Socrates Introduction - Essay


Socrates 469 B.C.- 399 B.C.

Greek philosopher.

Socrates is revered for his shifting of Greek philosophical thought from the contemplation of the nature of the universe, which occupied the philosophers before him, to the examination of human life and its problems. He was the first to study ethics as a science—that is, to study morality in a systematic, consistent manner. Scholars have noted that the impact of Socrates on the development of Western culture and philosophy cannot be overstated, and some have suggested that his teachings influenced the development of Christianity. Yet the study of Socrates's philosophy is plagued by the "problem of Socrates": he wrote nothing. After his death, and perhaps before it, his followers began to record details of his life and thought, but these are arguably more interpretive in nature than they are biographical. Therefore, one of the greatest debates surrounding Socrates is that of the accuracy and validity of the Socratic sources, primarily the writings of Xenophon and Plato. Other critical issues include the interpretation of Socrates's ethical theses that virtue is knowledge, wrong-doing is involuntary, and that the care of the soul is the primary condition for living well; and of his controversial views regarding the treatment of enemies and retaliation.

Socrates was born in 469 B.C. in Athens to a stonemason (some sources state that Socrates's father was a sculptor) named Sophroniscus and his spouse, a mid-wife. He was a student of a physicist, Archelaus, and was perhaps interested in the philosophy of Anaxagoras. He is believed to have lived on a small inheritance and on investments made through a wealthy friend. Socrates served in the army, fought in the Peloponnesian War, and married a woman named Xanthippe, who bore two or three sons, sources say. When Socrates was 70 years old, he was accused of "irreligion," or impiety, and of corrupting the youth of Athens. In 399 B.C. he was tried, convicted, and condemned to die by drinking hemlock.

While Socrates did not leave any writings, his followers Xenophon and Plato both wrote extensively about Socrates's beliefs and experiences. Yet their respective accounts differ markedly. In addition to the records of Xenophon and Plato, Aristophanes ridiculed Socrates in one of his comedies, Clouds (423 B.C.), and Aristotle commented on the philosopher and Plato's representation of him. Some critics have relied on a combination of these sources as a means of accessing the historical Socrates, and others place more weight on either Xenophon's or Plato's version. Despite early preference for Xenophon, many twentieth-century scholars have argued that Plato's portrayal of Socrates presents the more accurate version, however flawed by idealism it may be. Xenophon has been criticized by scholars such as E. Zeller for the simple and unphilosophic manner in which Socrates is depicted. Others, such as J. T. Forbes, have suggested that Xenophon's presentation of Socrates as a moral censor and teacher of practical values, rather than as a philosophic revolutionary, may have been driven by Xenophon's intention of minimizing the "revolutionary aspects of the thought of Socrates." Forbes has also noted that Plato's account of Socrates is "largely ideal" and that Plato was more concerned with presenting abstract truth than with historical or chronological accuracy. A. K. Rogers has argued that preference for Xenophon stems from the distrust of Plato, who may have created his version of Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own philosophy. Yet Rogers has gone on to caution that Xenophon is an apologist and should not be trusted more than Plato. Homer H. Dubs has supported the case for Plato and has suggested that Xenophon may have gotten some of his information about Socrates from Plato. Dubs has also argued that while Plato may have "put words in So-crates's mouth" it is precisely because of the fact that Plato was an accomplished artist that we should trust his portrayal of Socrates: Plato, Dubs stressed, would have only made Socrates utter what would have been "thoroughly appropriate" for Socrates to say. J. B. Bury has also stressed the value of Plato's version over that of Xenophon, stating that the Socrates who emerges from Plato's Dialogues is "a figure probably resembling the real Socrates." Yet others, such as R. Hackforth, have maintained that criticism of Xeno-phon is too harsh, and that while Xenophon may have not been sufficiently interested in philosophy to do justice to the portrayal of Socrates, Plato was too much involved in his subject matter to be objective. Critics such as Luis Navia have suggested ways in which these apparently contradictory accounts may be reconciled. Forbes has also argued for using a combination of testimonies, as well as a study of the development of Socrates's philosophy, in order to identify a consistent and faithful view of Socrates.

The concepts of knowledge, virtue, and goodness are intertwined in the philosophy of Socrates. He taught that "virtue is knowledge"; that the aim of a good man is to care for his soul; and that to care for the soul is to make oneself as wise as possible—that is, to attain knowledge, or virtue. Norman Gulley has examined the concept of "the good" by reviewing the role of goodness in the political and religious views of Socrates. Alfonso Gomez-Lobo has studied the types of things Socrates claims to have knowledge of and the types of knowledge he disavows in order to make sense of Socrates's admission of ignorance at his trial. W. K. C. Guthrie has discussed the various ways that the idea that virtue is knowledge was interpreted by Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle. Related to such discussions of the nature of virtue, knowledge, goodness, and the soul, is the concept of wrongdoing. As A. E. Taylor has explained, Socrates taught that virtue is identical to knowledge and that vice is, in all cases, the result of ignorance, or intellectual error, so that wrongdoing is always involuntary. This idea has presented difficulties for many who study philosophy, from the time of Socrates through the twentieth century, and scholars have attempted to interpret Socrates's meaning in a variety of ways. Taylor has argued that Socrates's statement that wrongdoing is involuntary means that a person does evil in spite of the fact that it is evil, for the person falsely believes that he or she can gain some good (wealth, power, pleasure) by doing evil.

Another view that was regarded as controversial in the fifth century was Socrates's belief that injustice is never justified. It was commonly held during Socrates's time that injuring one's enemies was acceptable, particularly if one had been injured by those enemies. R. Nicol Cross and Gregory Vlastos both have examined Socrates's views on the treatment of enemies and retaliation. Cross has studied apparently contradictory statements made by Socrates on the injustice of injuring one's enemies and has concluded that Socrates held that under no circumstances is it just to injure anyone. Vlastos has identified five Socratic principles related to injustice and has discussed each one in detail. Vlastos also has noted that the Socratic view that one should never do injustice in return for injustice marks a significant break with established Greek views on morality, but the critic has also pointed out that Socrates does not treat the issue of injustices done to social inferiors (women, aliens, slaves) in the Greek world.

However Socrates's views are interpreted by scholars and students of philosophy, most agree that the philosopher dedicated his life to seeking individual wisdom and goodness for the betterment of himself and his society, and that he encouraged others by teaching and by example to do the same.