Socrates is seen as one of the founders of western philosophy (1). What we know of him historically comes from literary sources although he left none of his own writings. That he didn’t leave any writings for us to discover seems appropriate given his methodology. He far rather preferred debating and dialoging with others in person as opposed to writing down huge philosophical tomes (2).
We learn about Socrates from writings penned by his students such as the philosopher Plato and the historian Xenophon. Plato’s Dialogues, for example, are our most expansive literary sources we have for him (3). Within Dialogues, Socrates is presented as a key character in which a lengthy presentation of ideas are fleshed out. Xenophon probably presented Socrates in a more historically accurate manner than did Plato due to Xenophon being a historian. Xenophon also appears to be a good source of information for Ancient Greece from the 411 BC to 362 BC as presented in his account of the History of Greece.
Historians face something known as the Socratic Problem, namely, the difficulties inherent in constructing a historical portrait of Socrates when the source materials penned by later writers present contradictory information and are likely fictionalized to some extent (4). For example, in Plato’s Dialogues, in which Socrates is presented as a “larger than life figure,” it can be challenging to determine what information and ideas presented are legitimately Socrates’ own ones as opposed to Plato’s (5). Professor of philosophy Debra Nails explains that,
“The Socratic problem is a rat’s nest of complexities arising from the fact that various people wrote about Socrates whose accounts differ in crucial respects, leaving us to wonder which, if any, are accurate representations of the historical Socrates” (6).
Despite these difficulties it appears that Socrates’ main emphasis was on ethics and moral philosophy. The historical sources also tend to agree that he was known to be an incredibly intelligent individual, physically ugly, and that he died by execution via poisoning (7). Clearly Socrates’ reputation preceded him and other later sources, inspired by him in some way or another, provided their own interpretations of the man.
Socrates was born in 5th century BC (c. 469 BC) in Alopeke to his father, Sophroniscus, who was a stonemason and his mother, Phaenarete, who was a midwife (8). He likely engaged in his father’s trade as a stonemason and was fortunate enough to have studied some philosophy prior to enrolling in military service during the Paloponnesian War. After his military service, which was likely peaceful and devoid of conflict, he returned to Athens where he became involved in politics. When his father died he received an inheritance that enabled him to live with his wife Xanthippe without having to work. Socrates soon became a known figure in the city of Athens as he was frequently involved in philosophical discussions with the Athenians.
Socrates’ practices were quite unique. He embraced poverty, adamantly insisted that he was not a teacher, and refused to take money for what he did. His goal was to help other people develop in such a way as to think for themselves. This led him to attend public areas such as the marketplace to talk with people (9). He also apparently engaged diversely which included the elderly, women, slaves, as well as the poor. His genuine intellectual probing would often lead others to experience and realize their own ignorance. He would ask his audiences to define concepts such as “beauty,” “the good,” and “piety,” and subsequently show how their answers led to paradox or absurdity (10). This came to the enjoyment of some of the younger men in Athens who took great leisure in watching Socrates debate and question their elders in the market place, and he developed a following of young men who would too devote themselves to philosophy (11).
Despite his following and reputation, Socrates soon made enemies and begun attracting trouble with some notable Athenians such as Meletus (a poet), Anytus (a tanner), and Lycon (an orator). Around the age of 70, hd was brought to trial where he faced numerous charges including impiety, denying the gods, criticizing democracy, praising the Spartans (who were the enemies of the Athenians), and criticizing the moral ethic of Athenian society. He stood trial in court and rather than pleading guilty (which would have almost certainly led to him being released) he decided to both defend himself and mock the court, and was thus sentenced to death (12). As Plato informs us, Socrates was given a fatal dose of poisonous hemlock from which he died in 399 BC (13).
1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Debra Nails). 2005. Socrates. Available.
2. Stokes, P. 2007. Philosophy: The Great Thinkers. p. 264.
3. Khan, C. 1998. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. p. 75.
4. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Debra Nails). 2005. Ibid.
5. Stokes, P. 2007. Ibid. p. 265.
6. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Debra Nails). 2005. Ibid.
7. Ahrensdorf, P. 1995. The Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato’s Phaedo. p. 17.
8. Ancient History Encyclopaedia (Joshua Mark). 2009. Socrates. Available.
9. Stokes, P. 2007. Ibid. p. 264-265.
10. Stokes, P. 2007. Ibid. p. 264.
11. Ancient History Encyclopaedia (Joshua Mark). 2009. Ibid. Available.
12. Stokes, P. 2007. Ibid. p. 265
13. Encyclopaedia Britannica (Richard Kraut). Socrates: Greek philosopher. Available.