SOCRATES

SOCRATES

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Socrates at the
Museo Nazionale di Napoli
Socrates (470?-399 B.C.) is considered the father of humanistic philosophy, the first person to really apply science to philosophical inquiry, and the founder of the Socratic question-and-answer method of inquiry. The Delphic Oracle described him as the wisest man in Greece. His student Plato said, he was an “an absolute unlikeness to any human being that is or ever was.” His Christlike martyrdom made spoke more loudly than his words and he became the first prophet of philosophy.

Socrates once said, "The sense of wonder is the mark of a philosopher." Socrates left behind no written documents written by himself. Most of what we know about him was written by students such as Plato and Xenophon. Aristophanes and Aristotle also wrote about him and much of what they had to say about him reflected their views rather than accurate assessment of what Socrates was really like. Some of the most telling details about Socrates’s life came out during his trial.

"I have heard Pericles and other great orators," says a character in Plato's Symposium . "But...my soul was not stirred by them, nor was I angry at the thought of my own slavish state...he [Socrates] make me confess that I ought not to live as I do, neglecting the wants of my own soul."

W. Somerset Maugham latter wrote he was one of the ugliest men of ancient times. He had a "flattened nose and protruding eyes," Maugham wrote, "his thick lips and unwielding belly, looked like Silenus."

Socrates's Life

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Socrates and Xanthippe
The son of a sculptor, Socrates was born in Athens in 469 B.C. into a middle class family. Little is known about his early life. He was probably trained as a sculptor. He served in the army as a hoplite (an armored infantryman) and distinguished himself as a courageous fighter in several battles. One of his companions said, “I was with him in the retreat, and if everyone were like Socrates, our city would never have come to disaster.” He even saved the life of one soldier who later would be one of his primary critics and attackers in Athens.

Socrates was often accused of neglecting his family by his wife Xantippe, who washed clothes for wealthy families to help her family make ends meet. Xantippe has been universally described as a nag and a shrew. One of Socrates’s friends called her “the most troublesome woman of all time.” When he was asked how he could marry such a woman and have three sons with her he said it was a test of his abilities as an instructor and compared himself with a trainer who found it more challenging training a wild horse than a docile one.

While in his 20s, Socrates served on a local council and showed a willingness to go against the status quo to make decisions that he thought were right. He also showed he was willing to stand up for his beliefs---as he did when he condemned the Thirty Tyrants, who seized power from the democrats---even it meant putting his life in danger.

Instead of holding down a regular job Socrates spent his time in the Athens Agora (marketplace) teaching philosophy to anyone who would listen. His charisma,, irony, sense of humor and his method of reasoning attracted a large number of young followers. Xenophon wrote that his former teacher "was always on public view; from early in the morning he used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people."

Socrates, the Quest for Knowledge and the Socratic Method

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Socrates by Raphael
Describing his sentiments towards his first teacher, Anaxagoras, a leading physicist, Socrates testified at his trial: “I rejoiced to find a teacher of the causes of existence such as I desired...He would tell whether the causes of existence such as I desired...He would tell whether the Earth was flat or round, and then give the reasons for it being so.” [Source: Plato’s Apology ]

But said he ultimately felt betrayed: “What expectations I had formed and how grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosophy altogether forsaking mine or any other principal of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities.” He concluded that he “had no head for the natural sciences,” and that physicists may have insights into the material world but not the intellectual, philosophical world.

He then said, “I ought to be careful not to lose the eye of my soul...I was afraid that my soul might be blinded altogether if I looked at things with my eyes or tried to apprehend them to help my senses. And I thought that I had better have recourse to the world of the mind and seek there truth of existence.”

Socrates was among the first speak out against new technologies. He condemned writing and said that relying on written texts over oral tradition would “create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls...they will trust to external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

Socratic Method and Mysticism

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Socrates and students
The Socratic method is a slightly ironic style of cross examination with a lot of why questions in discussion, reasoning and making arguments and asking questions that lead to more questions. Socrates once said "an unexamined life is not worth living."

Socratic technique implies asking questions to find the answers. In an effort to ferret out the truth Socrates asked probing question to find weaknesses in prevailing views of religion and morality. His skill earned him a reputation as an admired teacher but it also drew the scorn of a government that condemned him to death.

Socrates said that he occasionally had mystical experiences. During the final speech of his trial he said: “I experience a certain divine or demonic something...It began in childhood and has been with me ever since, a kind of voice, which whenever I hear it always turns me back from something I was going to do, but never urges me to act.” Socrates also feared the evil eye.

Socrates's Character and Doubts

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Socrates by
Wilhem von Gloeden
Socrates enjoyed good conversation, reading and drinking and disliked work, travel and possessions. He wore the same shabby robe every day and once took up dancing in an attempt to loose weight. He could be both charming and irritating. In Apology , Socrates said, "I am the gadfly which the god had given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastened upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.”

Socrates said that he was not a "public" person and he had no interest in politics. In Plato's Apology , Socrates responded to his critics: "Now do you really imagine that I could have survived all these years, if I had led a public life, supposing that...I had always supported the right and had made justice, as I ought, the first thing?"

