The character of Socrates presents a historical conundrum. If Socrates ever wrote a single word, it has not survived. As such, the entirety of modern knowledge concerning Socrates must be drawn from a limited number of secondary sources, such as the works of Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes and Xenophon. Aristophanes was known as a satirist, and so his accounts of Socrates may well be skewed, exaggerated, or totally falsified. Fragmentary evidence also exists from Socrates' contemporaries. Giannantoni, in his monumental work Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae collects every scrap of evidence pertaining to Socrates. It includes writers such as Aeschines Socraticus (not the orator), Antisthenes, and a number of others who knew Socrates. Plato, following Greek tradition, appears to have attributed his own ideas, theories, and possibly personal traits, to his mentor. Due to the problems inherent in such sources, all information regarding Socrates should be taken as possibly, but not definitely, true.
According to accounts from antiquity, Socrates' father was Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and his mother Phaenarete, a midwife. He was married to Xanthippe, who bore him three sons. By the cultural standards of the time, she was considered a shrew. Socrates himself attested that he, having learned to live with Xanthippe, would be able to cope with any other human being (supposedly), just as a horse trainer accustomed to wilder horses might be more competent than one not. He also saw military action, fighting at the Battle of Potidaea, the Battle of Delium and the Battle of Amphipolis. It is believed, based on Plato's Symposium, that Socrates was decorated for bravery. In one instance he stayed with his wounded friend Alcibiades, and probably saved his life; despite the objections of Alcibiades, Socrates refused any sort of official recognition and instead encouraged the decoration of Alcibiades. During such campaigns, he also showed his extraordinary hardiness, walking without shoes and a coat in winter.
It is unclear what exactly Socrates did for a living. He did not work; in Xenophon's Symposium he explicitly states that he devotes himself only to discussing philosophy, and that he thinks this is the most important art or occupation. It is unlikely that he was able to live off of family inheritance, given his father's occupation as an artisan. In the accounts of Plato, Socrates explicitly denies accepting money for teaching; however, Xenophon's Symposium clearly has Socrates state that he is paid by his students, and Aristophanes depicts Socrates as running a school of sophistry with his friend Chaerephon. It is also possible that Socrates survived off of the generosity of his wealthy and powerful friends, such as Alcibiades.
Trial and Death
Socrates lived during the time of the transition from the height of the Athenian Empire to its decline after its defeat by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens was seeking to stabilize and recover from its humiliating defeat, the Athenian public court was induced by three leading public figures to try Socrates for impiety and for corrupting the youth of Athens. This was a time in culture when the Greeks thought of gods and goddesses as being associated with protecting particular cities. Athens, for instance, is named after its protecting goddess Athena. The defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War was interpreted as Athena judging the city for not being pious. Bring Socrates into the picture, who was perceived as questioning the gods, and in light of the recent war this was not good. The last thing Athens needed was more punishment from Athena for one man inciting its citizens to question her or the other gods. In the Apology, Socrates insists that this is a false charge.
Socrates was found guilty as charged, and sentenced to death by hemlock.
According to Plato, Socrates had an opportunity to escape, as his followers were able to bribe the prison guards. After escaping, Socrates would have had to flee from Athens. As the dialogue Crito makes clear, Socrates refused to escape even in order to evade the execution of his death sentence. Having knowingly agreed to live under the city's laws, he implicitly subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury.
According to the version of his defense speech presented in Plato's Apology, Socrates' life as the "gadfly" of Athens began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates; the Oracle responded negatively. Socrates, interpreting this as a riddle, set out to find men who were wiser than him. He questioned the men of Athens about their knowledge of good, beauty, and virtue. Finding that they knew nothing and yet believing themselves to know much, Socrates came to the conclusion that he was wise only in so far as he knew that he knew nothing. Among the others, only the artisans came close to having true knowledge of their trade; the remainder of men made false claims to knowledge.
Perhaps his most important contribution to Western thought is his dialogical method of inquiry, known as the Socratic Method or method of elenchos, which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts such as the Good and Justice, concepts used constantly without any real definition. It was first described by Plato in the Socratic Dialogues. For this, Socrates is customarily regarded as the father of political philosophy and ethics or moral philosophy, and as a fountainhead of all the main themes in Western philosophy in general.
In this method, a series of questions are posed to help a person or group to determine their underlying beliefs and the extent of their knowledge. The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those which lead to contradictions. It was designed to force one to examine his own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs.
