Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..©
was a gifted thinker of ancient Athens who helped lay the foundation of
western philosophy. The methods he used and the concepts he proposed, along
with his courageous defense of his ideas against his enemies, profoundly
influenced the philosophical and moral tenor of western thought over the
centuries. His refusal to compromise his intellectual intregrity in the
face of a death sentence set an example for all the world to follow.
is a discipline that attempts to identify the basic principles governing
all existing things, as well as the makeup of these things, through investigations
that rely on the application of reason rather than faith. Unlike science,
philosophy permits intelligent speculation, via logical arguments, on what
is or is not true. For example, the great Italian philosopher St. Thomas
Aquinas (1225-1274) used reason alone to form his famous arguments for
the existence of God. In developing his ideas, Aquinas relied heavily on
the philosophy of Aristotle, who was a pupil of Plato. Plato, in turn,
was a pupil of Socrates. The word philosophy comes from the Greek
word philosophia, meaning love of wisdom.
Facts About Socrates
Birth and Death:
Socrates was born in in 469 B.C. He was executed in 399 B.C. after
a trial in which he was found guilty of promoting dangerous ideas.
Imprisonment and Execution:
Socrates spent one month on death row before being forced to drink poison
made from the hemlock plant. Drinking hemlock was the method of capital
punishment in ancient Athens. This mode of execution was like modern "lethal
injection" except that the condemned prisoner drank death rather than receiving
it through a vein.
father was Sophroniscus, a sculptor or stonemason (according to unverifiable
accounts), and his mother was Phaenarete, a midwife.
Socrates had two wives, Xanthippe and Myrto. Whom he married first is uncertain.
There is speculation that he married one of these women while he was still
married to the other under an Athenian decree allowing a man more than
one wife to replenish the depleted population of Athens. Socrates had three
children: Lamprocles, probably the son of Xanthippe, and Sophroniscus and
Menexenus, probably the sons of Myrto. It is believed that Xanthippe was
a nagging, scolding wife. If she was, in fact, a shrew, she may have done
humankind a service by driving Socrates out of the house, providing him
opportunities to conduct his philosophical investigations among the people
Residence: As an
adult, Socrates lived at Alopece,
a deme (suburb) southeast of of Athens.
Education: In his
youth, Socrates studied, music, literature, geometry, and gymnastics. He
also familiarized himself with the beliefs of leading philosophers. Like
other Greeks, he extolled the works of the Greek epic poet Homer.
Early Work: It is
believed that Socrates worked for a while as a sculptor and, according
to one account, completed statues on the Acropolis
of the three Graces (Aglaia, Thalia, and Euphrosyne), who were sister goddesses
associated with charm, grace, beauty, and fertility.
Military Duty: Socrates
served with honor in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, fighting bravely
at the battles of Potidaeia, Delium, and Amphipolus. At Potidaeia, he rescued
his wounded friend, Alcibiades, from the battlefield. At Delium years later,
he saved the life of his friend Xenophon, who had been trapped under a
Later Work: After
giving up manual labor, Socrates devoted his life to helping his fellow
citizens see the light of truth. His laboratory and classroom were the
streets of Athens.
was a short man with an ugly face. His most noticeable facial feature was
a broad nose above a bushy handlebar mustache and a beard. He walked barefooted,
always directly connected to the humility of dirt and dust. He wore a simple,
unadorned himation, a robe-like garment wrapped about the body.
Personality and Lifestyle:
Socrates was a man of charm and wit who made many friends. However, because
of his unvarnished candor and support of anti-democratic politicians and
political ideas, he also made many enemies even though it is said that
never spoke in anger against
anyone. Socrates apparently inherited a modest estate from his father--enough,
at least, to live on. He frequently spoke of having "visions" or "hearing
voices." However, he was probably using these terms as metaphors for his
intellect or conscience. It is said that he sometimes fell into a day-long,
immobilizing trance in which he worked on philosophical problems and listened
to his inner voice. According to Xenophon, he even went into such trances
on the field of war.
