attack on the Sophists' way of thinking; and the Crito focuses on justice and issues of good versus evil even in the face of injustice. In Plato's earlier dialogues, such as the Apology and the Euthyphro, Socrates appears as a personality in his own right, but in later works, such as the Republic—Plato's dialogue that has had the greatest influence of anything he wrote—Socrates has become a spokesman for Plato's own philosophy. Yet the personality of Socrates recognized by modern scholars as most authentic is Socrates as portrayed by Plato. Numerous other accounts of Socrates—such as the comical character Socrates in Aristophanes' play Clouds and the day-to-day advisor that appears in the works of the historian Xenophon—survive, yet these accounts are considered to be minor sources in comparison to Plato.
The Identity of Socrates.
Socrates was probably born in Athens in the spring of 468 b.c.e., and he lived there all his life. He was reportedly the son of a stonemason and a midwife, and he had three sons of his own—two of whom were still small children at the time of his death. His wife Xanthippe was famously ill-tempered; stories about Socrates, recorded in the works of Xenophon, include episodes of public fights between the two which often included acts of violence. (Despite the marital discord, Plato's dialogue the Phaedo describes a tearful Xanthippe leaving Socrates' prison cell the day before his death in 399 b.c.e., indicating the presence of genuine feelings between the two.) Socrates was a contemporary of the Sophists, and talked and argued with many of them, but the Sophists were itinerant teachers who charged tuition fees, whereas Socrates never left Athens and did not charge his disciples tuition. He originally was attracted to the doctrine of Anaxagoras, and tradition made him a pupil of Anaxagoras' disciple, Archelaus, who kept a school in Athens; after Archelaus left Athens, Socrates probably took over as headmaster of the school. For the last twenty or 25 years of his life, he was a familiar figure on the Athenian scene, always barefoot, discussing and debating the important questions of philosophy.
Socrates' mission in life was to expose the lack of wisdom in the world, a purpose that had its origins in a statement by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi that there was no one wiser than Socrates. According to Plato's Apology Socrates did not believe the oracle, for he did not consider himself wise, so he began a quest to prove that the oracle was wrong. He encountered a man with a reputation for wisdom—Socrates did not name him—and after questioning him, he concluded that though many people, including the man himself, considered him wise, he really was not. He then examined another man who was considered wise, with the same result. He tried the politicians, then the poets and finally the skilled craftsmen, and concluded that though they might possess expertise in their own area, they were not truly wise, though they thought they were. These investigations did not make Socrates popular, as he readily admitted. Finally Socrates concluded that what the oracle meant was that he was not wise, for real wisdom belonged to God, but that he recognized his lack of wisdom and this self-recognition was what impressed the oracle. So Socrates made it his mission to seek out persons who thought they were wise and to prove to them that they were not. It was a mission that made him many enemies.
What did Socrates Believe?
With the exception of the comic poet Aristophanes who mocked Socrates in his comedy, the Clouds, produced in 423 b.c.e., all the authors who wrote about Socrates did so after his death, and if he had any clear and coherent body of doctrine, we can discern it only dimly now. He was a traditonalist in religion insofar as he held that gods do exist and promote the welfare of mortals, and that they communicate their wishes by oracles, dreams, and other similar methods. On the other hand, he thought that all conventional beliefs needed rigorous examination, and hence he was a severe critic of Greek religion as it was practiced in the Athens that he knew. He claimed to possess a kind of inner self—a daimonion (spirit)—which guided him and warned him at times against an action he was contemplating, but nowhere do we have any explanation of what this daimonion was. He was a master of dialectic—that is, the art of investigating or debating the truth of general opinions—and his great contributions to dialectic were definition and inductive logic. He held that before any opinion can be debated, it has to be carefully defined so that there is a basis for argument. Then the argument can proceed by induction—that is, drawing general conclusions from particular facts or examples—and thus the definition can be tested and examined. Socrates was a masterful critic of irrational thought, but his philosophy is less clear since Plato used him as a mouthpiece for his own thought. It is impossible to distinguish between the philosophies of Socrates and Plato in Plato's writings. In Plato's Seventh Letter, so-called because it is the seventh in a collection of thirteen letters attributed him, he calls Socrates the wisest and most just man of his day, but the historical Socrates emerges from the mists of the past as a great personality and a master of rational argument rather than as the teacher of a philosophical system.
SOCRATES RECRUITS XENOPHON
introduction: Philosophers in ancient Greece attracted disciples who desired to learn their ideas. Such was the popularity of some philosophers that they established schools to facilitate the teaching of their students, sometimes charging fees for their educational services. According to ancient sources, the eminent philosopher Socrates did not charge tuition fees to his disciples, although he did actively recruit promising young men. The following excerpt from History of Philosophy, or On the Lives, Opinions and Apophthegms of Famous Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, who wrote in the first half of the third century c.e., provides a glimpse into the recruitment of Xenophon by Socrates as one of his disciples.
Xenophon, son of Gryllus, was an Athenian citizen and came from the "deme" (borough) of Erchia. He was a man of great decency, and handsome beyond anyone's imagination.