Socrates repeatedly denied that he was a philosopher or even a teacher. He died claiming to be a midwife. “And like a midwife,” he said, I am barren, and the reproach which is often made against me, that I ask questions of others and have not the wit to answer them myself, is very just---the reason is god compels me to be a midwife, but does not allow me to bring forth.”

Socrates friend Alcibiades admired him because he never appeared drunk and had incredible endurance. He wrote: “one morning I saw him thinking about something which he could not resolve: he would not give it up, but continued thinking from early dawn...until the following morning: and with the return of light, he offered up a prayer to the sun, and went his way.”

Socrates personalized philosophy and questioned assumptions that mankind had about the most basic things. He challenged the Sophist view that truth was unknowable and argued that mankind could use reasoning and the scientific method to ascertain the truth. He sought universal principals through rational thinking and discourse and raising questions that sought at the basis of ethics and knowledge.

Socrates didn't believe in religion or the physical sciences and was suspicious of democracy, insisting that governments should be run by men of knowledge and ability. He believed that logic begot truth and truth in turn provided the foundation of morality and ethics. Socrates never wrote anything, most everything know about him was reported by his student Plato.◂

Socrates's Philosophy

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Socrates by Wilhem von Gloeden
Socrates believed that people had a kind a latent wisdom that was corrupted by the world around them. He urged people to pursue virtue and wisdom over materialism and self-interest and is credited with using philosophy to examine ethical questions such as the "nature of friendship and the ideal organization of a just state." His motto was: “Know thyself.”

Socrates believed that behind every notion like beauty and goodness there was a sort of pure force that could be ascertained with the mind not the senses and that what the senses perceived as real was an idealized form (these ideas would later be the cornerstone of Plato’s philosophy).

Aristotle called Socrates the founder of logic. He wrote: “For two things may be fairly ascribed to Socrates---inductive arguments and universal definition, both of which are concerned with the starting point of science.” Aristotle, however, had doubts as to whether scientific method could be applied to ethics.

Socrates Condemned to Death

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Socrates and Plato
Socrates is considered by some to be the inventor of martyrdom. In 399 B.C., he was tried on the nebulous charges of "neglect of the gods," “introducing new divinities” and "corrupting the youth of Athens." Historians believe the charges were based on nothing more than Socrates propensity to stir up trouble and question authorities.

The charges against Socrates stemmed from a series events that began when the Delphi oracle pronounced Socrates as the wisest of men. Socrates began seriously questioning the existence of gods who would be behind such a judgment and set about proving them wrong by finding a man wiser than himself. He then went about calling people unwise who claimed to be wise.

The charges against Socrates also stemmed from his leadership of an executive committee of the Athenian version of the Senate which conducted an unruly debate when news of an important sea battle arose. Athens won the battle but word came that some of the generals in the battle abandoned their soldiers. Many legislators called for the generals to be put to death. Socrates refused on the grounds that such a death sentence would defy Greek law.

Trial of Socrates

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Socrate's death
In Socrates trial there were no lawyers and Socrates defended himself, saying simply he was a humble seeker of truth. One by one his accusers, limited by the time established by a water clock, addressed the 501 member jury. His chief accuser, Meletus, was. Socrates said, “an unknown youth with straight hair and a skimpy beard.”

Socrates, then 70 years old, "gave a bumbling performance. He was no orator" said Historian M.I. Finley. In the trial, Socrates said that people were threatened by his self appointed role as "the gadfly of Athens." Socrates's questioning of the existence of the gods, cross-examination of conventional wisdom and criticizing of the government had won him many enemies. Some say he was used as a scapegoat for Athens' loss in the Peloponnesian War.

The jury found Socrates guilty by a vote of 281 to 220 and advocated the death penalty. Socrates was given an opportunity to suggest an alternative punishment. He said he deserved to be treated like an Olympic champion and receive a life-time pension. The jury was not amused and he was sentencing to die by drinking a cup off hemlock.

Death of Socrates

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Socrate's death
When the time of Socrates execution arrived Socrates asked his executioner what he was supposed to do after he drank the poison. The reply was "walk about until your eyes are heavy, then lie down, and the poison will act."

In Phaedo , Plato wrote: "The man who was to administer the poison...held out the cup to Socrates. He took it...'I understand,' said Socrates; 'but I may and must pray to the gods and that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so offer this prayer, and may it be granted.' With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerily and quietly drained it. Up to that time most of us had been able to restrain our tears fairly well, but when we watched him drinking and saw that he had drunk the poison, we could do so no longer, but in spite of myself my tears tolled down in floods, so I wrapped my face in my cloak and wept."

"Socrates...walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, or such was the advise of his attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said, 'No': then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had reached the region about his groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said---and these were his last words---'Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepsius. Pay it and do not neglect it.'"

The death of Socrates is seen by some as the end of the Golden Age of Greece. Archaeologists excavating a fifth century B.C. prison found vials used to hold toxin mostly likely similar to the one that killed Socrates.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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