Socrates (ca. 469 – 399 B.C.E.) (Greek Σωκράτης Sōkrátēs) was an ancient Greek philosopher and one of the pillars of the Western tradition. Having left behind no writings of his own, he is known mainly through Plato, one of his students. Plato used the life of his teacher and the Socratic method of inquiry to advance a philosophy of idealism that would come to influence later Christian thought and the development of Western civilization.
Socrates made a clear distinction between true knowledge and opinion. Based upon his conviction about the immortality of the soul, Socrates defined true knowledge as eternal, unchanging, and absolute compared to opinions which are temporal, changing, and relative. Socrates was convinced that true knowledge and moral virtues are inscribed within the soul of every individual. Learning is, therefore, to cultivate the soul and make one’s implicit understanding of truth explicit. Socrates engaged in dialogues, not to teach knowledge, but in order to awaken the soul of a partner, a method comparable to certain practices in Zen Buddhism.
Truth, for Socrates, is something that should not only be discussed but lived, embodied, and practiced. Socrates understood the care of the soul as the primary task of philosophy and fought against moral relativists such as the Sophists. They mistakenly replaced the effort to discover truth with the practice of rhetorical skills understood as tools for social success, and substituted the pursuit of pleasure for the attainment of genuine happiness.
Socrates was prosecuted, imprisoned, and sentenced to death for charges of impiety and corrupting youth, a legal but unjust prosecution. Refusing to compromise with politically motivated opponents, Socrates took poison in prison, preferring an honorable death than flight from Athens to preserve his life. Thus he is revered as a martyr for the truth of philosophy.
Socrates' seminal role in the development of Western thought, providing the basis for individuals to arrive at the truth through investigation of the self and the world apart from the dictates of communal tradition, draws comparisons to near his contemporaries (Buddha), Confucius, and Lao Tsu. The near-simultaneous appearance of history's great sages led the nineteenth-century philosopher Karl Jaspers to posit an "Axial Age"—the period from roughly 600 B.C.E. to 400 B.C.E.—during which "the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently… upon which humanity still subsists today." Jaspers saw Socrates, Confucius and Siddhartha Gautama as "paradigmatic personalities," whose quest for meaning would bring transformative change in humanity's self-understanding.
Historians divide the history of Greek philosophy into two periods: before Socrates and after Socrates. All philosophers who appeared before Socrates are grouped together and called Pre-Socratics.
Philosophy began as the quest for unchanging principles. This distinguishes philosophy from Greek mythology, which sought transcendent meaning through imaginative projections of observed phenomena to origins among the divinities. Pre-Socratics tried to find natural principles without a clear understanding of the distinct characteristics of human beings. Socrates is the first person who brought the issues of human beings to the center of philosophical inquiry. With Socrates, deep inquiries into human life and human beings really began. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” (Apology, 38) is one of the best-known phrases of Socrates.
Every philosophy is built upon certain a priori presuppositions, and Socrates’ thought follows from two important insights: the soul is immortal, and the care of the soul is the task of philosophy. Human life does not end at one’s death, Socrates taught. Death is merely the departure for afterlife. Facing his own death, Socrates explained the meaning of death in front of weeping friends and disciples and asked, why not celebrate death? Death, he explained, is the departure of the soul for the eternal world.
Upon the conviction that the essence of the self is the soul and that one continues to live in the world after death, Socrates took the caring of the soul to be the most important issue in human life. Socrates challenged a variety of secular relativists, Sophists in particular, who taught the art of success and promoted a hedonistic way of life.
Interestingly, three of history’s greatest thinkers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, appeared synchronously in fourth-century B.C.E. Greece. Socrates was the teacher of Plato, who in turn was the teacher of Aristotle. Karl Jaspers, a twentieth-century philosopher, noticed the roughly simultaneous appearance of major thinkers in human history worldwide, such as Jewish prophets, Zoroaster, Confucius, Buddha, and writers of the Upanishads. He conceived the period of three centuries before and three centuries after 500 B.C.E. as the Axial Age which laid the foundation for religions and philosophies.
There are no recorded works by Socrates. Modern knowledge concerning the philosopher essentially depends upon a limited number of contemporaneous secondary sources, primarily the works of his student Plato, accounts of conversations with Socrates by the historian Xenophon, and historically problematic references in the writings of the satirist Aristophanes. While Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle are the main sources for the historical Socrates, Xenophon and Plato were direct disciples of Socrates, and perhaps idealize him. 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.
Socrates was prominently lampooned in Aristophanes' comedy The Clouds, produced when Socrates was in his mid-forties. Socrates later 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 and in plays by Callias, Eupolis, and Telecleides. In all of these, Socrates and the Sophists were criticized for the "moral dangers inherent in contemporary thought and literature."
Fragmentary evidence also exists from Socrates' contemporaries. Giannantoni collects every scrap of evidence pertaining to Socrates in his monumental work Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae, which includes writers such as Aeschines Socraticus (not the orator), Antisthenes, and a number of others who knew Socrates.
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. She was considered a shrew, and Socrates himself attested that, having learned to live with Xanthippe, he 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. The others only falsely thought they had knowledge.
By questioning everything and everyone, in particular those who claimed to have knowledge, Socrates apparently offended the leaders of his time. Brought to trial, he was found guilty as charged, and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. His friends and students bribed the prison guard and prepared a ship to escape, but he refused to leave and took a poisonous herb. The dramatic court scene and his final speech in the prison are depicted by Plato in his Apology. Socrates’ attitude when facing his own death brought about by unjust charges, as recorded by Plato, is remembered in human history as the martyrdom of a just man.
