Socrates

The Greek philosopher and logician Socrates (469-399 B.C.) was an important formative influence on Plato and had a profound effect on ancient philosophy.

Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, an Athenian stone mason and sculptor. He learned his father's craft and apparently practiced it for many years before devoting his time almost completely to intellectual interests. Details of his early life are scanty, although he appears to have had no more than an ordinary Greek education. He did, however, take a keen interest in the works of the natural philosophers, and Plato (Parmenides, 127C) records the fact that Socrates met Zeno of Elea and Parmenides on their trip to Athens, which probably took place about 450 B.C. Socrates wrote nothing; therefore evidence for his life and activities must come from the writings of Plato and Xenophon. It is likely that neither of these presents a completely accurate picture of him, but Plato's Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Symposium contain details which must be close to fact.

From the Apology we learn that Socrates was well known around Athens, that uncritical thinkers linked him with the rest of the Sophists, that he fought in at least three military campaigns for the city, and that he attracted to his circle large numbers of young men who delighted in seeing their pretentious elders refuted by Socrates. His notoriety in Athens was sufficient for the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes to lampoon him in The Clouds, although the Socrates who appears there bears little resemblance to the dialectician in Plato's writings. His endurance and prowess in military campaigns are attested by Alcibiades in the Symposium. He tells of Socrates's valor in battle, which allowed Alcibiades to escape when he was in a perilous situation. He also recounts an incident which reveals Socrates's habit of falling into a kind of trance while thinking. One morning Socrates wandered a short distance off from the other men to concentrate on a problem. By noon a small crowd had gathered, and by evening a group had come with their bedding to spend the night watching him. At the break of day, he offered up a prayer to the sun and went about his usual activities.

In addition to these anecdotes about Socrates's peculiar character, the Symposium provides details regarding his physical appearance. He was short and Silenus-like, quite the opposite of what was considered graceful and beautiful in the Athens of his time. He was also poor and had only the barest necessities of life. He was not ascetic, however, for he accepted the lavish hospitality of the wealthy on occasion (Agathon, the successful tragic poet, was host to the illustrious group in the Symposium) and proved himself capable of besting the others not only at their esoteric and sophistic sport of making impromptu speeches on the god Eros but also in holding his wine. Socrates's physical ugliness was no bar to his appeal. Alcibiades asserts in the same dialogue that Socrates made him feel deep shame and humiliation over his failure to live up to the high standards of justice and truth. He had this same effect on countless others.

His Thought

There was a strong religious side to Socrates's character and thought which constantly revealed itself in spite of his penchant for exposing the ridiculous conclusions to which uncritical acceptance of the ancient myths might lead. His words and actions in the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Symposium reveal a deep reverence for Athenian religious customs and a sincere regard for divinity. Indeed, it was a divine voice which Socrates claimed to hear within himself on important occasions in his life. It was not a voice which gave him positive instructions, but instead warned him when he was about to go astray. He recounts, in his defense before the Athenian court, the story of his friend Chaerephon, who was told by the Delphic Oracle that Socrates was the wisest of men. That statement puzzled Socrates, he says, for no one was more aware of the extent of his own ignorance than he himself, but he determined to see the truth of the god's words. After questioning those who had a reputation for wisdom and who considered themselves, wise, he concluded that he was wiser than they because he could recognize his ignorance while they, who were equally ignorant, thought themselves wise. He thus confirmed the truth of the god's statement.

Socrates was famous for his method of argumentation. His "irony" was an important part of that method and surely helped account for the appeal which he had for the young and the disfavor in which he was held by many Athenians. An example comes from the Apology. Meletus had accused Socrates of corrupting the youth. Socrates begins by asking if Meletus considers the improvement of youth important. He replies that he does, whereupon Socrates asks who is capable of improving the young. The laws, says Meletus, and Socrates asks him to name a person who knows the laws. Meletus responds that the judges there present know the laws, whereupon Socrates asks if all who are present are able to instruct and improve youth or whether only a few can. Meletus replies that all of them are capable of such a task, which forces Meletus to confess that other groups of Athenians, such as the Senate and the Assembly, and indeed all Athenians are capable of instructing and improving the youth. All except Socrates, that is. Socrates then starts a parallel set of questions regarding the instruction and improvement of horses and other animals. Is it true that all men are capable of training horses, or only those men with special qualifications and experience? Meletus, realizing the absurdity of his position, does not answer, but Socrates answers for him and asserts that if he does not care enough about the youth of Athens to have given adequate thought to who might instruct and improve them, he has no right to accuse Socrates of corrupting them.

