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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2483

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.

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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. However, there are some positive views that Socrates is willing to defend. For example, he defends the thesis that virtue is knowledge and thus that all wrongdoing stems from ignorance, and he claims that it is far more important to care for one’s soul than for one’s body. These statements require some explanation, however, especially in their English and other non-Greek versions.

Socrates and other Greeks asked, “What is virtue?” The Greek word that is generally translated as “virtue” is aretē. Another translation for this term is “excellence.” (Virtue is a poor translation if it suggests ideas such as Christian charity, humility, and the like, because Socrates lived prior to Christianity, and the Greeks did not greatly admire charity and humility.) It was Socrates’ belief, then, that human excellence consists in knowledge. If a person knew what was the best thing to do, for example, then the person would do it. Some critics have objected that this idea might be true for Socrates, who had great self-control, but that other, more ordinary people might see one course of action as superior to another and yet choose to do that which was not superior. The other side of the coin, according to Socrates, is that if a person has done something wrong, then it must be concluded that the person did not have the knowledge that what was being done was wrong. All wrongdoing, Socrates holds, is really the result of ignorance.

Socrates continually compares questions about human nature, the purpose of life, and the nature of virtue (or excellence) to considerably more down-to-earth and sometimes humble questions. He discusses carpenters, shoemakers, horse trainers, and others. One could say that Socrates’ discussions are dominated by a craft analogy. For example, the shoemaker’s function is to make shoes, and he fulfills his function well when he makes good shoes. The shoemaker must know what he is doing; otherwise, he would probably produce poor shoes. Similarly, a person must know what his business in life is. “Know thyself,” a Greek saying inscribed on the temple walls of Delphi, was a prominent theme of Socrates. He is also credited with saying that for a human being “the unexamined life is not worth living.” A person will be an excellent human being only if that person subjects his life to examination and attains self-knowledge. Like excellence in shoemaking, excellence in human life is indeed an achievement, and it follows on training from others and self-discipline from within.

Finally, Socrates believed that the disposition of the soul is more important than the body or any material thing. The word translated as “soul” here is the Greek psychē. Other translations might be “inner self” or “mind.” It is the inner self that Socrates sees as inhabiting the body, just as a body can be thought of as inhabiting clothes. This psychē, or inner self—and not the appetites or passions or demands of the physical body—is what should give direction to one’s life.

In 399 Socrates was tried in Athens on two charges: for not worshiping the Athenian gods (and introducing new divinities) and for corrupting the young. The first charge was unfair. It was a standard charge used to persecute threatening individuals, but Socrates had, in fact, been rather faithful in his observance of local religious customs. The only grain of truth in the charge was that he did claim to hear a voice within him—a daimon, or supernatural voice, that warned him not to do certain things. (The voice never encouraged actions but sometimes stopped Socrates when he considered doing or saying something.) Socrates and his fellow Greeks believed in many such divine signs and had little trouble accepting oracles and dreams as bearers of supernatural messages. The inner voice of Socrates did not replace the traditional gods; rather, it was supposed to be an additional source of divine messages.

The second charge was quite serious and, in some respects, plausible. As youths, Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides had heard Socrates. As men, Alcibiades became a ruthless traitor and opportunist, and Critias and Charmides overthrew Athenian democracy (for a time) with a violent revolution, instituting a bloodthirsty regime. Moreover, Socrates himself had been a vocal critic of democracy.

It could be that this last charge was only a case of guilt by association. Socrates was not responsible for the fact that a few of his students proved troublesome. He certainly did not encourage violent revolution and bloodthirstiness; he stressed argument and discussion. In fact, his criticism of Athenian democracy reflects this very point. He criticized the way Athenian democracy awarded some positions by lot (as potential jurors are selected today) and some by vote. The random lottery method is unreasonable precisely because it is not responsive to argument. In general, Socrates believed that those who know, those who are wise, should rule. Why, he reasoned, should a community leave important social and political decisions in the hands of voters—who may well be ignorant and are likely to be swayed by their own self-interest or by smooth-talking politicians—rather than in the hands of those who have wisdom and knowledge.

At his trial, Socrates was not contrite. He asserted that he would never stop asking his questions, the questions that some Athenians found so bothersome, and refused to accept the idea that he be banished to another place. He would stay in Athens and would remain who and what he was. The jury condemned him to death by drinking hemlock.

While Socrates was being held in prison, but before he was to drink the hemlock, he was visited by a friend who proposed to get him out of prison—bribing the guards if necessary—and to arrange for him to live at some distance beyond the reach of Athenian law. Socrates investigated this option with his usual methods and concluded that there were better arguments in favor of conforming to the legal judgment and drinking the hemlock—which, when the time came, he did.

Significance

To the philosophers who came after him, Socrates not only left the example of his life but also a new sort of inquiry (that is, social inquiry) and a new way of pursuing that inquiry, namely through the use of the Socratic method of question and answer.

Several schools of philosophers claiming to follow Socrates arose after his death. One of the best known, Cynicism, took up the view that virtue is an inner knowledge that has nothing to do with externals, such as material things or even other people. Diogenes, the most prominent Cynic, rejected conventional values and is said to have lived in a tub. He claimed that the life of the dog (“Cynic” comes from a Greek word that means “like a dog”), free and unfettered by human conventions, was a good model for the natural life. The Cynics invented the concept of the cosmopolitan (citizen of the cosmos or universe) when they claimed allegiance only to the universe at large and not to particular humanly instituted and local political units—such as Athens.

The Cyrenaics, also claiming to follow Socrates, held that inner, subjective experiences were far more important for life than the existence and nature of external objects. From this view, they derived the conclusion that the best life was one that was directed by subjective feelings of pleasure and pain. This school practiced a form of hedonism that was in many respects at odds with Cynicism. The Megarics, another minor Socratic school, practiced the art of refutation, which they modeled after Socrates’ destructive criticism of the views of others. In this way, several schools of thought emerged, at variance with one another but all claiming to follow Socrates. One could say that each school followed some strands of thought in Socrates but that no school was able to capture him completely.

That is one reason that Socrates remains a giant in philosophy. It is possible to go back to the stories of his life and practice many times and each time discover some new aspect or line of thought. Moreover, the Socratic method of inquiry can be used by those less wise than the giant himself. Each new generation is enabled by this method to question received opinion, alleged wisdom, and even its own values.

Socrates said that he was a gadfly who stimulated his fellows to think more clearly. This applies both to his fellow citizens in Athens and to his fellow philosophers, or seekers after wisdom. With respect to his fellow citizens, it might be said that Socrates failed, because in the end they turned on him and had him condemned to death. With respect to philosophers who have come after Socrates, however, it could well be said that his mission has proved successful, for he has had a permanent effect on the direction of philosophy, an effect that can never be undone.

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