Socrates is considered to embody philosophy and regarded as the philosopher to have influenced Plato the most. We are not certain, however, whether the protagonist of the Platonic dialogues and the historical Socrates are identical. Notwithstanding the ambiguity attached to his philosophy, all philosophical schools that followed invoked Socrates.

Socrates’ intellectual milieu

We know very few things with certainty about Socrates’ life.

He was an Athenian citizen, son of Sophroniscus and Phaenarete; Socrates was the first Athenian philosopher. He lived from 470 to 399 BCE and was probably poor, yet not too poor, since he never had to work to earn a living. He never left Athens. In his close circle of friends one finds some of the most well known names of Athenian aristocracy, such as Alcibiades, Charmides and Critias, as well as budding philosophers, such as Antisthenes, Aristippus, Euclid and Plato. He had absolute trust in an inner voice, the famous “daimonion”, which is supposed to have prevented him from wicked actions. Even though he lived during the most troublesome, crucial and interesting period in the history of Athens, he avoided all engagement in active politics, yet did not refuse his services when he was called to military service or to public office. As epistates of the Athenian boule, he opposed the Assembly’s decision to have the victorious generals of the naval battle of Arginusae executed. Following the restoration of democracy and the fall of the Thirty Tyrants, he was brought to trial under two charges: 1. of refusing to recognise the gods of the state and introducing new gods; 2. of corrupting the youth. The majority of the jury sentenced him to death and he preferred to take the hemlock cup rather than escape.

We do not know how he came to philosophy. In all likelihood, he was self-taught. He wrote no books, was not a systematic teacher and founded no school, but there were many who considered themselves to be pupils of his. According to Cicero’s famous saying, it was Socrates who first called philosophy down from the heavens and brought it into the cities and the homes of men. What Cicero means is that there is a major difference between the nature of Presocratic philosophy and what seems to interest Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. However, for shifting the direction of philosophy toward man and his problems, one must concede that Socrates shares this responsibility with the Sophists, who were also prominent in Athens at the same time. Plato attempts to persuade us that Socrates was the Sophists’ great rival. Yet his points of similarity to them are definitely more than their differing points (it is telling that in the Clouds Aristophanes presents Socrates as a sophist).

Socrates belongs to the same intellectual movement with the Sophists. They regard philosophy as a tool and as a form of teaching that can help people around them. What they consider to be important issues are issues dealing with the citizen’s behaviour and actions in a complex environment, which is what Athens clearly was toward the end of the fifth century BCE. The philosopher is not the isolated wise man, but the one who is ready at any moment to discuss passionately about current controversial issues with anybody, while supporting a new philosophical method. Elements of the new method are the dialogical mode of presenting philosophical problems, the formulation of contrary positions on each topic, the search for definitions, the critical rejection of dogmatic positions. Philosophy, rather than a theory regarding the cosmos, comes to be the art of living.

The philosophy of Socrates

There is no clear evidence about the content of his philosophy, but we do know of its general outline. The focus of his philosophical investigations was man and he was exclusively concerned with ethical and political issues. Socrates considered self-knowledge and care for one’s soul to be an ethical duty. He claimed that he knew nothing with certainty, but that he had the ability to check and refute the views of other people. Plato’s early dialogues are the exclusive source for our information, yet we are not certain that what one can find in them represents the views of the historical Socrates (at times, indeed, Socrates’ views in the dialogues are contradictory). Herein lies the crux of the so-called “Socratic problem”.

Plato’s Socratic dialogues usually begin with the posing of a question in the form of “what is X”, where X is a universal concept of ethical origin – what is courage, what is piety, what is justice, what is virtue. As the dialogues unfold, the consecutive attempts of the interlocutors at offering an adequate definition for the concept in question come to no successful result. Socrates’ role in this inquiry is to direct and to refute. He poses the initial question and skillfully leads the discussion in the direction he wishes. Though he declares that he is not in possession of the correct answer, he is particularly skilled in checking the definitions offered by his interlocutors.

