469-399 B.C.

Greek philosopher

Socrates is one of the best known and greatest philosophers* in history. He was the first philosopher to devote himself completely to the study of ethics*, and his systematic method of investigating ethical issues spurred the development of the field of logic*. Socrates lived and died according to his own ethical principles. As a result, many schools of philosophy in ancient Greece adopted him as the model of the ideal philosopher.

Because Socrates never wrote anything himself, historians know about the man and his philosophy only from the writings of others. The best sources of information are the works of his most famous student, Plato. Plato’s early works are based on Socrates’ teachings. The Apology; Crito, and Phaedo describe Socrates’ final days. Another important source of information about Socrates is the memoirs of Xenophon, a Greek historian and close friend of Socrates.

* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science

Socrates' Life. Socrates was born in Athens and lived all of his life there. His father was a sculptor, and his mother was a midwife*. Although his parents were not wealthy, they had sufficient means to supply Socrates with a suit of armor, which all hoplites* were required to furnish for themselves. In addition to serving in the military, Socrates also served as president of the Athenian assembly. However, he served out of a sense of civic duty, not because he had political ambitions. Socrates married a woman named Xanthippe, who became known for her bad temper. The couple had two sons.

No one knows for certain what Socrates the man was really like. Plato described Socrates as cool and reserved with an ironic* wit, while Xenophon thought him kindly and straightforward. Socrates’ contemporaries generally avoided comment on his physical ugliness but praised his intelligence, moral courage, sense of humor, and powers of self-control. Because of his admirable traits, Socrates enjoyed the friendship and devotion of many people. He had many students, including some professional philosophers, and he spent most of his life as a teacher. Students throughout Greece came to study with him.

Despite his many followers, Socrates also had critics, especially among influential leaders in the Athenian government. When Socrates was about 70 years old, he was tried and sentenced to death for “introducing new gods and corrupting the young.” However, his real crime may have been associating with people, including the military leader Alcibiades, who were considered enemies of the state because they had turned against democracy in Athens. Socrates accepted his sentence and died after drinking hemlock*. Although he could have fled to save his life, he refused to do so because he believed that fleeing was morally wrong—and it was illegal.

Socrates' Philosophy. Socrates saw himself not as a creator of new ideas but as an “intellectual midwife,” who helped other people bring forth their own ideas. In fact, he believed that this was his calling—his divine duty as told to him by the oracle* at Delphi. Socrates maintained that he had no more knowledge than anyone else, but that he was wiser than others because he had a greater awareness of his own ignorance.

Socrates was convinced that philosophy should be based on sound assumptions and logical arguments. Only then, he believed, could philosophers arrive at accurate conclusions. In philosophical discussions, he pretended to know nothing himself—a position that was called Socratic irony—so he could question the basic assumptions and logic of others. By skillfully directing his questions, he revealed the errors in their thinking. This question-and-answer technique for leading others to the truth came to be called the Socratic method, or dialectic*.

Socrates believed that the role of philosophy was to help people live better lives by defining virtue, or goodness. He argued that once people knew what virtue was, they could choose to be virtuous. Furthermore, virtue is the route to happiness, and, above all else, people want to be happy. Socrates also believed that no one committed evil on purpose, because doing so led to unhappiness. When people behaved badly, he believed, it was because they did not know any better. Although these beliefs seemed to contradict everyday experience—some people do evil and still seem happy, for example—they were difficult to disprove. His beliefs have been called Socratic paradoxes because his arguments made logical sense even though they did not seem to reflect reality. (See also Philosophy, Greek and Hellenistic.)

* ethics branch of philosophy that deals with moral conduct, duty, and judgment

* logic principles of reasoning

* midwife person who helps women in childbirth; one who helps produce or bring forth something

* hoplite heavily armed Greek infantryman


Socrates not only taught others that they should always do right, but he always tried to do right himself, even though doing so sometimes took great courage. When Socrates was president of the Athenian assembly, several generals were put on trial for abandoning the bodies of Athenians killed in battle. Socrates alone voted against the motion to try the generals as a group. Similarly, after Athens was taken over by tyrants, Socrates disobeyed an older to arrest a citizen. He did so because he believed the man was innocent, even though disobeying put his own life at risk.

* irony use of words in such a way that they convey the opposite of the usual meaning

* hemlock drink made from poisonous herbs

* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made

* dialectic method of learning that consists of discussion or debate to determine the truth of an opinion or theory

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