- This article is about the ancient Greek philosopher, for all other uses see: Socrates (disambiguation)
Socrates (June 4, 470 – 399 BC) (Greek Σωκράτης Sōkrátēs) was a Greek (Athenian) philosopher and one of the most important icons of the Western philosophical tradition.
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, just as a horse trainer accustomed to wilder horses might be more competent than one not. Socrates enjoyed going to symposia, drink-talking sessions. He was a legendary drinker, remaining sober even after everyone else in the party had become senselessly drunk. He also saw military action, fighting at the Battle of Potidaea, the Battle of Delium and the Battle of Amphipolis. We know from Plato's Symposium that Socrates was decorated for bravery. In one instance he stayed with the wounded Alcibiades, and probably saved his life. During such campaigns, he also showed his extraordinary hardiness, walking without shoes and a coat in winter.
It is unknown what Socrates did for a living; in Plato's accounts he explicitly denies accepting money for teaching and does not seem to have any source of income, spending all his time engaged in conversation. However, it is unlikely that Socrates was able to live off of family inheritence, given his father's occupation as an artisan; in Xenophon's Symposium, Socrates explicitly states that he teaches for a living, paid by his students, and that he thinks this is the most important art or occupation.
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 recover from 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. He was found guilty as charged, and sentenced to drink hemlock.
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, denying that he knew anything, was unable to accept this and began to seek out the wise men of Athens, questioning them about their knowledge of good, beauty, and virtue; finding that they knew nothing yet believed they knew much led Socrates to the conclusion that he was wise only in so far as he knew he knew nothing and strived for knowledge. Historical accounts from varied sources, while questionable, suggest that Socrates had been studying philosophy for much longer than this and include Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Prodicus, the priestess Diotima and others as his teachers.
See Trial of Socrates for more detail and background about Socrates' trial and execution.
Main article: Socratic method
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 and fountainhead for ethics or moral philosophy, and of 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 hypotheses 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 their 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.
His teachers were the priestess Diotima (as Socrates relates in the Symposium), and the philosophers Anaxagoras, who taught that all is mind, and Parmenides, who taught that all is one, and included the perhaps better known Zeno among his disciples. Although few would consider Socrates an "idealist" in the modern sense of the word or a disciple of Parmenides, these early influences should be kept in mind.
Socrates believed that his wisdom sprung from an awareness of his own ignorance. “He knew that he knew nothing” (Thomas 83). Along these lines, it is often argued that Socrates taught that all wrong doing by man could be attributed to a lack of knowledge (“Socrates” 3). In simpler terms, if a person made an error, Socrates would have believed the error must have been due to ignorance of some sort. Although he never focused on one specific issue, most of Socrates' debates were centered around the characteristics of the ideal man as well as what form the ideal government would take. (Solomon 44).
The one thing Socrates consistently claimed to have knowledge of was "the art of love", i.e., philosophy. He never claimed to be actually wise, only to understand the path one must take to become wise. In Xenophon's Symposium Socrates describes what he knows and does as the art of pandering; as a teacher, he is paid to show people how and where to acquire wisdom, although he is not himself what they are looking for. In the Theaetetus and elsewhere 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 seperate 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.
It is debated whether or not Socrates believed that one could even become wise. Against this, his own self-professed lack of knowledge and the clear line between the ideal world and the everyday world are presented; when arguing that Socrates did believe one could become wise, the Symposium and other texts detailing the philosophic path are pointed out.
Socrates believed that the best way for people to live was to focus not on accumulating possessions, but to focus on self-development (Gross 2). He always invited others to try and 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. Socrates was in no way subtle about his particular beliefs on government. He openly objected to the democracy that was running Athens later in his life. Athenian democracy was not exclusive; 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 later stages of Socrates' life, Athens was in continual flux due to political upheaval. Democracy was at first overthrown by a faction known as the Thirty Tyrants, led by a man named Critias, who had been a student of Socrates at one time. The Tyrants ruled for a short time before the Athenian democracy was reinstated, at which point 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 Senate, 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.
