Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
Socrates (469/470-399 BCE) was a Greek philosopher and is considered the father of western philosophy. Plato was his most famous student and would teach Aristotle who would then tutor Alexander the Great. By this progression, Greek philosophy, as first developed by Socrates, was spread throughout the known world during Alexander's conquests.
Socrates was born c. 469/470 BCE to the sculptor Sophronicus and the mid-wife Phaenarete. He studied music, gymnastics, and grammar in his youth (the common subjects of study for a young Greek) and followed his father's profession as a sculptor. Tradition holds that he was an exceptional artist, and his statue of the Graces, on the road to the Acropolis, is said to have been admired into the 2nd century CE. Socrates served with distinction in the army and, at the Battle of Potidaea, saved the life of the General Alcibiades.
When he was middle-aged, Socrates' friend Chaerephon asked the famous Oracle at Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle answered, "None." Bewildered by this answer and hoping to prove the Oracle wrong, Socrates went about questioning people who were held to be 'wise' in their own estimation and that of others. He found, to his dismay, "that the men whose reputation for wisdom stood highest were nearly the most lacking in it, while others who were looked down on as common people were much more intelligent" (Plato, Apology, 22). The youth of Athens delighted in watching Socrates question their elders in the market and, soon, he had a following of young men who, because of his example and his teachings, would go on to abandon their early aspirations and devote themselves to philosophy (from the Greek 'Philo', love, and 'Sophia', wisdom - literally 'the love of wisdom'). Among these were Antisthenes (founder of the Cynic school) Aristippus (the Cyrenaic school) Xenophon (whose writings would influence Zeno of Cithium, founder of the Stoic school) and, most famously, Plato (the main source of our information of Socrates in his Dialogues) among many others. Every major philosophical school mentioned by ancient writers following Socrates' death was founded by one of his followers.
The diversity of these schools is testimony to Socrates' wide ranging influence and, more importantly, the diversity of interpretations of his teachings. The philosophical concepts taught by Antisthenes and Aristippus could not be more different, in that the former taught that the good life was attained by self-control and self-abnegation, while the latter claimed a life of pleasure was the only path worth pursuing. It has been said that Socrates' greatest contribution to philosophy was to move intellectual pursuits away from the focus on `physical science' (as pursued by the so-called Pre-Socratic Philosophers such as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and others) and into the abstract realm of ethics and morality. No matter the diversity of the schools which claimed to carry on his teachings, they all emphasized some form of morality as their foundational tenet. That the `morality' espoused by one school was often condemned by another, again bears witness to the very different interpretations of Socrates' central message. While scholars have traditionally relied upon Plato's Dialogues as a source for information on the historical Socrates, Plato's contemporaries claimed he used a character he called `Socrates' as a mouth-piece for his own philosophical views. Notable among these critics was, allegedly, Phaedo, a fellow student of Socrates, whose writings are now lost, and Xenophon, whose Memorablia presents a different view of Socrates than that presented by Plato.
However his teachings were interpreted, it seems clear that Socrates' main focus was on how to live a good and virtuous life. The claim atrributed to him by Plato that "an unexamined life is not worth living" (Apology, 38b) seems historically accurate, in that it is clear he inspired his followers to think for themselves instead of following the dictates of society and the accepted superstitions concerning the gods and how one should behave. While there are differences between Plato's and Xenophon's depictions of Socrates, both present a man who cared nothing for class distinctions or `proper behavior' and who spoke as easily with women, servants, and slaves as with those of the higher classes. In ancient Athens, individual behavior was maintained by a concept known as `Eusebia' which is often translated into English as `piety' but more closely resembles `duty' or `loyalty to a course'. In refusing to conform to the social propieties proscribed by Eusebia, Socrates angered many of the more important men of the city who could, rightly, accuse him of breaking the law by violating these customs.
In 399 BCE Socrates was charged with impiety by Meletus the poet, Anytus the tanner, and Lycon the orator who sought the death penalty in the case. The accusation read: “Socrates is guilty, firstly, of denying the gods recognized by the state and introducing new divinities, and, secondly, of corrupting the young.” It has been suggested that this charge was both personally and politically motivated as Athens was trying to purge itself of those associated with the scourge of the Thirty Tyrants of Athens who had only recently been overthrown. Socrates' relationship to this regime was through his former student, Critias, who was considered to be among the worst of the tyrants and was thought to have been corrupted by Socrates. It has also been suggested, based in part on interpretations of Plato's dialogue of the Meno, that Anytus blamed Socrates for corrupting his son. Anytus, it seems, had been grooming his son for a life in politics until the boy became interested in Socrates' teachings and abandoned political pursuits. As Socrates' accusers had Critias as an example of how the philosopher corrupted youth, even if they never used that evidence in court, the precedent appears to have been known to the jury.
Ignoring the counsel of his friends and refusing the help of the gifted speechwriter Lysias, Socrates chose to defend himself in court. There were no lawyers in ancient Athens and, instead of a solicitor, one would hire a speechwriter. Lysias was among the most highly paid but, as he admired Socrates, he offered his services free of charge. The speechwriter usually presented the defendant as a good man who had been wronged by a false accusation, and this is the sort of defense the court would have expected from Socrates. Instead of the defense filled with self-justification and pleas for his life, however, Socrates defied the Athenian court, proclaiming his innocence and casting himself in the role of Athens' 'gadfly' - a benefactor to them all who, at his own expense, kept them awake and aware. When it came time for Socrates to suggest a penalty to be imposed rather than death, he suggested he should be maintained in honor with free meals in the Prytaneum, a place reserved for heroes of the Olympic games. This would have been considered a serious insult to the honor of the Prytaneum and that of the city of Athens. Accused criminals on trial for their life were expected to beg for the mercy of the court, not presume to heroic accolades.
Socrates was convicted and sentenced to death (Xenophon tells us that he wished for such an outcome and Plato's account of the trial in his Apology would seem to confirm this). The last days of Socrates are chronicled in Plato's Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo, the last dialogue depicting the day of his death (by drinking hemlock) surrounded by his friends in his jail cell in Athens and, as Plato puts it, "Such was the end of our friend, a man, I think, who was the wisest and justest, and the best man I have ever known" (Phaedo, 118).
Socrates' influence was felt immediately in the actions of his disciples as they formed their own interpretations of his life, teachings, and death, and set about forming their own philosophical schools and writing about their experiences with their teacher. Of all these writings we have only the works of Plato, Xenophon, a comic image by Aristophanes, and later works by Aristotle to tell us anything about Socrates' life. He, himself, wrote nothing, but his words and actions in the search for and defense of Truth changed the world and his example still inspires people today.
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c. 469 BCE - 399 BCELife of Socrates.