Socrates is seen as one of the founders of western philosophy, of whom what we know historically comes from literary sources other than his own. He is known for what became known as the Socratic Method in which he preferred debating and dialoging with others in person on philosophical topics.
We learn about Socrates from the philosopher Plato and the historian Xenophon. Plato’s Dialogues are the most expansive literary sources, and in which Socrates is presented as a key character. Xenophon likely presented a more historically accurate portrayal of Socrates given his talent as a historian. Xenophon constitutes a valuable source for Ancient Greece from the year 411 BC to 362 BC (History of Greece).
Historians have encounter what is known as the Socratic Problem. These are the difficulties inherent in constructing a historical account of Socrates given that the source materials penned by later writers present often contradictory and fictionalized information. Plato’s Dialogues presents Socrates as a “larger than life figure,” which means that it can be challenging to determine what information and ideas presented are legitimately Socrates’ own as opposed to Plato’s. 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” (1).
Difficulties aside, his main emphasis was on ethics and moral philosophy. Historical sources agree that he was reputable for being an incredibly intelligent individual, physically ugly, and that he died by execution via poisoning. Many ancient writers drew inspiration from him, and provided their own interpretations.
Socrates was born in 5th century BC (c. 469 BC) in Alopeke. He likely engaged in his father’s trade as a stonemason and was fortunate to study some philosophy prior to enrolling in military service during the Peloponnesian 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’ methods were quite unique. He 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 in such a way as to think for themselves, which led him to attend public areas such as the marketplace to talk with people. He also 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. 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. As a result, he developed a following of young men who would too devote themselves to philosophy.
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, he 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. According to Plato, Socrates was given a fatal dose of poisonous hemlock from which he died in 399 BC.
1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Debra Nails). 2005. Socrates. Available.