The ancient world had become an ethically arbitrary place, rife with moral relativism and a lack of regard for the Eternal Truths when Socrates (469–399 B.C.) came on to the scene. This dynamic and controversial Athenian figure spent a lifetime in the public square, engaging in dialogues with the young men of Athens. Socrates was your classic eccentric philosopher type: Not concerned with his appearance and by all reports not very handsome, but eager to engage in a philosophical debate anytime, anywhere.

His Background

Socrates was from what would be considered a middle-class family in ancient Athens. His father was a stonemason, and his mother was a midwife. We know virtually nothing about his youth. We know that he served in the military during the Peloponnesian War and distinguished himself on the battlefield with great courage and Herculean physical endurance. He also performed mandatory public service, as was the case with most Athenians. Athens was a city-state, which is what it sounds like — a city in size but also a self-contained nation. Loyalty and service to the state were mandatory, and for the most part undertaken without complaint. Socrates had a wife but almost nothing is known about her, other than her name, which was Xanthippe.

Socrates compared himself to a gadfly, a nasty insect that torments horses by stinging their buttocks. The horse would flick his tail and shoo the gadfly away, but gadfly always returns. In the analogy, society was the horse's rear end, and Socrates was the relentless gadfly. Unfortunately, society eventually turned the flyswatter on Socrates.

As a young man, Socrates had apparently studied the naturalist philosophers, including Empedocles and other Presocratics. Of course, they were not called Presocratics at the time, since Socrates had not yet become a pivotal focal point in the classical age. Socrates was also well versed in the work of the Sophists and could employ their techniques with aplomb if he so chose. He ultimately rejected both schools of thought, believing that Truth did not lie in the natural world, nor was Truth something that could be manipulated through verbal and intellectual trickery.

What we know of Socrates's life is from about age forty until his death at the age of seventy. Living modestly and relying on an inheritance and state subsidies, Socrates was able to live the life of a gentleman of leisure and journeyman philosopher. He was also the most prominent example of “local color” in Athens. He wandered about town conversing with any and all who would engage him.

Socratic Dialogue

Socrates's singular method of posing questions to his intellectual quarry and drawing responses, which made people think for themselves, is called Socratic Dialogue. This form of question and answer and the logical debate of opposing views is called dialectic.

Socrates served as a coach and mentor to the young men of Athens. His dialogues often made the fellow conversationalist squirm and writhe in intellectual discomfort. Socrates was adept at showing ideas to be foolish, or more accurately, making his subject figure it out for himself. He did not do this out of malice or an attempt to feel superior. He was interested in truth for truth's sake. Of course, not everyone likes to be exposed as a philosophical lightweight, even with the noblest of intentions. Hence, Socrates made a few enemies along the way.

Socrates fancied himself a midwife to ideas. He probably liked the analogy because he saw his mother make a living as a literal midwife. He did not originate deep thoughts, he maintained. Rather, he drew them out of the person with whom he was conversing.

His Demeanor

Because Socrates never put quill to papyrus, all we have is Plato's reportage and interpretation of Socrates the man. It is generally accepted that the early Socratic dialogues are a truer picture of Socrates. The Socrates of the later dialogues serves more as a fictional character, serving as the mouthpiece for Plato's philosophy.

Socrates in essence was using a form of Sophistry to further his points. But Socrates never accepted a drachma for the wisdom he imparted. This lack of payment distinguishes him from the mercenary Sophists. And Socrates didn't gloat when he handily bested his debating opponent. He was in search of Truth with a capital T. He was not in it for the self-aggrandizement, wealth, fame, and power cravenly craved by the Sophists. He also modestly claimed no wisdom, only ignorance and an ever-questioning nature. The Oracle at Delphi preternaturally pronounced Socrates to be the wisest man in the world. Socrates countered that if he was indeed a wise guy, it was only because the truly wise person admits that they really know nothing at all.

Socrates's uncompromising manner and penchant for making the pompous appear foolish made Socrates many enemies among the Athenian upper crust. And that awful specter of impiety loomed large over his activities. Certain people were out to get him, and they ultimately succeeded. But old Socrates had the philosophical last laugh, staying true to his principles to the bitter end.

Socrates's Apology

Brought to trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the Athenian youth, Socrates defended himself in an eloquent speech Plato preserved as the “Apology.” In ancient Greek, the word was more accurately defined as “defense,” because Socrates was hardly apologetic during the course of this speech. It contains the essence of Socrates's character and philosophy. It purports to be the speech that Socrates gave in his defense at his trial. Plato probably took poetic license, but it is likely that the essence of Socrates the man is depicted in the Apology.

Socrates in Athens

Athens was a democracy, but for a brief time it was taken over by nearby Sparta after many years of warfare. A government of what came to be known as the “Thirty Tyrants” terrorized the populace for about a year before being overthrown. One of those despots was a former pupil of Socrates, and the re-established democracy used this as an excuse to prosecute Socrates. He was an enormously popular local celebrity but intensely disliked by powerful elements in the political establishment.