The story goes that Socrates encountered him in a narrow lane, and put his stick across it, barring him from getting past, and he asked him where men might find a market where foodstuffs necessary for life were sold. When Xenophon replied, Socrates asked him again where men could find goodness and virtue. Xenophon did not know, and so Socrates said, "Follow me, then, and find out." So from that time on, Xenophon became a disciple of Socrates.
Xenophon was the first person who took down dialogues as they occurred, and made them available to the public, calling them Memorabilia. He was also the first man to write a history of philosophers.
source: Diogenes Laertius, "Life of Xenophon," in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Trans. C. D. Yonge (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853): 75.
Socrates as a Rebel.
Socrates was a magnet for the bright, well-to-do young men of Athens who honed their debating techniques by matching their wits with his own. Some of these pupils used the skills they learned in ways that Socrates did not intend, however, and it led to serious charges against the philosopher. It cannot be denied that Socrates taught his Athenian disciples to question the basis of the democratic constitution of Athens. The underlying assumption of democracy as it was practiced in Athens was not that all men were born equal, but that every man was capable of performing the functions that public office required, provided that he was honest. It was not necessary to have professional training to hold a government post. Hence citizens were chosen by lot to hold important public offices; the chief exceptions were the ten generals who commanded the army and navy, who were elected each year. Socrates was fond of pointing out that a person would go to a cobbler skilled at shoemaking to have his shoes made, or to a doctor trained in medicine if he was ill, but if he wanted someone to hold high office in the state, he chose a man on the street. Socrates' logic was sound enough, but its inevitable conclusion was that cities should be governed by officials with training in government. That principle lay behind the work for which his disciple Plato is best known, the Republic, which outlines an ideal constitution for a state where those that govern are trained in the art of governing. The same theme lay behind most of the speculation about the art of government in the ancient world after Socrates. Among philosophers, democracy had, at best, lukewarm defenders. It can be argued that Socrates was the intellectual great-grandfather of the totalitarian governments of the twentieth century, but it was the unintended consequence of his teaching.
The Execution of Socrates.
In 399 b.c.e., Socrates was brought to trial on a charge of heresy—not believing in the gods in which the other Greeks believed—and of corrupting the young. These charges against Socrates were less about morality and more likely the result of a political upheaval in Athens following Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War five years earlier. Socrates was known to associate with men who had seized power after the war and launched a reign of terror on Athens before the democratic process could be reinstated. Socrates was also a good friend of Alcibiades, a politician who many blamed for the loss of the Peloponnesian war. Socrates was arrested and tried before 501 jurymen and, like all Athenians arraigned before the lawcourts, he was given the opportunity to speak in his own defense; no defendant could hire a lawyer to speak for him. Socrates' defense is the basis of Plato's Apology, which may be an accurate reconstruction of what Socrates actually did say, for Plato witnessed the trial. Though Plato portrays Socrates as speaking eloquently and convincingly to the jury, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was confined to the state prison until the day came for him to drink the hemlock-juice, a poison made from a weed of the carrot family that the Athenians used to execute malefactors. His last words were a reminder to his friends that he owed the sacrifice of a rooster to Asclepius, the god of healing, implying, perhaps, that death was a cure for life.
SOCRATES' DOMESTIC LIFE
introduction: Although revered as one of the greatest Greek philosophers, Socrates had a tempestuous domestic life with his wife Xanthippe, by whom he had a son named Lamprocles. Xanthippe seems to have found Socrates an exasperating husband, and she did not hesitate to voice her frustration with Socrates in public or to attack him physically. In the passage below, Diogenes Laertius, writing in the early third century c.e., describes scenes from Socrates' domestic life.
Socrates once said to Xanthippe, who scolded him and then threw a pot of water over him, "Didn't I say that Xanthippe was thundering just now, and there would soon be a downpour?"
When Alcibiades said to him, "Xanthippe's shrewish moods are intolerable!", he replied, "Yet I'm used to it, just as I would be if I were always hearing the screech of a pulley—and you yourself put up with the noise of geese honking." "Yes," replied Alcibiades, "but they bring me eggs and goslings." "Well, yes, so they do," replied Socrates, "and Xanthippe brings me children."
Once when Xanthippe assaulted him in the market-place and ripped off his cloak, his friends urged him to ward her off with his fists. "Yes, by Zeus," said he, "and while we are pummeling each other, you can all cry out, "Good jab, Socrates! Nice blow, Xanthippe!"
He used to say that a man should live with a recalcitrant woman in the same way as men handle violent-tempered horses, and when they have mastered them, managing every other sort of horse is effortless. "Thus," he said, "after managing Xanthippe, I will find it a simple matter to live with any other woman."
source: Diogenes Laertius, "Socrates," in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Trans. C. D. Yonge (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853): 70–71.
The Influence of Socrates.