Detailing the philosophical beliefs of Socrates is no easy matter; as he wrote nothing himself, we must rely on the (sometimes) conflicting reports of Xenophon and Plato. There is ongoing debate as to what, exactly, Socrates believed as opposed to Plato, and little in the way of concrete evidence when demarcating the two. There are some who claim that Socrates had no particular set of beliefs, and sought only to examine; the lengthy theories he gives in the Republic are considered to be the thoughts of Plato. Others argue that he did have his own theories and beliefs, but there is much controversy over what these might have been, owing to both the difficulty of separating Socrates from Plato and the difficulty of even interpreting the dramatic writings of Plato. Therefore, it is very important to keep this in mind when reading the following presentations of Socrates' thought; none of it is agreed upon, and all must be taken with a grain of salt.
Scholars have noted significant similarities between the teaching of Socrates and Jesus, as well as a parallel to voluntary surrender to death, and Socrates is erroneously nicknamed by some as The BC Christian.
Evidence from the dialogues suggests Socrates had only two teachers: Prodicus, a grammarian, and Diotima, a priestess from Mantinea who taught him about eros, or love. His knowledge of other contemporary thinkers such as Parmenides and Anaxagoras is evident from a number of dialogues, and historical sources often include both of them as Socrates' teachers. Apollo himself may be considered one of his teachers, as Socrates claims (in Plato's Apology) that his habit of constant conversation was obedience to god. See below for more on the divine sign.
Socrates seems to have often stated that his wisdom was limited to an awareness of his own ignorance. Socrates may have believed that wrongdoing was a consequence of ignorance, that those who did wrong knew no better. The one thing Socrates consistently claimed to have knowledge of was "the art of love" which he connected with the concept of "the love of wisdom", i.e., philosophy. He never actually claimed to be wise, only to understand the path that a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it. It is debatable whether Socrates believed that humans (as opposed to gods like Apollo) could actually become wise. On the one hand, he drew a clear line between human ignorance and ideal knowledge; on the other, Plato's Symposium (Diotoma's Speech) and Republic (Allegory of the Cave) describe a method for ascending to wisdom.
In both Plato's Theaetetus and Xenophon's Symposium Socrates curiously describes part of his function as akin to the art of "pandering": those who are unsuited for philosophy he matches with Sophists. For his part as a philosophical interlocutor, he leads his respondent to a clearer conception of wisdom, although he claims that he is not himself a teacher (Apology). His role, he claims, is more properly to be understood as analogous to a midwife. In the Theaetetus Socrates calls himself a midwife, explaining that he is himself barren of theories, but knows how to bring the theories of others to birth and determine whether they are worthy or mere "wind eggs". Perhaps significantly, he points out that midwives are barren due to age, and women who have never given birth are unable to become midwives; a truly barren woman would have no experience or knowledge of birth and would be unable to separate the worthy infants from those that should be left on the hillside to be exposed. To judge this, the midwife must have experience and knowledge of what she is judging.
Socrates believed that the best way for people to live was to focus on self-development rather than the pursuit of material wealth. (Gross 2). He always invited others to try to concentrate more on friendships and a sense of true community, for Socrates felt that this was the best way for people to grow together as a populace. His actions lived up to this: in the end, Socrates accepted his death sentence when most thought he would simply leave Athens, as he felt he could not run away from or go against the will of his community; as above, his reputation for valor on the battlefield was without reproach.
The idea that humans possessed certain virtues formed a common thread in Socrates' teachings. These virtues represented the most important qualities for a person to have, foremost of which were the philosophical or intellectual virtues. Socrates stressed that "virtue was the most valuable of all possessions; the ideal life was spent in search of the Good. Truth lies beneath the shadows of existence, and that it is the job of the philosopher to show the rest how little they really know." (Solomon 44)
Ultimately, virtue relates to the form of the Good; to truly be good and not just act with "right opinion" one must come to know the unchanging Good in itself. In the Republic, he describes the "divided line", a continuum of ignorance to knowledge with the Good on top of it all; only at the top of this line do we find true good and the knowledge of such.
It is often argued that Socrates believed "ideals belong in a world that only the wise man can understand" making the philosopher the only type of person suitable to govern others. According to Plato's account, Socrates was in no way subtle about his particular beliefs on government. He openly objected to the democracy that ran Athens during his adult life. It was not only Athenian democracy: Socrates objected to any form of government that did not conform to his ideal of a perfect republic led by philosophers (Solomon 49), and Athenian government was far from that. During the last years of Socrates' life, Athens was in continual flux due to political upheaval. Democracy was at last overthrown by a junta known as the Thirty Tyrants, led by Plato's relative, Critias, who had been a student of Socrates. The Tyrants ruled for nearly a year before the Athenian democracy was reinstated, at which point it declared an amnesty for all recent events. Four years later, it acted to silence the voice of Socrates.
