~469 - 399 BC
Wisdom of the Ancient Sages
A Dialogue with Socrates
Key Ideas & Beliefs
An Introduction to Socrates
Cicero, the Roman philosopher said: "Socrates brought down philosophy from heaven to earth". And he was right.
Socrates assessed human life in his own original theory of the soul.
His admonition to "know thyself", his effort to analyze the character and conduct of human life by exploring the connotations of morality and the ethical dimensions of life was unique. All these, along with his paradigmatic life, his unfair trial and execution gained him the admiration and respect that are reserved only for founders of widespread religions, like Jesus or Buddha.
Whatever we know about Socrates comes form three primary sources: Plato's dialogues, Xenophon's historical writings, Memorabilia, and Aristophanes' plays, in which Socrates is mentioned.
Socrates' wife Xantippe
He was born in the city-state of Athens in 469 or 470 BC and died in 399 BC, essentially living through both the apex and downfall of Athens as a cultural and power center for the Greek world.
His father, Sophroniscus, is said to be a sculptor and a friend of Aristides the Just, while his mother Phaenarete, was a midwife. We do not have any clues on how Socrates earned a living but we know that he served in the Athenian army and that he married Xanthippe, who bore him three sons. Socrates is said to be short in stature and ugly in appearance and his only occupation was discussing philosophy without accepting any kind of payment for teaching, as it is mentioned in Plato's Apology.
Socrates had a revolutionary life stance for his day. He claimed that his actions were guided by an inner voice which steered him towards the right moves. Socrates labeled this inner voice as "daemonion", and because of this, he was later accused of introducing new deities that would upset the religious order.
For all intents and purposes, he was an extraordinarily just and law-abiding man, with low regard for trivial things or ordinary life-pursuits. Instead, he dedicated most of his life conversing and philosophizing with all types of people. He held a deep conviction that this was a superior form of service for others, and the City-State as a whole, because it made people better and kept everyone truthful.
Socrates' conversation method was unlike the Sophist teachers of that time, who were hired by young men as educators on philosophy and political debate. Socrates did not regard himself as a teacher, nor accepted money for teaching others about his knowledge or ideas. His teaching methodology was elaborately constructed and, indeed, radically different. He usually pretended ignorance on various subjects and allowed others to elucidate on their views and beliefs. Then, with simple, even naive, questions he brought them increasingly closer to realizing that they lacked in a full understanding of the topic they were discussing, either by logically refuting their claims or by pointing out obvious contradictions in their beliefs. Socrates regarded that by doing this, he was bringing people closer to truth and more specifically to the realization of flaws that plagued their fundamental belief and knowledge systems. This particular process of checking arguments by the use of reasoning, called "elenchus" in Greek, is up to this day known as the "Socratic Method".
It was precisely this dichotomy, which was simultaneously ingenious and inspiring for consequent philosophers, that proved dangerous for Socrates' well being at that time. Indeed, his enemies accused him, before a court of law, of disrespecting the Greek Gods, undermining and upsetting the social order with his ideas, as well as corrupting the youth through his teachings. Eventually Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking the conium.
The event of his trial and execution was a pivotal moment in elevating his posthumous status as a philosopher and this increased his influence on his students, like Plato, as well as later generations of philosophers. This effect was strengthened by Socrates' stance in the trial and after it, while awaiting for the death penalty to be executed. He was quite fearless and almost enjoyed the whole issue. He did not plea to the jury for his own life, rather he maintained that he only did good to the city, and thus the city should have been covering his needs, since he was poor.
By speaking with such honesty, Socrates managed to infuriate the jury, something that he probably knew would happen - but he did so nonetheless. Later, while awaiting for the sentence to be carried out, he had the opportunity to escape death, when his students offered to bribe the prison guards to set him free. He declined such an offer, philosophizing that it would violate the social contract between citizen and State, that he didn't really want to leave Athens and live on exile, while half-jokingly, he pointed out that by dying he would probably find new people to converse with in the underworld.
"The Death of Socrates", by Jacques-Louis David (~1787)
Key Ideas & Beliefs
Socrates core philosophy revolved around the realization of one's ignorance, which, paradoxically, made one wiser. It was also used as a defense argument on his trial when he claimed that he could provide no teaching to others, much less corrupt them with such, as he knew nothing except for the fact that he was aware of his ignorance.
Socrates also believed, and that was demonstrated in his own life, that the ephemeral social attainments are not a worthy pursuit, compared to the improvement of one's self. It was through the improvement of self that men could find true virtue and live happily.
Last, but not least, it is apparent that the philosophical background was not to be considered separate from the life he led. Living virtuously, under all circumstances, even life threatening ones, (when it's easier to bend one's own moral code in favor of survival), was a significant characteristic of his life stance and general philosophy - one that he taught by example, rather than words.
Socrates was a man who was seemingly unaffected by situations around him. This ranged from family affairs that he considered of little significance, to natural phenomena, ( he used to walk lightly dressed and barefoot even in cold, wintry, snowy days), to speaking truth to power on several occasions.
According to Socrates, the idea of questioning everyone to see what they knew, was a result of an answer that the Oracle of Delphi gave to Chaerephon. Charephon asked whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates, and the Oracle responded negatively. Socrates started searching for people that knew more than he did, only to discover that others did not really know as much and that he was indeed wiser than others, while claiming "I know that I know nothing".
Socrates is unique in the world of philosophy. He did not teach his own ideas and beliefs to his followers. Through his method he acted as a catalyst for others to search and find the truth for themselves. He did not teach a theory, but he lived his philosophy, remained firm to his beliefs and set an example that greatly influenced the future generations of philosophers and seekers of truth.
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