Socrates belongs to the same intellectual movement as the Sophists. More than anyone else's, his teaching and life conduced toward the turn of Greek philosophy from nature to man.

Socrates was an Athenian, who never left his birthplace from the date of his birth in 470 to the date of his death in 399 B.C. His intimate circle of friends included some of the most eminent Athenian aristocrats. He didn't involve actively in public affairs, but neither did he ever refuse a call to take a public office. The fact that he appears as the protagonist in Aristophanes' Clouds implies that he must have been very popular among his contemporaries. After the demise of the Athenian Tyranny, and the restoration of democracy, Socrates was put on trial on two charges: introduction of new gods, and corruption of the youth. He was sentenced to death by the majority of the jurors, and preferred to drink the hemlock than to escape.

In all probability, Socrates was an autodidact in philosophy. He did not set up a school, nor did he ever deliver systematic courses; for all that, not few considered themselves students of Socrates. With regards to the content of his teachings we are in the dark; however, we can outline it: he placed man in the centre of his philosophical inquiry, and took an exclusive interest in ethical and political problems. Socrates deemed knowledge of one's self, and care for one's soul, to be moral duties. He declared to know nothing free from doubt; but he had the ability to refute other people's arguments. The philosophical method he employed was a form of dialectics that was expressed by the initial postulation of general theses and the subsequent attempt to dismiss them through questions and answers.

As opposed to Socrates' complete abstention from any writing, the first generation of his students engaged in systematic composition of "Socratic dialogues", that is, dramatic narratives that ascribed Socrates the leading role. These dialogues condition the so-called "Socratic problem": how can we distinguish between the historic Socrates, and the fictional Socrates of literature, and in particular of the platonic dialogues? As soon as we realise that no historical evidence is available to collate the abundance of the fictional testimonies, we come to terms with the fact that the Socratic problem is meant to remain unresolved.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
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