Socrates' Prison

Socrates' Prison

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The Last Words of Socrates at the Place where he Died

§0. In H24H 24§45, I quote and analyze the passage in Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a where Socrates dies. His last words, as transmitted by Plato, are directed at all those who have followed Socrates—and who have had the unforgettable experience of engaging in dialogue with him. Calling out to one of those followers, Crito, who was a native son of the same neighborhood where Socrates was born, he says to his comrade: don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios. I will quote the whole passage in a minute. But first, we need to ask: who is this Asklepios? As I explain in H24H 20§§29–33, he was a hero whose father was the god Apollo himself, and, like his divine father, Asklepios had special powers of healing. More than that, Asklepios also had the power of bringing the dead back to life. That is why he was killed by the immortals, since mortals must stay mortal. But Asklepios, even after death, retained his power to bring the dead back to life.

§1. So, what does Socrates mean when he asks his followers, in his dying words, not to forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios?

§2. On 16 March 2015, the group participating in the 2015 Harvard Spring Break travel study program visited the site where Socrates died—and where he said what he said about sacrificing a rooster to Asklepios. On the surface, this site is nothing much to write home about. All we can see at the site is the foundation stones of the State Prison where Socrates was held prisoner and where he was forced to drink the hemlock in the year 399 BCE. But I feel deeply that, just by visiting the site, our group managed to connect with a sublime experience. We were making contact with a place linked forever with the very last words of one of the greatest thinkers in world history.

Foundations of the Athenian State Prison where Socrates died. Photo by H. Lambert.

Vials that were found by archaeologists at the site of the State Prison of Athens. These vials, now housed in the Agora Museum, are believed to have been the containers for the hemlock that was used to execute prisoners of the state. Photo by H. Lambert.

§3. I now quote my own translation of Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a, which situates these last words of Socrates:

“Go,” said he [= Socrates], “and do as I say.” Crito, when he heard this, signaled with a nod to the boy servant who was standing nearby, and the servant went in, remaining for some time, and then came out with the man who was going to administer the poison [pharmakon]. He was carrying a cup that contained it, ground into the drink. When Socrates saw the man he said: “You, my good man, since you are experienced in these matters, should tell me what needs to be done.” The man answered: “You need to drink it, that’s all. Then walk around until you feel a heaviness |117b in your legs. Then lie down. This way, the poison will do its thing.” While the man was saying this, he handed the cup to Socrates. And Socrates took it in a cheerful way, not flinching or getting pale or grimacing. Then looking at the man from beneath his brows, like a bull—that was the way he used to look at people—he said: “What do you say about my pouring a libation out of this cup to someone? Is it allowed or not?” The man answered: “What we grind is measured out, Socrates, as the right dose for drinking.” “I understand,” he said, |117c “but surely it is allowed and even proper to pray to the gods so that my transfer of dwelling [met-oikēsis] from this world [enthende] to that world [ekeîse] should be fortunate. So, that is what I too am now praying for. Let it be this way.” And, while he was saying this, he took the cup to his lips and, quite readily and cheerfully, he drank down the whole dose. Up to this point, most of us had been able to control fairly well our urge to let our tears flow but now when we saw him drinking the poison, and then saw him finish the drink, we could no longer hold back, and, in my case, quite against my own will, my own tears were now pouring out in a flood. So, I covered my face and had a good cry. You see, I was not crying for him, |117d but at the thought of my own bad fortune in having lost such a comrade [hetairos]. Crito, even before me, found himself unable to hold back his tears: so he got up and moved away. And Apollodorus, who had been weeping all along, now started to cry in a loud voice, expressing his frustration. So, he made everyone else break down and cry—except for Socrates himself. And he said: “What are you all doing? I am so surprised at you. I had sent away the women mainly because I did not want them |117e to lose control in this way. You see, I have heard that a man should come to his end [teleutân] in a way that calls for measured speaking [euphēmeîn]. So, you must have composure [hēsukhiā], and you must endure.” When we heard that, we were ashamed, and held back our tears. He meanwhile was walking around until, as he said, his legs began to get heavy, and then he lay on his back—that is what the man had told him to do. Then that same man who had given him the poison [pharmakon] took hold of him, now and then checking on his feet and legs and after a while he pressed his foot hard and asked him if he could feel it and he said that he couldn’t and then he pressed his shins, |118a and so on, moving further up, thus demonstrating for us that he was cold and stiff. Then he [= Socrates] took hold of his own feet and legs, saying that when the poison reaches his heart, then he will be gone. He was beginning to get cold around the abdomen. Then he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said— this was the last thing he uttered— “Crito, I owe the sacrifice of a rooster to Asklepios will you pay that debt and not neglect to do so?” “I will make it so,” said Crito, “and, tell me, is there anything else?” When Crito asked this question, no answer came back anymore from Socrates. In a short while, he stirred. Then the man uncovered his face. His eyes were set in a dead stare. Seeing this, Crito closed his mouth and his eyes. Such was the end [teleutē], Echecrates, of our comrade [hetairos]. And we may say about him that he was in his time the best [aristos] of all men we ever encountered—and the most intelligent [phronimos] and most just [dikaios].

So I come back to my question about the meaning of the last words of Socrates, when he says, in his dying words: don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios. As I begin to formulate an answer, I must repeat something that I have already highlighted. It is the fact that the hero Asklepios was believed to have special powers of healing—even the power of bringing the dead back to life. As I point out in H24H 24§46, some interpret the final instruction of Socrates to mean simply that death is a cure for life. I disagree. After sacrificing a rooster at day’s end, sacrificers will sleep the sleep of incubation and then, the morning after the sacrifice, they will wake up to hear other roosters crowing. So, the words of Socrates here are referring to rituals of overnight incubation in the hero cults of Asklepios.

§4. On 18 March 2015, the group participating in the 2015 Harvard Spring Break travel study program visited a site where such rituals of overnight incubation actually took place: the site was Epidaurus. This small city was famous for its hero cult of Asklepios. The space that was sacred to Asklepios, as our group had a chance to witness, is enormous, and the enormity is a sure sign of the intense veneration received by Asklepios as the hero who, even though he is dead, has the superhuman power to rescue you from death. The mystical logic of worshipping the dead Asklepios is that he died for humanity: he died because he had the power to bring humans back to life.

§5. So, Asklepios is the model for keeping the voice of the rooster alive. And, for Socrates, Asklepios can become the model for keeping the word alive.