Many of Greece's famous philosophers had their roots in Socrates. Antisthenes (c. 455–360 b.c.e.), considered the founder of the Cynic sect, was a devoted follower, and he in turn influenced Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous of the Cynics. Antisthenes taught that happiness was based on virtue, and virtue is based on knowledge and consequently can be taught. Aristippus of Cyrene, famous for his love of luxury, was a companion of Socrates. He was considered the forefather of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy that taught that the pleasures of the senses were the chief end of life. The Cyrenaics were to influence the Epicureans, one of the important schools of thought in the Greek world after Alexander the Great. Eucleides of Megara, another of Socrates' pupils, established a school of philosophy in Megara on the Isthmus of Corinth, between Athens and Corinth, where he tried to combine the teaching of Socrates on ethics with the doctrine of Parmenides on the nature of the universe. Greatest of all Socrates' pupils, however, was Plato whose works had a lasting influence on the intellectual traditions of the world.
John Ferguson, Socrates: A Sourcebook (London, England: Macmillan, 1967).
Norman Gulley, The Philosophy of Socrates (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1968).
Eric A. Havelock, "The Socratic Self as It is Parodied in Aristophanes' Clouds," Yale Classical Studies 22 (1972): 1–18.
Mark L. McPherran, The Religion of Socrates (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).
Socrates: Critical Assessments. Ed. William J. Prior (London, England: Routledge, 1996).
Socrates, The Wisest and Most Just?. Ed. Meg Parker (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1979).
I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (Boston: Little Brown, 1988).
A. E. Taylor, Socrates (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1952).
C. C. W. Taylor, Socrates (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Greek philosopher, teacher of plato; b. the son of a stonemason and a midwife, Athens, c. 469 b.c.; d. Athens, 399 b.c.
Life. Socrates's life spanned the great outburst of Athenian activity and culture triggered by the Greek victory over Persia (480–479) and ending in the long war of attrition with Sparta that brought Athens to ruin. He married, perhaps twice and rather late in life, leaving young sons when he died at the hands of the restored democracy, which found in him a scapegoat for Athenian failings during the recent war.
In early life he showed interest in the physical speculations of his time and is said to have associated with Archelaus, who was a close follower of anaxagoras. Aristophanes's Clouds (423 b.c.) links him, in comic fashion, with the sophists and speculators on cosmology. In the Phaedo (97C), Plato represents him as pleased with the view of Anaxagoras that Mind arranges and is the cause of all things, but as disappointed with Anaxagoras's subsequent explanation of the universe through physical causes. Certainly at some time during his life, possibly around the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates turned his attention almost exclusively to questions of human conduct and virtue. It was a change consonant
with the increased importance and responsibility of the individual under the new Athenian democracy and paralleled by the search for a systematic higher education that gave the Sophists their opportunity to practice as itinerant teachers. Socrates's ascetic habits, extreme self-control, and refusal to take fees, together with his great courage and striking appearance, gave personal weight to his emphasis on care of the soul and his quest for moral definition. He served with bravery at Potidaea (432), Delium (424), and Amphipolis (422); as one of the Council of Presidents he refused to sanction simultaneous trial of eight generals after Arginusae (406); and he disobeyed an order of the Thirty that would have involved him as an accomplice to murder (403).
Teaching. Sources for the teaching of Socrates are various. He wrote nothing himself, reckoning dialogue as far superior to the written word, but in Plato's Apology and in the early "Socratic" dialogues perhaps the historical Socrates is fairly substantially represented, although Plato allows himself considerable liberty in dramatic setting, casting, and literary embellishment. Another contemporary source is Xenophon, who gives a more matterof-fact account of Socrates in his Memorabilia, Apology, and Symposium. Aristotle gives some assessments in the
Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics that are confirmed in the Magna Moralia, and there is a life of Socrates in Diogenes Laertius.
Chaerephon, a lifelong friend of Socrates, is said to have asked the oracle of Apollo at Delphi whether anyone was wiser than Socrates and to have received a negative reply. To test the truth of the oracle, Socrates is represented (Apol. 21C–22E; Diog. Laert. 2.5.37) as constantly searching for persons of wisdom, but as disappointed in his quest, and hence concluding that he must be wiser than others because he knew himself to be ignorant, whereas they thought themselves wise and were not. Socrates is portrayed as a frequent visitor to the market place, where he was ready to converse with all comers in an attempt to turn their attention from externals to themselves and to the virtues of the soul. The typical procedure (e.g., Charmides, Euthyphro, Meno, Mem. 4.2.8–39) was for Socrates to lead on his acquaintance to make some assertion concerning a particular virtue or virtue in general, and then to question the accuracy of his observations. After several attempts at definition, the dialogue usually ends in indecision, but much has been accomplished. The person engaged in conversation has recognized his own lack of precision and mere assumption of knowledge where true knowledge was none. He leaves convicted of ignorance and perhaps stimulated to search further for a satisfactory answer. All the while, Socrates, with gentle irony, protests his own ignorance and his desire to learn from his interlocutor.
aristotle is insistent that Socrates considered virtue to be knowledge. In a sense, knowledge is the only good, ignorance the sole evil. There is no such thing as the problem of incontinence—i.e., knowing what is good, but failing to do it because of the lure of pleasure (Eth. Nic. 1145b 21–1146b 5). Socrates analyzes this so-called problem and pronounces it to be a failure in the correct estimate of the relative balance of pleasure and pain or of good and evil (Prot. 353–7). Aristotle summarizes the achievement of Socrates by ascribing to him inductive reasoning and the quest for universal definitions in matters of human conduct (Meta. 987b 1–4). Perhaps the wisdom of Socrates was truly a "human" wisdom (Apol. 20D).