Socrates was linked to both the Atomists and the Sophists, the scientific approach of the former being interpreted as a rejection of the gods and the latter being charlatans of the worst order. Socrates acknowledged that libelous rumors had been following him for years but denied the charges. Though once interested in the natural sciences, his philosophy changed direction, focusing on mankind and his myriad complexities, which Socrates found far more interesting than the dry notions of the Presocratics. He also distanced himself from the Sophists, stating that he didn't charge for his services nor did he presume to inform or enlighten. He merely brought that which is dormant within a person to the surface and got them thinking. After a lifetime of cross-examining a cross section of Athens, from politicians to poets to craftsmen, he observed that, while everyone has pretensions to insight and wisdom, they were as ignorant as he — more so because they thought they knew something. Socrates repeated the story of his encounter with the Oracle of Delphi wherein he claims he knows nothing. This is called the Socratic Disavowal of Knowledge.

The Trial

Socrates, in his opportunity to cross-examine his accusers, used his tried-and-true method to systematically punch holes in their arguments. As he scored points in logic and rationality, he continued to antagonize those who were about to decide his fate.

In the course of the Apology, Socrates went on to explain the central core of his belief system: The most important thing is to live a virtuous life. Doing the right thing and avoiding wrongdoing was what life was all about. Being virtuous is its own reward; doing wrong is its own punishment. There is nothing worse than being a bad person. Thus, if Socrates is convinced that he is a virtuous man, nothing his enemies can do to him can truly harm him so long as he sticks to his guns. Socrates also expressed no fear of death during his speech. Why fear an eternity in Paradise, and why fear nothingness?

Despite being an independent thinker and self-proclaimed gadfly, a big part of virtue is loyalty to the state. In fact, both Socrates and Plato were distrustful of democracies. The class-conscious Greeks believed that a certain type of specially trained, enlightened citizen should be in charge (as in Plato's upcoming concept of the “Philosopher King”).

During the lengthy defense, Socrates seemed well aware that this kangaroo court would not rule in his favor, and he was prepared for their verdict. He did not resort to throwing himself on the mercy of the court. He faced his accusers unbowed and unapologetically. He continued doing the right thing as he saw it, no matter how unpleasant the consequences.

Socrates's credo was “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This has been the rallying cry of every philosopher who followed Socrates. Similarly, he is also quoted as saying, “Know thyself.” Wisdom comes not only from observation, but also through introspection.

It was no surprise when the jurors returned a guilty verdict. As was the custom of the day, the condemned man was obliged to suggest his own punishment. Socrates proposed that he be given free room and board and be supported by the state for the rest of his natural life. Needless to say, this punishment was summarily rejected. He then proposed a nominal fine and then a larger one. He also announced that, if allowed to live, he would not stop practicing philosophy. It is here that Socrates utters the words for which he is most famous, a motto that should be every philosopher's raison d'être: “The unexamined life is not worth living. Doing what is right is the only path to goodness, and introspection and self-awareness are the ways to learn what is right.”

Socrates was sentenced to death. In his final address to the court, he reiterates the themes he discussed during the Apology. He is ready to die because to die is better than to betray yourself. And he correctly predicts that though his individual voice may be extinguished, philosophers will continue to philosophize.

His Death

Socrates met his end like a secular martyr. Rather than face censure and silence, he took this belief to its logical conclusion. Systematically making his persecutors look foolish did little to guarantee him an acquittal. He did not throw himself on the mercy of the court as the powers-that-be had hoped or beg for exile instead of execution. After his sentence, word was filtered down to him that should he choose to fly the coop, the government would not aggressively hunt him down. The politicians were now confronted with executing an extremely popular national treasure. Ignoring pleas from some of his followers to split the scene, Socrates took hemlock and died in the company of his adoring entourage. It is a deeply moving scene as described in Plato's dialogue Phaedo. Socrates is quite serene as he says his good-byes to his friends and students. It is actually an assisted suicide, because one of the assembly concocts the hemlock potion for Socrates to drink.

Socrates tries to ease the grief of the despondent group by reminding them that only his body will die. His children are brought to him. He shoos the women out of the room and gently rebukes the men for their tears, urging them not to grieve. He takes a nice long bath and exchanges pleasantries with the prison guard with whom he has enjoyed conversing. His friend Crito asks him to wait until after sunset. It is his right to enjoy the rest of his last day, but Socrates would just as soon get it over with. Socrates drinks the poison without hesitation and without fear. He asks his weeping friends to settle down so that he can die in peace. He covers himself as his body grows numb, but manages to say his famous, and very mundane for so great a philosopher, last words, “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?”And then, as Shakespeare said, now cracked a noble heart.

His Legacy

Socrates was a larger than life person in his time on earth. After his death, he achieved mythic proportions. Many schools of philosophy arose after his death that claimed to corner the market on Socratic teachings.

They were often of conflicting philosophies. Most, however, stressed one aspect of Socrates's teaching:

  • The Megarians focused on logic.

  • The Elian School continued working with the technique of the Socratic dialogue, or dialectic.

  • The Cynics rejected formal education and saw the road to wisdom as an inside job.

  • The Cyrenaic School was the forerunner of the philosophy of hedonism, or the pursuit of pleasure.

All these schools, however, were mere pieces of the giant philosophical jigsaw puzzle that was Socratic thought. It was only Plato who kept the definitive Socratic tradition alive, as well as establishing himself as one of the great minds of antiquity.

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