§6. In H24H 24§47, I follow through on analyzing this idea of keeping the word from dying, of keeping the word alive. That living word, I argue, is dialogue. We can see it when Socrates says that the only thing worth crying about is the death of the word. I am about to quote another passage from Plato’s Phaedo, and again I will use my own translation. But before I quote the passage, here is the context: well before Socrates is forced to drink the hemlock, his followers are already mourning his impending death, and Socrates reacts to their sadness by telling them that the only thing that would be worth mourning is not his death but the death of the conversation he started with them. Calling out to one of his followers, Phaedo, Socrates tells him (Plato, Phaedo 89b):

“Tomorrow, Phaedo, you will perhaps be cutting off these beautiful locks of yours [as a sign of mourning]?” “Yes, Socrates,” I [= Phaedo] replied, “I guess I will.” He shot back: “No you will not, if you listen to me.” “So, what will I do?” I [= Phaedo] said. He replied: “Not tomorrow but today I will cut off my own hair and you too will cut off these locks of yours—if our argument [logos] comes to an end [teleutân] for us and we cannot bring it back to life again [ana-biōsasthai].

What matters for Socrates, as I argue in H24H 24§48, is the resurrection of the ‘argument’ or logos, which means literally ‘word’, even if death may be the necessary pharmakon or ‘poison’ for leaving the everyday life and for entering the everlasting cycle of resurrecting the word.

§7. In the 2015 book Masterpieces of Metonymy (MoM), published both online and in print, I study in Part One a traditional custom that prevailed in Plato’s Academy at Athens for centuries after the death of Socrates. Their custom was to celebrate the birthday of Socrates on the sixth day of the month Thargelion, which by their reckoning coincided with his death day. And they celebrated by engaging in Socratic dialogue, which for them was the logos that was resurrected every time people engage in Socratic dialogue. I go on to say in MoM 1§§146–147:

For Plato and for Plato’s Socrates, the word logos refers to the living ‘word’ of dialogue in the context of philosophical argumentation. When Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (89b) tells his followers who are mourning his impending death that they should worry not about his death but about the death of the logos—if this logos cannot be resurrected or ‘brought back to life’ (ana-biōsasthai)—he is speaking of the dialogic argumentation supporting the idea that the psūkhē or ‘soul’ is immortal. In this context, the logos itself is the ‘argument’.

For Plato’s Socrates, it is less important that his psūkhē or ‘soul’ must be immortal, and it is vitally more important that the logos itself must remain immortal—or, at least, that the logos must be brought back to life. And that is because the logos itself, as I say, is the ‘argument’ that comes to life in dialogic argumentation.

Here is the way I would sum up, then, what Socrates means as he speaks his last words. When the sun goes down and you check in for sacred incubation at the precinct of Asklepios, you sacrifice a rooster to this hero who, even in death, has the power to bring you back to life. As you drift off to sleep at the place of incubation, the voice of that rooster is no longer heard. He is dead, and you are asleep. But then, as the sun comes up, you wake up to the voice of a new rooster signaling that morning is here, and this voice will be for you a sign that says: the word that died has come back to life again. Asklepios has once again shown his sacred power. The word is resurrected. The conversation may now continue.

Socrates: His Beliefs and Philosophy

Socrates was one of the greatest Greek philosophers by a wide margin. He was born in 469 BCE at a place called Deme Alpoece, Athens. For the entirety of his life, this classical Greek philosopher devoted himself to finding the most ideal way of living a moral life. His extensive works in ethics and epistemology are what formed the pillars of Western philosophy. Kind courtesy of the efforts and sheer brilliance of his most famous student, Plato, Socrates ideas and philosophy continue to hold significant sway in our world, even after thousands of years. In 399 BCE, Socrates passed away after he was sentenced to death by the Athenians. He was charged with ‘corrupting’ the youth and heresy. Read the biography below to learn more about the Socrates, as well as his beliefs and philosophy.

Early Beginnings

The lack of proper chronicles and autobiography makes it difficult for historians to accurately give details about Socrates’ childhood. What is however known is that, Socrates came from a relatively poor family. His father was a stonemason that went by the name Sophroniscus. Socrates’ mother was Phaenarete- a diligent and hardworking midwife. As a result of his family’s financial hardships, Socrates could not obtain any formal education. He ended up assisting his father at his workshop.

When Socrates attained the age of maturity, it is likely that he served in the military during the Peloponnesian War, which festered between Athens and Sparta. Other specific accounts of the history state that Socrates served in an armored infantry (hoplite) during military campaigns in Potidaea, Delium, and Amphipolis. Back then, it was compulsory for all able-bodied men to fight for Athens in times of wars. It is believed that he dispatched his duties bravely and gallantly.

Socrates certainly had a superior intellect. However, he was not so good looking. His student, Plato, portrayed him as anything but physically handsome.

It must be noted that the history and story surrounding Socrates is not so much straightforward. There have been some levels of contradictions in Plato’s dialogues and among the accounts of Xenophon and Aristotle.

How the world came to know about Socrates

Socrates was a very peculiar Greek philosopher in the sense that he never wrote down any thoughts of his. He simply spoke out his mind and engaged in intellectual discussions with his followers. Socrates would roam the streets of ancient Athens trying to trigger the reasoning capacity of people from all walks of life. For example, he would question them debate with Athenians about why they held certain beliefs and ask how those beliefs of theirs shape their lives. Those were his favored methods of expressing and refining his ideas.

The task of writing what this wonderful philosopher thought and spoke about fell to his students and followers. Historians believe that had it not been for the recordings (writings) made by philosophers like Plato (428-348 BCE), Xenophon (c. 431 – c. 354 BCE) and Aristophanes (c. 460- c. 380 BCE), the world would not have known anything about Socrates. These great philosophers chronicled the life of Socrates as well as his ideas.

For instance, Plato wrote extensive dialogues (Plato’s Dialogues) where the main character in the conversation was his tutor Socrates. With such innovative techniques of writing, Plato was able to use about 36 different dialogues to convey Socratic thoughts and philosophies to the public. Most notable of such dialogues are the Crito, the Apology, Symposium and the Phaedo (Platonic Socrates text).

Socrates’ best-known ideas and thoughts

Exactly when Socrates began thinking deeply about life and morality is unknown. Accounts and dialogues from his students mostly transport us to a time when Socrates was a relatively old man.

His thoughts were usually geared towards the pursuit of ethics and value-laden life. He searched for a set of universal truths that would help Athenian society live a morally upright life. According to him, the physical world we live in was just a mirror image of things that are false. Real truth, to him, is found in justice and the good. Material things like wealth, financial gains and power have not and cannot give us true happiness. Socrates believed that a society that ignored the quest of philosophical constructs and ideas were doomed to be sad and miserable.

All of the above ideas flew right across the faces of the powerful and elite in ancient Athens. Many of those elites considered Socrates’ sayings a threat to the stability of Greece. To say that Socrates’ ideas were radical at that time would be an understatement.

Socrates and the concept of justice

His discussions about virtues and justice quickly caught on with the youths of ancient Athens. Socrates gave them hope he inspired in them a new way of thinking and viewing the world. Some authors have claimed that Socrates unshackled the chains that hang tight around the young men at that time. He admonished them for taking things on surface-level without questioning people in power or experts in various professions. He called on every Athenian to become a philosopher first and foremost. His discussions were full of questions instead of answers. These questions went a long way in liberating their thought process and giving them suggestive ideas on how best to live a moral life.