One of his contributions to Western thought is his dialogical method of inquiry, known as the Socratic Method, which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts such as the Good and Justice, concepts used constantly without any real definition.
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 their beliefs and the validity of such beliefs.
Philosophical theories and views are supported by one’s convictions or beliefs at a deeper level. Socrates tried to awaken the soul of his partner in dialogue, rather than trying to give them knowledge, so that they would be led to self-realization about their own beliefs and their validity.
This method is supported by Socrates’ theory of knowledge. From Socrates’ perspective, true knowledge is inherently inscribed in the soul of every individual. Knowing the truth is therefore a matter of realizing or bringing into explicit awareness what one implicitly understands without consciously knowing it. This insight was developed by his student Plato as a theory of recollection. Plato formulated knowing the truth as recollection. One can find similar insight in Augustine’s concepts of “inner truth” and the “teacher within.”
Socrates described his method of dialogue as the art of midwifery. The midwife serves to help a pregnant mother deliver her baby. The baby is born from the mother. The role of midwife is to assist the mother so that she can smoothly and safely deliver the baby. Socrates understood his role as a helper to lead a partner in dialogue to self-realize the truth within his or her soul. Truth exists within the partner as a baby exists inside a mother’s womb. The Socratic Method consists in a series of inquiries paired with replies through which a partner is led to the point where he or she sees the truth within.
Just as delivery is a painful and difficult process, seeing the truth is difficult and the partner in dialogue sometimes goes through uncomfortable experiences. In the scenes of Socrates’ dialogues, Plato describes the discomfort and anger of the partner in dialogue.
There are a number of obstacles that prevent one from attaining true knowledge. The greatest obstacle is one’s conviction that he or she already has knowledge, even if he or she does not. From Socrates’ perspective, people often mistakenly believe that they have knowledge, when in fact they hold only opinions. For Socrates, true knowledge is unchanging and eternal truth inscribed within one’s soul. Such truth belongs to the eternal spiritual world or the world of immortals in Socrates’ terminology. Opinions, on the other hand, are changeable and offer only temporal views, ideas, and mere beliefs.
Knowing the truth or possessing true knowledge is not the same thing as having some additional information. Realization of the eternal nature of truth or true knowledge is a process of becoming aware of the eternal nature of the human soul. This realization opens up one’s mind to a whole different world of eternity. One is opened up to the spiritual dimension. It is a turn of consciousness from the materially dominated world to the spiritual realm.
This turn of awareness also involves embracing a different concept of reality. For Socrates, the world of true knowledge or eternal truth is the real world. What is sensible or what one can perceive with the five senses is temporal, changing, and less real than the world of true knowledge or eternal truth. This line of thought was fully developed by his student, Plato.
Socrates believed that his wisdom sprung from an awareness of his own ignorance. He never claimed to be actually wise, only to understand the path one must take to become wise. On the one hand, he drew a clear line between human ignorance and ideal knowledge; on the other, Plato's Symposium and Republic describe a method for ascending to wisdom.
The world of true knowledge or eternal truth is, for Socrates, vastly superior to the world of everyday reality. Socrates seems aware of its inexhaustible openness, vastness, and potentiality. One cannot really grasp this world at all through conceptual language. Socrates was aware of the reality of this world and he claimed that he only knew the path or gate to it but not the world itself. To express this point differently, truth is, in a sense, both transcendent of and, at the same time, immanent to the soul. Socrates attempted to grasp this insight and express it in his own language.
Socrates was convinced that the best way for people to live was to focus on cultivating the soul through living a virtuous life rather than through the pursuit of material wealth. 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.
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.
For Socrates, the foundation of virtues consists in their immutable and eternal nature, which belongs to a divine realm. The truthfulness of truth is established in itself and truth self-exists for eternity. It transcends human interpretations. Socrates challenged the Sophists, professional rhetoricians who promoted moral relativism, skepticism, and secular, materialistic life styles. Protagoras, one of the major Sophists, argued that good and evil is a matter of interpretation. “Man is the measure of all things,” is a phrase attributed to him. Some sophists held Machiavellian views of value and argued that good and evil were determined by a winner. Sophists generally promoted a view of value based upon power, wealth, and honor. Socrates seriously challenged them and Plato’s dialogues depicted the scenes of their arguments.
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, 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 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 challenged, and what, exactly, Socrates believed is one of the most enduring philosophical debates. 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 a lover of wisdom, and 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 the anti-democratic leanings attributed to Socrates are better attributed to 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 that sentenced him to death.
When reading the dialogues of Plato, Socrates often seems to manifest a mystical side, discussing reincarnation and the mystery religions. Although this interest is generally attributed to Plato, the distinctions between the views of Plato and Socrates remain problematic; in addition, there seem to be some corollaries in the works of Xenophon. In the culmination of the philosophical path as discussed in Plato's Symposium and Republic, one comes 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 the priestess Diotima. In the Meno, Socrates refers to the Eleusinian Mysteries, telling Meno he would understand the answers better if only he could stay for the initiations next week.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of this is Socrates' reliance on what the Greeks called his "daemon," a voice who spoke to Socrates only and always when Socrates is about to make a mistake. 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 be what we would call "intuition"; however, the Greek word was clearly used to signify a spirit or entity akin to what we would call a guardian angel.
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.
Some hold that Socrates was a fictional character, invented by Plato and plagiarized 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 quotations are attributed to Socrates in Plato's and Xenophon's writings:
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