Socrates Essay - Critical Essays



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.

* Representative Works


Clouds (comedy) 423 B.C.


Metaphysics (philosophical treatise)

Rhetoric (philosophical treatise)


Protagoras (dialogue)

Meno (dialogue)

Apology (account of Socrates's trial)

Crito (dialogue)

Phaedo (dialogue)


Memorabilia (memoirs)

* As Socrates's philosophical thought is known only through secondary sources, these are listed here. While exact composition dates for most of the works are unknown, the chronological order of Plato's works has been determined by critics and therefore his works have been listed in chronological order.

Principal English Translations

The Works of Plato [translated by T. Taylor and F. Sydenham] 1804

The Works of Plato [translated by H. Clary, H. Davis, and G. Burges] 1848-52

The Complete Works of Xenophon [translated by Ashley, Spelman, Smith, Fielding, Welwood, et al.] 1877

The Dialogues of Plato [translated by B. Jowett, 3rd ed.] 1892

Socrates: A Source Book [compiled and in part translated by John Ferguson] 1970

(The entire section is 61 words.)


E. Zeller (essay date 1868)

SOURCE: "Sources and Characteristics of the Philosophy of Socrates," in Socrates and The Socratic Schools, translated by E. Zeller and Oswald J. Reichel, Longmans, Green and Co., 1868, pp. 82-149.

[In the following essay, Zeller discusses the questions surrounding the validity of Xenophon and Plato as Socratic sources and identifies Socrates's quest for "true knowledge" as the heart of the philosopher's intellectual and moral theories.]

There is considerable difficulty in arriving at an accurate view of the philosophy of Socrates, owing to the discrepancies in the accounts of the original authorities. Socrates himself committed nothing to writing,1 and there...

(The entire section is 4432 words.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (essay date 1882?)

SOURCE: "The Character of Socrates," in Two Unpublished Essays, Lamson, Wolffe & Co., 1895, pp. 1-39.

[In the following excerpt, Emerson discusses the "uncommon and admirable" character of Socrates and acknowledges the debt owed by "modern improvement" to the wisdom of Socrates. Emerson explores the moral background of Socrates's age and discusses Socrates's moral philosophy, noting that the philosopher sought to reform the "abuses of morals and virtue which had become a national calamity." Because the date of composition of this essay is not known, Ernerson's death date has been used to date the essay.]

Guide my way

(The entire section is 4737 words.)

R. M. Wenley (essay date 1889)

SOURCE: "Socrates and Christ" in Socrates and Christ: A Study in the Philosophy of Religion, William Blackwood and Sons, 1889, pp. 236-64.

[Here, Wenley contrasts Socrates with Christ, stating that while there exist "points of external contact" between the two men which "render comparison by no means unreasonable," they nevertheless had little in common in terms of "inner spirit."]

The "great solicitude" sometimes "shown by popular Christianity to establish a radical difference between Jesus and a teacher like Socrates,"1 is a misapplication of effort. The contrast stands in need of no further emphasis than that which history has so plainly given it....

(The entire section is 8099 words.)

J. T. Forbes (essay date 1905)

SOURCE: "The Teaching of Socrates: The Prosaic and Ideal Interpretations; The Criteria," in Socrates, T. & T. Clark, 1905, pp. 101-50.

[In the following excerpt, Forbes studies the controversy over the Socratic sources, examining the versions of Socrates presented by Xenophon and Plato and identifying the possible biases of each author. Forbes concludes that through the use of Aristotle's comments on Socrates, "the artistic verisimilitude of the Xenophontic and Platonic portraits," and the analysis of the development of Socrates's philosophy, a consistent view of Socrates can be attained.]

The question of authorities for the teaching of Socrates meets us at the...

(The entire section is 3540 words.)

R. Nicol Cross (essay date 1914)

SOURCE: "His Teaching: Treatment of Enemies," in Socrates: The Man and His Mission, Books for Libraries Press, 1914, pp. 142-94.

[In the following essay, Cross points out that Socrates was known for his teaching that "in no circumstances is it just to injure anyone," including one's enemies. This concept, states Cross, contrasted sharply with popular sentiment at the time. Below, Cross identifies an incident in which Socrates appears to be saying that injuring one's enemies is acceptable. After exploring the apparent contradiction, Cross concludes that "we may take it as certain that Socrates practised, and practically certain that before his death he taught, the doctrine … that 'neither...

(The entire section is 3043 words.)

William Ellery Leonard (essay date 1915)

SOURCE: "The Thinker," in Socrates: Master of Life, The Open Court Publishing Co., 1915, pp. 62-118.

[In this excerpt, Leonard explores the relationship between Socrates's philosophy and personal morality. The philosopher's goal, Leonard claims, was to reform human conduct.]