Aristotle remarks that Socrates did not separate his universal definitions from particular things (Meta. 1078b 30, 1086b 3–5), and it is clear from the Meno (80D–81E) that Plato first puts forward the theory of preexistence and recollection in order to justify Socrates's confidence in inquiry and to save him from the horns of Meno's dilemma. The theory of Ideas is a development of Socrates's thought that must be ascribed to Plato.
Appreciation. Socrates was a religious man, who saw clearly the limits of human reason and the need to consult the gods in matters beyond the grasp of men (Mem. 1.1.4–9). He was accused of "introducing strange deities" only because of his constant reference to a spiritual warning that always stopped him from a proposed course of action but never positively encouraged him to act. It is clear that this was, in his view, something distinct from the mere voice of conscience, and Socrates was too rational a man to be given to hallucinations. Of personal immortality he was unsure. Death was either a dreamless sleep or a migration of the soul to another place where it would be immortal and happier than here (Apol. 40D–41C).
The cynics are connected with Socrates via Antisthenes, an admirer of his poverty and frugality (Symp. 4.34–44); the cyrenaics through Aristippus, whom Xenophon portrays in discussion with Socrates on the question of pleasure (Mem. 2.1); and the Megarian school of eristic disputation through Euclides. But none of these minor schools can strictly be called Socratic in tradition.
See Also: greek philosophy.
Bibliography: a. e. taylor, Varia Socratica (Oxford 1911); Socrates (New York 1933). e. duprÉel, La Légende socratique et les sources de Platon (Brussels 1922). a. k. rogers, The Socratic Problem (New Haven 1933). r. hackforth, The Composition of Plato's Apology (Cambridge, Eng. 1933). a. d. winspear and t. silverberg, Who Was Socrates? (New York 1939). v. de magalhÃes-vilhena, Le Problème de Socrate (Paris 1952). a. h. chroust, Socrates, Man and Myth (London 1957). g. faggin, Enciclopedia filosofica 4:742–749. f. ueberweg, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. k. praechter et al. 1:129–158. Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. 3A.1 (1927) 804–893. f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md.) 1:96–115.
[w. h. o'neill]
Socrates is a name often relied upon when historians want to invoke a notable person from antiquity. There is good reason for the fame and durability of this name. In both his life and his death Socrates (469–399 b.c.e.) provided a model for wisdom and courage.
Socrates spent his life in Athens, the city of his birth (470 b.c.e.). Athens already had produced thinkers and artists of the highest order as well as an experiment in (limited) democracy that has continued to inspire and influence seekers of equality, freedom, and creativity through the centuries. The bust of Socrates in the Museo delle Termein Rome displays the hearty features of a broad-faced, pug-nosed, thick-lipped, and generously bearded man. His friend Alcibiades teased Socrates by likening his face to that of a wild, sensuous satyr. Socrates not only accepted this comparison but added that he had better do more dancing to reduce his paunch. Humor came naturally to Socrates and, in fact, played a significant role in his philosophical method.
Specific information about Socrates' life is sparse. It is believed that he was the son of a sculptor and a midwife. He followed his father's footsteps, working as both a stonemason and a sculptor. He also claimed to be following his mother's line of work, "by helping others to deliver themselves of their conceptions" (Durant 1968, p. 36). Socrates usually kept himself in good physical condition and earned a reputation as a soldier of exceptional stamina, as well as skill and courage. His marriage to Xanthippe produced a family but also her justified complaint that he spent more time gadding about and annoying people than with his wife and children. He enjoyed companionship, cared little about material possessions, and was considered the very model of a well-balanced person: moral, but too earthy to be revered as a saint.
The Athens of Socrates' time enjoyed exceptional intellectual vitality. Almost every facet of life was open for discussion. Here philosophical issues were fresh, live, and compelling—the same issues that would later become weighed down by centuries of further speculation and commentary. The political establishment, however, did not necessarily cherish this free exchange of ideas. Some of these ideas could be dangerous to the institutions that kept the establishment in power.
Socrates became the most adept and, therefore, the most fascinating and most dangerous asker of questions. The "Socratic method" is one of his enduring contributions to philosophical inquiry. He believed that everyone with a competent mind already knows the basic truths of life deep inside of one's being, even if unaware of possessing this knowledge. Socrates would educe knowledge through conversations guided by an unfolding series of questions. True education was educing—drawing something out of, rather than forcing something into—the mind. This dialect method was perfected rather than invented by Socrates. Zeno of Elea (born the same year as Socrates) had already introduced the art of questioning as a way to reach the truth. Socrates had the extra knack of making powerful people uncomfortable by undermining their assumptions with his deceptively simple questions. Bystanders found it amusing to see how people with exaggerated opinions of their knowledge became flustered as Socrates' casual, low-key questions eventually exposed their errors. The victims were not amused, however, and they did not forget.
