One of the most influential figures in Western philosophy, Socrates is also the most perplexing. He is not known to have written anything, so his thoughts are known only from the works of his younger associates, Plato and Xenophon. He claimed to know only that he did not know, yet antagonized influential Athenians with reproaches that seemed to presume moral knowledge. He was tried and executed by the Athenian Democracy, which he criticized; yet he fought for that democracy, and both refused to obey and openly upbraided its oligarchic opponents. Both oligarchs and democrats threatened to silence him, yet Socrates himself appears to have been willing to censor others.
These apparent contradictions may be explained by considering Socrates’ mission in life, which he believed to be divine in two senses. He possessed a personal deity that spoke to him to prevent him from doing wrong. Also, the god Apollo’s oracle at Delphi had said that Socrates was the wisest and most just man. Socrates was puzzled by this, since he was aware of how uncertain his knowledge was. He resolved to spend his life “seeking wisdom.” This entailed engaging in an activity that combined morality and philosophy. He asked questions of others both to discover and to test their moral opinions and to seek definitions of justice, moderation, and other moral qualities.
This left Socrates doubly endowed morally. His divine voice kept him from doing wrong:...
(The entire section is 489 words.)