Socrates


Born in 469 BC, Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure due to the fact that Socrates did not write philosophical texts, the knowledge of the man, his life, and his philosophy is entirely based on writings by his students and contemporaries, foremost among them is Plato, however, works by Xenophon, Aristotle, and Aristophanes also provide important insights. Many would claim that Plato's dialogues are the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates to survive from antiquity. Of course Plato would go on to start the School of Athens and continue his mentor’s teachings.  

Through his portrayal in Plato's dialogues, Socrates has become renowned for his contribution to the field of ethics, and it is this Platonic Socrates who also lends his name to the concepts of Socratic irony and the Socratic method. The Socratic method is essentially when a series of questions are asked not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand. It is Plato's Socrates that also made important and lasting contributions to the fields of epistemology and logic, and the influence of his ideas and approach remains strong in providing a foundation for much western philosophy that followed.

Plato is frequently viewed as the most informative source about Socrates' life and philosophy.  At the same time, however, many scholars believe that in some works Plato, being a literary artist, pushed his avowedly brightened-up version of "Socrates" far beyond anything the historical Socrates was likely to have done or said; and that Xenophon, being an historian, is a more reliable witness to the historical Socrates. It is a matter of much debate which Socrates Plato is describing at any given point—the historical figure, or Plato's fictionalization. It is also clear from other writings and historical artifacts, however, that Socrates was not simply a character, or an invention, of Plato. The testimony of Xenophon and Aristotle, alongside some of Aristophanes' work (especially The Clouds), is useful in fleshing out a perception of Socrates beyond Plato's work.

Interestingly enough, Socrates was greatly influenced and adopted his style from a woman. Her name was Diotima. Socrates said of her "a woman wise in the art of love and many other kinds of knowledge." A lot of the accounts are from Plato, who elaborates on several thousand words of dialogue between Diotima and Socrates. There are, however, three aspects in the Symposium that strike us forcibly. First, this is the only time Socrates tells us directly about his education and how he was taught by this remarkable woman. There has been much speculation about who influenced him as a young man and shaped his approach to philosophy. But here we are actually given a glimpse of his training, and it is fascinating to learn that his teacher was a female - most unusual in the Athens of the fifth century B.C. Second, Diotima uses what we have come to call the Socratic method of questioning, with Socrates, in this instance, on the receiving end. She "examines" him. Now it is true that she then goes on to teach and impart knowledge in a way Socrates himself usually avoids, so that the discussion of love reaches a conclusion. All the same, it is striking that Socrates was introduced to his examination technique by a woman. He extended and refined it, but he did not entirely invent it. Diotima was thus more important in creating the Socrates we know than any other human being. Third, there is a remarkable passage in Diotima's account of love concerning childbirth: its suffering, its glory, and its beauty. There is nothing quite like it in the whole of Greek literature. It leads many to suppose that his mother, the midwife, Phaenarete, played a part in his relationship with Diotima. Perhaps she was responsible for introducing them. It is possible, indeed I feel quite likely, that Diotima, too, had experience of midwifery. The two women may have consulted together over a difficult case or worked in concert. This is the only time when we can fairly speculate about the part that one of Socrates' parents played in his intellectual upbringing.

It is unclear how Socrates earned a living. Ancient texts seem to indicate that Socrates did not work. In Xenophon's Symposium, Socrates is reported as saying he devotes himself only to what he regards as the most important art or occupation: discussing philosophy. In The Clouds Aristophanes portrays Socrates as accepting payment for teaching and running a sophist school. While in Plato's Apology and Symposium and in Xenophon's accounts, Socrates explicitly denies accepting payment for teaching. More specifically, in the Apology, Socrates cites his poverty as proof he is not a teacher. According to Timon of Phlius and later sources, Socrates took over the profession of stonemasonry from his father. There was a tradition in antiquity, not credited by modern scholarship, that Socrates crafted the statues of the Three Graces, which stood near the Acropolis until the 2nd century AD. 

Several of Plato’s dialogues refer to Socrates’ military service. Socrates says he served in the Athenian army during three separate campaigns. In the Symposium Alcibiades describes Socrates' valor in the battles of Potidaea and Delium, recounting how Socrates saved his life in the former battle. Socrates' exceptional service at Delium is also mentioned in the Laches by the General after whom the dialogue is named. In the Apology, Socrates compares his military service to his courtroom troubles, and says anyone on the jury who thinks he ought to retreat from philosophy must also think soldiers should retreat when it looks like they will be killed in battle.

One account where Socrates displayed valor in the face of danger was in 432 B.C. while fighting in the painful Athenian retreat from Potidaea. It was deep winter and bitterly cold. Socrates showed remarkable endurance and courage, all the more admirable because he was then forty-six, almost an old man by the normal reckoning of those days. We have eyewitness evidence of Socrates' conduct in this campaign from his young aristocratic friend Alcibiades. He makes three distinct points. First he says that Socrates saved his life by standing over him when he was wounded and driving off the enemy, regardless of his own safety. Second he says that Socrates, fully armored and carrying his weapons, was a formidable figure, even in retreat. He says there was something about his bearing that made the enemy leave him severely alone: They sensed that if they had tried to seize him, they would have "met with desperate resistance." Third, he testified to Socrates' amazing hardiness. He wore thin clothing despite the cold and went barefoot even in the snow. No discomfort or shortage of food or drink seemed to dismay him. He was a splendid and cheerful campaigner. 