Plato and Socrates
It is Plato's Dialogues that provide most of what has come down to readers through history about the life and thought of his mentor. There are no books written by Socrates, only his appearance as the main character in Plato's writings and, to a much lesser degree, in plays written during or after his life. There is no way of knowing for sure how much is "pure Socrates" and how much is Plato. The dialogues were not intended as fastidious reportage of actual events and conversations; they were imaginative riffs on ideas and people. Symposium, for example, takes readers to a banquet in which Socrates and his friends entertain and compete with each other to solve the mysteries of love. Plato's Dialogues offer episodes and scenes through which his philosophical points could be made through the characters themselves. His first generation of readers could separate fact from fancy, but this has become much more difficult for the following generations who lack insiders' knowledge of the political, historical, and philosophical milieu of Socrates' Athens.
Plato's account of Socrates offers a remarkable vision of a society superior to any previously known in one of the most influential of the dialogues, The Republic. A rational, managed, and futuristic society is portrayed where even genetic selection and psychological testing exist. The resonance of this imagined society can be felt in many spheres of life in the twenty-first century, including the ever-shifting boundaries between science and science fiction. One of the early masterpieces of philosophy, this dialogue ranges from vigorous discussions of the nature of justice to the recesses of a shadowy cave where readers are challenged to determine the definition of reality. Neither in his life nor in his Dialogue appearances does Socrates demand overthrow of the establishment or express disrespect to the gods. However, his relentless questions raised anxiety and created enemies.
The Death of Socrates
The faithful soldier, the relatively faithful husband, the good companion, and the subtle and witty philosopher all were now in their seventieth year of life and awaiting execution.
Socrates had inadvertently given his enemies an excuse for retaliation. The case against him was so insubstantial that it should have been immediately dismissed. He was accused of impiety, although he had never cursed the gods, and accused of corrupting the young, a charge so far-fetched that it was hard to keep from laughing out loud. What gave the accusations their power was the undercurrent of annoyance at Socrates' habit of raising questions that set too many minds to thinking and could possibly destabilize the establishment. He was blamed for the current state of unrest against the establishment and even accused of being a traitor. These were "trumped-up" charges that Socrates expected the court to overturn. Even when convicted, he could have avoided a serious penalty by saying the right words and admitting some fault. This he would not do: Instead, he stood before them unrepentant and free-spirited. Few of his fellow citizens had expected the death penalty to be enacted. Something had gone wrong with the process of rebuking this distinguished gadfly, and now they would have to go through with the embarrassing act of taking his life.
It would not have been difficult for Socrates to escape. His friends were eager to spirit him away to a safe island, and the authorities seemed inclined to look the other way. Socrates would not accept such a plan, however, much to the distress of his friends. In Phaedo, he told his friend that there was nothing to fear. Death will turn out either to be a long sleep or, even better, the entry to a splendid new form of life. Socrates's ability to accept his death with equanimity became a model for wisdom and courage on the verge of death. He lived his philosophy to the last moment, treating the unfortunate jailer with kindness as he brought forward the cup of deadly hemlock. He bid an affectionate farewell to his friends. When Crito asked, "But how shall we bury you?" he replied:
Any way you like—that is, if you can catch me and I don't slip through your fingers....It is only my body you are burying; and you can bury it in whatever way you think is most proper. ( Dialogues 1942, p. 150)
Socrates quaffed the contents of the cup, described the changes occurring in his body—the rise of cold numbness upward from the feet—and died peacefully. At least that is the scene reported in Phaedo. Some doubt has been cast in late-twentieth-century scholarship. The medical historian William B. Ober notes, along with others, that Plato described an event he did not witness: He was too upset to see his friend's death. More significantly, perhaps, hemlock usually produces a variety of painful and distressing symptoms. Perhaps Plato sanitized the actual death to create a more acceptable memory-scene, or perhaps Greek physicians had mixed hemlock with a gentle sedative in the farewell cup for Socrates' journey to philosophical immortality.
See also: Good Death, The; Immortality; Jesus; Last Words; Philosophy, Western; Plato
Ahrensdorf, P. J. The Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968.
Ober, William, B. "Did Socrates Die of Hemlock Poisoning?" In Boswell's Clap & Other Essays. Medical Analyses of Literary Men's Afflictions. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Plato. Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Republic, translated by B. Jowett and edited by Louise Ropes Loomis. New York: W. J. Black, 1942.
Stone. Irving, F. The Trial of Socrates. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988.
The Greek philosopher and logician Socrates (469-399 B.C.) was an important formative influence on Plato and had a profound effect on ancient philosophy.
Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, an Athenian stone mason and sculptor. He learned his father's craft and apparently practiced it for many years before devoting his time almost completely to intellectual interests. Details of his early life are scanty, although he appears to have had no more than an ordinary Greek education. He did, however, take a keen interest in the works of the natural philosophers, and Plato (Parmenides, 127C) records the fact that Socrates met Zeno of Elea and Parmenides on their trip to Athens, which probably took place about 450 B.C. Socrates wrote nothing; therefore evidence for his life and activities must come from the writings of Plato and Xenophon. It is likely that neither of these presents a completely accurate picture of him, but Plato's Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Symposium contain details which must be close to fact.
