Despite having never written any of his philosophical musings down, Socrates remains to this day one of the few philosophers that are considered to be most influential on how the subject is conceived.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned downside to Socrates’ greatness, namely his disregard for the importance of recording his thoughts, means that all of the information we have about him is largely anecdotal.
The works of Xenophon, a noted Ancient Greek historian, are of great assistance in deciphering the enigmatic life of Socrates. Xenophon had no vested interest in Socrates’ philosophical views, so he is an excellent witness who is unlikely to have altered any of his findings. Socrates’ prized student Plato, on the other hand, may be a less trustworthy source, as he appears to use Socrates as a mouthpiece for his some of his own ideas. However, ‘The Apology’ (Plato’s version of a speech given by Socrates), appears to be a careful and precise account of the habits and principles of Socrates and the general consensus between experts is that Plato’s accounts should generally be trusted.
The Life of Socrates
Socrates was born in Athens in around 470 BC. Socrates’ mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife and his father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason. He died shortly after Socrates turned 18 and came of age. By all accounts, it seems that Socrates had a normal Athenian education, which involved studying the Greek poets, arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry. The first Athenian philosopher, Anaxagoras, introduced him to philosophy. He then went on to study under Archelaus.
He began his adult life by following his father's profession as a stonemason. He later became a foot soldier, known as a hoplite, and fought for Athens in the Peloponnesian wars against Sparta. He won high praise for his endurance and courage during his service. At the age of 50, he married his wife, Xanthippe, who appears to have been much younger than him, and together they had three sons. Lamprocles, Sophroniscus and Menexenus were all quite young when Socrates died, aged around 71.
Why do we not have any recorded work of Socrates?
Reliable information about Socrates comes from three primary sources: Aristophanes, Xenophon and Plato. Aristophanes was a playwright and is the earliest source we have. In the play the actor playing Socrates makes fun of the traditional gods of Athens.
All information about Socrates is second hand, therefore it is extremely hard to distinguish which information is reliable and which has been misinterpreted. Distinguishing what Socrates was really like through how he was portrayed by authors clearly has its flaws. There are no recorded works of Socrates as his philosophical way was conversational. To make philosophical points he would make conversation with people in the market square and try to get them to think deeply. Despite his followers’ efforts to record these conversations before his death, Socrates never made any records of his work.
What made Socrates a distinguished Philosopher?
This conversational and personal style of philosophy was what made Socrates so different to other philosophers.
Rather than looking at ethical issues he made people question their own judgement, Socrates would wonder around the busiest places in Athens such as the markets and meeting places (as depicted in the picture below.) Perhaps this is what made Socrates so radical as he not only gave people the chance to challenge what the state had told them was right, but also the values they believed the Gods gave them.
What draws our attention to Socrates today?
It is perhaps Socrates’ tragic downfall that draws people’s attention to him and the controversy surrounding his death.
Around 399 BC, Socrates was ordered in front of a jury, accused of “corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens” and of "not believing in the gods of the state". The man behind the charges was Anytus, a democrat who held a grudge against Socrates for persuading his son to follow the philosophical life, instead of going into the family business. The accusations were obviously somewhat spurious but, unbelievably, involved the death penalty.
According to Apology, Socrates' was cast as the “gadfly” of Athens when his friend Chaerephon asked the Oracle at Delphi if there was any man wiser than Socrates. The Oracle answered that there was not. Socrates was perplexed by this, and took it upon himself to test the truth of the Oracle’s response. He spoke to all those who considered themselves to be, or were reputed to be wise. He initially spoke to philosophers, then dramatists and poets, lastly speaking to skilled craft workers. These public examinations were very popular and they drew large crowds of spectators. In each case, Socrates eventually revealed that the reputation of the supposedly wise person was not justified. In finding that the men knew nothing or very little outside of their own professions, and yet still believed themselves to be wise, Socrates concluded that the only difference between he and the men he interviewed was that he recognised his own ignorance. He said that he knew nothing, and this was the only wisdom he laid claim to: “I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance”. Of course, the men he inadvertently humiliated were displeased with the outcome of his experiment and turned against him. It seems to be this that leads to accusations of wrongdoing against him.
Socrates gave a defiant defense against these accusations, which is documented in the Apology. It seems that Socrates is indifferent to the seriousness of the situation, as he appears to treat the court as if it were taking part in one of his philosophical conversations. Although some of the ruling council was amused, the large proportion was not, and Socrates was sentenced to death. When Socrates put forth his counter-proposal for a lesser sentence, the court was in uproar; he scandalously suggested that he be rewarded for his contributions to society at the public expense.
It seems unlikely that Socrates was unaware of the gravity of the circumstances and that his responses were misjudged. In fact, it appears that he was encouraging the court to pass the death sentence upon him, for if he had suggested a sentence of exile, the court would almost certainly have agreed. To add insult to injury, Socrates then suggested paying a fine of one mina, which was enough to purchase a single pitcher of wine. After further uproar, he then suggested that instead of the death penalty, he should pay a fine of thirty mina. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. The council returned a verdict of 360 to 140 in favor of the death penalty.
So instead, Socrates awaits his final day, and when it arrives he treats it as though it were any other. Plato, although he wasn’t present at Socrates death (he was confined to bed with a fever) gives a moving account of his final hours in Phaedo. Socrates, in the company of his friends, teased his companion Crito for asking questions about burial arrangements and the care of his children. Addressing the group, he says, “I cannot persuade Crito that I am still Socrates, and that I am still talking to you and debating with you. He thinks that I am already the corpse which he will soon see: and he asks how he should bury me!”. He goes on to encourage the group to assure Crito that the body he will see after the death is not Socrates, as when he has died, he has departed the world forever. He wants this thought to be of comfort to Crito, who is evidently grief-stricken throughout the ordeal. The famous picture ‘The death of Socrates’ painted by Jacques-Louis David can be seen below.