Plato implies that Socrates was the first to become aware of the value of the definition of concepts. Aristotle is in agreement with Plato on this issue, claiming that “Socrates, disregarding the physical universe and confining his study to moral questions, sought in this sphere for the universal and was the first to concentrate upon definition” (Metaphysics 987b1). Socrates’ demand for the definition of moral concepts goes hand in hand with his conviction that virtue is knowledge. One can only become virtuous, if one knows exactly what virtue is. The paradox in Socrates’ case lies in that he himself declared at every opportunity that he knew absolutely nothing, while his ignorance did not render him immoral.

What is most impressive, however, in the Socratic dialogues is the way the discussions are carried out. They are always lively, but never chaotic. Socrates systematically avoids long monologues and suggests that his interlocutors pose disjunctive questions and reply as briefly as they can -- with a “yes” or “no”, if possible. This gives the impression that Socrates has discovered a method of investigating moral and political issues and that he considers this method to be the only suitable one for philosophy. It is a “dialectical” method (“dialektike”, dialectic), because it is based on giving and receiving short speeches, definitions and arguments, i.e. on dia-legesthai (discussing). It is in opposition to the technique of poets and orators. Socratic dialectic embodies a way of life devoted to the joint investigation of vital problems, to the cultivation of one’s soul and to constant self-checking.

“The greatest good for a man is to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others – for the unexamined life is not worth living for men”. Plato, Apology of Socrates 38a1-6

Socrates is always talking about ethics, but he always avoids putting his own moral positions forward. His wisdom lies in that he is the only person of his time who is aware of his own ignorance. Nonetheless, there is one instance in which he prefers to put his usual modesty aside. In defending himself at court, he fervently declares to his judges: “I do know one thing, however, that it is wicked and shameful for one to do wrong, to disobey one’s superior, be he god or man” (Apology 29b6-7). Even when his friends urge him to escape from prison and be spared an unjust punishment, Socrates steadfastly resists by claiming that, should he escape, he will be committing a greater injustice. His position is perfectly clear: “One should never do wrong in return, nor do any man harm, no matter what he may have done to you” (Crito 49c10).

His stance must have seemed incomprehensible. From Homer’s to Socrates’ time, the archaic feeling of justice was based on the principle of retribution. Injustice should always be repaid, in order for justice to be done. The virtuous man should be lenient to his friends and harsh to his enemies.

By rejecting the principle of retribution, Socrates points the way toward a new ethics, whose foundation lies in the integrity of the individual’s soul. Voluntary wrong-doing toward others, unjust actions, they irreparably taint the acting agent’s soul. Thus, if one wishes to be just and virtuous, one will avoid injustice, no matter how greatly one has suffered and no matter how much one stands to gain materially by committing an unjust action.

The myth of Socrates

The myth of Socrates was established mainly on his death’s specific context. His conviction, once the turbulent political atmosphere that essentially caused it was pacified, seemed unfair and scandalous to the following generations. Yet what must have caused an even greater impression, is Socrates’ decision to drink the hemlock, stoically accepting the verdict of the court. If Socrates’ entire life had been provoking in the eyes of his contemporaries because of his “bizzare” behaviour, the end of his life was to become a greater provocation still. A man who chooses to die so as not to do wrong in return, when the dominant ethics allows him to avoid it (or even demands it), proves in the most dramatic manner that he had something very important to teach. The soul’s cultivation and integrity allow the real philosopher to overcome even the fear of death.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Kerferd, G.B. The Sophistic Movement. Λονδίνο, 1981.
  • Gigon, O. Sokrates: Sein Bild in Dichtung und Geschichte. Bern, 1947.
  • Guthrie, W.K.C. Socrates. Cambridge, 1971.
  • Hadot, P. Éloge de Socrate. Paris, 2002.
  • Morrison, D. R. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Nails, D. "Socrates." Zalta, E.N ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates. .
  • Vlastos, G. Socrates. Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge, 1991.
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