Socrates Additional Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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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.)


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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Socrates’ views on ethics must be understood against the background of his main opponents, the Sophists. They were moral relativists who believed that ethical beliefs could never be more than convention and subjective human opinions. In contrast, Socrates thought that ethical truths were universal and objective and concerned the way in which humans should best live. He said that the goal in human life was not simply living but “living well.” To make an excellent ship, one must understand the purpose of ships and what constitutes the standard of excellence for a ship. Similarly, to live life well, one must understand what constitutes human excellence. For this reason, Socrates said that “the...

(The entire section is 908 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Socrates (SAHK-ruh-teez) did not make a written record of his teachings. What is known of his philosophy comes from the Dialogues of Plato, in which Socrates is the central figure.

What is known of Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, comes primarily from two of his pupils, Xenophon and Plato. The account of Socrates by Plato in the Dialogues is generally taken as being, on the whole, the more reliable report, both of the character and of the teachings of Socrates.

Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and Phænarete, a nonprofessional midwife. The family was neither poor nor wealthy, and Socrates received the usual elementary education in gymnastics and music, to train the...

(The entire section is 1112 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Further Reading:

Colaiaco, James A. Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial. New York: Routledge, 2001. Intended to be used alongside Plato’s Apology and Crito. Provides historical and cultural context to the trial.

Gottlieb, Anthony. Socrates. New York: Routledge, 1999. Short introductory volume places the philosopher and his ideas in historical perspective. An explanation of Socrates’ basic concepts of thought is accompanied by biographical details.

Guthrie, W. K. C. Socrates. Part 2 in The Fifth-Century Enlightenment. Vol. 1 in A...

(The entire section is 506 words.)