Wednesday, 18 November 2015


Socrates (c. 470-399) is the intellectual figure of the ancient world. He has profoundly influenced western thought and was also a central influence in early Islam. In the ninth century AD the Arab philosopher, Al-Kindi (c. 801-73), wrote an extensive treatise on Socrates that has long since been lost.

We know about him through
  1. Aristophanes’ hostile play, The Clouds (423 BC), written in Socrates’ lifetime, in which he was depicted as a figure of fun and accused or being a sophist. ‘Hail, Socrates, master of twaddle!’ The choice of Socrates as a figurehead shows how famous the philosopher already was in the 420s. 
  2. The memoirs of his pupil, the historian and soldier Xenophon (c. 428-c. 354), in which he is portrayed as a good man full of common sense, who wholeheartedly worshipped the gods and was opposed to sex with boys. 
  3. Above all in the writings of his greatest pupil and devoted admirer, Plato in a massive series of 'dialogues’ crafted between twenty and forty years after Socrates died. It is Plato’s account with its 'halo effect' that has been accepted by posterity, though its reliability has been disputed for centuries. Thanks to Plato. Socrates is also seen as a great moral teacher, and he has frequently been compared to Christ. Like him, he was executed.

Through these writings Socrates shaped the entire future of western philosophy.

What do we know about him?

The chief sources for his early life are Plato's Charmides and Protagoras. He was born in 470 or 469 BC, a decade after the Persian wars had concluded and at a time when Athens was well on its way to a period of military, economic and intellectual hegemony and when the sophistic movement was still in its infancy. According to tradition he was the son of a stonemason, Sophroniscus.

He served as a hoplite, on at least three occasions, surviving a hard­ fought campaign in Thrace. His qualities as a soldier, especially his remarkable powers of physical endurance, earned him the admiration of others famed for this bravery. In one of his campaigns he saved the life of Alcibiades, with whom he clearly had an intense emotional relationship.

His physical appearance is familiar, but this may be a mistaken impression because the numerous portrait busts may not be likeness. He was apparently strikingly ugly, with a snub notes, a paunch, big lips and protruding eyes. He wore a worn-out cloak and sometimes went barefoot. When he once turned up at a dinner party freshly bathed and oiled his friends were astonished at this uncharacteristic concern for personal hygiene.

He married later in life, possibly for the second time, a woman called Xanthippe. He was in his late forties, she was possibly only twenty. She subsequently became notorious for her bad temper, possibly because he seemed happy to let her fend for herself, feeling no pressure to bring home household funds. Xenophon has Socrates say, 
‘I want to keep company with the human race and so I have acquired her, for if I can put up with her, I will easily get on with the rest of mankind.’
This has understandably led some commentators to see him as a misogynist.

He must have been reasonably well known before the age of forty because he was very much a man of the city and its public places.  He became a cult figure among young men.  He was said to have great personal charm, which drew round him a group of friends, young men like Alcibiades (for whom he obviously had erotic feelings) and Critias, the future oligarchic leader. But too many inferences should not be drawn from this as he also had friends in the democratic camp.  The year in which he came to prominence was probably 424 BC as two comedies in which he played an important role, Ameipsias’s Connus and Aristophanes' Clouds, were presented early in 423. Aristophanes depicted him as running a school of miscellaneous learning, but Ameipsias showed him as the rather over­ age pupil of a music-teacher-cum-sophist, Connus.

Method of teaching

Socrates claimed not to teach or to give instruction or to set himself up as an authority. The ‘Socratic method’ consists of dialogues that follow a strict question-and-answer form that forces people to define their terms. In his dialogues those who seek to debate with him are drawn into recognizing their faulty logic and come round to Socrates’ position. 

Socrates himself never wrote a book. He was suspicious of writing: 
‘Every word, when it is written, is bandied about alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it. …when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect of help itself.’ From Plato's Phaedrus
The dialogues are full of irony, a word derived from the Greek eironeia: a word that could mean a lie but also a playful simulation of half-truth. Socrates would pretend to know less about the subject under discussion than his opponent. He would show an exaggerated respect for his powers of thought in order to confuse him. This was a teaching method but it could also be seen as a defence mechanism and a way for Socrates to conceal his true feelings.

What did he teach?

He inquired above all into questions of values and ethics. What is justice? What does it mean to live the good life? His great concern was with clarity and precision of thought: 
‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. 
This questioning of accepted values seemed very similar to the methods of the sophists. The Clouds suggests that Socrates was in charge of a weird school of philosophy, though this is not necessarily evidence that he ever did run such a school. Aristophanes was using comic exaggeration.

Plato argued that his teaching and methods were very different from those of the sophists.
  1. Like Aristophanes, he insisted that Socrates did not charge a fee. But this leaves us with a problem. He was modestly born, so if he was not paid for his teaching, how did he live?
  2. He did not claim to know anything, whereas the sophists taught a wide body of knowledge. The case study is found in Plato's Apology. Socrates tried to disprove the Delphic oracle, which said that no-one was wiser than Socrates. As a result of his investigation, he reluctantly concluded that the oracle was right, since, unlike others, he knew that he knew nothing.
  3. He believed there was an ultimate truth, and he distrusted the type of clever argument that could prove anything.
  4. He taught morals, not techniques (though the sophists too claimed to teach morals).
All this might have been too subtle for most Athenians to grasp. Socrates did criticize many contemporary values and things other people took for granted. 

The comic Socrates of The Clouds belonged to an Athens that was war-torn but still optimistic. Over the next two decades he was to witness his state involved in the most notorious recklessness, impiety and injustice, with his friend Alcibiades implicated in the scandals of 415.