Also, Socrates believed that the best form of philosophy is one that probes deep and questions the things in this world. In order to do this, he advocated that one must come with an open mind so as to allow answers flow into the mind. He had this famous saying that read as: “I know that I know nothing”.

Schools of thoughts that existed before Socrates

Prior to Socrates coming onto the scene, the dominant thought or philosophical reasoning is referred to as pre-Socratic. That is how much of an influence Socrates had on Ancient Greek philosophy.

The pre-Socratic philosophers engaged in a different approach that desisted from using mythological analysis of the environment. Examples of such schools were the Milesians, Xenophanes, Pythagorians, Eleatics, Heraclitus, and the Sophists. Their focus of the study was mainly on cosmology, mathematics, and ontology. In sophism, for example, philosophers believed that there are relative ways of explaining the constants in the environment. According to them, the physis (nature) remains unchanged but the nomos (law) is what varies. One of the biggest advocate of sophism was Protagoras.

Socrates, along with Plato, opined that the sophists were radical relativists (‘perspectivists’) that used unjust subjectivity in philosophy.

Socrates’ Approach to Philosophy (The Socratic Method)

Socratic philosophy sharply differs from its predecessors because it searches for a universal truth. Unlike the sophists, Socrates believed that the law (nomos) never changes. The ideals (FORMS) of justice, beauty, bravery, and honesty remain unchanged. Hence, those truths should be the pursuit of every one of us in order to lead a moral life.

The process of pursuing those truths is what is termed as the Socratic Method. Socrates used a method of self-analysis to explore subjects of the physical world. At the heart of this introspection was engaging first with oneself and then with others. Often times, it started off as a simple question and then it glided into more and more questions. Socrates was less interested in coming up with the answers. On the other hand, the asking questions were what gave him fulfillment and joy.

The reason why there are contradictions in Socrates’ biography

Contradictions in the accounts of what Socrates believed in stem from the writings in Plato’s dialogue. The divergent stories about Socrates lend no help in zooming down on Socrates actual views.

Furthermore, some historians and philosophers have maintained that Plato planted Socrates’ character in his dialogues to accentuate his views about life. They go as far as saying that the ideas purported to be Socrates’ may have not been the views of Socrates himself.

Another reason area of contention is whether or not Socrates accepted payment in exchange for his tutoring. Plato’s Apology and Symposium both claim that Socrates did not accept money or any other payment in kind for his tutoring works. As a result of this, Socrates lived in abject poverty for a great all his life.

However, Aristophanes’ the Clouds begged to differ. Aristophanes wrote that Socrates took payments in exchange for tutoring at a Sophist school. Another student of Plato, Xenophon, expressed similar remarks.

Regardless of such minuscule details, it is evident that Socrates was certainly a real person- not the figment of Plato’s imagination done to propagate his ideas. This is because there are lots of key points about Socrates that have been corroborated by philosophers such as Aristotle and Xenophon. For example, Aristotle made mention of the fact that Socrates utterly believed in virtue being knowledge. Similarly, Xenophon (in his Symposium) stated that Socrates was obsessed with discussing philosophy.

How Socrates died

A painting by Jacques-Louis David (1787) on the Death of Socrates

Socrates’ death has been described as a very tragic one. It has been retold for a countless number of times over thousands of years. Socrates’ demise happened in a gradual manner. It all started when the political elites of Athenian society got wary of the increased influence Socrates chalked up with the youth.

The philosopher simply became a thorn in the flesh of the ruling elites. Coupled with this, Athens was in a recovery process after the lost to Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. The defeat catapulted a section of elites to power. They were called the Thirty Tyrants. One of Socrates’ students, Critias, was even part of this new ruling class.

The reign of the Thirty Tyrants did not last for long. There was a people revolution in Athens, the tyrants got toppled, and a democratic government was installed.

Shortly after this, the new government started clamping down on all those that were affiliated to the Thirty Tyrants. Socrates was among the people that were taken into custody. The Athenians considered Socrates as someone against democracy. Additionally, there were some of his followers and students that sympathized with the Thirty Tyrant’s cause.

Socrates was put on trial for treason. The exact charges that were levied against him were:

Typical of Socrates, he was not perturbed by those charges. He believed that reasoning and logical discussions would be able to convince the jury that he was innocent of those charges. Plato’s dialogues portrayed him as thoughtfully and very articulate during the trial.

Unfortunately, the jury wanted to have nothing to do with any Socratic Method of analyzing the charges. Who could blame them? They were deeply immersed in a mythological approach of dealing with the physical world.

Socrates lost the trial and was sentenced to death. In 399 BCE, the execution was carried out by means of a drink laced with the poisonous hemlock (Conium maculatum). This plant was the go-to-plant for the execution of prisoners in ancient Greece. While in prison, Socrates had the opportunity to break free, however, he chose not to do so.

Reasons why Socrates chose not to break free from prison

In Plato’s Phaedo, Plato stated that his dear friend and tutor could certainly have avoided this sad fate of his by escaping. One of Socrates’ friends, Crito, made arrangements for Socrates to prison break to freedom. Crito was wealthy and had connections in high places that he could easily bribe in order to secure the escape of Socrates. However, Socrates opted not to do so.

The reasons why he stayed in prison can be inferred from the Phaedo and the Crito as follows:

First and foremost, Socrates was not the type of person to shy away from a fight. And certainly, he wasn’t going to do so even when death stared at him right in the face. He believed that a virtuous soul is one that is brave enough to stand in the face of persecution. In the Phaedo, Socrates believed that his life-long philosophical training had adequately prepared him when for death.

Socrates’ quote about old age

Secondly, Socrates felt that had he escaped, the inquisitive nature of his mind was bound to bring him at odds with another authority elsewhere. Perhaps Socrates felt that his time was up.

The final reason has to do with Socrates’ high sense of “social contract” with the state. He reasoned that his trial and punishment were not something to be frowned upon. Obviously, he did not like the punishment however, he felt obligated to be subjected to the city’s laws and judicial processes. Besides, had he escaped, those that facilitated in his escape were bound to receive a similar fate as his. Therefore, escaping was far too a heavy price to pay.

Socrates last words to his dear friend, Crito

Legacy of Socrates

Socrates’ contribution to philosophy can fully be seen in the accounts of the people that he influenced. The writings of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle paint some very ground-breaking reasoning by Socrates. All in all, those teachings served as the foundations for Classical Greek Philosophy. That, in turn, went on to influence the world for the next 2000 or so years.

He was the first moral philosopher of his time. He was a philosopher who used reasoning, and not myths or superstition, to interpret the world. Everything from religion, politics, cosmology, poetry, and mathematics owe the majority of their ideas to Socratic philosophy and methodology.