Social Life: Socrates
enjoyed attending symposiums. These were drinking parties, held after a
dinner, for the elite of Athens. Symposiums
featured games, music, gossip, and exchanges of ideas. Tongues loosened
by alcohol would wag freely about politics, religion, war, and philosophy.
Socrates drank his fill at these gatherings but remained sober and in command
of his formidable intellect. During the day, Socrates would talk with people
he encountered on the street, using the opportunity to question them about
their views on justice, piety, courage, and other virtues by which human
beings live. His pointed questions--and the inability of his listeners
to answer them satisfactorily--showed them that their knowledge was incomplete
or tainted with faulty ideas. Many of the brightest young men of Athens
followed Socrates through the streets to observe him in action. They no
doubt enjoyed watching him make a fool of pompous politicians or supposed
wise men whose beliefs and teachings were founded on air.
of Socrates: You Infoplease
access New Advent
Images of Socrates: Many images of Socrates are accessible via this
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of Information About Socrates
Socrates himself never wrote a book and did not keep a diary, all of the
information about him comes from other writers. Chief among these writers
was Plato (427-347), who focused part or all of the following famous dialogues
others who wrote about Socrates or mentioned him in their works were Xenophon
(431-350 B.C.), a friend of Socrates; Aristophanes
(450-388 B.C.), a playwright who satirized Socrates in The
Clouds, a comedy; Aristotle
(384-322 B.C.), a pupil of Socrates; Plutarch
(46-119 A.D.), a Greek biographer and historian who mentions Socrates often
Lives; and Diogenes
Laërtius, a Greek author who lived between 200 and 300 A.D. Laërtius
and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers: Life of Socrates.
One: Awakened thinkers
to the need to examine and reexamine their political, moral, and philosophical
views in order to discover and root out errors and misconceptions that
impede progress. Socrates accomplished this task by demonstrating, through
cross-examination of people he encountered, that many accepted precepts,
conventions, and beliefs were based on faulty logic or outright errors.
A quotation attributed to him states: "The unexamined life is not worth
living." In other words, a human being must not be complacent and self-satisfied;
instead, he must be ever probing, exploring, and reconnoitering his soul
in order to discover ways to imrpove.
rebutted a central tenet of the Sophists,
traveling teachers who charged fees for educating young men. This tenet
maintained that the guiding principles of a society, such as justice and
truth, were relative concepts--that is, they changed according to the needs
of men in a particular time and place. What was considered right and just
in Athens was not necessarily right and just in another society, the Sophists
maintained. One man's virtue could be another man's vice.
the use of inductive
reasoning to draw logical conclusions. According to Aristotle,
Socrates founded the "scientific
that wrongdoing results from ignorance. If a man lies, Socrates might
have said, he does so because he does not understand the benefits of telling
philosophers in his own time and in later times to pursue the truth
through rigorous analysis of available, facts, opinions, and so on. Two
of the most important philosophers in the history of the world, Plato and
Aristotle, both esteemed Socrates as a supreme thinker and infused their
philosophical systems with Socratic thought. Plato was a pupil of Socrates,
and Aristotle was a pupil of Plato.
Six: Showed the
world the meaning of integrity and moral commitment by accepting a
death sentence rather than recanting his principles.
Seven: Made clear
that a human being is more than his appearance. Socrates was ugly,
wore old clothes, and walked barefooted through the streets of Athens.
But his mind and the words he spoke were beautiful.
Beliefs of Socrates
believed in a god or gods and in the immortality of the soul. He often
referred to "God" in the singular but also spoke of "gods." He argued that
an intelligent being was behind the construction of the universe, a teleological
argument that influenced many later philosophers. The best prayer,
Socrates said, was one in which a person simply asked God to work his will,
since he knew best.
at Age 70, Before the Trial
The Old Philosopher
as Viewed by the Imagination Through the Lens of History
By Michael J. Cummings ©
The following is an account
that mixes fact with speculation.
was old now, more than 70. Yet he still roamed the streets of Athens–barefooted,
as always–to help men purge their minds of faulty or outmoded ideas.