From the Apology we learn that Socrates was well known around Athens, that uncritical thinkers linked him with the rest of the Sophists, that he fought in at least three military campaigns for the city, and that he attracted to his circle large numbers of young men who delighted in seeing their pretentious elders refuted by Socrates. His notoriety in Athens was sufficient for the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes to lampoon him in The Clouds, although the Socrates who appears there bears little resemblance to the dialectician in Plato's writings. His endurance and prowess in military campaigns are attested by Alcibiades in the Symposium. He tells of Socrates's valor in battle, which allowed Alcibiades to escape when he was in a perilous situation. He also recounts an incident which reveals Socrates's habit of falling into a kind of trance while thinking. One morning Socrates wandered a short distance off from the other men to concentrate on a problem. By noon a small crowd had gathered, and by evening a group had come with their bedding to spend the night watching him. At the break of day, he offered up a prayer to the sun and went about his usual activities.
In addition to these anecdotes about Socrates's peculiar character, the Symposium provides details regarding his physical appearance. He was short and Silenus-like, quite the opposite of what was considered graceful and beautiful in the Athens of his time. He was also poor and had only the barest necessities of life. He was not ascetic, however, for he accepted the lavish hospitality of the wealthy on occasion (Agathon, the successful tragic poet, was host to the illustrious group in the Symposium) and proved himself capable of besting the others not only at their esoteric and sophistic sport of making impromptu speeches on the god Eros but also in holding his wine. Socrates's physical ugliness was no bar to his appeal. Alcibiades asserts in the same dialogue that Socrates made him feel deep shame and humiliation over his failure to live up to the high standards of justice and truth. He had this same effect on countless others.
There was a strong religious side to Socrates's character and thought which constantly revealed itself in spite of his penchant for exposing the ridiculous conclusions to which uncritical acceptance of the ancient myths might lead. His words and actions in the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Symposium reveal a deep reverence for Athenian religious customs and a sincere regard for divinity. Indeed, it was a divine voice which Socrates claimed to hear within himself on important occasions in his life. It was not a voice which gave him positive instructions, but instead warned him when he was about to go astray. He recounts, in his defense before the Athenian court, the story of his friend Chaerephon, who was told by the Delphic Oracle that Socrates was the wisest of men. That statement puzzled Socrates, he says, for no one was more aware of the extent of his own ignorance than he himself, but he determined to see the truth of the god's words. After questioning those who had a reputation for wisdom and who considered themselves, wise, he concluded that he was wiser than they because he could recognize his ignorance while they, who were equally ignorant, thought themselves wise. He thus confirmed the truth of the god's statement.
Socrates was famous for his method of argumentation. His "irony" was an important part of that method and surely helped account for the appeal which he had for the young and the disfavor in which he was held by many Athenians. An example comes from the Apology. Meletus had accused Socrates of corrupting the youth. Socrates begins by asking if Meletus considers the improvement of youth important. He replies that he does, whereupon Socrates asks who is capable of improving the young. The laws, says Meletus, and Socrates asks him to name a person who knows the laws. Meletus responds that the judges there present know the laws, whereupon Socrates asks if all who are present are able to instruct and improve youth or whether only a few can. Meletus replies that all of them are capable of such a task, which forces Meletus to confess that other groups of Athenians, such as the Senate and the Assembly, and indeed all Athenians are capable of instructing and improving the youth. All except Socrates, that is. Socrates then starts a parallel set of questions regarding the instruction and improvement of horses and other animals. Is it true that all men are capable of training horses, or only those men with special qualifications and experience? Meletus, realizing the absurdity of his position, does not answer, but Socrates answers for him and asserts that if he does not care enough about the youth of Athens to have given adequate thought to who might instruct and improve them, he has no right to accuse Socrates of corrupting them.
Thus the Socratic method of argumentation begins with commonplace questions which lead the opponent to believe that the questioner is a simpleton, but ends in a complete reversal. It is a method not calculated to win friends, especially when used in public.
Socrates's true contributions to the development of ancient thought are difficult to assess. Plato's dialogues, although they are our single most important source, are not entirely reliable because Socrates is used, especially in the later dialogues, merely as a mouthpiece. It is probable, however, that the Socrates we find in the Apology Crito, and a few of the other early dialogues represents a fair approximation of the man and his thinking. Thus his chief contributions lie not in the construction of an elaborate system but in clearing away the false common beliefs and in leading men to an awareness of their own ignorance, from which position they may begin to discover the truth. Socrates's contribution, then, was primarily the negative one of exposing fallacies, but equally important was the magnetism of his personality and the effect which he had on the people he met. It was his unique combination of dialectical skill and magnetic attractiveness to the youth of Athens which gave his opponents their opportunity to bring him to trial in 399 B.C.