Every exposition of Greek thought, from the most pedantic to the most popular, has been divided into the two chapters, "Before Socrates," "After Socrates"; between which has stood a third, devoted to Socrates himself. Though he published no book in prose or verse, no philosophic hexameters on nature, no dialectic treatise on the Absolute, no criticism on ethics,...

(The entire section is 8156 words.)

Leonard Nelson (lecture date 1922)

SOURCE: "The Socratic Method," in Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy: Selected Essays, translated by Thomas K. Brown III, Yale University Press, 1949, pp. 1-40.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1922, Nelson discusses the Socratic method, defining it as "the art of teaching not philosophy but philosophizing, the art not of teaching about philosophers but of making philosophers of the students." Nelson goes on to offer examples of how the method works in practice and notes some difficulties of applying the Socratic method.]

As a faithful disciple of Socrates and of his great successor Plato, I find it rather difficult to justify my...

(The entire section is 14752 words.)

A. K. Rogers (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "The Ethics of Socrates," in The Philosophical Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 200, March, 1925, pp. 117-43.

[After reviewing the arguments for and against Xenophon and Plato as accurate sources of Socratic philosophy, Rogers argues that Plato provides sufficient evidence that Socrates's teaching focused on the proposition that "virtue is knowledge." Rogers then examines the meaning and significance of this statement.]

The beginnings of ethics as a branch of human science it has been customary to trace to Socrates; and while any point of departure is bound to be arbitrary to some extent, since written history does not record a time when men showed no tendency whatever...

(The entire section is 10525 words.)

Homer H. Dubs (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "The Socratic Problem," in The Philosophical Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 214, July 1927, pp. 287-306.

[In the following essay, Dubs argues that, contrary to "the view commonly held," Plato's account of the character and philosophy of Socrates is "substantially correct." He concludes that, at the very least, Plato did not deliberately distort the historical Socrates's character or opinions.]

The purpose of this paper is to present some considerations in support of the thesis that Plato's account of the character and philosophic opinions of Socrates is substantially correct, as against the view commonly held.

The usual interpretation of Socrates is...

(The entire section is 7568 words.)

John A. Scott (lecture date 1928)

SOURCE: "Socrates and Christ," in Socrates and Christ: A Lecture Given at Northwestern University, Northwestern University, 1928, pp. 5-52.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture, Scott reviews Socrates's life and philosophic thought in order to demonstrate the influence of Socrates on Christianity. He argues that Socrates rejected the Olympic gods and thus left his followers searching for "a god of purity and a god of justice ", and he suggests that Christianity was successfully established in Greece due to this legacy.]

During September of 480 B.C. in the waters between the Island of Salamis and the harbor of Athens the great fleet of the...

(The entire section is 10898 words.)

J. B. Bury (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "The Life and Death of Socrates," in The Cambridge Ancient History, edited by J. B. Bury, S. A. Cook, and F. E. Adcock, Cambridge University Press, 1935, pp. 386-97.

[Below, Bury briefly surveys the life of Socrates as presented in the dialogues and Apology of Plato, highlighting some of the philosopher's most significant philosophical views in the process.]

The book of Xenophon on the life and teaching of Socrates, known as the Memorabilia, would, if it stood alone, give us little idea of what Socrates was like, and no idea of the secret of his greatness. Xenophon belonged (probably for a very short time) to the Socratic circle, but he...

(The entire section is 5614 words.)

A. E. Taylor (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "The Thought of Socrates," in Socrates, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 138-83.

[In the following essay, Taylor asserts that Socrates significantly influenced the development of European thought by creating the concept of the soul "which has ever since dominated European thinking." Taylor differentiates between the "psyche" as described by Homer and the Orphic and Pythagorean traditions before Socrates, and goes on to examine the Socratic mission of caring for the soul in order to perfect it. Taylor then surveys and interprets Socrates's moral teachings, his theory of knowledge, and his scientific method.]

What is the real significance of Socrates in the history of...

(The entire section is 10081 words.)

Norman Gulley (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Good," in The Philosophy of Socrates, Macmillan, 1968, pp. 165-204.

[In the following essay, Gulley explains that Socrates's teachings emphasize that "knowledge of the good is a necessary and sufficient condition of being good and of doing what is good," but that they do not explicitly state what "the good" is. Gulley examines the Socratic works of Plato, and Xenophon, as well as some references in Aristotle, in order to deduce a consistent understanding of "the good."]

A. Introduction

Socrates' method of analysis assumes that it is possible to determine with certainty what the good is. His moral paradoxes, with...

(The entire section is 15974 words.)

