Socrates: His Beliefs and Philosophy
Socrates was one of the greatest Greek philosophers by a wide margin. He was born in 469 BCE at a place called Deme Alpoece, Athens. For the entirety of his life, this classical Greek philosopher devoted himself to finding the most ideal way of living a moral life. His extensive works in ethics and epistemology are what formed the pillars of Western philosophy. Kind courtesy of the efforts and sheer brilliance of his most famous student, Plato, Socrates’s ideas and philosophy continue to hold significant sway in our world, even after thousands of years. In 399 BCE, Socrates passed away after he was sentenced to death by the Athenians. He was charged with ‘corrupting’ the youth and heresy.
Read the biography below to learn more about Socrates, as well as his beliefs and philosophy.
The lack of proper chronicles and autobiography makes it difficult for historians to accurately give details about Socrates’ childhood. What is however known is that, Socrates came from a relatively poor family. His father was a stonemason that went by the name Sophroniscus. Socrates’ mother was Phaenarete- a diligent and hardworking midwife. As a result of his family’s financial hardships, Socrates could not obtain any formal education. He ended up assisting his father at his workshop.
When Socrates attained the age of maturity, it is likely that he served in the military during the Peloponnesian War, which festered between Athens and Sparta. Other specific accounts of the history state that Socrates served in an armored infantry (hoplite) during military campaigns in Potidaea, Delium, and Amphipolis. Back then, it was compulsory for all able-bodied men to fight for Athens in times of wars. It is believed that he dispatched his duties bravely and gallantly.
Socrates certainly had a superior intellect. However, he was not so good looking. His student, Plato, portrayed him as anything but physically handsome.
It must be noted that the history and story surrounding Socrates is not so much straightforward. There have been some levels of contradictions in Plato’s dialogues and among the accounts of Xenophon and Aristotle.
How the world came to know about Socrates
Socrates was a very peculiar Greek philosopher in the sense that he never wrote down any thoughts of his. He simply spoke out his mind and engaged in intellectual discussions with his followers. Socrates would roam the streets of ancient Athens trying to trigger the reasoning capacity of people from all walks of life. For example, he would question them; debate with Athenians about why they held certain beliefs; and ask how those beliefs of theirs shape their lives. Those were his favored methods of expressing and refining his ideas.
The task of writing what this wonderful philosopher thought and spoke about fell to his students and followers. Historians believe that had it not been for the recordings (writings) made by philosophers like Plato (428-348 BCE), Xenophon (c. 431 – c. 354 BCE) and Aristophanes (c. 460- c. 380 BCE), the world would not have known anything about Socrates. These great philosophers chronicled the life of Socrates as well as his ideas.
For instance, Plato wrote extensive dialogues (Plato’s Dialogues) where the main character in the conversation was his tutor Socrates. With such innovative techniques of writing, Plato was able to use about 36 different dialogues to convey Socratic thoughts and philosophies to the public. Most notable of such dialogues are the Crito, the Apology, Symposium and the Phaedo (Platonic Socrates text).
Socrates’ best-known ideas and thoughts
Exactly when Socrates began thinking deeply about life and morality is unknown. Accounts and dialogues from his students mostly transport us to a time when Socrates was a relatively old man.
His thoughts were usually geared towards the pursuit of ethics and value-laden life. He searched for a set of universal truths that would help Athenian society live a morally upright life. According to him, the physical world we live in was just a mirror image of things that are false. Real truth, to him, is found in justice and the good. Material things like wealth, financial gains and power have not and cannot give us true happiness. Socrates believed that a society that ignored the quest of philosophical constructs and ideas were doomed to be sad and miserable.
All of the above ideas flew right across the faces of the powerful and elite in ancient Athens. Many of those elites considered Socrates’ sayings a threat to the stability of Greece. To say that Socrates’ ideas were radical at that time would be an understatement.
His discussions about virtues and justice quickly caught on with the youths of ancient Athens. Socrates gave them hope; he inspired in them a new way of thinking and viewing the world. Some authors have claimed that Socrates unshackled the chains that hang tight around the young men at that time. He admonished them for taking things on surface-level without questioning people in power or experts in various professions. He called on every Athenian to become a philosopher first and foremost. His discussions were full of questions instead of answers. These questions went a long way in liberating their thought process and giving them suggestive ideas on how best to live a moral life.
Also, Socrates believed that the best form of philosophy is one that probes deep and questions the things in this world. In order to do this, he advocated that one must come with an open mind so as to allow answers flow into the mind. He had this famous saying that read as: “I know that I know nothing”.
Schools of thoughts that existed before Socrates
Prior to Socrates coming onto the scene, the dominant thought or philosophical reasoning is referred to as pre-Socratic. That is how much of an influence Socrates had on Ancient Greek philosophy.