In 406 he was a member of the Council, and as presiding officer for a day he opposed the Assembly's decision to execute the generals after the Spartans defeated the Athenian navy at Arginusae (off the coast of present-day Turkey). They had failed to pick survivors out of the water, claiming that the weather conditions made this impossible and the Assembly voted to try them as a group rather than individuals. One of the executed generals was Pericles II, the son of Pericles and Aspasia.

This incident may have confirmed his scepticism about the Athenian democracy. He thought the use of the lot was stupid and he believed that most would-be politicians did not know what they were talking about. He saw what Pericles had called ‘happy versatility’ as amateurism and believed in appointing experts to oversee political affairs. He also admired Sparta and appeared to be fascinated by the Spartan focus on being a ‘perfect’ soldier.

The revolution of 404 that established the rule of the Thirty Tyrants was engineered by Socrates’ pupils, Critias and Charmides.  The Tyrants set up an oligarchic council of 3,000 as a new political elite. Socrates was ordered to make an arrest on their behalf, though he refused. In 403 the democracy was restored. Critias and Charmides were both killed, and the other leaders of the oligarchy were outlawed, but an amnesty was applied to everyone else. Nevertheless, feelings in Athens were tense and bitter.  There was a great increase of lawsuits, and by far the most famous was the trial of Socrates.

What were the charges against him?

In the Athenian legal system, criminal charges were brought not by police or professional prosecutors but by individuals. However, these could hire skilled orators to mount the prosecutions on their behalf. The charges against Socrates were brought by the general Anytus, a popular politician and a responsible moderate. He employed a man named Meletus, about whom very little is known, to mount the prosecution. The charges were:
  1. That Socrates did not believe in the gods in whom the city believes, but introduces other and new deities
  2. That he corrupts the young. 
These were the very charges brought against the sophists. However, to Plato, Socrates was the epitome of goodness (arete), and it was Plato’s greatest condemnation of the democracy that it put him to death in 399. The details are found in three of Plato’s works: The Euthyphro (the charges), The Apology (the trial), The Phaedo (the execution).

What do the charges mean?

The charge of impiety can scarcely refer literally to the importation of foreign gods, since these were quite often introduced into Athens without incurring penalties. Aristophanes had made fun of Socrates as a believer in Vortex. Religiously, he was outwardly orthodox, though he applied his critical methods to some of the traditional beliefs of the time, notably foolish or immoral views about the gods. He claimed on occasion to be guided by a divine sign or voice (daimonion) and sometimes went into spellbound trances.

The real force of the indictment went into the second charge of corrupting the young. Anytus had a personal motive for bringing this charge. He had a young son, who ought, Socrates told his father, to have a higher education. Anytus promptly sent his son into business, where he took to drink. 

Sexual harassment was obviously an issue in Socrates’ reputation. Aristophanes ignored it, but Plato and Xenophon were very defensive about it. Xenophon’s Socrates admits that he is always in love with someone though he deplores homosexual acts. Plato’s Socrates admits to being set on fire by catching a glimpse of a lovely boy’s body under his tunic. According to Plato, Socrates rebuffed the advances of Alcibiades. The historian Robin Lane Fox states 
‘Socrates’ social life is teeming with homoerotic lovers and their passions.’

Trial and condemnation

Court procedure: It is not clear where Socrates was tried. It could have been in the Heliaia (court-room), a rectangular building with four walls open to the sky, or less plausibly, in the open air on the Arepoagus. By the late fifth century the pay of jurors had been raised to 3 obols. Amateur court officials oversaw the selection of jurors. There were no barristers or professional prosecutors and the defendant had to defend himself.  A public trial, such as the trial of Socrates, was allotted a full day in court. The evidence of witnesses counted for little – what mattered were the speeches. The plaintiff would speak first, his speech timed by the water-clock (klepsydra), which was allowed to during the speech and stopped for the reading of the evidence. The time allocated to a speech was measured in terms of the volume of water that the clocks contained.

Each juror had two discs of metal, one with the axle solid, the other hollow. A pierced axle meant guilty, a solid meant innocence.

The trial: Socrates was tried in May 399 BC in the Religious Court of the King Archon (the chief magistrate) before 500 jurors. His behaviour in court appeared flippant and contemptuous (another example of his irony?) and clearly alienated many jurors. His behaviour in court could be taken as proof that his conduct in general promoted insubordination, and this was a bad example to the young at a time when the city was reconstructing itself.

Socrates was found guilty by 280 votes to 220.  Both Plato and Xenophon presented this as an outrageously unjust verdict but certain facts could not be denied: he was associated with the treacherous Alcibiades and with Critias and Charmides, two of the most notorious and ruthless anti-democrats in the city. But was this simply guilt by association? 

The punishment had then to be decided on. Socrates could have settled for banishment, a common method of punishment now that ostracism had been abolished, but instead he made a speech arguing that he should be maintained for life as a public benefactor. The jury then voted for the death penalty by a larger majority than had originally decided on his guilt (340/160)!

Imprisonment: Socrates’ execution was delayed by thirty days for religious reasons: the Athenians were celebrating the festival of Apollo on Delos and he could not be killed before the fleet returned and offered sacrifice. In Athens prison was not intended primarily as punishment, but was the place where the accused were held pending their trials or executions. In prison Socrates held tranquil discussions with his followers, as portrayed in the Crito, in which he insisted on the necessity of obeying the laws of the state, even when they result in an unjust verdict. Given the possibility of escaping from prison, he refused. He is made to say to Crito: 
‘Do you think a state can exist and not be overturned in which the decisions reached by the court have no force, but are made valid and annulled by private persons?’ 
Death: He died by drinking self-administered hemlock, a poison that attacks the peripheral nervous system. His last words were:
 ‘Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.’ 
Plato wrote:
‘This…was the end of our comrade, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time the bravest and also the wisest and the most just.’

'The Death of Socrates', Jacques-Louis David, 1787