Who was Socrates?

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Socrates (d. 399 BCE) is one of the major founders of Western philosophy known for his Socratic Method and fascinating personality.

We learn about Socrates primarily from his student Plato (d. 347 BCE) and the historian Xenophon (d. 354 BCE). Plato’s Dialogues are the most extensive literary sources in which Socrates plays a central role. Xenophon likely presented a more accurate portrayal of Socrates given his skill as a historian and his historical account of Ancient Greece from the year 411 to 362 BCE.

Historians have encountered the so-called “Socratic Problem”. These are difficulties facing efforts to produce a reliable portrait of Socrates given that the source materials authored by later writers present often contradictory and fictionalized data. Plato’s Dialogues present Socrates as a larger than life figure and it can be challenging to determine what information and ideas presented are legitimately Socrates’ own rather than Plato’s. Professor 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” (1).

It does seem, however, that Socrates’ areas of interest were on ethics and moral philosophy. Historical sources agree that he was a gifted man of intelligence, but also physically ugly. In addition, there is an agreement that he died by execution through poisoning for corrupting the youth of Athens.

Socrates was born in the fifth century BCE probably in the year 469 in the Athenian suburb of Alopeke. He likely worked in his father’s trade as a stonemason and was fortunate to study some philosophy before enrolling in military service during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). After his military service that was likely peaceful and without conflict, Socrates returned to Athens and became involved in politics. When his father died he received an inheritance that enabled him to live with his wife Xanthippe without needing to work. Socrates soon became known in the city of Athens for being frequently involved in philosophical discussion

Socrates’ approach was unique as he allegedly embraced poverty, insisted that he was not a teacher, and refused to take money for what he did. His goal was to help other people develop and think for themselves. Socrates would do this by engaging his fellow Athenians in public areas like the marketplace. He also engaged a diverse range of people that included the elderly, women, slaves, and the poor. In what has been called the Socratic Method, Socrates’ genuine intellectual probing would often lead others to realize their own ignorance, but he also wanted to guide them to deeper insight. He would ask some fellow Athenian to define abstract concepts such as beauty, the good, and piety, and he would show how his answers led to paradox or absurdity. Philosophy to Socrates was excellent for bringing out and pursuing knowledge that he believed people already had or could come to know. It simply required reflection and critical thought. This teasing out of knowledge and continual asking of questions resulted in Socrates never really presenting any positive doctrines or views himself. Scholars have managed to tease out some important ideas he held, such as on virtue and defining virtue, but in general his modus operandi was incessant questioning. This evidently came to the enjoyment of the younger men in Athens. Socrates’s young followers loved watching him debate and tear apart their elders in the marketplace and it inspired many to devote themselves to philosophy.

Socrates soon made enemies and attracted trouble with some notable Athenians such as the poet Meletus, the tanner Anytus, and orator Lycon. Around the age of seventy, Socrates was brought to trial on numerous charges including impiety, denying the gods, criticizing democracy, praising the Spartans (the enemies of the Athenians), and for criticizing the moral ethic of Athenian society. He stood trial in court and rather than plead guilty (which would have likely led to his release) he decided to defend himself and mock the court. Socrates was sentenced to death and, according to Plato, he was given a fatal dose of poisonous hemlock.

References

1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Debra Nails). 2005. Socrates. Available.

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