Socrates was born in Deme, in the suburb of Athens, in about 470 BC. His father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason, and his mother, Phainarete, a midwife. It is believed that he received an education from Archelaus. He also worked with his father as a stonemason. (1)
Athens had a population of about 200,000. During this period a system of direct democracy had been introduced in Athens where citizens voted directly on legislation. Participation was not open to all residents: to vote one had to be an adult, male citizen (an estimated 40,000). Women, slaves (100,000), and people born outside the city (50,000) were not allowed to take part in elections. It has been claimed that the number of these people who voted was "probably no more than 30 percent of the total adult population." (2)
At this time, Pericles, was the leading political figure in the city. His principal political opponent, the conservative, Cimon, was both rich and generous, and was able to gain public favor by lavishly handing out portions of his sizable personal fortune. (3)
By 461 BC, Pericles managed to gain complete control of the city. He now proposed a decree that permitted the poor to watch theatrical plays without paying, with the state covering the cost of their admission. He also made changes to the constitution limiting Athenian citizenship to those of Athenian parentage on both sides. (4)
Athens was a member of the Delian League, an association of Greek city-states. Pericles was a successful military leader and was able to increase his political power. Eventually, the Delian League came into conflict with Peloponnesian League, led by the Greek city-state, Sparta. According to the historian, Thucydides: "The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable." (5)
The Peloponnesian War began in 431 BC and soon afterwards he joined the infantry and took part in the siege of Potidaea on the north Aegean coast. It was claimed that during the various battles he took part in he showed great courage in combat. (6) Xenophon added: "His endurance was simply marvellous when, being cut off from our supplies, we were compelled to go without food - on such occasions, which often happen in time of war, he was superior not only to me but to everybody: there was no one to be compared to him." (7)
One soldier who served with Socrates pointed out: "He started wrestling with some problem or other about sunrise one morning, and stood there lost in thought, and when the answer would not come he still stood there thinking and refused to give it up. Time went on, and by about midday the troops... began telling each other how Socrates had been standing there thinking ever since daybreak." (8)
On his return to Athens he began teaching and by 423 BC was fairly well known as a representative of the new learning. He appeared as a character in a play, The Clouds, written by Aristophanes. In the play Socrates is portrayed as someone who wore simple clothing and went barefoot "to spite the shoemakers." (9)
William K. C. Guthrie points out: "We can recognize in the Socrates of the Clouds at least three different types which were never united to perfection in any single person: first the Sophist, who teaches the art of making a good case out of a bad one; secondly the atheistic natural philosopher like Anaxagoras; and thirdly the ascetic moral teacher, ragged and starving through his own indifference to worldly interests." (10)
Aristophanes represents him as setting up a residential institution for scientific research and tuition in argumentative techniques and that he received payment for his teaching. However, both Plato and Xenophon, who were his students, both deny that Socrates claimed scientific expertise or taught for money and instead of amassing great wealth he lived in great poverty." (11)
Xenophon described Socrates as "snub-nosed, with wide nostrils, protruding eyes and thick lips" and a considerable paunch and was uglier than the Silenuses in the Satyric drama." He claimed that he had exceptional physical courage with an indifference to physical hardship and a remarkable capacity to drink large quantities of alcohol. (12) Whereas the historian, Cicero, insists that he had a strongly passionate temperament, in which anger and sexual desire were kept under restraint by reason. (13)
Another of his students, Alcibiades, who was famously handsome, attempted to seduce Socrates, but was rejected for ethical reasons. Socrates was considered to be ugly but it was his inner beauty that Alcibiades saw in him. It has been claimed that Alcibiades commented: "I've been bitten in the heart, or the mind, or whatever you like to call it, by Socrates' philosophy, which clings like an adder to any young and gifted mind it can get hold of." (14)
Bertrand Russell states that according to contemporary sources Socrates was guided by an oracle (a priest or priestess acting as a medium through whom advice or prophecy was sought from the gods). "Whether this was analogous to what a Christian would call the voice of conscience, or whether it appeared to him as an actual voice, it is impossible to know. Joan of Arc was inspired by voices, which are a common symptom of insanity." (15)
Socrates presented his oracle (guardian spirit or divine sign) as a God. "Whenever I succeed in disapproving another person's claim to wisdom in a given subject, the bystanders assume that I know everything about that subject myself. But the truth of the matter, gentlemen, is pretty certainly this, that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value." (16)
Socrates pointed out that "the arguments never come out of me; they always come from the person I am talking with". However, he acknowledges that he is "at a slight advantage in having the skill to get some account of the matter from another's wisdom and entertain it with fair treatment." He described himself as an intellectual midwife, whose questioning delivers the thoughts of others into the light of day. His skill in elucidation and debate is not a form of real wisdom as far as he was concerned. Real wisdom is perfect knowledge about ethical subjects, that help us understand the right way to behave. (17)
Socrates pointed out: "I spend all my time going about trying to persuade you, young and old, to make your first and chief concern not for your bodies nor for your possessions, but for the highest welfare of your souls, proclaiming as I go, wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state." He added that Athenians should be "ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honour, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul". (18)
Aristotle believed that Socrates held very strong political views and claims that Plato told him that "Socrates says that wives and children and possessions should be held in common." (19) Socrates once remarked: "If a man is proud of his wealth, he should not be praised until it is known how he employs it." Bertrand Russell argues that both Socrates and Plato advocated a kind of communism. The purpose of the Athens city state is the good of the whole, not the happiness of one class. Both wealth and poverty are harmful, and in an ideal world neither will exist. (20)
The preoccupations of Socrates were ethical rather than scientific. He admitted that "I have nothing to do with physical speculations." (21) He is mainly concerned with the definitions of ethical terms. Socrates maintains that no man sins wittingly, and therefore only knowledge is needed to make all men perfectly virtuous. The method he uses to obtain this knowledge is by question and answer, what is usually called the dialectic. (22) Aristotle commented that the "two things which may justly be ascribed to Socrates, inductive arguments and general definitions, for both are concerned with the starting point of knowledge." (23)
Socrates suggests that he is only eliciting knowledge already possessed by the man he is questioning. Most of his questions attempt to define the five virtues (courage, moderation, piety, wisdom and justice). Questions such as:"What is holiness?", "What is temperance?", "What is courage?", "What is beauty?", "What is excellence?", "What is democracy?" and "What is justice?". His mission was to urge people to care for their souls by trying to understand and acquire these qualities. (24)
Instead of proposing a thesis himself, Socrates lets the other man do so and then draws out its consequences. According to Socrates, the dialectic method is a good way of discovering truth. "Suppose someone maintains, for example, that democracy is good, but persons holding certain opinions should not be allowed to vote, we may convict of inconsistency, and prove to him that at least one of his two assertions must be more or less erroneous.... The dialectic method - or, more generally, the habit of unfettered discussion - tends to promote logical consistency, and is in this way useful. But it is quite unavailing when the object is to discover new facts... Such matters are obviously unsuitable for treatment in this way - empirical science, for example." (25)
All these dialogues are concerned with ethics in the broad sense of how one should live. Socrates frequently says he does not know the answer to the particular question under discussion, he never says that he knows nothing whatever. The most important thing for Socrates is that he knows the right questions to ask. The main objective of these questions is a search for accurate definitions. (26)
Socrates believed in absolute justice, absolute beauty, and absolute good, but they are not visible to the eye: "And I speak not of these alone, but of absolute greatness, and health, and strength, and of the essence or true nature of everything". These can only be seen by "intellectual vision". Therefore while we are in the body, while the soul is infected with the evils of the body, our desire for truth will not be satisfied. (27)
Socrates wanted to reshape people's moral ideas. He questioned Greek moral conventions, where it was acceptable to harm one's enemies, though not one's friends and especially not one's family. "The rigorous ethics of Socrates removes such distinctions between people and enjoins a universal morality instead. Doing good is a matter of looking after the part of yourself which matters most, namely your soul. This is not like ordinary selfishness, though because the only way to achieve this sort of benefit for yourself is by acting justly and practising the other virtues too. It cannot be gained by greedily putting moral self-improvement above any other motive." (28)
Socrates argued that this unusual ethics rest on any hope of heavenly reward or fear of its opposite. The benefits of acting in a virtuous way are reaped almost immediately. For "to live well means the same thing as to live honourably" and "the just man is happy and the unjust miserable". In Socrates' view, happiness and virtue are linked, which is why it is in people's own interests to be moral. (29)
Aristotle believed that Socrates suffered from an over-simplified picture of human psychology: "he is doing away with the irrational part of the soul, and is thereby doing away with the irrational part of the soul, and in thereby doing away also both with passion and character". Socrates saw human action and emotion in largely rational or intellectual terms and ignored impulses and irrationality. Socrates claimed that "no one acts against what he believes best - people act so only by reason of ignorance." (30) William K. C. Guthrie, said of Socrates that "in the strength of his character lay the weakness of his philosopher". (31)
In the words of Bertrand Russell: "The body is the source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being: it fills us full of loves and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us all power of thinking at all. Whence come wars, and fightings and factions? Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? Wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and by reason of all these impediments we have no time to give to philosophy; and, last and worst of all, even if we are at leisure to betake ourselves to some speculation, the body is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our inquiries, and so amazing us that we are prevented from seeing the truth." (32)
In 404 BC a twenty-seven-year war between Athens and Sparta came to an end. Athens defeat was blamed on the city's experiment with democracy. That system was brought to an end and Sparta installed rule by a group of men who became known as the Thirty Tyrants. This group of men maintained power for eight months. Though brief, their reign resulted in the killing of 5% of the Athenian population, the confiscation of citizens' property, and the exile of other democratic supporters. (33)
The regime was overthrown in 403 BC but it was not until 401 BC that democracy was fully restored. Understandably, the democrats felt very insecure and became concerned by Socrates who continued to teach people to ask questions about the political system. Another disadvantage for Socrates was that one of his students, Critias, was the leader of Thirty Tyrants. Another student, Alcibiades, had actually betrayed the city and fought on the side of the Spartans. Some claimed that intellectuals like Socrates were weakening Athenian society by undermining its traditional views and values. (34)
In 400 BC a man named Meletus brought the following indictment against Socrates: "Meletus son of Meletus of Pitthos has brought and sworn this charge against Socrates son of Sophroniscus of Alopeke: Socrates is a wrongdoer in not recognizing the gods which the city recognizes, and introducing other new divinities. Further, he is a wrongdoer in corrupting the young." (35)
The case came to trial before a jury of 500 citizens in the early spring of 399. Plato attended the trial and later provided a detailed account of the proceedings. According to Bettany Hughes he reports that "Socrates is insouciant, apathetic. Standing there in the packed courtroom in his shabby clothes... the master of words appears diffident, as if he has no taste for this particular drama, as if he perceives it all to be a sham... Athens has prided itself on its legal system, on its ability to being men to justice in front of their peers. But Socrates confesses that he had no time for such legalities." (36)
Accounts provided by people who knew him provide "a picture of a man of a certain type: a man very sure of himself, high-minded, indifferent to worldly success, believing that he is guided by a divine voice, and persuaded that clear thinking is the most important requisite for right living... in this last point, he resembles a Christian martyr... In the final passage, where he considers what happens after death, it is impossible not to feel that he firmly believes in immorality, and that his professed uncertainty is only assumed. He is not troubled, like the Christians, by fears of eternal torment: he has no doubt that his life in the next world will be a happy one." (37)
Plato reports Socrates as saying: "The fact is that this is the first time I have come before the court, even though I am seventy years old. I am therefore an utter foreigner as far as courtroom speaking goes. So now I make what I think is a fair request of you; disregard my manner of speaking. Pardon me as I speak in that manner in which I have been raised, just as you would if I really were a foreigner." (38)
Socrates was cross-examined about the rumour that he disbelieved in the traditional gods. He denied this charge, but not convincingly. There is no doubt that he had an unorthodox approach to divinity. The jury also disliked the way he talked about his "guardian spirit" or personal "divine sign". It has been argued: "The state alone had the power to say what was a suitable object for religious veneration; it had its own procedures for officially recognizing gods, and anyone who ignored them was in effect challenging the legitimacy of the democratic state." (39)
It is claimed that during the trial Socrates claimed that an intimate relation between self-knowledge and having one's soul in the best possible state. He advocated "care for intelligence and truth and the best possible state of one's soul" since "it is as a result of goodness that wealth and everything else are good for people in the private and in the public sphere". (40)
Socrates believed strongly that people who thought deeply about issues were incapable of making decisions that were not in their own self-interests. Therefore, the charge that he had corrupted his students, if true, "it must have been unintentionally, since if they were corrupted they would be harmful to him, and no one harms himself intentionally." (41)
According to one of Socrates' students, after speeches and production of witnesses by both sides the jury voted for the condemnation or acquittal. Socrates was found guilty by a majority of sixty (280 to 220). Once the verdict was reached each side spoke again to propose the penalty, and the jury had to decide between the two. The prosecution called for the death penalty. At first Socrates proposed that he be awarded free meals for life in the town hall. He was eventually persuaded to change his mind and he suggested a fine that was about eight years' wages for a skilled craftsman. He also said: "If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place." (42)
Execution usually took place straight away. However, he was kept in prison for the next four weeks. It has been suggested by Plato that the authorities did not want Socrates to become a martyr and wanted to provide an opportunity to escape. His friend, Crito, encouraged Socrates to leave the city. He rejected this because he had "consistently remained in and enjoyed the benefits of Athens as an adult, he has thereby implicitly entered into an agreement with the state to abide by its laws (and thereby accept its authority over him) in exchange for those benefits. To evade its authority now, says Socrates, would be breaking that agreement and behaving unjustly." (43)
Socrates also took the view that he had a good and useful life and that he was not afraid of death: "No one knows with regard to death whether it is really the greatest blessing that can happen to a man, but people dread it as though they were certain that it is the greatest evil, and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what is does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable... and if I were to claim to be wiser than my neighbour in any respect, it would be in this - that not possessing any real knowledge of what comes after death, I am also conscious that I do not possess it." If there were an afterlife, he added, he would get the chance to meet "heroes of the old days who met their death through an unfair trial, and to compare my fortunes with theirs - it would be rather amusing." (44)
Socrates accepted that he would have to die. For serious crimes, prisoners would be crucified. The other form of death was to drink ground-up hemlock, a very strong poison. Medical evidence suggests that this was an extremely painful death and was far more harrowing than the gentile and dignified end described by Plato in his account of Soctrates' final days. (45)
Bertrand Russell has been highly critical of Socrates as a philosopher: "He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge... His courage in the face of death would have been more remarkable if he had not believed that he was going to enjoy eternal bliss in the company of the gods. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins. As a man, we may believe him admitted to the communion of saints; but as a philosopher he needs a long residence in a scientific purgatory." (46)
Anthony Gottlieb, in his book The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) argues: "There are four main witnesses for the intimate thoughts of Socrates: Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes and Aristotle. None of these men is quite what a historian might have wished for. Plato has by far the most to say on the subject, but as an objective guide to Socrates he suffers from the disability of having practically worshipped him. He is therefore likely to have exaggerated what he took to be his finest qualities. Also, in the course of some forty years of thinking and teaching, during which Plato's ideas naturally changed quite a lot, he paid Socrates the tribute of using him as a mouthpiece." (47)
Xenophon was another of his students who later became a military general. However, he was not a philosopher and his reflections on Socrates suggest he was not fully aware of his importance: "All his private conduct was lawful and helpful: to public authority he rendered such scrupulous obedience in all that the laws required, both in civil life and in military service, that he was a pattern of good discipline to all." (48) According to John Burnet: "Xenophon's defence of Socrates is too successful. He would never have been put to death if he had been like that." (49)
The playwright, Aristophanes, provides a much more critical view of Socrates. In his play, The Clouds (423 BC), "Socrates presides over an institution where students pay to learn techniques of chicanery to avoid paying their debts". He is presented as a figure of fun who helps his students make "the weaker argument defeat the stronger". He claims that Socrates has a special interest in the study of the heavens, a study which involves rejection of traditional religion and the displacement of Zeus as the supreme power of the universe. (50)
Aristotle probably provides the most accurate account of Socrates. Although he never heard Socrates' opinions at first hand, he studied for some twenty years in "Plato's Academy and had plenty of opportunity to hear Plato's views from Plato himself. He was therefore in a position to disentangle the thinking of the two men.... Aristotle was also much less in awe of Socrates than Plato was, and therefore managed to take a more dispassionate approach to his teachings." (51)
In his writings Aristotle frequently attacked Socrates for taking the wrong approach to philosophy: "We must not limit our inquiry to knowing what is virtue is, but extend it to how it is to be produced." He accused Socrates of failing to distinguish between practical questions and theoretical ones: "Socrates thought all the virtues to be kinds of knowledge, so that to know justice and to be just came simultaneously... Therefore he inquired what virtue is, not how or from what it arises... The aim of the practical sciences is different... For we do not wish to know what bravery is but to be brave, nor what justice is but to be just," (52)
(1) One does not actually learn anything new. What we call learning is really nothing but recollecting true knowledge that we already have within us.