Interesting Facts about Socrates

This piece on Socrates has been summarized with the following interesting facts about Socrates:

  • Contrary to what the likes of Xenophon and Aristotle said, Plato claimed that Socrates did not accept payments for his services
  • Socrates married Xanthippe. This marriage produced three children by the names Menexenus, Sophroniscus, and Lamprocles.
  • He is credited to have said: “the unexamined life is not worth living”. In this saying Socrates equating self-knowledge and analysis to true happiness.
  • He was not solely in favor of democratic principles. Just like his student, Plato, he called for wise and philosophical leaders.
  • Socrates spoke to anyone who was interested in having an intellectual conversation. Rather than display to the folks how much he knew, he asked questions (the Socratic Method).
  • Socrates mounted a fierce defense during his trial. He shocked the jury by stating that the state should rather pay him for his life-long dedication to Athens.
  • The 280 aye votes from the jury members (as against 221 nays) were enough to sentence Socrates to death.
  • Chose to remain in prison and see through his death sentence
  • Even in his death bed, Socrates appeared very calm and composed. There was no hesitation whatsoever on his part.
  • Socrates was a very short and slightly ugly man (in ancient Greek standards). He also had protruding eyes and nose.
  • He was not so much enthused about theology and mythical ideas. Therefore, Socrates was not your typical ancient Greek religious guy.
  • Right until his death, Socrates maintained that the most virtuous way to respond to injustice was not more injustice. This idea is what forms the basis of the social contract theory that we have today.


In the past 24 or so centuries, Socrates’ ideas and sphere of influence have stretched all over the world. As the father of Classical Greek philosophy, he has been portrayed in innumerable art and scientific works. This Athenian-born philosopher is undeniably one of the greatest person and thinker in all of human history.

2. The Socratic problem: Who was Socrates really?

The Socratic problem is a rat&rsquos nest of complexities arising from the fact that various people wrote about Socrates whose accounts differ in crucial respects, leaving us to wonder which, if any, are accurate representations of the historical Socrates. &ldquoThere is, and always will be, a &lsquoSocratic problem&rsquo. This is inevitable,&rdquo said Guthrie (1969, 6), looking back on a gnarled history between ancient and contemporary times that is narrated in detail by Press (1996), but barely touched on below. The difficulties are increased because all those who knew and wrote about Socrates lived before any standardization of modern categories of, or sensibilities about, what constitutes historical accuracy or poetic license. All authors present their own interpretations of the personalities and lives of their characters, whether they mean to or not, whether they write fiction or biography or philosophy (if the philosophy they write has characters), so other criteria must be introduced for deciding among the contending views of who Socrates really was. A look at the three primary ancient sources of information about Socrates (§2.1) will provide a foundation for appreciating how contemporary interpretations differ (§2.2) and why the differences matter (§2.3).

One thing is certain about the historical Socrates: even among those who knew him in life, there was profound disagreement about what his actual views and methods were. Apart from the three primary sources below, there were those called &lsquominor Socratics&rsquo, not for the quality of their work but because so little or none of it is extant, about whose view of Socrates we shall probably never know much. [2] After Socrates&rsquos death, the tradition became even more disparate. As Nehamas (1999, 99) puts it, &ldquowith the exception of the Epicureans, every philosophical school in antiquity, whatever its orientation, saw in him either its actual founder or the type of person to whom its adherents were to aspire.&rdquo

2.1 Three primary sources: Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato

Aristophanes (±450&ndash±386)

Our earliest extant source&mdashand the only one who can claim to have known Socrates in his early years&mdashis the playwright Aristophanes. His comedy, Clouds, was produced in 423 when the other two writers of our extant sources, Xenophon and Plato, were infants. In the play, the character Socrates heads a Think-o-Rama in which young men study the natural world, from insects to stars, and study slick argumentative techniques as well, lacking all respect for the Athenian sense of propriety. The actor wearing the mask of Socrates makes fun of the traditional gods of Athens (lines 247&ndash48, 367, 423&ndash24), mimicked later by the young protagonist, and gives naturalistic explanations of phenomena Athenians viewed as divinely directed (lines 227&ndash33 cf. Theaetetus 152e, 153c&ndashd, 173e&ndash174a Phaedo 96a&ndash100a). Worst of all, he teaches dishonest techniques for avoiding repayment of debt (lines 1214&ndash1302) and encourages young men to beat their parents into submission (lines 1408&ndash46).

In favor of Aristophanes as a source is that Xenophon and Plato were some forty-five years younger than Socrates, so their acquaintance could only have been in Socrates&rsquos later years. One may reasonably doubt that the life and personality of Socrates was so consistent that Plato&rsquos characterization of a man in his fifties and sixties should utterly undo the lampooning account of the younger Socrates found in Clouds and other comic poets. More to the point, the years between Clouds and Socrates&rsquos trial were years of war and upheaval, so the Athenian intellectual freedom of which Pericles boasted at the beginning of the war (Thucydides 2.37&ndash39) had been eroded completely by the end (see §3). Thus, what had seemed comical a quarter century earlier, Socrates hanging in a basket on-stage, talking nonsense, was ominous in memory by then.

Comedy by its very nature is a tricky source for information about anyone. A good reason to believe that the representation of Socrates is not merely comic exaggeration but systematically misleading is that Clouds amalgamates in one character, Socrates, features now well known to be unique to other particular fifth-century intellectuals (Dover 1968, xxxii-lvii). Perhaps Aristophanes chose Socrates to represent garden-variety intellectuals because Socrates&rsquos physiognomy was strange enough to be comic by itself. Aristophanes genuinely objected to what he saw as social instability brought on by the freedom Athenian youths enjoyed to study with professional rhetoricians, sophists (see §1), and natural philosophers, e.g., those who, like the presocratics, studied the cosmos or nature. That Socrates eschewed any earning potential in philosophy does not seem to have been significant to the great writer of comedies. Aristophanes&rsquos depiction is important because Plato&rsquos Socrates says at his trial (Apology 18a&ndashb, 19c) that most of his jurors have grown up believing the falsehoods spread about him in the play. Socrates calls Aristophanes more dangerous than the three men who brought charges against him in 399 because Aristophanes had poisoned the jurors&rsquo minds while they were young. Aristophanes did not stop accusing Socrates in 423 when Clouds placed third behind another play in which Socrates was mentioned as barefoot rather, he soon began writing a revision, which he published but never produced. Aristophanes appears to have given up on reviving Clouds in about 416, but his attacks on Socrates continued. Again in 414 with Birds, and in 405 with Frogs, Aristophanes complained of Socrates&rsquos deleterious effect on the youths of the city, including Socrates&rsquos neglect of the poets. [3]

Xenophon (±425&ndash±386)

