The most interesting and influential philosopher of all time was Socrates, whose dedication to careful reasoning transformed the entire history of philosophy. Since he sought genuine knowledge rather than mere victory over an opponent, he familiarized himself with the rhetoric and dialectics of the Sophists, the speculations of the Lonian philosophers, and the general culture of Periclean Athens. Socrates employed the same logical tricks developed by the Sophists to a new purpose, the pursuit of truth. Thus, his willingness to call everything into question and his determination to accept nothing less than an adequate account of the nature of things make him the first clear exponent of critical philosophy. Although he was well known during his own time for his conversational skills and public teaching, Socrates wrote nothing, so we are dependent upon his students, like Kenophon and Plato, for any detailed knowledge of his methods and results. Plato was also a philosopher who often injected his own theories into the dialogues he presented to the world as discussions between Socrates and other famous figures of the day. Nevertheless, it is usually assumed that at least the early dialogues of Plato provide a fairly accurate representation of Socrates himself.
Socrates profoundly affected Western philosophy through his influence on Plato. Born in Athens in 469 BC to the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and Phaenarete, a midwife, Socrates received the regular elementary education in literature, music, and other areas of the arts. Initially, Socrates followed the craft of his father; according to a former tradition, he executed a statue group of the three Graces, which stood at the entrance to the Acropolis until the 2nd century AD. In the Peloponnesian War with Sparta he served as an infantryman with conspicuous bravery at the battles of Potidaea in 432-430BC, Delium in 424BC, and Amphipolis in 422BC.
Socrates believed in the superiority of argument over writing and therefore spent the greater part of his adult life in the marketplace and public places of Athens, engaging in dialogue and argument with anyone who would listen or who would submit to interrogation. Even though Socrates was unattractive and short in stature he was extremely hardy and self-controlled. He enjoyed life immensely and achieved social popularity because of his ready wit and a keen sense of humor that was completely devoid of satire or cynicism.
Socrates attitude toward politics was obedient, but generally steered clear of politics, restrained by what he believed to be divine warning. He believed that he had received a call to pursue philosophy and could serve his country best by devoting himself to teaching, and by persuading the Athenians to engage in self-examination and in tending to their souls. He didn’t write any books and established no regular school of philosophy. All that is known, with certainty about his personality and his way of thinking is derived from the works of two of his distinguished scholars: Plato and the historian Xenophon, a prosaic writer who probably failed to understand many of Socrates’ doctrines. Plato portrayed Socrates as hiding behind an ironical profession of ignorance, known as Socratic irony, and possessing a mental acuity and resourcefulness that enabled him to penetrate arguments with great facility.
Socrates’ contribution to philosophy was essentially ethical in character. Belief in a purely objective understanding of such concepts as justice, love, and virtue, and the self-knowledge that he inculcated, were the basis of his teachings. He believed that all vice is the result of ignorance, and that no person is willingly bad; correspondingly, virtue is knowledge, and those who know the right will act rightly. His logic placed particular emphasis on rational argument and the quest for general definitions, as evidenced in the writings of his younger contemporary and pupil, Plato, and of Plato’s pupil, Aristotle.
Another thinker befriended and influenced by Socrates was Antisthenes, the founder of the Cynic school of philosophy. Socrates was also the teacher of Aristippus, who founded the Cyrenaic philosophy of experience and pleasure, from which developed the more lofty philosophy of Epicures. To such Stoics as the Greek philosopher Epictetus, the Roman philosopher Seneca the Elder, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Socrates appeared as the very embodiment and guide of the higher life.
Although a patriot and a man of deep religious conviction, Socrates was nonetheless regarded with suspicion by many of his contemporaries, who disliked his attitude toward the Athenian state and the established religion. He was charged in 399BC with neglecting the gods of the state and introducing new divinities, a reference to the daemonion, or mystical inner voice, to which Socrates often referred. He was also charged with corrupting the morals of the young,, leading them away from the principles of democracy; and he was wrongly identified with the Sophists,. This was possibly because he had been ridiculed by the comic poet Aristophanes in his play The Clouds as the master of a “thinking-shop” where young men were taught to make the worse reason appear the better reason.
Plato’s Apology gives the substance of the defense made by Socrates at his trial; it was a bold vindication of his whole life. He was condemned to die even though only a small majority carried the vote. When, according to Athenian legal practice, Socrates made an ironic counter-proposition to the court’s death sentence, proposing only to pay a small fine because of his value to the state as a man with a philosophic mission, the jury was so angered by this offer that it voted by an increased majority for the death penalty.
Socrates’ friends planned his escape from prison, but he preferred to comply with the law and die for his cause. His last day was spent with his friends and admirers, and in the evening he calmly fulfilled his sentence by drinking a cup of hemlock according to a customary procedure of execution. Plato described the trial and death of Socrates in the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo.
The Examined Life Because of his political associations with an earlier regime, the Athenian democracy put Socrates on trial, charging him with undermining state religion and corrupting young people. The speech he offered in his own defense, as reported in Plato’s (Apology), provides us with many reminders of the central features of Socrates’ approach to philosophy and its relation to practical life.
Explaining his mission as a philosopher, Socrates reports an oracular message telling him “No one is wiser than you.” (Apology 21a) He then proceeds through a series of ironic descriptions of his efforts to disprove the oracle by conversing with notable Athenians who must surely be wiser. In each case, in each case, however, Socrates concludes that he has a kind of wisdom that each of them lacks, namely, an open awareness of his own ignorance.
The goal of Socratic interrogation, then, is to help individuals to achieve genuine self-knowledge, even if it often turns out to be negative in character. As his cross-examination of Meletus shows, Socrates means to turn the methods of the Sophists inside out, using logical nit picking to expose (rather than to create) illusions about reality. If the method rarely succeeds with interlocutors, it can nevertheless be effectively internalized as a dialectical mode of reasoning in an effort to understand everything.
Even after the jury has convicted him, Socrates declines to abandon his pursuit of the truth in all matters. Refusing to accept exile from Athens or a commitment to silence as his penalty, he maintains that public discussion of the great issues of life and virtue is a necessary part of any valuable human life. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Apology 38a) Socrates would rather die than give up philosophy, and the jury seems happy to grant him that wish.
Even when the jury has sentenced him to death, Socrates calmly delivers his final public words, a speculation about what the future holds. Disclaiming any certainty about the fate of a human being after death, he nevertheless expresses a continued confidence in the power of reason, which he has exhibited (while the jury has not). Who really wins will remain unclear.
Plato’s dramatic picture of a man willing to face death rather than abandoning his commitment to philosophical inquiry offers up Socrates as a model for all future philosophers. Perhaps few of us are presented with the same stark choice between philosophy and death, but all of us are daily faced with opportunities to decide between convenient conventionality and our devotion to truth and reason. How we choose determines whether we, like Socrates, deserve to call our lives philosophical.