Such ideas, Socrates knew, impeded self-improvement and community progress.
the years, the great god above had come to him time and again in visions
and trances to remind him that it was his calling to sow the seeds of curiosity
in fallow intellectual soil. And to do this, he first had to pull the weeds
and the dying plants–misconceptions, unfounded beliefs, flawed principles.
So it was that he went about the city to uproot ignorance where he found
it, even in men deemed wise by the community. He would nettle them with
questions that they could not answer, showing them that their knowledge
was shallow rather than deep.
quick of step, Socrates could range across the city proper on a hot day–up
steps, down hills, through pressing crowds in the marketplace. All along
the way he would stop to talk with anyone, even the fishmonger selling
fresh catch from the Bay of Phaleron. To him, Socrates might have posed
is a fish?"
fish merchant might have answered, “A legless creature that swims in the
this, Socrates might have replied:
octopus and the whale are legless creatures that swim in the ocean. Are
fishmonger might then have scratched his head and realized his definition
of fish was faulty.
was a short, ugly man with a simmian nose and beefy lips–unprepossessing
in every way, a lump of wrinkling flesh that passed for a human–but his
tongue could wag with charm and wit. It was not uncommon for the young
to gather round him on the walkway of a stoa or the greensward of a temple
to hear him expose a supposedly wise man as a fool, thereby setting him
on the road to knowledge, or to hear Socrates expound on the importance
of nurturing the development of the soul and its grasp of morality, ethics,
and the universe.
upon a time, Theaetetus–a teenager of uncommon intelligence– would follow
and listen to the old philosopher with other young men. One day Socrates
asked Theaetetus to define knowledge. An easy question, Theaetetus thought.
He replied that skill at geometry was knowledge. So was the ability to
repair footwear. So were carpentry and all the other crafts. It was clear
to Theaetetus that knowledge was capability, artistry, the wherewithal
to perform a useful activity. He was no doubt proud that he provided an
altogether suitable and unimpeachable answer. Socrates’s eyes rolled as
the answer passed through his ears and registered in the remote recesses
of his brain.
like Socrates, was not pleasing to look at. The gods had shaped both men
with unsteady hands, perhaps after a night of revelry, and dropped them
out of the heavens unfinished, save for their minds. Could the ill-formed
Theaetetus have endeared himself to the ill-formed Socrates? It is not
at all unreasonable to assume so. But if there was a bond between Theaetetus
and Socrates, it did nothing to blunt the sharp edge of Socrates’s reply:
Skill at geometry was not knowledge, Socrates said. Nor was the ability
to mend sandals or erect a temple. A spider may be skilled at spinning
a web and a bird skilled at building a nest, Socrates may have said. But
their actions were not knowledge. Similarly, a man's ability to work geometric
problems was an action indicating that he possessed knowledge; however,
such an ability was not knowledge itself. Knowledge was something else–something
less obvious, something more complex, something in the human soul.
benefiting by the lesson, went on in the years to come to become a great
mathematician, helping to develop the theory of irrational quantities,
thereby radically altering for the better humankind’s understanding of
numbers and computations. It cannot be said, of course, that Socrates contributed
directly to the development of this theory, but it can be surmised that
he helped shape Theaetetus’s comprehension of what constitutes a definition
or statement of principles.
the questioning of Socrates, many other young men also went on to see beneath
the veneer of things, or beyond the boundaries of traditional thought.
The philosopher Plato, his most famous pupil, developed into one of the
most important philosophers in the history of western civilization.
not all of Socrates’s listeners accepted his peripatetic critiques. Proud
men, celebrated as wise by the populace, balked at the philosopher’s characterization
of them as empty vessels that echoed with ignorance. Here was a dangerous
man, they decided one day. In his zeal to challenge established beliefs
and traditions, Socrates was also injuring reputations. What was more he
was leading the young men of Athens astray. There was even talk that he
was teaching them to reject the state gods in favor of a supreme deity
that possessed the fulness of truth and virtue.
day, Socrates received a summons to appear before the people’s magistrate
to face charges brought by three of his enemies: the poet Meletus, the
politician Anytus and the orator Lycon. In their sworn affidavit, they
accused Socrates of corrupting the youth of Athens and of promoting his
own divinities over the official gods of the state. The accusers appeared
to represent members of a faction long hostile to Socrates and his ideas.