Another source for the historical Socrates is the soldier-historian, Xenophon. Xenophon says explicitly of Socrates, &ldquoI was never acquainted with anyone who took greater care to find out what each of his companions knew&rdquo (Memorabilia 4.7.1) and Plato corroborates Xenophon&rsquos statement by illustrating throughout his dialogues Socrates&rsquos adjustment of the level and type of his questions to the particular individuals with whom he talked. If it is true that Socrates succeeded in pitching his conversation at the right level for each of his companions, the striking differences between Xenophon&rsquos Socrates and Plato&rsquos is largely explained by the differences between their two personalities. Xenophon was a practical man whose ability to recognize philosophical issues is almost imperceptible, so it is plausible that his Socrates appears as such a practical and helpful advisor because that is the side of Socrates Xenophon witnessed. Xenophon&rsquos Socrates differs additionally from Plato&rsquos in offering advice about subjects in which Xenophon was himself experienced, but Socrates was not: moneymaking (Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.7) and estate management (Xenophon, Oeconomicus), suggesting that Xenophon may have entered into the writing of Socratic discourses (as Aristotle labeled the genre, Poetics 1447b11) making the character Socrates a mouthpiece for his own views. His other works mentioning or featuring Socrates are Anabasis, Apology, Hellenica, and Symposium.

Something that has strengthened Xenophon&rsquos prima facie claim as a source for Socrates&rsquos life is his work as a historian his Hellenica (History of Greece) is one of the chief sources for the period 411&ndash362, after Thucydides&rsquos history abruptly ends in the midst of the Peloponnesian wars. Although Xenophon tends to moralize and does not follow the superior conventions introduced by Thucydides, still it is sometimes argued that, having had no philosophical axes to grind, Xenophon may have presented a more accurate portrait of Socrates than Plato does. But two considerations have always weakened that claim: (1) The Socrates of Xenophon&rsquos works is so pedestrian that it is difficult to imagine his inspiring fifteen or more people to write Socratic discourses in the period following his death. (2) Xenophon could not have chalked up many hours with Socrates or with reliable informants. He lived in Erchia, about 15 kilometers and across the Hymettus mountains from Socrates&rsquos haunts in the urban area of Athens, and his love of horses and horsemanship (on which he wrote a still valuable treatise) seem to have taken up considerable time. He left Athens in 401 on an expedition to Persia and, for a variety of reasons (mercenary service for Thracians and Spartans exile), never resided in Athens again. And now a third is in order. (3) It turns out to have been ill-advised to assume that Xenophon would apply the same criteria for accuracy to his Socratic discourses as to his histories. [4] The biographical and historical background Xenophon deploys in his memoirs of Socrates fails to correspond to such additional sources as we have from archaeology, history, the courts, and literature. The widespread use of computers in classical studies, enabling the comparison of ancient persons, and the compiling of information about each of them from disparate sources, has made incontrovertible this observation about Xenophon&rsquos Socratic works. Xenophon&rsquos memoirs are pastiches, several of which simply could not have occurred as presented.

Plato (424/3&ndash347)

Philosophers have usually privileged the account of Socrates given by their fellow philosopher, Plato. Plato was about twenty-five when Socrates was tried and executed, and had probably known the old man most of his life. It would have been hard for a boy of Plato&rsquos social class, residing in the political district (deme) of Collytus within the city walls, to avoid Socrates. The extant sources agree that Socrates was often to be found where youths of the city spent their time. Further, Plato&rsquos representation of individual Athenians has proved over time to correspond remarkably well to both archaeological and literary evidence: in his use of names and places, familial relations and friendship bonds, and even in his rough dating of events in almost all the authentic dialogues where Socrates is the dominant figure. The dialogues have dramatic dates that fall into place as one learns more about their characters and, despite incidental anachronisms, it turns out that there is more realism in the dialogues than most have suspected. [5] The Ion, Lysis, Euthydemus, Meno, Menexenus, Theaetetus, Euthyphro, the frame of Symposium, Apology, Crito, Phaedo (although Plato says he was not himself present at Socrates&rsquos execution), and the frame of Parmenides are the dialogues in which Plato had greatest access to the Athenians he depicts.

It does not follow, however, that Plato represented the views and methods of Socrates (or anyone, for that matter) as he recalled them, much less as they were originally uttered. There are a number of cautions and caveats that should be in place from the start. (i) Plato may have shaped the character Socrates (or other characters) to serve his own purposes, whether philosophical or literary or both. (ii) The dialogues representing Socrates as a youth and young man took place, if they took place at all, before Plato was born and when he was a small child. (iii) One should be cautious even about the dramatic dates of Plato&rsquos dialogues because they are calculated with reference to characters whom we know primarily, though not only, from the dialogues. (iv) Exact dates should be treated with a measure of skepticism for numerical precision can be misleading. Even when a specific festival or other reference fixes the season or month of a dialogue, or birth of a character, one should imagine a margin of error. Although it becomes obnoxious to use circa or plus-minus everywhere, the ancients did not require or desire contemporary precision in these matters. All the children born during a full year, for example, had the same nominal birthday, accounting for the conversation at Lysis 207b, odd by contemporary standards, in which two boys disagree about who is the elder. Philosophers have often decided to bypass the historical problems altogether and to assume for the sake of argument that Plato&rsquos Socrates is the Socrates who is relevant to potential progress in philosophy. That strategy, as we shall soon see, gives rise to a new Socratic problem (§2.2).

What, after all, is our motive for reading a dead philosopher&rsquos words about another dead philosopher who never wrote anything himself? This is a way of asking a popular question, Why do history of philosophy? &mdashwhich has no settled answer. One might reply that our study of some of our philosophical predecessors is intrinsically valuable, philosophically enlightening and satisfying. When we contemplate the words of a dead philosopher, a philosopher with whom we cannot engage directly&mdashPlato&rsquos words, say&mdashwe seek to understand not merely what he said and assumed, but what his propositions imply, and whether they are true. Sometimes, making such judgments requires us to learn the language in which the philosopher wrote, more about his predecessors&rsquo ideas and those of his contemporaries. The truly great philosophers, and Plato was one of them, are still capable of becoming our companions in philosophical conversation, our dialectical partners. Because he addressed timeless, universal, fundamental questions with insight and intelligence, our own understanding of such questions is heightened. That explains Plato, one might say, but where is Socrates in this picture? Is he interesting merely as a predecessor to Plato? Some would say yes, but others would say it is not Plato&rsquos but Socrates&rsquos ideas and methods that mark the real beginning of philosophy in the West, that Socrates is the better dialectical guide, and that what is Socratic in the dialogues should be distinguished from what is Platonic (§2.2). But how? That again is the Socratic problem.

