Socrates (c. 469 – 399 B.C.) was a hugely important Greek philosopher from the Classical period (often known as the Socratic period in his honour). Unlike most of the Pre-Socratic philosophers who came before him, who were much more interested in establishing how the world works, Socrates was more concerned with how people should behave, and so was perhaps the first major philosopher of Ethics.
Socrates was born, as far as we know, in Athens around 469 B.C. Our knowledge of his life is sketchy and derives mainly from three contemporary sources, the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon (c. 431 – 355 B.C.), and the plays of Aristophanes (c. 456 – 386 B.C.). According to Plato, Socrates’ father was Sophroniscus (a sculptor and stonemason) and his mother was Phaenarete (a midwife). His family was respectable in descent, but humble in means. He appears to have had no more than an ordinary Greek education (reading, writing, gymnastics and music, and, later, geometry and astronomy) before devoting his time almost completely to intellectual interests.
He is usually described as unattractive in appearance and short in stature, and he apparently rarely washed or changed his clothes. But he did nevertheless marry Xanthippe, a woman much younger than he and renowned for her shrewishness(Socrates justified his marriage on the grounds that a horse-trainer needs to hone his skills on the most spirited animals). She bore for him three sons, Lamprocles, Sophroniscus and Menexenus, who were all were quite young children at the time of their father’s trial and death and, according to Aristotle, they turned out unremarkable, silly and dull.
It is not known for sure who his teachers were, but he seems to have been acquainted with the doctrines of Parmenides, Heraclitus and Anaxagoras. Plato recorded the fact that Socrates met Zeno of Elea and Parmenides on their trip to Athens, probably in about 450 B.C. Other influences which have been mentioned include a rhetorician named Prodicus, a student of Anaxagoras called Archelaus, and two women (besides his mother): Diotima (a witch and priestess from Mantinea who taught him all about “eros” or love), and Aspasia (the mistress of the Greek statesman Pericles, who taught him the art of funeral orations).
It is not clear how Socrates earned a living. Some sources suggest that he continued the profession of stonemasonry from his father. He apparently served for a time as a member of the senate of Athens, and he served (and reportedly distinguished himself) in the Athenian army during three campaigns at Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium. However, most texts seem to indicate that Socrates did not work, devoting himself solely to discussing philosophy in the squares of Athens. Using a method now known as the Socratic Method (or Socratic dialogue or dialectic), he grew famous for drawing forth knowledge from his students by pursuing a series of questions and examining the implications of their answers. Often he would question people’s unwarranted confidence in the truth of popular opinions, but usually without offering them any clear alternative teaching. Aristophanes portrayed Socrates as running a Sophist school and accepting payment for teaching, but other sources explicitly deny this.
The best known part of Socrates’ life is his trial and execution. Despite claiming complete loyalty to his city, Socrates’ pursuit of virtue and his strict adherence to truth clashed with the course of Athenian politics and society (particularly in the aftermath of Athens’ embarrassing defeats in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta). Socrates raised questions about Athenian religion, but also about Athenian democracy and, in particular, he praised Athens’ arch-rival Sparta, causing some scholars to interpret his trial as an expression of political infighting. However, it more likely resulted from his self-appointed position as Athens’ social and moral critic, and his insistence on trying to improve the Athenians’ sense of justice (rather than upholding the status quo and accepting the development of immorality). His “crime” was probably merely that his paradoxical wisdom made several prominent Athenians look foolish in public.
Whatever the motivation, he was found guilty (by a narrow margin of 30 votes out of the 501 jurors) of impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens, and he was sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock in 399 B.C., at the age of 70. Although he apparently had an opportunity to escape, he chose not to, believing that a true philosopher should have no fear of death, that it would be against his principles to break his social contract with the state by evading its justice, and that he would probably fare no better elsewhere even if he were to escape into exile.
As has been mentioned, Socrates himself did not write any philosophical texts, and our knowledge of the man and his philosophy is based on writings by his students and contemporaries, particularly Plato’s dialogues, but also the writings of Aristotle, Xenophon and Aristophanes. As these are either the partisan philosophical texts of his supporters, or works of dramatic rather than historically accurate intent, it is difficult to find the “real” Socrates (often referred to as the “Socratic problem”). In Plato’s Socratic Dialogues in particular, it is well-nigh impossible to tell which of the views attributed to Socrates are actually his and which Plato’s own.
Perhaps Socrates’ most important and enduring single contribution to Western thought is his dialectical method of inquiry, which he referred to as “elenchus”(roughly, “cross-examination”) but which has become known as the Socratic Method or Socratic Debate (although some commentators have argued that Protagoras actually invented the “Socratic” method). It has been called a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those which lead to contradictions. Even today, the Socratic Method is still used in classrooms and law schools as a way of discussing complex topics in order to expose the underlying issues in both the subject and the speaker. Its influence is perhaps most strongly felt today in the use of the Scientific Method, in which the hypothesis is just the first stage towards a proof.