This argument is often denied, and the question is one of the largest philosophical debates when trying to determine what, exactly, it was that Socrates believed. The strongest argument of those who claim that Socrates did not actually believe in the idea of philosopher kings is Socrates' constant refusal to enter into politics or participate in government of any sort; he often stated that he could not look into other matters or tell people how to live when he did not yet understand himself. The philosopher is only that, a lover of wisdom, and is not actually wise. Socrates' acceptance of his death sentence, after his conviction by the Boule, can also support this view. It is often claimed that much of the anti-democratic leanings are from Plato, who was never able to overcome his disgust at what was done to his teacher. In any case, it is clear that Socrates thought that the rule of the Thirty Tyrants was at least as objectionable as democracy; when called before them to assist in the arrest of a fellow Athenian, Socrates refused and narrowly escaped death before the Tyrants were overthrown. Judging by his actions, he considered their rule less legitimate than that of the democratic senate who sentenced him to death. He died in the company of his friends and disciples.
He was prominently lampooned in Aristophanes's comedy The Clouds, produced when Socrates was in his mid-forties; he said at his trial (in Plato's version) that the laughter of the theater was a harder task to answer than the arguments of his accusers. Socrates is also ridiculed in Aristophanes' play The Birds for his dirtiness, which is associated with the Laconizing fad; also in plays by Callias, Eupolis, and Telecleides. In all of these, Socrates and the Sophists were criticised for "the moral dangers inherent in contemporary thought and literature".
Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle are the main sources for the historical Socrates; however, Xenophon and Plato, were direct disciples of Socrates, and presumably, they idealize him; however, they wrote the only continuous descriptions of Socrates that have come down to us. Aristotle refers frequently, but in passing, to Socrates in his writings.
The Socratic Dialogues
The Socratic dialogues are a series of dialogues written by Plato and Xenophon in the form of discussions between Socrates and other persons of his time, or as discussions between Socrates' followers over his concepts. Plato's Phaedo is an example of this latter category. While Plato's Apology is a speech (with Socrates as speaker), it is nonetheless generally counted as one of the Socratic dialogues.
Plato's dialogues only contain the direct words of each of the speakers, while Xenophon's dialogues are written down as a continuous story, containing, along with the narration of the circumstances of the dialogue, the "quotes" of the speakers.
Plato generally does not place his own ideas in the mouth of a specific speaker; he lets ideas emerge via the Socratic method, under the guidance of Socrates. Most of the dialogues present Socrates applying this method to some extent, but nowhere as completely as in the Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro go through several iterations of refining the answer to Socrates' question, "What is piety?"
In Plato's dialogues, learning appears as a process of remembering. The soul, before its incarnation in the body, was in the realm of Ideas. There, it saw things the way they truly are, rather than the pale shadows or copies we experience on earth. By a process of questioning, the soul can be brought to remember the ideas in their pure form, thus bringing wisdom.
Especially for Plato's writings referring to Socrates, it is not always clear which ideas brought forward by Socrates (or his friends) actually belonged to Socrates and which of these may have been new additions or elaborations by Plato -- this is known as the Socratic problem. Generally, the early works of Plato are considered to be close to the spirit of Socrates, whereas the later works — including Phaedo — are considered to be possibly products of Plato's elaborations.
The man who knows he knows nothing is smarter than the man who thinks he knows something but actually knows nothing.
- Greek Philosophy: Socrates
- Project Gutenberg e-texts on Socrates, amongst others:
- The Dialogues of Plato (see also Wikipedia articles on Dialogues by Plato)
- The writings of Xenophon, such as the Memorablia and Hellenica.
- The satirical plays by Aristophanes
- Aristotle's writings
- Voltaire's Socrates
- The Second Story of Meno; a continuation of Socrates' dialogue with Meno in which the boy proves root 2 is irrational (by an anonymous author)
- An Introduction to Greek Philosophy, J. V. Luce, Thames & Hudson, NY, l992.
- Introduction to Philosophy, Jacques Maritain
- Greek Philosophers--Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, C. C. W. Taylor, R. M. Hare, and Jonathan Barnes, Oxford University Press, NY, 1998.
- Taylor, C. C. W. (2001). Socrates: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Socrates Quotes
- Richard Robinson, Plato's Earlier Dialectic, 2nd edition (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1953). Ch. 2: Elenchus Ch. 3: Elenchus: Direct and Indirect
- Phillips, Christopher, The Six Questions of Socrates, (Penguin, US, 2003)
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Socrates (2005)