2.2 Contemporary interpretative strategies

If it were possible to confine oneself exclusively to Plato&rsquos Socrates, the Socratic problem would nevertheless reappear because one would soon discover Socrates himself defending one position in one Platonic dialogue, its contrary in another, and using different methods in different dialogues to boot. Inconsistencies among the dialogues seem to demand explanation, though not all philosophers have thought so (Shorey 1903). Most famously, the Parmenides attacks various theories of forms that the Republic, Symposium, and Phaedo develop and defend. In some dialogues (e.g., Laches), Socrates only weeds the garden of its inconsistencies and false beliefs, but in other dialogues (e.g., Phaedrus), he is a planter as well, advancing structured philosophical claims and suggesting new methods for testing those claims. There are differences on smaller matters as well. For example, Socrates in the Gorgias opposes, while in the Protagoras he supports, hedonism the details of the relation between erotic love and the good life differ from Phaedrus to Symposium the account of the relation between knowledge and the objects of knowledge in Republic differs from the Meno account despite Socrates&rsquos commitment to Athenian law, expressed in the Crito, he vows in the Apology that he will disobey the lawful jury if it orders him to stop philosophizing. A related problem is that some of the dialogues appear to develop positions familiar from other philosophical traditions (e.g., that of Heraclitus in Theaetetus and Pythagoreanism in Phaedo). Three centuries of efforts to solve the Socratic problem are summarized in the following supplementary document:

Contemporary efforts recycle bits and pieces&mdashincluding the failures&mdashof these older attempts.

The Twentieth Century

Until relatively recently in modern times, it was hoped that confident elimination of what could be ascribed purely to Socrates would leave standing a coherent set of doctrines attributable to Plato (who appears nowhere in the dialogues as a speaker). Many philosophers, inspired by the nineteenth century scholar Eduard Zeller, expect the greatest philosophers to promote grand, impenetrable schemes. Nothing of the sort was possible for Socrates, so it remained for Plato to be assigned all the positive doctrines that could be extracted from the dialogues. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, there was a resurgence of interest in who Socrates was and what his own views and methods were. The result is a narrower, but no less contentious, Socratic problem. Two strands of interpretation dominated views of Socrates in the twentieth century (Griswold 2001 Klagge and Smith 1992). Although there has been some healthy cross-pollination and growth since the mid 1990s, the two were so hostile to one another for so long that the bulk of the secondary literature on Socrates, including translations peculiar to each, still divides into two camps, hardly reading one another: literary contextualists and analysts. The literary-contextual study of Socrates, like hermeneutics more generally, uses the tools of literary criticism&mdashtypically interpreting one complete dialogue at a time its European origins are traced to Heidegger and earlier to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. The analytic study of Socrates, like analytic philosophy more generally, is fueled by the arguments in the texts&mdashtypically addressing a single argument or set of arguments, whether in a single text or across texts its origins are in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900&ndash2002) was the doyen of the hermeneutic strand, and Gregory Vlastos (1907&ndash1991) of the analytic.

Literary contextualism

Faced with inconsistencies in Socrates&rsquos views and methods from one dialogue to another, the literary contextualist has no Socratic problem because Plato is seen as an artist of surpassing literary skill, the ambiguities in whose dialogues are intentional representations of actual ambiguities in the subjects philosophy investigates. Thus terms, arguments, characters, and in fact all elements in the dialogues should be addressed in their literary context. Bringing the tools of literary criticism to the study of the dialogues, and sanctioned in that practice by Plato&rsquos own use of literary devices and practice of textual critique (Protagoras 339a&ndash347a, Republic 2.376c&ndash3.412b, Ion, and Phaedrus 262c&ndash264e), most contextualists ask of each dialogue what its aesthetic unity implies, pointing out that the dialogues themselves are autonomous, containing almost no cross-references. Contextualists who attend to what they see as the aesthetic unity of the whole Platonic corpus, and therefore seek a consistent picture of Socrates, advise close readings of the dialogues and appeal to a number of literary conventions and devices said to reveal Socrates&rsquos actual personality. For both varieties of contextualism, the Platonic dialogues are like a brilliant constellation whose separate stars naturally require separate focus.

Marking the maturity of the literary contextualist tradition in the early twenty-first century is a greater diversity of approaches and an attempt to be more internally critical (see Hyland 2004).

Analytic developmentalism [6]

Beginning in the 1950s, Vlastos (1991, 45&ndash80) recommended a set of mutually supportive premises that together provide a plausible framework in the analytic tradition for Socratic philosophy as a pursuit distinct from Platonic philosophy. Although the premises have deep roots in early attempts to solve the Socratic problem (see the supplementary document linked above), the beauty of Vlastos&rsquos particular configuration is its fecundity. The first premise marks a break with a tradition of regarding Plato as a dialectician who held his assumptions tentatively and revised them constantly rather,

  1. Plato held philosophical doctrines, and
  2. Plato&rsquos doctrines developed over the period in which he wrote,

accounting for many of the inconsistencies and contradictions among the dialogues (persistent inconsistencies are addressed with a complex notion of Socratic irony.) In particular, Vlastos tells a story &ldquoas hypothesis, not dogma or reported fact&rdquo describing the young Plato in vivid terms, writing his early dialogues while convinced of &ldquothe substantial truth of Socrates&rsquos teaching and the soundness of its method.&rdquo Later, Plato develops into a constructive philosopher in his own right but feels no need to break the bond with his Socrates, his &ldquofather image.&rdquo (The remainder of Plato&rsquos story is not relevant to Socrates.) Vlastos labels a small group of dialogues &lsquotransitional&rsquo to mark the period when Plato was beginning to be dissatisfied with Socrates&rsquos views. Vlastos&rsquos third premise is

  1. It is possible to determine reliably the chronological order in which the dialogues were written and to map them to the development of Plato&rsquos views.

The evidence Vlastos uses varies for this claim, but is of several types: stylometric data, internal cross references, external events mentioned, differences in doctrines and methods featured, and other ancient testimony (particularly that of Aristotle). The dialogues of Plato&rsquos Socratic period, called &ldquoelenctic dialogues&rdquo for Socrates&rsquos preferred method of questioning, are Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Protagoras, and book 1 of the Republic. The developmentalists&rsquo Platonic dialogues are potentially a discrete sequence, the order of which enables the analyst to separate Socrates from Plato on the basis of different periods in Plato&rsquos intellectual evolution. Finally,

  1. Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates only what Plato himself believes at the time he writes each dialogue.

&ldquoAs Plato changes, the philosophical persona of his Socrates is made to change&rdquo (Vlastos 1991, 53)&mdasha view sometimes referred to as the &ldquomouthpiece theory.&rdquo Because the analyst is interested in positions or doctrines (particularly as conclusions from, or tested by, arguments), the focus of analysis is usually on a particular philosophical view in or across dialogues, with no special attention given to context or to dialogues considered as wholes and evidence from dialogues in close chronological proximity is likely to be considered more strongly confirming than that from dialogues of other developmental periods. The result of applying the premises is a firm list (contested, of course, by others) of ten theses held by Socrates, all of which are incompatible with the corresponding ten theses held by Plato (1991, 47&ndash49).

Many analytic ancient philosophers in the late twentieth century mined the gold Vlastos had uncovered, and many of those who were productive in the developmentalist vein in the early days went on to constructive work of their own (see Bibliography).

