Authors: Socrates

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Greek philosopher


Socrates (SAHK-ruh-teez) did not make a written record of his teachings. What is known of his philosophy comes from the Dialogues of Plato, in which Socrates is the central figure.{$I[AN]9810001574}{$I[A]Socrates}{$I[geo]GREECE;Socrates}{$I[tim]0470 b.c.e.;Socrates}


(Library of Congress)

What is known of Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, comes primarily from two of his pupils, Xenophon and Plato. The account of Socrates by Plato in the Dialogues is generally taken as being, on the whole, the more reliable report, both of the character and of the teachings of Socrates.

Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and Phænarete, a nonprofessional midwife. The family was neither poor nor wealthy, and Socrates received the usual elementary education in gymnastics and music, to train the body and the mind. He may have planned to follow his father’s occupation, and there are some reports that he actually did produce some works of sculpture; but he apparently decided that he was more at ease with ideas than with stone. He had a reflective, almost mystical temperament at times, and throughout his life had the habit of assuming immobile positions, or trancelike states, during which he sometimes thought he heard a supernatural voice that warned him against certain acts he was considering. He claimed that he always regretted it when he disregarded the voice.

Socrates has been pictured as a short, snub-nosed person with widely spaced, perhaps protruding eyes and broad nostrils. The comic dramatists of the time, Aristophanes, Amipsias, and Eupolis, made him the subject of satirical dramas in which his physical traits as well as his dialectical habits were exaggerated. He lived simply, wearing the same garment winter and summer and traveling barefoot in all seasons. He ate and drank moderately, although he could drink more wine than most men without being affected. He was married to Xanthippe, who is reputed to have been a virago, and they had two children.

Socrates began his philosophical studies with the ideas of Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, Anaximander, Zeno, and others. Because of the conflicting and sometimes fantastic ideas he found in these philosophies concerning the nature of the universe, he came to the conviction that more was to be gained by a study of justice and goodness. He combined his interest in ethics and the philosophy of politics with a faith in the capacity of the mind to clarify itself by working out the inconsistencies in various notions through a conversational technique that has come to be known as the Socratic method. He claimed that if there were any truth in the report that the Oracle at Delphi had called him the wisest man in Greece, it was only because, unlike others, he recognized his own ignorance. He believed that he had a mission in life to make people aware of the limitations and defects in their beliefs and thus, by knowing themselves, to prepare for knowledge.

He wandered the streets and marketplaces of Athens, and when young men, politicians, or other bystanders became involved in conversation with him about justice, honor, courage, or some other philosophical matter, Socrates would adroitly question them, leading them to an awareness of the inadequacy or falsity of their ideas. Because his ability was obvious and his insight undeniable, those who knew his method began to regard his profession of ignorance as either ironic or sophistical, and opinion was divided as to whether he was a beneficial genius or a dangerous nuisance.

Before he was forty Socrates had established himself as a remarkable teacher and philosopher; he was known and respected by many of the leading philosophers, politicians, and sophists of his time, including Protagoras, with whom he had one of his most famous debates. Others who at various times came to be companions of Socrates during his conversational tours of Athens were Crito, Charmides (Plato’s uncle), Critias (Plato’s mother’s cousin), Plato, Xenophon, Alcibiades, Adimantus and Glaucon (Plato’s brothers), Callias (son of the wealthiest Athenian of the time), and Nicias (an outstanding Athenian democrat).

Socrates’ role as “gadfly” (his own term) to the Athenian people irritated the democratic leaders, particularly because he was closely associated with Alcibiades, who in 415 b.c.e. led the Sicilian expedition that ended in defeat for Athens, and with Critias, leader of the Thirty Tyrants imposed on the city by the Spartans after the defeat of the Athenians ended the Peloponnesian War in 404 b.c.e. That defeat was blamed in part on the new ideas with which, so it was charged, Socrates had corrupted the youth of the city. In 399 b.c.e., after the democracy had been restored, and despite the commendable military record he had made during the war, Socrates was brought to trial on the charges of impiety and corrupting the young. In an eloquent and dignified defense he argued that he had been fulfilling a mission to goad the Athenians into searching for truth, that he was no man’s master, and that he would accept acquittal only if it could be had without a sacrifice of his principles. When he was found guilty and was asked to propose a punishment, he claimed that he deserved to be rewarded for his services to Athens, but that he would agree to pay a fine. Condemned to death, he died after drinking hemlock, having refused the opportunity to escape and go into exile.

Plato’s dialogues about Socrates’ trial and death, the Apology (c. 399-390 b.c.e.), the Crito (c. 399-390 b.c.e.), and the Phaedo (c. 388-368 b.c.e.), together constitute one of the most moving portraits of all dramatic literature and are probably fairly reliable historically. The Symposium (c. 388-368 b.c.e.) presents an intensely interesting portrait of Socrates as a man of great powers of intellect and of physical endurance.

Believing that the “unexamined life is not worth living” and that knowledge leads to virtue, Socrates developed a method of questioning others in which he relied on inductive reasoning, proceeding from particular facts to general principles. In his dialectical questioning his dialogists were brought to see the error of their initial beliefs and to become wiser and better people. This dialectical exchange is known as the Socratic method, and it remains a viable education strategy to this day. Socrates is famous for his theory of knowledge as the recollection of ideas, for his conception of the soul and his attempted proofs of the soul’s immortality, and for the theory of Ideas or universal forms, which Plato adopted and expanded. He is remembered as much for his personal courage and his clear idealism as for his philosophy, and he remains one of the towering figures of the Western world.

Further Reading:Colaiaco, James A. Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial. New York: Routledge, 2001. Intended to be used alongside Plato’s Apology and Crito. Provides historical and cultural context to the trial.Gottlieb, Anthony. Socrates. New York: Routledge, 1999. Short introductory volume places the philosopher and his ideas in historical perspective. An explanation of Socrates’ basic concepts of thought is accompanied by biographical details.Guthrie, W. K. C. Socrates. Part 2 in The Fifth-Century Enlightenment. Vol. 1 in A History of Greek Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972. Part of the author’s monumental, thorough, and scholarly treatment of Greek life, character, and philosophy.May, Hope. On Socrates. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2000. Aims to assist students in understanding Socrates’ philosophy and thinking so that they can more fully engage in useful, intelligent class dialogue and improve their understanding of the dialogues.Plato. The Last Days of Socrates. Translated by Hugh Tredennick. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. The translator provides an introduction and notes, but this work is mainly a rendering into English of four of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, including Socrates’ speech at his trial, his conversation in prison, and his last conversations and death.Ranasinghe, Nalin. The Soul of Socrates. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. Traces Plato’s struggle, in his Dialogues, to understand and convey the presence of Socrates. Claims that the dialogues reflect Plato’s awe and frustration before his teacher.Rudebusche, George. Socrates, Pleasure, and Value. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Addresses whether Socrates believed pleasurable activities to be virtuous activities.Santas, Gerasimos X. Socrates: Philosophy in Plato’s Early Dialogues. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982. A contribution to the Arguments of the Philosophers series, this volume emphasizes the logical reconstruction of the arguments of Socrates and sometimes uses formal logical symbolism. The book focuses on the Socratic method and Socrates’ views on ethics.Smith, Nicholas D., and Paul B. Woodruff, eds. Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Examines Socratic pedagogy to ascertain why Plato portrays Socrates as a failure in his attempts to purge his fellow citizens of their unfounded beliefs.Stone, I. F. The Trial of Socrates. New York: Anchor Books, 1989. Stone attempts to get behind the scenes at the trial of Socrates. He aims to show that political motivations, largely stemming from Socrates’ negative attitude toward democracy and his friendships with those who supported a contrary regime, were powerfully at work in the trial, even though they were not openly acknowledged.Strathern, Paul. Socrates in Ninety Minutes. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1999. A concise account of Socrates’ life and ideas, including selections from his observations, a list of suggested readings, and chronologies that place Socrates within his own age and in the broader history of philosophy.Taylor, C. C. W. Socrates: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. Explores the relationship between the historical Socrates and the Platonic character.Vlastos, Gregory. Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991. This study aims to reconcile the conflicting portrayals of Socratic thought in Plato’s dialogues.
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