Thus the Socratic method of argumentation begins with commonplace questions which lead the opponent to believe that the questioner is a simpleton, but ends in a complete reversal. It is a method not calculated to win friends, especially when used in public.

Socrates's true contributions to the development of ancient thought are difficult to assess. Plato's dialogues, although they are our single most important source, are not entirely reliable because Socrates is used, especially in the later dialogues, merely as a mouthpiece. It is probable, however, that the Socrates we find in the Apology Crito, and a few of the other early dialogues represents a fair approximation of the man and his thinking. Thus his chief contributions lie not in the construction of an elaborate system but in clearing away the false common beliefs and in leading men to an awareness of their own ignorance, from which position they may begin to discover the truth. Socrates's contribution, then, was primarily the negative one of exposing fallacies, but equally important was the magnetism of his personality and the effect which he had on the people he met. It was his unique combination of dialectical skill and magnetic attractiveness to the youth of Athens which gave his opponents their opportunity to bring him to trial in 399 B.C.

His Death

Meletus, Lycon, and Anytus charged Socrates with impiety and with corrupting the youth of the city. Since prosecution and defense speeches were made by the principals in Athenian legal practice, Socrates spoke in his own behalf. It is uncertain if the charges were the result of his associations with the Thirty or resulted from personal pique. Callias, Plato's uncle, had been the leader of the unpopular Thirty, but it is difficult to imagine that Socrates could have been considered a collaborator when in fact he risked death by refusing to be implicated in their crimes. He had, however, made a great number of enemies for himself over the years through his self-appointed role as the "gadfly" of Athens, and it is probable that popular misunderstanding and animosity toward his activities helped lead to his conviction. His defense speech was not in the least conciliatory. After taking up the charges and showing how they were false, he proposed that the city should honor him as it did Olympic victors. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Plato's Crito tells of Crito's attempts to persuade Socrates to flee the prison (Crito had bribed the jailer, as was customary), but Socrates, in an allegorical dialogue between himself and the Laws of Athens, reveals his devotion to the city and his obligation to obey its decrees even if they lead to his death. In the Phaedo, Plato recounts Socrates's discussion of the immortality of the soul; and at the end of that dialogue, one of the most moving and dramatic scenes in ancient literature, Socrates takes the hemlock prepared for him while his friends sit helplessly by. He died reminding Crito that he owes a cock to Aesculapius.

Socrates was the most colorful figure in the history of ancient philosophy. His fame was widespread in his own time, and his name soon became a household word although he professed no extraordinary wisdom, constructed no philosophical system, established no school, and founded no sect. His influence on the course of ancient philosophy, through Plato, the Cynics, and less directly, Aristotle, is incalculable.

Further Reading on Socrates

Sources for Socrates's life are the dialogues of Plato, especially the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Alcibiades's speech in the Symposium, and Xenophon's Memorabilia, all of which are available in a variety of editions and translations. A comprehensive and major study of Socrates's thought is Norman Gulley, The Philosophy of Socrates (1968). See also Eduard Zeller, Socrates and the Socratic Schools (1885; 3d rev. ed. 1962); A. E. Taylor, Socrates (1933); and Anton-Hermann Chroust, Socrates: Man and Myth (1957).

A dramatic version of Socrates's accusation, self-defense, imprisonment, and death is rendered in simplified, colloquial English by I. A. Richards in Why So Socrates? A Dramatic Version of Plato's Dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo (1964). Critical treatment of Socrates and his place in the development of ancient thought is in Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy (trans. 1890; 13th ed. revised by Wilhelm Nestle, 1931); John Burnet, Greek Philosophy (1914); and Wilhelm Windelband, History of Ancient Philosophy, translated by Herbert E. Cushman (1956).

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