2.3 Implications for the philosophy of Socrates

It is a risky business to say where ancient philosophy is now, but an advantage of an entry in a dynamic reference work is that authors are allowed, nay, encouraged to update their entries to reflect recent scholarship and sea changes in their topics. For many analytic philosophers, John Cooper (1997, xiv) sounded the end of the developmentalist era when he described the early- and middle-period dialogue distinctions as &ldquoan unsuitable basis for bringing anyone to the reading of these works. To use them in that way is to announce in advance the results of a certain interpretation of the dialogues and to canonize that interpretation under the guise of a presumably objective order of composition&mdashwhen in fact no such order is objectively known. And it thereby risks prejudicing an unwary reader against the fresh, individual reading that these works demand.&rdquo When he added, &ldquoit is better to relegate thoughts about chronology to the secondary position they deserve and to concentrate on the literary and philosophical content of the works, taken on their own and in relation to the others,&rdquo he proposed peace between the literary contextualist and analytic developmentalist camps. As in any peace agreement, it takes some time for all the combatants to accept that the conflict has ended&mdashbut that is where we are.

In short, one is now more free to answer, Who was Socrates really? in the variety of ways that it has been answered in the past, in one&rsquos own well-reasoned way, or to sidestep the question, philosophizing about the issues in Plato&rsquos dialogues without worrying too much about the long toes of any particular interpretive tradition. Those seeking the views and methods of Plato&rsquos Socrates from the perspective of what one is likely to see attributed to him in the secondary literature (§2.2) will find it useful to consult the related entry on Plato&rsquos shorter ethical works.

Life in Athens

Athenian law required all able-bodied males serve as citizen soldiers, on call for duty from ages 18 until 60. According to Plato, Socrates served in the armored infantry — known as the hoplite — with shield, long spear and face mask. 

He participated in three military campaigns during the Peloponnesian War, at Delium, Amphipolis and Potidaea, where he saved the life of Alcibiades, a popular Athenian general. 

Socrates was known for his fortitude in battle and his fearlessness, a trait that stayed with him throughout his life. After his trial, he compared his refusal to retreat from his legal troubles to a soldier&aposs refusal to retreat from battle when threatened with death.

Plato&aposs Symposium provides the best details of Socrates&apos physical appearance. He was not the ideal of Athenian masculinity. Short and stocky, with a snub nose and bulging eyes, Socrates always seemed to appear to be staring. 

However, Plato pointed out that in the eyes of his students, Socrates possessed a different kind of attractiveness, not based on a physical ideal but on his brilliant debates and penetrating thought. 

Socrates always emphasized the importance of the mind over the relative unimportance of the human body. This credo inspired Plato’s philosophy of dividing reality into two separate realms, the world of the senses and the world of ideas, declaring that the latter was the only important one.

His Philosophical Method

Socrates teaching Perikles by Nicolas Guibal, 1780, in the Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart

With regards to the historical Socrates’ method of doing philosophy, historians and philosophers have, thankfully, a lot more information to work with. All historical accounts unequivocally confirm that Socrates taught by asking questions, often about seemingly obvious things— usually, concepts which people usually take for granted— and then swiftly refuting their answers. He didn’t teach in a classroom, but rather outside, in informal contexts around the city of Athens and on its outskirts.

The Temple of Athena Nike, View from the North-East by Carl Werner , 1877, via the Benaki Museum, Athens

Remarkably, Socrates never accepted payment for his teaching, unlike the sophists , who charged a pretty penny for their instruction. While the audiences of the sophists swooned with persuasive rhetoric, the Athenian citizens often became impatient or offended by Socrates’ philosophy he was not out to charm, but rather to find the truth, which involved the refutation of his interlocutor’s false beliefs. Someone storming off with a bruised ego mid-conversation with Socrates was not an uncommon scene. Occasionally, Socrates would even create an imaginary conversation partner and question them.

It is crucial to remember that Socrates was not a high-minded know-it-all. On the contrary, he embraced poverty. He went about barefoot in all weather conditions, wore ragged clothes, and was usually fed and watered thanks to the goodwill of the townsfolk.

Along with his complete disregard for material comfort, he regularly refuted and dismantled his own opinions as part of his teaching. He asked to be refuted by others so that he could rid himself of his untrue ideas. After all, he was the man who famously knew only one thing: that he knew nothing .

Alcibiade recevant les leçons de Socrate by François-André Vincent, 1777, in Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Socrates’ quest was to discover the ethical principles necessary for living a virtuous life since a virtuous life was the happiest life for a human being to have. His equation was simple: True knowledge of ethical principles naturally leads to virtue, and virtue, or being virtuous, leads to happiness. And we all desire happiness so, start by knowing the ethical principles.

It was through this process of philosophical questioning, through discovering one’s false opinions, and moving closer to these ethical principles together in dialogue that Socrates’ philosophy left its mark. For Socrates, “ the unexamined life is not worth living .”

Plato's The Crito Essay

guided by moral beliefs and principles. Whether their beliefs are good or bad, their decisions are based on them. In Plato “The Crito”, Socrates emphasizes his moral beliefs and principles when he decides not to escape from prison. Although Socrates had the opportunity to escape his death sentence, he chose not to do so because he had a moral obligation to commit a sacrifice. Socrates was being guided by his moral beliefs when he decided not to escape from prison. Socrates informs us

Plot Synopsis

The setting for Plato's dialog "Crito" is Socrates' prison cell in Athens in 399 B.C.E. A few weeks earlier Socrates had been found guilty of corrupting the youth with irreligion and sentenced to death. He received the sentence with his usual equanimity, but his friends are desperate to save him. Socrates has been spared so far because Athens does not carry out executions while the annual mission it sends to Delos to commemorate Theseus' legendary victory over the minotaur is still away. However, the mission is expected back in the next day or so. Knowing this, Crito has come to urge Socrates to escape while there is still time.

To Socrates, escape is certainly a viable option. Crito is rich the guards can be bribed and if Socrates were to escape and flee to another city, his prosecutors wouldn't mind. In effect, he would have gone into exile, and that would probably be good enough for them. Crito lays out several reasons for why he should escape including that their enemies would think his friends were too cheap or timid to arrange for him to escape, that he would be giving his enemies what they want by dying and that he has a responsibility to his children to not leave them fatherless.

Socrates responds by saying, first of all, that how one acts should be decided by rational reflection, not by appeals to emotion. This has always been his approach, and he is not going to abandon it just because his circumstances have changed. He dismisses out of hand Crito's anxiety about what other people will think. Moral questions should not be referred to the opinion of the majority the only opinions that matter are the opinions of those who possess moral wisdom and really understand the nature of virtue and justice. In the same way, he pushes aside such considerations as how much escaping would cost, or how likely it is that the plan would succeed. Such questions are all utterly irrelevant. The only question that matters is: would trying to escape be morally right or morally wrong?