They despised him not only for the reasons cited by Meletus, Anytus, and
Lycon, but also for his well-known opposition to democracy. Socrates had
made it clear on more than one occasion that democracy was a defective
form of government because it granted common, uneducated men on the street
the right to vote and make important decisions. In addition, Socrates’s
enemies opposed him for his tutelage, support, and defense of politicians
who were out of favor with the ruling establishment (politicians who had
fallen under his spell as young men).
such politician was Alcibiades (450-404 B.C.). In his youth, he had everything
a young Athenian could hope for: wealth, good looks, intelligence, courage.
He also had Socrates as a friend and mentor. During the wars against Sparta,
he and Socrates–his elder by 19 years–fought together at Potidaea in 432,
where Socrates defended him when he was wounded. In 415, Alcibiades was
to share command of a force bound for the Sicilian city of Syracuse, allied
with Sparta. However, before he and his troops embarked, someone committed
a grave offense against the messenger god, Hermes, vandalizing busts of
his image throughout Athens. The citizens blamed Alcibiades, rightly or
wrongly. Although Alcibiades denied the charge and requested an investigation,
no investigation was conducted. After he arrived at Sicily, Athens ordered
him to return home. On his way back, he discovered that he had been condemned
to death. He then escaped to Sparta and informed its leaders of Athenian
war plans. In 411, however, he changed sides again after helping the Athenian
fleet win an important victory, and he returned to Athens in 407 as an
esteemed citizen and military commander. However, after he lost a naval
battle, the Athenians deposed him again and he moved to Phrygia (Turkey).
But his enemies tracked him down, set his home on fire, and murdered him
when he was attempting to escape. Because Socrates had once befriended
and instructed Alcibiades, Socrates’s enemies maintained that Alcibiades
had been acting on principles taught by Socrates.
Trial of Socrates
By Michael J. Cummings ©
is a condensed version of Socrates’s testimony, which I adapted from the
account of the trial presented by his pupil Plato and from observations
by the Greek historian Xenophon and later writers. Whether the accounts
and observations of these men accurately reflect the tenor of the proceedings
against Socrates has never been established. Plato's account in his dialogue
Apology provides the most reliable information.
a hearing, the citizens indicted Socrates and called him to trial before
the boule, a council of 500 citizens, acting as the jury. It was one of
the most memorable trials in history because of Socrates’s cool but defiant
defense of his right to think. Plato, a pupil of Socrates, recorded the
Athenian law, the accused conducted his own defense. However, the law permitted
him to use a speech prepared by an attorney. Such a speech was written
for Socrates, but he rejected it, deciding instead to rely solely on his
own abilities. He also rejected the option of bringing his wife and sons
to court (who, through weeping and body language, could have won him sympathy),
as was his right.
by Meletus, the accusers presented their case in a morning session that
may have lasted three hours. Then Socrates took the floor.
Socrates Presents His
Defense: A Condensed Adaptation of Plato's Apology
here to access the complete text of The Apology (translated
by Benjamin Jowett)
citizens of Athens, I am not a clever orator, although my accusers maintain
otherwise in their fear that I will use eloquence to sway people to my
side. However, if by eloquence they mean truthfulness, then I am eloquent,
for I indeed speak the truth. I am old now, over 70, and I beg you to judge
me by my words and their meaning, not by my manner, since I am but a clumsy
newcomer to court proceedings.
me first tell you that the attacks against my character have old roots.
In fact, when many of you were just boys, there were those who began poisoning
you against me, saying that I committed evil and through clever arguments
that I could make bad alternatives appear good, and vice versa. You were
impressionable then, easily swayed by their falsehoods. There are many
who have spoken ill of me, but I do not know their names–except for the
dramatist Aristophanes, who unjustly belittled me in his play The Clouds.
you in this assembly are men who know that I have been maligned, for they
have been with me during my conversations with people. I ask you to speak
up, you who have heard me. Tell your neighbors the truth so that they will
know that I am innocent.
there are those who say that I teach for money. That charge has no basis
in fact, although there are some who make the rounds of cities to teach
for money, such as Gorgias of Leontium, Prodicus of Ceos, and Hippias of
Elis. Young men who could learn for nothing from their own citizens willingly
pay these men. Right now a Parian named Evenus is living in Athens to accept
payment of five minae a lesson to teach. I know this from Callias, who
pays Evenus to teach his sons. Well, good for Evenus if it is true that
he is wise enough to teach people. If I had his knowledge I would be proud
and self-satisfied. But the fact is, I really am ignorant.
then, you might ask, do people say that I am wise? Why do they say I am
evil? I will explain.
was a man–you may remember him–named Chaerephon, who was a friend of mine
and of the people. One day, he asked the oracle at Delphi whether anyone
was wiser than I am. The prophetess at Delphi said no man was wiser than
I. Although Chaerephon has since died, his brother is still alive and can
confirm this answer.
dumbfounded by this answer, I went to many supposedly wise men, including
politicians, to find one person who was wiser than I am. Surely there had
to be someone who knew more than I did. But everywhere I went, I found
the people I interviewed wanting in wisdom and told them so. Consequently,
I made many enemies. I even talked with artistans, who thought they were
wise but really were not. Poets, I found, were excellent writers but did
not comprehend what they wrote. My listeners began to imagine that I claimed
to have the wisdom that they lacked. But the truth of the matter is this:
The oracle called me wise because I am the only man who realizes how little
he knows. So, when I seek out wise people and discover that they know little
but think they know much, I am only demonstrating the truth of the oracle’s
finding. As you are aware, I have been absorbed by this task.
young men who observe me later imitate what I do. When they expose esteemed
men as unwise, these latter men blame me for leading the youth astray.
Going further, they say I deliberately stir up trouble by challenging traditional
beliefs and promoting strange religious ideas, including my own gods.
my chief accuser here, Miletus, is the one who is doing wrong. Although
he professes to be concerned about the youth of our community, he does
not care about them at all. Tell me, Miletus, is it better to live among
good citizens or bad ones?
Is there someone who would rather be hurt than helped by people around
Do I deliberately corrupt youth?
All right, then, why would I want to corrupt people when I know that doing
so will make them want to harm me. You just agreed that no one would want
to live around people he knows would harm him. As for religion, do you
accuse me of teaching different gods or of being an atheist?
You are an atheist.
But you say I teach spiritual concepts and believe in strange divine beings.
How curious it is that I believe in gods and not believe in gods at the
same time. The fact is, it appears that you and others here are going to
condemn me simply because I have the courage to tell the truth. In this
respect, I am like Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors in the
Trojan War. He knew that if he avenged the death of his friend Patroclus
by killing the Trojan warrior Hector, he was fated to die. But rather than
live in disgrace, he killed Hector and died with honor. In my case, if
you offered to free me if I stopped practicing philosophy in my honest
and truthful way, I would reject your offer. As long as I live, I shall
obey God and continue to tell the truth to anyone I encounter. Of course,
it would be foolhardy of you to execute me, for it would be hard to replace
a gadfly like me. God commissioned me to search for the truth, and I have
done so with all my heart to the extent that I have neglected my own needs
for the sake of you. Since I was a child, a divine voice has spoken to
me, has given me signs, telling me to me to prod and question other men
in order to put them on the road toward true wisdom. But if I am evil,
let the young men I corrupted and their relatives come forth and speak
against me. They will not, of course, because they know that I am not evil.
a vote of 280 to 220, the council finds Socrates guilty and sentences him
to death. However, under Athenian law, a convicted person can propose an
alternative sentence. Socrates proposes a small fine and, in an act of
defiance, suggests that he be allowed to dine at taxpayer expense at a
public table reserved for esteemed citizens of Athens. The council rejects
his proposal by an even larger vote. A month later, he is executed by the
prescribed method of capital punishment: drinking poison.