Socrates and His Questioning Profession

In 399 B.C. Socrates would ultimately defend himself in a trial before 501 Athenians, explaining to them that “The unexamined life is not worth living” and that he would not cease philosophizing even to save his life. But what was it about Socrates' life that brought him to an Athenian courtroom at the age of seventy?

The details of Socrates' early life and education are unclear. What we do know of him comes from several sources. We have the dialogues of his student Plato (428/27 — 348/47 B.C.), which provide an affectionate, lively, three-dimensional account of Socrates' character and thinking. In addition, we have the accounts of Xenophon, a contemporary philosopher; Aristophanes, a satirical dramatist; and Aristotle, a philosopher and historian of Greek philosophy.

Socrates was born in either 469 or 470 B.C., based on available evidence that he was seventy years old when he died in the spring of 399 B.C. His father, Sophroniscus, was a sculptor and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife (Oddly: Socrates would later describe himself as a kind of “philosophical midwife,” seeking to give birth to others' ideas with his well-placed questions). Socrates was likely a sculptor and stonemason before he turned to philosophy.

Socrates was a soldier, serving as a “hoplite” (the word meant “heavy-foot”) during the Peloponnesian War. In fact, he distinguished himself for exceptional bravery three different times. The first was at the siege of Potidaea (431-430 B.C.), then at Delium (424), and a third time at Amphipolis (422).

Socrates is known for some incredible feats of physical endurance, like walking barefoot across ice in one military campaign. On another occasion he stood in a trancelike state and meditated for thirty-six consecutive hours, as described in Plato's Symposium. Both events testify to Socrates' ability to ignore physical discomfort in order to achieve some greater mental or spiritual objective. These are some of the amazing acts that have built the legend of Socrates.

Socrates' legend owes more to his profession, however. His philosophical mission began with an oracle, or divinely appointed authority. It was customary for Greeks to bring their difficult questions to the city of Delphi, where the god Apollo relayed the answers to an oracle, who at Delphi was the priestess Pythia. In the Apology, Socrates explains that his vocation as a philosopher goes back to the time when the oracle answered the question of Socrates' friend Chaerephon, who inquired, “Is there any living person wiser than Socrates?” The priestess answered “no.” Socrates at first doubted the response, for he knew that he had “no wisdom, great or small.”

What did Socrates mean by calling himself a “gadfly”?

A gadfly is a large fly that pesters livestock and other animals with its stings. Likewise, Socrates was an irritant to his fellow citizens. He likened Athens to a large steed and he peppered Athenians with questions, causing them to think about how to live their lives.

He set out to disprove the oracle, going about Athens questioning others. He posed questions about virtue and goodness to poets, religious authorities, generals, and craftsmen. But he found that these and other citizens with the greatest reputations for knowledge had none. So he concluded 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.” Socrates was wisest in one respect: others thought they had knowledge, but didn't. By contrast, he had no knowledge and knew it. To be aware of one's own ignorance is true wisdom.

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