W. K. C. Guthrie (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Philosophical Significance," in A History of Greek Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1969, pp. 417-88.

[In the following excerpt, Guthrie assesses the contribution of Socrates to the field of philosophy, arguing that Socrates's work marked a shift in philosophic thought from contemplation of the nature of the universe to contemplation of the problems of human life.]

'Philosophia de Caelo Devocata'

For the Greeks themselves the name of Socrates formed a watershed in the history of their philosophy. The reason they give for this is that he turned men's eyes from the speculations about the nature of the physical world which...

(The entire section is 20862 words.)

A. D. Woozley (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Socrates on Disobeying the Law," in The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays, University of Notre Dame Press, 1971, pp. 299-318.

[Here, Woozley studies the apparent discrepancy between (1) Socrates's statement at his trial that if he were discharged on the condition that he give up philosophy, he would disobey the order, and (2) Socrates's insistence after the trial, when prompted by a follower to escape, that he must obey the law.]


Socrates is commonly characterised, and indeed on occasion characterised himself (or is so represented by Plato), as a negative thinker: one who provoked a member of his circle to...

(The entire section is 7309 words.)

James Haden (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "On Socrates, with Reference to Gregory Vlastos," in The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, December, 1979, pp. 371-89.

[Below, Haden refers to an essay by Gregory Vlastos in which Vlastos maintains that Plato's Socrates is highly reflective of the historical Socrates. Haden argues that as Plato's Socrates has "exercised the decisive influence down through the centuries," it is valuable, whether or not one agrees with Vlastos, to examine Vlastos's conclusions and test them for their "adequacy." Haden goes on to fault Vlastos for measuring Socrates "by a New Testament model."]


In his essay "The Paradox of Socrates,"1...

(The entire section is 8029 words.)

Gregory Viastos (lecture date 1986)

SOURCE: "Socrates's Rejection of Retaliation," in Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 179-99.

[In the following excerpt from a lecture originally delivered in 1986, Vlastos describes the aspects of ancient Greek morality related to retaliation and the concept that harming one's enemy or social inferior is acceptable. He traces Greek attitudes toward enemies through ancient mythology and literature in order to demonstrate the significance of Socrates's view that we should never do an injustice, specifically in retaliation for an injustice done to us. Vlastos goes on to delineate and discuss the five Socratic principles related to injustice.]...

(The entire section is 9783 words.)

Nickolas Pappas (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Socrates's Charitable Treatment of Poetry," in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2, October, 1989, pp. 248-61.

[In the following essay, Pappas examines Socrates's interpretation of poetry and its relation to his philosophical positions.]

Of course this title seems wrong. If anything is certain about Socrates' treatment of poetry in Plato's dialogues, it is that he never gives a poem a chance to explain itself. He dismisses poems altogether on the basis of their suspect moral content (Republic II and III), or their representational form (Republic X), or their dramatic structure (Laws 719); he calls poets ignorant (Apology, Ion)...

(The entire section is 4693 words.)

Luis E. Navia (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Socratic Problem," in The Socratic Presence, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993, pp. 1-19.

[In the following essay, Navia offers an overview of the Socratic problem and suggests ways in which the apparent discrepancies between the various Socratic sources may be reconciled.]

There are two facts about Socrates that can be affirmed without hesitation: that his influence on the development of Western culture in general and philosophy in particular has been extraordinary, and that his historical presence remains a baffling phenomenon. The first of these two facts does not need to be particularly emphasized, for it is widely acknowledged, even by those who are...

(The entire section is 7853 words.)

Alfonso Gomez-Lobo (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Is There a Socratic Moral Philosophy?," in The Foundations of Socratic Ethics, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994, pp. 3-44.

[Here, Gomez-Lobo contends that Socrates's own admission of ignorance does not undermine what has long been recognized as the philosopher's significant contribution to the field of ethics. Gomez-Lobo concludes that by disavowing moral knowledge, Socrates does not refer to a complete lack of knowledge, but rather asserts his willingness to constantly reexamine his beliefs.]

Socrates, as he appears in the Platonic dialogues, is a living paradox. He has become impoverished, but he nevertheless interacts with rich aristocrats such as...

(The entire section is 9171 words.)

Further Reading

Benson, Hugh. Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, 361p.

Collection of essays analyzing various aspects of Socrates's philosophy and other related issues, including Socratic irony, the charges against Socrates, the theory of the unity of virtue, and the involuntary nature of wrongdoing.

Brickhouse, Thomas C. and Nicholas D. Smith. Socrates on Trial. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989, 337p.

Offers an account of Socrates's trial based on Plato's Apology, including discussion of the accusations against Socrates, the defense put for-ward by Socrates, and his final speeches. Also includes...

(The entire section is 920 words.)