Socrates – a man for our times

T wo thousand four hundred years ago, one man tried to discover the meaning of life. His search was so radical, charismatic and counterintuitive that he become famous throughout the Mediterranean. Men – particularly young men – flocked to hear him speak. Some were inspired to imitate his ascetic habits. They wore their hair long, their feet bare, their cloaks torn. He charmed a city soldiers, prostitutes, merchants, aristocrats – all would come to listen. As Cicero eloquently put it, "He brought philosophy down from the skies."

For close on half a century this man was allowed to philosophise unhindered on the streets of his hometown. But then things started to turn ugly. His glittering city-state suffered horribly in foreign and civil wars. The economy crashed year in, year out, men came home dead the population starved the political landscape was turned upside down. And suddenly the philosopher's bright ideas, his eternal questions, his eccentric ways, started to jar. And so, on a spring morning in 399BC, the first democratic court in the story of mankind summoned the 70-year-old philosopher to the dock on two charges: disrespecting the city's traditional gods and corrupting the young. The accused was found guilty. His punishment: state-sponsored suicide, courtesy of a measure of hemlock poison in his prison cell.

The man was Socrates, the philosopher from ancient Athens and arguably the true father of western thought. Not bad, given his humble origins. The son of a stonemason, born around 469BC, Socrates was famously odd. In a city that made a cult of physical beauty (an exquisite face was thought to reveal an inner nobility of spirit) the philosopher was disturbingly ugly. Socrates had a pot-belly, a weird walk, swivelling eyes and hairy hands. As he grew up in a suburb of Athens, the city seethed with creativity – he witnessed the Greek miracle at first-hand. But when poverty-striken Socrates (he taught in the streets for free) strode through the city's central marketplace, he would harrumph provocatively, "How many things I don't need!"

Whereas all religion was public in Athens, Socrates seemed to enjoy a peculiar kind of private piety, relying on what he called his "daimonion", his "inner voice". This "demon" would come to him during strange episodes when the philosopher stood still, staring for hours. We think now he probably suffered from catalepsy, a nervous condition that causes muscular rigidity.

Putting aside his unshakable position in the global roll-call of civilisation's great and good, why should we care about this curious, clever, condemned Greek? Quite simply because Socrates's problems were our own. He lived in a city-state that was for the first time working out what role true democracy should play in human society. His hometown – successful, cash-rich – was in danger of being swamped by its own vigorous quest for beautiful objects, new experiences, foreign coins.

The philosopher also lived through (and fought in) debilitating wars, declared under the banner of demos-kratia – people power, democracy. The Peloponnesian conflict of the fifth century against Sparta and her allies was criticised by many contemporaries as being "without just cause". Although some in the region willingly took up this new idea of democratic politics, others were forced by Athens to love it at the point of a sword. Socrates questioned such blind obedience to an ideology. "What is the point," he asked, "of walls and warships and glittering statues if the men who build them are not happy?" What is the reason for living life, other than to love it?

For Socrates, the pursuit of knowledge was as essential as the air we breathe. Rather than a brainiac grey-beard, we should think of him as his contemporaries knew him: a bustling, energetic, wine-swilling, man-loving, vigorous, pug-nosed, sword-bearing war-veteran: a citizen of the world, a man of the streets.

According to his biographers Plato and Xenophon, Socrates did not just search for the meaning of life, but the meaning of our own lives. He asked fundamental questions of human existence. What makes us happy? What makes us good? What is virtue? What is love? What is fear? How should we best live our lives? Socrates saw the problems of the modern world coming and he would certainly have something to say about how we live today.

He was anxious about the emerging power of the written word over face-to-face contact. The Athenian agora was his teaching room. Here he would jump on unsuspecting passersby, as Xenophon records. "One day Socrates met a young man on the streets of Athens. 'Where can bread be found?' asked the philosopher. The young man responded politely. 'And where can wine be found?' asked Socrates. With the same pleasant manner, the young man told Socrates where to get wine. 'And where can the good and the noble be found?' then asked Socrates. The young man was puzzled and unable to answer. 'Follow me to the streets and learn,' said the philosopher."

Whereas immediate, personal contact helped foster a kind of honesty, Socrates argued that strings of words could be manipulated, particularly when disseminated to a mass market. "You might think words spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them they always say only one thing . . . every word . . . when ill-treated or unjustly reviled always needs its father to protect it," he said.

When psychologists today talk of the danger for the next generation of too much keyboard and texting time, Socrates would have flashed one of his infuriating "I told you so" smiles. Our modern passion for fact-collection and box-ticking rather than a deep comprehension of the world around us would have horrified him too. What was the point, he said, of cataloguing the world without loving it? He went further: "Love is the one thing I understand."

The televised election debates earlier this year would also have given pause. Socrates was withering when it came to a polished rhetorical performance. For him a powerful, substanceless argument was a disgusting thing: rhetoric without truth was one of the greatest threats to the "good" society.

Interestingly, the TV debate experiment would have seemed old hat. Public debate and political competition (agon was the Greek word, which gives us our "agony") were the norm in democratic Athens. Every male citizen over the age of 18 was a politician. Each could present himself in the open-air assembly up on the Pnyx to raise issues for discussion or to vote. Through a complicated system of lots, ordinary men might be made the equivalent of heads of state for a year home secretary or foreign minister for the space of a day. Those who preferred a private to a public life were labelled idiotes (hence our word idiot).

Socrates died when Golden Age Athens – an ambitious, radical, visionary city-state – had triumphed as a leader of the world, and then over-reached herself and begun to crumble. His unusual personal piety, his guru-like attraction to the young men of the city, suddenly seemed to have a sinister tinge. And although Athens adored the notion of freedom of speech (the city even named one of its warships Parrhesia after the concept), the population had yet to resolve how far freedom of expression ratified a freedom to offend.

Socrates was, I think, a scapegoat for Athens's disappointment. When the city was feeling strong, the quirky philosopher could be tolerated. But, overrun by its enemies, starving, and with the ideology of democracy itself in question, the Athenians took a more fundamentalist view. A confident society can ask questions of itself when it is fragile, it fears them. Socrates's famous aphorism "the unexamined life is not worth living" was, by the time of his trial, clearly beginning to jar.

After his death, Socrates's ideas had a prodigious impact on both western and eastern civilisation. His influence in Islamic culture is often overlooked – in the Middle East and North Africa, from the 11th century onwards, his ideas were said to refresh and nourish, "like . . . the purest water in the midday heat". Socrates was nominated one of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his nickname "The Source". So it seems a shame that, for many, Socrates has become a remote, lofty kind of a figure.

When Socrates finally stood up to face his charges in front of his fellow citizens in a religious court in the Athenian agora, he articulated one of the great pities of human society. "It is not my crimes that will convict me," he said. "But instead, rumour, gossip the fact that by whispering together you will persuade yourselves that I am guilty." As another Greek author, