Introducing the Philosophers: Socrates
Socrates (469/470 – 399 BCE) was born to the sculptor Sophronicus and the mid-wife Phaenarete. He studied music, gymnastics, and grammar in his youth (the common subjects of study for a young Greek) and followed his father’s profession as a sculptor. Tradition holds that he was an exceptional artist, and his statue of the Graces, on the road to the Acropolis, is said to have been admired into the 2nd century CE. Socrates served with distinction in the army and, at the Battle of Potidaea, saved the life of the General Alcibiades.
When he was middle-aged, Socrates’ friend Chaerephon asked the famous Oracle at Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle answered, “None.” Bewildered by this answer and hoping to prove the Oracle wrong, Socrates went about questioning people who were held to be ‘wise’ in their own estimation and that of others. He found, to his dismay, “that the men whose reputation for wisdom stood highest were nearly the most lacking in it, while others who were looked down on as common people were much more intelligent” (Plato, Apology , 22). The youth of Athens delighted in watching Socrates question their elders in the market and, soon, he had a following of young men who, because of his example and his teachings, would go on to abandon their early aspirations and devote themselves to philosophy (from the Greek ‘Philo’, love, and ‘Sophia’, wisdom – literally ‘the love of wisdom’). Among these were Antisthenes (founder of the Cynic school), Aristippus (the Cyrenaic school), Xenophon (whose writings would influence Zeno of Cithium, founder of the Stoic school) and, most famously, Plato (the main source of our information of Socrates in his Dialogues ) among many others. Every major philosophical school mentioned by ancient writers following Socrates’ death. While scholars have traditionally relied upon Plato’s Dialogues as a source for information on the historical Socrates, Plato’s contemporaries claimed he used a character he called ‘Socrates’ as a mouth-piece for his own philosophical views. Notable among these critics was, allegedly, Phaedo, a fellow student of Socrates, whose writings are now lost, and Xenophon, whose Memorablia presents a different view of Socrates than that presented by Plato.
However his teachings were interpreted, it seems clear that Socrates’ main focus was on how to live a good and virtuous life. The claim attributed to him by Plato that “an unexamined life is not worth living” ( Apology , 38b) seems historically accurate, in that it is clear he inspired his followers to think for themselves instead of following the dictates of society and the accepted superstitions concerning the gods and how one should behave. While there are differences between Plato’s and Xenophon’s depictions of Socrates, both present a man who cared nothing for class distinctions or ‘proper behavior’ and who spoke as easily with women, servants, and slaves as with those of the higher classes.
In ancient Athens, individual behavior was maintained by a concept known as ‘Eusebia’ which is often translated into English as ‘piety’ but more closely resembles ‘duty’ or ‘loyalty to a course’. In refusing to conform to the social proprieties proscribed by Eusebia, Socrates angered many of the more important men of the city who could, rightly, accuse him of breaking the law by violating these customs.
In 399 BCE Socrates was charged with impiety by Meletus the poet, Anytus the tanner, and Lycon the orator who sought the death penalty in the case. The accusation read: “Socrates is guilty, firstly, of denying the gods recognized by the state and introducing new divinities, and, secondly, of corrupting the young.” It has been suggested that this charge was both personally and politically motivated as Athens was trying to purge itself of those associated with the scourge of the Thirty Tyrants of Athens who had only recently been overthrown. Socrates’ relationship to this regime was through his former student, Critias, who was considered to be among the worst of the tyrants and was thought to have been corrupted by Socrates. It has also been suggested, based in part on interpretations of Plato’s dialogue of the Meno, that Anytus blamed Socrates for corrupting his son. Anytus, it seems, had been grooming his son for a life in politics until the boy became interested in Socrates’ teachings and abandoned political pursuits. As Socrates’ accusers had Critias as an example of how the philosopher corrupted youth, even if they never used that evidence in court, the precedent appears to have been known to the jury.
Socrates was convicted and sentenced to death (Xenophon tells us that he wished for such an outcome and Plato’s account of the trial in his Apology would seem to confirm this). The last days of Socrates are chronicled in Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo , the last dialogue depicting the day of his death (by drinking hemlock) surrounded by his friends in his jail cell in Athens and, as Plato puts it, “Such was the end of our friend, a man, I think, who was the wisest and justest, and the best man I have ever known.” (9)