Meletus, Lycon, and Anytus charged Socrates with impiety and with corrupting the youth of the city. Since prosecution and defense speeches were made by the principals in Athenian legal practice, Socrates spoke in his own behalf. It is uncertain if the charges were the result of his associations with the Thirty or resulted from personal pique. Callias, Plato's uncle, had been the leader of the unpopular Thirty, but it is difficult to imagine that Socrates could have been considered a collaborator when in fact he risked death by refusing to be implicated in their crimes. He had, however, made a great number of enemies for himself over the years through his self-appointed role as the "gadfly" of Athens, and it is probable that popular misunderstanding and animosity toward his activities helped lead to his conviction. His defense speech was not in the least conciliatory. After taking up the charges and showing how they were false, he proposed that the city should honor him as it did Olympic victors. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Plato's Crito tells of Crito's attempts to persuade Socrates to flee the prison (Crito had bribed the jailer, as was customary), but Socrates, in an allegorical dialogue between himself and the Laws of Athens, reveals his devotion to the city and his obligation to obey its decrees even if they lead to his death. In the Phaedo, Plato recounts Socrates's discussion of the immortality of the soul; and at the end of that dialogue, one of the most moving and dramatic scenes in ancient literature, Socrates takes the hemlock prepared for him while his friends sit helplessly by. He died reminding Crito that he owes a cock to Aesculapius.
Socrates was the most colorful figure in the history of ancient philosophy. His fame was widespread in his own time, and his name soon became a household word although he professed no extraordinary wisdom, constructed no philosophical system, established no school, and founded no sect. His influence on the course of ancient philosophy, through Plato, the Cynics, and less directly, Aristotle, is incalculable.
Sources for Socrates's life are the dialogues of Plato, especially the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Alcibiades's speech in the Symposium, and Xenophon's Memorabilia, all of which are available in a variety of editions and translations. A comprehensive and major study of Socrates's thought is Norman Gulley, The Philosophy of Socrates (1968). See also Eduard Zeller, Socrates and the Socratic Schools (1885; 3d rev. ed. 1962); A. E. Taylor, Socrates (1933); and Anton-Hermann Chroust, Socrates: Man and Myth (1957).
A dramatic version of Socrates's accusation, self-defense, imprisonment, and death is rendered in simplified, colloquial English by I. A. Richards in Why So Socrates? A Dramatic Version of Plato's Dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo (1964). Critical treatment of Socrates and his place in the development of ancient thought is in Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy (trans. 1890; 13th ed. revised by Wilhelm Nestle, 1931); John Burnet, Greek Philosophy (1914); and Wilhelm Windelband, History of Ancient Philosophy, translated by Herbert E. Cushman (1956). □
The Greek philosopher and logician (one who studies logic or reason) Socrates was an important influence on Plato (427–347 b.c.e.) and had a major effect on ancient philosophy.
Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, an Athenian stone mason and sculptor. He learned his father's craft and apparently practiced it for many years. He participated in the Peloponnesian War (431–04 b.c.e.) when Athens was crushed by the Spartans, and he distinguished himself for his courage. Details of his early life are scarce, although he appears to have had no more than an ordinary Greek education before devoting his time almost completely to intellectual interests. He did, however, take a keen interest in the works of the natural philosophers, and Plato records the fact that Socrates met Zeno of Elea (c. 495–430 b.c.e.) and Parmenides (born c. 515 b.c.e.) on their trip to Athens, which probably took place about 450 b.c.e.
Socrates himself wrote nothing, therefore evidence of his life and activities must come from the writings of Plato and Xenophon (c. 431–352 b.c.e.). It is likely that neither of these presents a completely accurate picture of him, but Plato's Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Symposium contain details which must be close to fact.
From the Apology we learn that Socrates was well known around Athens; uncritical thinkers linked him with the rest of the Sophists (a philosophical school); he fought in at least three military campaigns for the city; and he attracted to his circle large numbers of young men who delighted in seeing their elders proved false by Socrates. His courage in military campaigns is described by Alcibiades (c. 450–404 b.c.e.) in the Symposium.
In addition to stories about Socrates's strange character, the Symposium provides details regarding his physical appearance. He was short, quite the opposite of what was considered graceful and beautiful in the Athens of his time. He was also poor and had only the barest necessities of life. Socrates's physical ugliness did not stop his appeal.
There was a strong religious side to Socrates's character and thought which constantly revealed itself in spite of his criticism of Greek myths. His words and actions in the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Symposium reveal a deep respect for Athenian religious customs and a sincere regard for divinity (gods). Indeed, it was a divine voice which Socrates claimed to hear within himself on important occasions in his life. It was not a voice which gave him positive instructions, but instead warned him when he was about to go off course. He recounts, in his defense before the Athenian court, the story of his friend Chaerephon, who was told by the Delphic Oracle (a person regarded as wise counsel) that Socrates was the wisest of men. That statement puzzled Socrates, he says, for no one was more aware of the extent of his own ignorance than he himself, but he determined to see the truth of the god's words. After questioning those who had a reputation for wisdom and who considered themselves, wise, he concluded that he was wiser than they because he could recognize his ignorance while they, who were equally ignorant, thought themselves wise.
