Socrates Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher. Socrates was a leader in the intellectual advancement that drew attention to human and social questions (in addition to physical questions) and developed the Socratic method of learning by question and answers.

Early Life

The lives of many philosophers are quite undramatic, yet Socrates (SOK-rah-teez) is a striking exception. First, he wrote no philosophy at all. He walked through the public places of Athens and engaged people of all types in philosophical discussions. In this way, he came to have many followers, especially among the young. Second, he acquired strong enemies, and eventually his enemies had him condemned to death.

Socrates—who was said to have had a broad, flat nose, bulging eyes, and a paunch—was a powerful and eccentric individual. His philosophy is intensely personal. More than any other philosopher, he successfully united his personal character with his professional career. For Socrates, there was ultimately no difference between his private life and his public career.

Socrates was the son of a stonemason (or sculptor) and a midwife. He does not appear to have spent much time in his father’s line of work, although it was traditional for sons to do what their fathers did, and Socrates was probably trained in stoneworking. He later claimed that he was following in his mother’s footsteps, that he was an intellectual midwife. That is, he said, he assisted other people with the birth of the ideas they carried, while he himself had none. Clearly, he had ideas too; such a statement can be understood as an expression of typical Socratic irony.

Socrates was born, lived, and died in Athens. The only significant amount of time he spent outside the city was during his military service, when he earned a reputation for bravery, steadfastness in battle, and a general toughness of character. While on military campaigns in the northern parts of Greece, he reportedly went barefoot over ice and snow. In Athens, he became known for his unkempt appearance, his moral integrity, his probing questions, his self-control, his ability to outdrink anyone, and his use of questions and dialogue in the pursuit of wisdom.

A friend of Socrates once asked the Delphic oracle—which was believed by the Greeks to speak with the divine authority of Apollo—whether anyone was wiser than Socrates. The answer was that no one was wiser. When Socrates heard this, he was confused. The oracle often spoke in riddles, and Socrates wondered what this saying could mean. He believed that he knew nothing and was not wise at all. He went to those who had a reputation for wisdom—to political leaders, authors, and skilled craftsmen—and questioned them. He found, to his surprise, that they really were not wise, although they thought that they were. He reasoned that because they were no wiser than he (as the oracle had said) but he knew nothing except that he was not wise, then they must know even less. Socrates’ conclusion was that while others mistakenly believed that they were wise, his own wisdom consisted in knowing that he was not wise.

Life’s Work

Socrates was a central figure in the revolution in fifth century b.c.e. Greek thought that turned attention away from the physical world (of stars and eclipses) and toward the human world (of the self, the community, the law). It has been said that Socrates brought philosophy down to earth.

Because Socrates wrote nothing himself, the evidence for his views must be somewhat indirect. Even if other sources are useful, scholars generally agree that the early, or Socratic, dialogues of Plato are the most important sources of information about Socrates’ philosophy. Himself one of the foremost philosophers in the Western tradition, Plato was a student of Socrates. Moreover, although all the early dialogues were written after the death of Socrates, they were written while many of those who knew him were still alive, and Plato presumably would not paint a false picture of Socrates before the eyes of those who knew him.

The inquiries of Socrates, as represented dramatically in the dialogues of Plato, generally revolve around a particular concept, usually a moral concept. In the dialogue called the Lachēs (399-390 b.c.e.; Laches, 1804), for example, Socrates inquires into the definition of courage; in the Euthyphrōn (399-390 b.c.e.; Euthyphro, 1804), he asks what piety is; and in the Theaetētos (388-366 b.c.e.; Theaetetus, 1804), he examines the nature of knowledge. Often, the dialogues follow a pattern. At first, Socrates’ partners in conversation are confident of their knowledge of the subject at hand. Socrates claims to seek enlightenment and asks them seemingly simple questions, such as “What is courage?” The speaker gives an example to which the concept applies, but Socrates replies that if the item given is only an example, then the speaker should know the larger concept that it represents. He says that it is precisely this relationship between the example and the concept that should be explained. The speaker then considers one definition after another, but Socrates, by a skillful use of questioning, is able to show the speaker that the definitions are unsatisfactory. The speaker often complains that Socrates has robbed him of the confidence he once had. Socrates, although he had been claiming that he only wanted to learn from the speaker, has all the while been orchestrating this very result by means of his questions. The speaker is led to see for himself that he really does not know what he thought he knew. The speaker, thus divested of false notions, is in a position to become a partner of Socrates in the quest for positive knowledge and wisdom. The ancient Greek term for this sort of question-and-answer testing of ideas is elenchus.

It is sometimes noted that in the dialogues Socrates refuses to suggest any positive ideas but only questions others and destroys their views (and sometimes their composure). Indeed, that is often the case....

(The entire section is 2483 words.)