At its simplest, the Socratic Method is used to solve a problem by breaking the problem down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distill better and better solutions. Both the questioner and the questioned explore the implications of the other’s positions, in order to stimulate rational thinking and illuminate ideas. Thus, Socrates would counter any assertion with a counterexample which disproves the assertion (or at least shows it to be inadequate). This would lead to a modified assertion, which Socrates would then test again with another counterexample. Through several iterations of this kind, the original assertion is continually adjusted and becomes more and more difficult to refute, which Socrates held meant that it was closer and closer to the truth.
Socrates believed fervently in the immortality of the soul, and he was convinced that the gods had singled him out as a kind of divine emissary to persuade the people of Athens that their moral values were wrong-headed, and that, instead of being so concerned with their families, careers, and political responsibilities, they ought to be worried about the “welfare of their souls”. However, he also questioned whether “arete” (or “virtue”) can actually be taught as the Sophists believed. He observed that many successful fathers (such as the prominent military general Pericles, for example) did not produce sons of their own quality, which suggested to him that moral excellence was more a matter of divine bequest than parental nurture.
He often claimed that his wisdom was limited to an awareness of his own ignorance, (although he did claim to have knowledge of “the art of love“). Thus, he never actually claimed to be wise, only to understand the path a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it. His claim that he knew one and only one thing, that he knew nothing, may have influenced the later school of Skepticism. He saw his role, not as a teacher or a theorist, but as analogous to a midwife who could bring the theories of others to life, although to do so he would of course need to have experience and knowledge of that of which he talked. He believed that anyone could be a philosopher, not just those who were highly trained and educated, and indeed that everyone had a duty to ask philosophical questions (he is famously quoted as claiming that “the unexamined life is not worth living“).
Many of the beliefs traditionally attributed to the historical Socrates have been characterized as “paradoxical” because they seem to conflict with common sense, such as: no-one desires evil, no-one errs or does wrong willingly or knowingly; all virtue is knowledge; virtue is sufficient for happiness. He believed that wrongdoing was a consequence of ignorance and those who did wrong knew no better (sometimes referred to as Ethical Intellectualism). He believed the best way for people to live was to focus on self-development rather than the pursuit of material wealth, and he always invited others to try to concentrate more on friendships and a sense of true community. He was convinced that humans possessed certain virtues(particularly the important philosophical or intellectual virtues), and that virtue was the most valuable of all possessions, and the ideal life should be spent in search of the Good (an early statement of Eudaimonism or Virtue Ethics).
Socrates’ political views, as represented in Plato’s dialogue “The Republic”, were strongly against the democracy that had so recently been restored in the Athens of his day, and indeed against any form of government that did not conform to his ideal of a perfect republic led by philosophers, who he claimed were the only type of person suitable to govern others. He believed that the will of the majority was not necessarily a good method of decision-making, but that it was much more important that decisions be logical and defensible. However, these may be more Plato’s own views than those of Socrates, “The Republic” being a “middle period” work often considered to be not representative of the views of the historical Socrates.
In Plato’s “early” dialogue, “Apology of Socrates”, Socrates refused to pursue conventional politics, on the grounds that he could not look into the matters of others(or tell people how to live their lives) when he did not yet understand how to live his own. Some have argued that he considered the rule of the “Thirty Tyrants” (who came to power briefly during his life, led by Critias, a relative of Plato and a one-time student of Socrates himself) even less legitimate than the democratic senate that sentenced him to death.
Likewise, in the dialogues of Plato, Socrates often appears to support a mystical side, discussing reincarnation and the mystery religions (popular religious cults of the time, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, restricted to those who had gone through certain secret initiation rites), but how much of this is attributable to Socrates or to Plato himself is not (and never will be) clear. Socrates often referred to what the Greeks called a “daemonic sign”, a kind of inner voice he heard only when he was about to make a mistake (such as the sign that he claimed prevented him from entering into politics). Although we would consider this to be intuition today, Socrates thought of it as a form of “divine madness”, the sort of insanity that is a gift from the gods and gives us poetry, mysticism, love and even philosophy itself.
Socrates’ views were instrumental in the development of many of the major philosophical movements and schools which came after him, particularly the Platonism of his principle student Plato, (and the Neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism it gave rise to). His idea of a life of austerity combined with piety and morality (largely ignored by Plato and Aristotle) was essential to the core beliefs of later schools like Cynicism and Stoicism. Socrates’ stature in Western Philosophy returned in full force with the Renaissance and the Age of Reason in Europe when political theory began to resurface under such philosophers as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435 – 360 B.C.), the founder of the school of Hedonism was also a pupil of Socrates, although he rather skewed Socrates’ teaching.