Socrates was famous for his method of argumentation (a system or process used for arguing or debate) and his works often made as many enemies as admirers within Athens. An example comes from the Apology. Meletus had accused Socrates of corrupting the youth, or ruining the youth's morality. Socrates begins by asking if Meletus considers the improvement of youth important. He replies that he does, whereupon Socrates asks who is capable of improving the young. The laws, says Meletus, and Socrates asks him to name a person who knows the laws. Meletus responds that the judges there present know the laws, whereupon Socrates asks if all who are present are able to instruct and improve youth or whether only a few can. Meletus replies that all of them are capable of such a task, which forces Meletus to confess that other groups of Athenians, such as the Senate and the Assembly, and indeed all Athenians are capable of instructing and improving the youth. All except Socrates, that is. Socrates then starts a similar set of questions regarding the instruction and improvement of horses and other animals. Is it true that all men are capable of training horses, or only those men with special qualifications and experience? Meletus, realizing the absurdity of his position, does not answer, but Socrates answers for him and says that if he does not care enough about the youth of Athens to have given adequate thought to who might instruct and improve them, he has no right to accuse Socrates of corrupting them.
Thus the Socratic method of argumentation begins with commonplace questions which lead the opponent to believe that the questioner is simple, but ends in a complete reversal. Thus his chief contributions lie not in the construction of an elaborate system but in clearing away the false common beliefs and in leading men to an awareness of their own ignorance, from which position they may begin to discover the truth. It was his unique combination of dialectical (having to do with using logic and reasoning in an argument or discussion) skill and magnetic attractiveness to the youth of Athens which gave his opponents their opportunity to bring him to trial in 399 b.c.e.
Meletus, Lycon, and Anytus charged Socrates with impiety (being unreligious) and with corrupting the youth of the city. Since defense speeches were made by the principals in Athenian legal practice, Socrates spoke in his own behalf and his defense speech was a sure sign that he was not going to give in. After taking up the charges and showing how they were false, he proposed that the city should honor him as it did Olympic victors. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Plato's Crito tells of Crito's attempts to persuade Socrates to flee the prison (Crito had bribed [exchanged money for favors] the jailer, as was customary), but Socrates, in a dialogue between himself and the Laws of Athens, reveals his devotion to the city and his obligation to obey its laws even if they lead to his death. In the Phaedo, Plato recounts Socrates's discussion of the immortality of the soul; and at the end of that dialogue, one of the most moving and dramatic scenes in ancient literature, Socrates takes the hemlock (poison) prepared for him while his friends sit helplessly by. He died reminding Crito that he owes a rooster to Aesculapius.
Socrates was the most colorful figure in the history of ancient philosophy. His fame was widespread in his own time, and his name soon became a household word although he professed no extraordinary wisdom, constructed no philosophical system, established no school, and founded no sect (following). His influence on the course of ancient philosophy, through Plato, the Cynics, and less directly, Aristotle, is immeasurable.
For More Information
Brickhouse, Thomas C., and Nicholas D. Smith. The Philosophy of Socrates. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
Chroust, Hermann. Socrates: Man and Myth. South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1957.
Gulley, Norman. The Philosophy of Socrates. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1968.
Phillips, Christopher. Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy. New York: Norton, 2001.
469 b.c.e.–399 b.c.e.
Importance to Greek Religion.
Socrates is more important for his contribution to philosophy than religion. Nonetheless, he was important as a catalyst in Athenian intellectual life of the fifth century b.c.e., and the questioning of conventional attitudes which he helped to initiate spilled over into religious thought. In 399 b.c.e. he was tried before a popular jury of 501 jurymen on a charge of not recognizing the gods whom the state recognized, introducing other new gods, and corrupting the young. There are two surviving accounts of his Apology, that is, his speech in his own defense: one by his disciple Plato and a second by another of his followers, Xenophon. They are quite different and neither has a great claim to accuracy. It is not clear what new gods Socrates introduced, and his accusers seem to have concentrated on the charge that Socrates corrupted the young.
Questioned Conventional Views.
It is true that Socrates questioned conventional views of Greek religion. In one of Plato's early dialogues, the Euthyphro, Socrates demonstrated that the Olympian gods could not be taken as models of morality or virtue. He himself, however, was scrupulous in his religious observances. His final words before his death were a reminder that he owed a cock to the god Asclepius. Apparently he had promised to sacrifice a cock at the temple of Asclepius on the south slope of the Athenian Acropolis, and he wanted his vow carried out.
The Trial of Socrates.
Socrates was convicted at his trial by a vote of 281 out of 501 jurymen. His prosecutors suggested the death penalty, and Socrates then had a chance to suggest an alternative punishment. Socrates at first suggested facetiously that he be given meals at state expense for the rest of his life, but, at the urging of his friends, he suggested a modest fine. The jury was clearly annoyed by Socrates' attitude and opted for the death penalty by a greater majority than had found him guilty in the first place.
Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Mark L. McPherron, The Religion of Socrates (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania University Press, 1996).
I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (Boston: Little Brown, 1988).