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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
‘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.
Method of teachingSocrates 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.
‘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?
‘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.
- 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?
- 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.
- He believed there was an ultimate truth, and he distrusted the type of clever argument that could prove anything.
- He taught morals, not techniques (though the sophists too claimed to teach morals).
PoliticsIn 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.
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:
- That Socrates did not believe in the gods in whom the city believes, but introduces other and new deities
- That he corrupts the young.
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.
‘Socrates’ social life is teeming with homoerotic lovers and their passions.’
Trial and condemnation
Each juror had two discs of metal, one with the axle solid, the other hollow. A pierced axle meant guilty, a solid meant innocence.
‘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|