Socrates

Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher who was executed at age seventy on charges of impiety and corrupting youth. His life and philosophical methods left an indelible imprint on Western thought.

Socrates is most famous for his signature technique of questioning known as elenchus. He interrogated those around him about their everyday views, opinions and attitudes in an exchange known as the elenchus.

Who Was Socrates?

Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher known for his interrogative style and self-professed ignorance (or knowledge gap). He served as inspiration to Plato, widely acknowledged to be the father of Western philosophy, who, in turn, taught Aristotle. Unfortunately for Socrates himself, his fellow citizens killed him violently before his teachings had an indelible mark on culture and intellectual history across Western civilization.

Socrates was well known for provoking his fellow Athenians with regular inquisition of everyday views and popular beliefs of his home city of Athens. Additionally, Socrates played an active role as both an Athenian citizen and military volunteer during the Peloponnesian War against Sparta.  He is said to have participated as one of 7,000 hoplites for Athens at both Potidaea and Amphipolis battles; eventually marrying and having three sons with upper class woman Xanthippe.

Socrates was well-known and beloved, yet his life was marked by paradox and contrasts. Unlike Athenian sophists of his day, Socrates did not seek to gain money or advance his career by using rhetoric. Rather, Socrates was known for being moral and it is this trait which ultimately lead to his trial and execution at age seventy.

One reason Socrates was so controversial in his time was because he exposed prominent Athenian figures for their ignorance. Socrates would confront these individuals and demonstrate how little they understood. Their answers often revealed nothing new or useful.  This tactic is known as Socratic irony or elenchus.

Socrates was reviled due to his physical appearance. In an age that valued beauty in men, Socrates stood out with his large nose, large stomach, and unique manner of walking.  Yet despite being unsightly he seemed like an upright and self-masterful individual.

Socrates Philosophy

Socrates was an influential Greek philosopher who challenged the beliefs and attitudes of his city’s inhabitants through questioning (elenchus). Socrates never wrote anything down but relied instead on dialogues among friends, acquaintances, and devoted followers.  These dialogues remain evidence of Socrates’ philosophy to this day.

Socrates’ primary philosophical focus was virtue and what it meant to live a good life. According to him, humans pursue happiness as their central goal, yet struggle with how best to attain it. Socrates sought to help his students become virtuous by prompting them to examine their beliefs and actions critically.

He advocated the concept of eudaimonia, or well-being. Socrates’ contemporaries found this novel concept fascinating.  He argued it was his moral duty to seek happiness as part of life and do all he could do ensure its pursuit.

Socratic ignorance (or aporia) was another key philosophical concept developed by Socrates to differentiate himself from sophists who claimed they knew everything yet didn’t understand it themselves. He made note of his ignorance himself and asserted that only those aware of their lack of knowledge can truly be considered wise.

Socrates was often critical of his contemporaries, particularly the tyrants or who ruled his city. According to Socrates, these rulers acted out of ignorance rather than actual control.  Since they couldn’t comprehend morality for themselves, their decisions simply represented what they wanted others to believe was correct.

Socrates was often critical of the popular philosophies in his time, particularly those related to religion and piety. He rejected the belief that gods controlled human events directly.  He instead advocated that events happened unpredictably and for no discernible purpose. Additionally, Socrates strongly condemned idolatry, – something he held against statue worship which resulted in him being charged for impiety in 415 BCE.

Socrates Legacy

Socrates was revered during his lifetime as one of the wisest individuals on earth, never writing anything himself but using reason to challenge everyday views and popular opinions among his fellow Athenians. His commitment to using reason to expose life’s truths while criticizing others’ flawed thinking laid the groundwork for western philosophy.  Although sometimes compared with Buddha, he differed greatly by being more political than religious in approach.

Socrates’ trial and death has drawn much interest from historians, classicists, and philosophers. His defense speech, the Apology, remains an iconic piece in philosophy’s development to this day and can still be read widely today.

Socrates’ Apology presents a long, complex, and sophisticated debate in which he challenges each of his accusers to articulate the nature of virtue and happiness in life. Socrates argues that his fellow citizens care more for wealth and reputation than soul. According to Socrates, gods do not grant wealth and his poverty is part of his mission of probing hearts around him.

Socrates is often quick to criticise people who claim religious faith but who don’t follow it in daily life. He maintains that God won’t punish anyone for failing to carry out rituals they do not intend to follow, and believes his teachings alone can earn Him favor.

Socrates poses a challenge to those in Athens who claim to possess superior knowledge to justify it against him, likening himself to a mosquito which does not cause any harm but instead stirs things up to force individuals to think deeply.

After Socrates’ death, his disciples honored and remembered him through works that immortalize him through dialogues that represent his distinct style of conversation. Of these works, those by Plato and Xenophon provide the most complete accounts of Socrates’ philosophy while other authors such as Antisthenes, Aeschines and Phaedo of Elis preserve brief remnants from their dialogues with him.

Socrates Death

Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting Athens’ youth, yet chose instead to remain and face execution rather than flee the city. Prior to his execution, Socrates met with some friends, including one of his most prominent students, Plato.

Socrates didn’t leave behind much written evidence of his life.  What we know of him comes primarily through accounts written by his contemporaries and followers. These writings often take the form of dialogues where Socrates interacts with his peers on various topics in question-and-answer format, giving rise to an area of philosophical literature known as Socratic dialogue; the most prominent examples being Plato and Xenophon who were both Socrates’ students at that time.

Plato’s Phaedo details the final meeting between Socrates and his friends, then turns his attention to Socrates’ final statements, wherein Socrates informs his listeners of his impending death and urges them not to fear for themselves or him. Citing Asklepios’ myth as an example, Socrates says Asklepios was a physician hero who even healed his enemies after death.

Socrates took Asklepios as his role model when formulating his philosophy.

Socrates was an intriguing figure in Athens, a society which prized celebrity and power above all else. He stood out by refusing any activities which might bring fame or fortune; questioning every assumption and standing up for his beliefs; even his death epitomized this spirit of inquiry and debate which made him so famous in life despite wisdom and courage being key components to survival; instead opting instead to follow an easier route by recanting them or hiding away. Ultimately he paid with his life, being executed for refusing the easy path by giving in and just going into hiding!

The most widely accepted account of Socrates’ death is narrated by his disciple Plato in his dialogue, “Phaedo.” According to this account, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking a poisonous concoction known as hemlock. Socrates accepted his fate with remarkable composure, engaging in philosophical discussions with his followers until the very end. His calm demeanor and unwavering commitment to his principles showcased his unwavering belief in the pursuit of truth.

The accounts of Socrates’ death provide us with valuable insights into the life and teachings of this remarkable philosopher. His unwavering commitment to truth, his philosophical legacy, and the historical context surrounding his demise all contribute to the enduring significance of this event. By exploring these accounts, we can gain a deeper understanding of Socrates’ profound impact on philosophy and his unwavering dedication to the pursuit of knowledge.

Socrates Quotes

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

He is a man of courage who does not run away but remains at his post and fights against the enemy.

Beauty is a short lived tyrrany.

Be slow to fall into friendship but when thou art in continue firm and constant.

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