“The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.”
– Socrates (469 -399 BC).
The Athenian teacher, Socrates is one of the most significant figures in the history of philosophy. Unfortunately, he never actually wrote down anything himself. So to get an understanding of his life and thinking we have to rely on the reports of others – notably those of his student Plato and of others such as the historian Xenophon. This can present a challenge, especially in separating out Socrates’ own philosophy and arguments, from those of his pupil. Socrates’ teaching played a crucial role in the development of Plato’s own theories and thus indirectly on the development of Western philosophy. Because Socrates’ significance is so great, we talk of his lifetime as being the great ‘divide’ between ‘pre-Socratic’ and the later philosophers.
Unlike most other philosophers, Socrates spent all of his life in Athens, apart from military service abroad. It is unclear how he earned his living since he is represented as spending his time in philosophical discussion, however, some believe that he followed his father’s trade as a stonemason and depended largely on friends. Plato emphasises the fact that Socrates did not take money for philosophising, unlike the Sophists. He was married to a woman by the name of Xanthippe, whose bad temper became a central element in the comic tradition from antiquity until the 19th century. Some ancient sources suggest that he also had a second wife named Myrto.
Other evidence of Socrates’ lifetime exists in references to him in Athenian comedy from the last quarter of the fifth century BC. Aristophenes’ Cloudsproduced in 423 BC gives a full-scale portrayal of Socrates, and a few of his character traits in the play can be found recorded elsewhere. The fact that Aristophenes chose Socrates as the embodiment of certain Sophist ideals shows that Socrates was by then a relatively well-known persona. There are many controversial pieces of literature which discuss the dramatic circumstances of his death and condemnation as portrayed by Plato.
The ‘intellectual autobiography’ which Plato puts into Socrates’ mouth in the Phaedo represents him as having been at one time keenly interested in natural philosophy, but as becoming disillusioned by the neglect of teleological explanation by its leading theorists. Socrates is often portrayed as criticising the Athenian democracy, however, it is impossible to determine how far he really shared these views because in practice he was a loyal citizen, adhering strictly to the Athenian ideals of legality and justice.
Due to his association with powerful anti-democrats like Alcibiades and Critias, he was charged with neglect of state religion and corruption of the youth. On vague evidence, he was found guilty of sedition and condemned to death. Although given every opportunity by his friends to escape his fate, Socrates saw it as his duty as a citizen to submit to the will of the state. He met his death by cheerfully drinking a cup of poison, whilst continuing to discourse with friends.
In the Apology, Plato represents an idealised version of Socrates’ defence at his trial, in the Crito he gives reasons for refusing to escape from prison, and in Phaedo a moving re-creation of his final hours, along with a Platonic treatise on the philosophy of life, death, and immortality.
Since our main access to Socrates is via the works of Plato, we can have problems determining what, if any, doctrines were held by Socrates as opposed to those put in Plato. Some discernment is necessary. Aristotle distinguishes between the views of Plato and Socrates by attributing the theory of Forms to Plato, which he believes Socrates never held, so not everything in the dialogues is Socratic. But is anything Socratic?
While Xenophon’s writings of Socrates’ trial do attribute certain modes of argument and specific doctrines, their tone is much less speculative and their picture of Socrates much more conventional and practically orientated than Plato’s, which reflects the different characters and interests of the respective authors. Plato’s account presents Socrates as a philosophical apologist, and as the ideal embodiment of philosophy, unjustly prosecuted by his fellow citizens for his dedication to philosophical life. In Plato’s later dialogues, Socrates’ importance gradually decreases as Plato develops his own independent ideas. Even though Aristotle only studied at the academy in 367 BC he was also influenced by Socrates through the Platonic dialogues.
Aristotle ascribes to Socrates an interest in general definitions and the practice of inductive arguments, both of which are attributed to Socrates by Plato and Xenophon. They also all attribute to Socrates the “Socratic paradoxes” that virtue is wisdom or knowledge, that no one does wrong willingly and that the unexamined life is not worth living.
In Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates figures less as a dogmatic philosopher and more as a critic eliciting opinions from his interlocutors and subjecting them to critical scrutiny, usually producing a refutation by showing the doctrine in question to be inconsistent with other propositions agreed by both parties to be true. This method of elenchus (a Greek word meaning ‘examination’) has obvious affinities with the argumentative strategies employed and taught by the Sophists. Plato also strongly stresses in his works that in Socrates’ hands elenchus was never used for victory in a debating contest, but rather to lead to genuine understanding by purging the person subjected to it of false beliefs. Philosophical inquiry through the method of elenchus is not supposed to be a contest between opponents, but a co-operative search for truth and understanding.
Socrates’ influence extends beyond Plato. During the Hellenistic and Roman eras, various schools sought to appropriate him as a patron saint; the Cynics appealing to his ascetic mode of life, the Skeptics and skeptical Academics to his profession of ignorance, and the Stoics to his alleged claim that virtue is the only intrinsic good. The Christian apologist Justin (second century AD) claimed him as a forerunner of Christ, a characterisation which was revived in the 15th century by the Neoplatonists. In medieval Islam, he was revered as a sage and upholder of monotheism against idolatry. In the later Renaissance and in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment period, he came to be seen as a paradigm of human virtue and a martyr to rationalism at the hands of superstition.
Other thinkers, such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, all viewed him in different ways as a pivotal figure in the development of human thought, from which they were inspired to construct central aspects of their own thought in reaction to him. Even today he is an important influence in the work of philosophers, especially Foucault.
Article submitted by Ivalena Dineva
Honderich, T. 2000. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press.
Stone, I.F. 1989. The Trial of Socrates. USA: First Anchor Books.
Johnson, P. 2011. Socrates: A man of our times. New York: Viking.