Socrates was a Greek philosopher, who is often considered to be the father of Western philosophy, and a key figure in the development of Western civilisation.
“The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”
Socrates – Republic 38c
Socrates left no actual writing so impressions of Socrates have come primarily from the writings of his student, Plato. There are also other contributions from Xenophon and a contemporary playwright – Aristophanes.
It is possible that Plato embellished the legacy of Socrates by making him appear the most noble philosopher; an ideal to be cherished and followed. The extent of this embellishment is hard to quantify, but the life of Socrates remains a great inspiration to many.
Socrates married Xanthippe and together they had three children. Tradition suggests that Xanthippe was argumentative and hard to please, with Socrates the model of philosophic calm.
The Socratic Method
Apart from a brief spell in the army, it is not clear how Socrates earned a living; but he attracted a group of young men, who came to learn and study with Socrates. Socrates sought to teach through a path of self-enquiry. He did not claim to have the answers; he would merely ask questions to his students, forcing them to think for themselves and question their own dogmas and beliefs.
“As for me, all I know is that I know nothing,”
– Republic, 354c
This famous statement of Socrates is symptomatic of his Socratic method. Socrates was always aware of the limitation of his knowledge.
Plato writes how the Thirty Tyrants sought to involve Socrates in the unjust execution of Leon of Salamis, who opposed the Tyrants. Socrates, however, refused and could have been executed himself, had not the tyrants been overthrown.
During Socrates’ life, the state of Athens was undergoing political turmoil after suffering a humiliating defeat in the Peloponnesian war. This exacerbated feelings of nationalism and loyalty to the Athenian state. However, Socrates felt compelled to test, and examine his own countrymen. He was also willing to criticise and test conceptions of justice and avoid a narrow sectarian viewpoint.
At one point, Socrates famously states (as quoted by Plutarch).
“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”
However, his persistent criticisms and questioning created political enemies; his position was worsened by the suspicious climate of the time.
A friend of Socrates, Chaerephon, asked the Oracle of Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The Oracle said that no one was wiser than Socrates.
Socrates thought this was a paradox, because he didn’t know anything. However, after talking to all the leading poets and dignitaries of Athens, Socrates realised that although other people thought they knew a lot – actually they didn’t. So Socrates affirmed that the Oracle was right. He was the wisest – purely because he was aware of his own ignorance.
“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”
Socrates is often portrayed as a great saint – someone with command of his own self. Though he was also reputed to have a quick anger. One story concerning Socrates was when Socrates, along with some students, went to see a well known ‘soothsayer’. The ‘soothsayer’ was asked to speak about the nature of Socrates.
She replied that Socrates had all the negative qualities of vanity, ego, fear and hatred.
At this his students were outraged as they didn’t see them in their teacher.
However, at this point the soothsayer continued. True, Socrates has these qualities, but unlike others, he is also able to rise above them and keep them locked away.
Trial and Execution of Socrates
Socrates’ unorthodox political viewpoints and willingness to expose the ignorance of others created many enemies. This led to his arrest and trial. This trial was sensationalised in the dialogues of Plato. Plato paints a picture of a philosopher perfectly detached from the fear of death and committed to the truth. Shortly before his death, Socrates said:
“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die and you to live. Which is the better, only God knows.”
When Socrates was found guilty of ‘corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of ‘impiety’ He calmly accepted the verdict and rather than try and escape the death penalty – he accepted the hemlock poison. If Socrates had repudiated his beliefs, he could have been free; he could also have tried to escape; but as a philosopher he felt it more important to stick to his beliefs. He also felt a social contact with the state of Athens, and therefore should willingly meet his fate. Socrates’ last words were:
“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” Asclepius was the Greek god for curing illness.
This could have meant Socrates saw death as freedom for the soul. Others interpret it has meaning that his death was a purifying remedy for Athens’ misfortune and mistakes.
Conversations of Socrates