(2) True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.
(3) Beware the barrenness of a busy life.
(4) An honest man is always a child.
(5) He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.
(6) From the deepest desires often come the deadliest hate.
(7) The unexamined life is not worth living.
(8) Wisdom begins in wonder.
(9) False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.
(10) By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you'll become happy; if you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher.
(11) Once made equal to man, woman becomes his superior.
(12) If a man is proud of his wealth, he should not be praised until it is known how he employs it.
(13) I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live.
(14) Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.
(15) It is not in human nature to be prepared to go for what you think to be bad in preference to what is good.
(16) If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place.
(17) Be as you wish to seem.
(18) Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.
(19) The beginning of wisdom is a definition of terms.
(20) I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.
(21) He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.
(22) Where there is reverence there is fear, but there is not reverence everywhere that there is fear, because fear presumably has a wider extension than reverence.
(23) I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.
(23) The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.
(24) Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.
(25) Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.
(26) Contentment is natural wealth, luxury is artificial poverty.
(27) Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others.
(28) The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.
(29) Those who are hardest to love, need it the most.
(30) A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.
(31) To find yourself, think for yourself.
(32) Get not your friends by bare compliments, but by giving them sensible tokens of your love.
(33) The shortest and surest way to live with honour in the world, is to be in reality what we would appear to be; and if we observe, we shall find, that all human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by the practice of them.
(1) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 8
(2) John Thorley, Athenian Democracy (2005) page 74
(3) Aristotle, Constitution of Athens (c. 330 BC) page 27
(4) Loren J. Samons II, What's Wrong with Democracy? (2007) page 80
(5) Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (c.400 BC) page 23
(6) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)
(8) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 131
(9) Aristophanes, The Clouds (423 BC) page 103
(10) William K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy: Volume III (1969) page 372
(11) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) pages 11-12
(12) Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (c. 45 BC)
(13) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 134
(15) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 107
(16) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)
(17) Plato, Theaetetus (c. 369 BC)
(18) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)
(20) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 127
(21) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)
(22) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 109
(23) Aristotle, Metaphysics (c. 350 BC)
(24) C.C.W. Taylor, Socrates (1998) page 45
(25) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) pages 110-111
(26) C.C.W. Taylor, Socrates (1998) page 57
(27) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)
(28) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 156
(30) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (c. 340 BC)
(31) William K. C. Guthrie, Socrates (1971) page 137
(32) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 151
(33) Peter Krentz, The Thirty at Athens (1982) page 50
(34) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) pages 136-137
(35) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) pages 14-15
(36) Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (2011) page 329
(37) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 107
(38) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)
(39) Anthony Gottlieb, The Great Philosophers: Socrates (1997) page 11
(40) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)
(41) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 22
(42) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)
(43) Jean E. Hampton, Political Philosophy (1997) page 40
(44) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)
(45) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 16
(46) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 156
(47) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 143
(49) John Burnet, Thales to Plato (1914) page 149
(50) C.C.W. Taylor, Socrates (1998) pages 7-8
(51) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 144
(52) Aristotle, Magna Moralia (c. 355)