The pre-Socratic philosophers engaged in a different approach that desisted from using mythological analysis of the environment. Examples of such schools were the Milesians, Xenophanes, Pythagorians, Eleatics, Heraclitus, and the Sophists. Their focus of the study was mainly on cosmology, mathematics, and ontology. In sophism, for example, philosophers believed that there are relative ways of explaining the constants in the environment. According to them, the physis (nature) remains unchanged but the nomos (law) is what varies. One of the biggest advocate of sophism was Protagoras.
Socrates, along with Plato, opined that the sophists were radical relativists (‘perspectivists’) that used unjust subjectivity in philosophy.
Socrates’ Approach to Philosophy (The Socratic Method)
Socratic philosophy sharply differs from its predecessors because it searches for a universal truth. Unlike the sophists, Socrates believed that the law (nomos) never changes. The ideals (FORMS) of justice, beauty, bravery, and honesty remain unchanged. Hence, those truths should be the pursuit of every one of us in order to lead a moral life.
The process of pursuing those truths is what is termed as the Socratic Method. Socrates used a method of self-analysis to explore subjects of the physical world. At the heart of this introspection was engaging first with oneself and then with others. Often times, it started off as a simple question and then it glided into more and more questions. Socrates was less interested in coming up with the answers. On the other hand, the asking questions were what gave him fulfillment and joy.
The reason why there are contradictions in Socrates’ biography
Contradictions in the accounts of what Socrates believed in stem from the writings in Plato’s dialogue. The divergent stories about Socrates lend no help in zooming down on Socrates actual views.
Furthermore, some historians and philosophers have maintained that Plato planted Socrates’ character in his dialogues to accentuate his views about life. They go as far as saying that the ideas purported to be Socrates’ may have not been the views of Socrates himself.
Another reason area of contention is whether or not Socrates accepted payment in exchange for his tutoring. Plato’s Apology and Symposium both claim that Socrates did not accept money or any other payment in kind for his tutoring works. As a result of this, Socrates lived in abject poverty for a great all his life.
However, Aristophanes’ the Clouds begged to differ. Aristophanes wrote that Socrates took payments in exchange for tutoring at a Sophist school. Another student of Plato, Xenophon, expressed similar remarks.
Regardless of such minuscule details, it is evident that Socrates was certainly a real person- not the figment of Plato’s imagination done to propagate his ideas. This is because there are lots of key points about Socrates that have been corroborated by philosophers such as Aristotle and Xenophon. For example, Aristotle made mention of the fact that Socrates utterly believed in virtue being knowledge. Similarly, Xenophon (in his Symposium) stated that Socrates was obsessed with discussing philosophy.
How Socrates died
Socrates’ death has been described as a very tragic one. It has been retold for a countless number of times over thousands of years. Socrates’ demise happened in a gradual manner. It all started when the political elites of Athenian society got wary of the increased influence Socrates chalked up with the youth.
The philosopher simply became a thorn in the flesh of the ruling elites. Coupled with this, Athens was in a recovery process after the lost to Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. The defeat catapulted a section of elites to power. They were called the Thirty Tyrants. One of Socrates’ students, Critias, was even part of this new ruling class.
The reign of the Thirty Tyrants did not last for long. There was a people revolution in Athens, the tyrants got toppled, and a democratic government was installed.
Shortly after this, the new government started clamping down on all those that were affiliated to the Thirty Tyrants. Socrates was among the people that were taken into custody. The Athenians considered Socrates as someone against democracy. Additionally, there were some of his followers and students that sympathized with the Thirty Tyrant’s cause.
Socrates was put on trial for treason. The exact charges that were levied against him were:
- the corruption of the youth of Athens
- heresy and disregard of the Greek gods and goddesses of Athens
Typical of Socrates, he was not perturbed by those charges. He believed that reasoning and logical discussions would be able to convince the jury that he was innocent of those charges. Plato’s dialogues portrayed him as thoughtfully and very articulate during the trial.
Unfortunately, the jury wanted to have nothing to do with any Socratic Method of analyzing the charges. Who could blame them? They were deeply immersed in a mythological approach of dealing with the physical world.
Socrates lost the trial and was sentenced to death. In 399 BCE, the execution was carried out by means of a drink laced with the poisonous hemlock (Conium maculatum). This plant was the go-to-plant for the execution of prisoners in ancient Greece. While in prison, Socrates had the opportunity to break free, however, he chose not to do so.
READ MORE: How and Why Ancient Greece Fell
Reasons why Socrates chose not to break free from prison
In Plato’s Phaedo, Plato stated that his dear friend and tutor could certainly have avoided this sad fate of his by escaping. One of Socrates’ friends, Crito, made arrangements for Socrates to prison break to freedom. Crito was wealthy and had connections in high places that he could easily bribe in order to secure the escape of Socrates. However, Socrates opted not to do so.