Socrates was never a bore - far from it. That observation is all the more remarkable in that Socrates disliked allowing his emotions to show in his face. Four centuries later, Cicero, who seems to have known a lot about him, said that to show fears or appetites on your face was undignified: "Always keep the same expression, like Socrates." Socrates' indifference to physical well-being - clothing, food, drink, warmth, and shelter, everything except company, which he always relished and needed - was a characteristic throughout his life and is well attested by a variety of sources. It seems to have been partly temperament and partly self-training. He decided early in life to be a teacher or, as he would have put it, an "examiner" of men and that such was to be his occupation but not his profession: He would take no pay. Hence on of his objects was to reduce his needs to an absolute minimum. He took delight in this process, deliberately nourishing negative appetites. He observed the shop displays in the Athens marketplace and said, "How many things I can do without!" He also liked to observe the prices, and exclaim: "How expensive Athens is!" 

Socrates lived during the time of the transition from the height of the Athenian hegemony to its decline with the defeat by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens sought to stabilize and recover from its humiliating defeat, the Athenian public may have been entertaining doubts about democracy as an efficient form of government. Socrates appears to have been a critic of democracy, and some scholars interpret his trial as an expression of political infighting.

Claiming loyalty to his city, Socrates clashed with the current course of Athenian politics and society. He praises Sparta, arch rival to Athens, directly and indirectly in various dialogues. But perhaps the most historically accurate of Socrates' offenses to the city was his position as a social and moral critic. Rather than upholding a status quo and accepting the development of what he perceived as immorality within his region, Socrates questioned the collective notion of "might makes right" that he felt was common in Greece during this period. Plato refers to Socrates as the "gadfly" of the state (as the gadfly stings the horse into action, so Socrates stung various Athenians), insofar as he irritated some people with considerations of justice and the pursuit of goodness. His attempts to improve the Athenians' sense of justice may have been the source of his execution.

According to 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 that none was wiser. Socrates believed that what the Oracle had said was a paradox, because he believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever. He proceeded to test the riddle by approaching men considered wise by the people of Athens—statesmen, poets, and artisans—in order to refute the Oracle's pronouncement. Questioning them, however, Socrates concluded that, while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at all. Socrates realized that the Oracle was correct, in that while so-called wise men thought of themselves as wise and yet were not, he himself knew he was not wise at all, which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance. Socrates' paradoxical wisdom made the prominent Athenians he publicly questioned look foolish, turning them against him and leading to accusations of wrongdoing. Socrates defended his role as a gadfly until the end: at his trial, when Socrates was asked to propose his own punishment, he suggests a wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of his life instead, to finance the time he spends as Athens' benefactor. He was, nevertheless, found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of "not believing in the gods of the state", and subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock.

According to Xenophon's story, Socrates purposefully gave a defiant defense to the jury because "he believed he would be better off dead". Xenophon goes on to describe a defense by Socrates that explains the rigors of old age, and how Socrates would be glad to circumvent them by being sentenced to death. It is also understood that Socrates also wished to die because he "actually believed the right time had come for him to die."

Xenophon and Plato agree that Socrates had an opportunity to escape, as his followers were able to bribe the prison guards. The full reasoning behind his refusal to flee is the main subject of the Crito. But here are a few of those reasons: He believed such a flight would indicate a fear of death, which he believed no true philosopher has; If he fled Athens his teaching would fare no better in another country as he would continue questioning all he met and undoubtedly incur their displeasure; having knowingly agreed to live under the city's laws, he implicitly subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would have caused him to break his "social contract" with the state, and so harm the state, an act contrary to Socratic principle.

Socrates' death is described at the end of Plato's Phaedo. Socrates turned down the pleas of Crito to attempt an escape from prison. After drinking the poison, he was instructed to walk around until his legs felt numb. After he lay down, the man who administered the poison pinched his foot. Socrates could no longer feel his legs. The numbness slowly crept up his body until it reached his heart. Shortly before his death, Socrates speaks his last words to Crito: "Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don't forget to pay the debt." Asclepius was the Greek god for curing illness, and it is likely Socrates' last words meant that death is the cure—and freedom, of the soul from the body. Socrates was a voluntary scapegoat; his death was the purifying remedy for Athens’ misfortunes. In this view, the token of appreciation for Asclepius would represent a cure for the ailments of Athens.

The jailer who was to bring Socrates the cup of poison could not help but tell those present that Socrates was the noblest, the gentlest, and bravest man he had ever had in his custody, and his obvious distress at the work he had to do was, perhaps, the most striking tribute to the lovable nature of the seer, to anyone fortunate enough to know him well.



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