When reading the dialogues of Plato, Socrates often seems to manifest a mystical side, discussing reincarcation and the mystery religions; however, this is generally atributed to Plato. Regardless, this cannot be dismissed out of hand, as we cannot be sure of the differences between Plato and Socrates; in addition, there seem to be some corrolaries in the works of Xenophon. In the culmination of the philosophic path as discussed in Plato's Symposium and Republic, one comes to the Sea of Beauty or to the sight of the form of the Good in an experience akin to mystical revelation; only then can one become wise. (In the Symposium, Socrates credits his speech on the philosophic path to his teacher, the priestess Diotima , who isn't even sure if Socrates is capable of reaching the highest mysteries.) In the Meno he references the Eleusinian Mysteries, telling Meno he would understand Socrates' answers better if only he could stay for the initiations next week.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of this is Socrates' reliance on what he calls his "daemon", a voice who speaks to Socrates only and always when Socrates is about to do something wrong. It was this daemon that prevented Socrates from entering into politics. In the Phaedrus, we are told Socrates considered this to be 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. Alternately, the daemon is often taken to simply mean "intuition"; however, the greek word was clearly used to signify a spirit or entity akin to what we would call a guardian angel, and Socrates certainly seemed to attribute personality and voice to his daemon.
Sources for Socrates' life and philosophy
Socrates left no writings; his life and ideas are known through the writings of a few of his contemporaries and some writers of the next generations.
Sculptures and busts of Socrates depict him as a rather ugly man with bulging eyes and a snub nose. These portraits were largely based on descriptions given by his disciple Plato, rather than on direct examination of the philosopher by the sculptor or sculptors.
References to Socrates' military duty may be found in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.
He was prominently lampooned in Aristophanes's comedic play The Clouds, produced when Socrates was in his mid-forties; the play would later be used as evidence against him at his trial. Socrates appeared in other plays by Aristophanes such as The Birds because of his being a philodorian and 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
These three are the main sources of the historical Socrates; however, two of them, Xenophon and Plato, may be considered disciples of Socrates, and presumedly, they idealize him. The other important source, Aristotle, offers various references to Socrates in his writings.
The Socratic Dialogues
- Note: the naming conventions regarding Wikipedia articles on Plato's texts are currently under revision.
- See: Category Talk:Dialogues of Plato
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 essentially 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 continous 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.
Some hold that Socrates was a fictional character, invented by Plato and plagiarised by Xenophon and Aristophanes to articulate points of view which were considered too revolutionary for the author to admit to holding. However, this theory has little merit, especially when it is considered that Aristophanes wrote about Socrates (in a negative light) long before Socrates died and Plato began to write his dialogues.
The following quotes are attributed to Socrates in Plato's and Xenophon's writings:
- The unexamined life is not worth living. (Apology, 38. In Greek, "ho de anexetastos bios ou biôtos anthorôpôi".)
- False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. (Phaedo, 91)
- So now, Athenian men, more than on my own behalf must I defend myself, as some may think, but on your behalf, so that you may not make a mistake concerning the gift of god by condemning me. For if you kill me, you will not easily find another such person at all, even if to say in a ludicrous way, attached on the city by the god, like on a large and well-bred horse, by its size and laziness both needing arousing by some gadfly; in this way the god seems to have fastened me on the city, some such one who arousing and persuading and reproaching each one of you I do not stop the whole day settling down all over. Thus such another will not easily come to you, men, but if you believe me, you will spare me; but perhaps you might possibly be offended, like the sleeping who are awakened, striking me, believing Anytus, you might easily kill, then the rest of your lives you might continue sleeping, unless the god caring for you should send you another. (Apology?)
Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? (Last words, according to the Phaedo — Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing, to whom such a sacrifice might be made upon the curing of a disease.)
Really, Ischomachus, I am disposed to ask: "Does teaching consist in putting questions?" Indeed, the secret of your system has just this instant dawned upon me. I seem to see the principle in which you put your questions. You lead me through the field of my own knowledge, and then by pointing out analogies to what I know, persuade me that I really know some things which hitherto, as I believed, I had no knowledge of. (Oeconomicus by Xenophon, translated: The Economist by H.G. Dakyns )
Further reading and external links
Project Gutenberg e-texts on Socrates, amongst others:
- 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.