The reasons why he stayed in prison can be inferred from the Phaedo and the Crito as follows:
First and foremost, Socrates was not the type of person to shy away from a fight. And certainly, he wasn’t going to do so even when death stared at him right in the face. He believed that a virtuous soul is one that is brave enough to stand in the face of persecution. In the Phaedo, Socrates believed that his life-long philosophical training had adequately prepared him when for death.
Secondly, Socrates felt that had he escaped, the inquisitive nature of his mind was bound to bring him at odds with another authority elsewhere. Perhaps Socrates felt that his time was up.
The final reason has to do with Socrates’ high sense of “social contract” with the state. He reasoned that his trial and punishment were not something to be frowned upon. Obviously, he did not like the punishment; however, he felt obligated to be subjected to the city’s laws and judicial processes. Besides, had he escaped, those that facilitated in his escape were bound to receive a similar fate as his. Therefore, escaping was far too a heavy price to pay.
Legacy of Socrates
Socrates’ contribution to philosophy can fully be seen in the accounts of the people that he influenced. The writings of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle paint some very ground-breaking reasoning by Socrates. All in all, those teachings served as the foundations for Classical Greek Philosophy. That, in turn, went on to influence the world for the next 2000 or so years.
He was the first moral philosopher of his time. He was a philosopher who used reasoning, and not myths or superstition, to interpret the world. Everything from religion, politics, cosmology, poetry, and mathematics owe the majority of their ideas to Socratic philosophy and methodology.
Interesting Facts about Socrates
This piece on Socrates has been summarized with the following interesting facts about Socrates:
- Contrary to what the likes of Xenophon and Aristotle said, Plato claimed that Socrates did not accept payments for his services
- Socrates married Xanthippe. This marriage produced three children by the names Menexenus, Sophroniscus, and Lamprocles.
- He is credited to have said: “the unexamined life is not worth living”. In this saying Socrates equating self-knowledge and analysis to true happiness.
- He was not solely in favor of democratic principles. Just like his student, Plato, he called for wise and philosophical leaders.
- Socrates spoke to anyone who was interested in having an intellectual conversation. Rather than display to the folks how much he knew, he asked questions (the Socratic Method).
- Socrates mounted a fierce defense during his trial. He shocked the jury by stating that the state should rather pay him for his life-long dedication to Athens.
- The 280 aye votes from the jury members (as against 221 nays) were enough to sentence Socrates to death.
- Chose to remain in prison and see through his death sentence
- Even in his death bed, Socrates appeared very calm and composed. There was no hesitation whatsoever on his part.
- Socrates was a very short and slightly ugly man (in ancient Greek standards). He also had protruding eyes and nose.
- He was not so much enthused about theology and mythical ideas. Therefore, Socrates was not your typical ancient Greek religious guy.
- Right until his death, Socrates maintained that the most virtuous way to respond to injustice was not more injustice. This idea is what forms the basis of the social contract theory that we have today.
In the past 24 or so centuries, Socrates’ ideas and sphere of influence have stretched all over the world. As the father of Classical Greek philosophy, he has been portrayed in innumerable art and scientific works. This Athenian-born philosopher is undeniably one of the greatest person and thinker in all of human history.
Frequently Asked Questions about Socrates
These FAQs provide a basic introduction to Socrates, but his life, philosophy, and influence are subjects of deep study and contemplation in academia and beyond.
What is Socrates best known for?
He is best known for his Socratic method of questioning, emphasizing critical thinking and the pursuit of virtue. He did not write any texts; our knowledge of him comes primarily from the writings of his students, notably Plato and Xenophon.
What is the Socratic method?
The Socratic method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals to stimulate critical thinking and illuminate ideas. It involves asking a series of questions to draw out underlying beliefs and assumptions.
Why was Socrates sentenced to death?
In 399 BCE, Socrates was put on trial and sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth” and “impiety” (not recognizing the gods recognized by the state). Some believe his questioning of traditional beliefs and values threatened the status quo.
How did Socrates die?
He was sentenced to die by consuming a drink containing poison hemlock. He met his end calmly, surrounded by his students.
What are the main sources of information about Socrates?
Most of what we know about Socrates comes from the works of his student Plato, especially the “Dialogues”, and from the writings of Xenophon. He’s also mentioned in the works of the playwright Aristophanes.
Did Socrates have any specific teachings?
Unlike other philosophers, Socrates claimed not to have his own teachings. Instead, he saw himself as a “midwife of ideas,” helping others bring forth their own understanding.
What did Socrates believe about knowledge and wisdom?
One of his most famous sayings is, “I know that I know nothing.” He believed that recognizing one’s own ignorance was the first step to wisdom.
How did Socrates view ethics and virtue?
Socrates believed that virtue was the most valuable of all possessions and that the purpose of life was the pursuit of virtue and ethical knowledge.
How has Socrates influenced modern philosophy and thought?
Socrates’ emphasis on critical questioning and ethical living laid the foundations for Western philosophical thought. His influence is seen in the works of subsequent philosophers, methods of pedagogy, and even in legal questioning techniques.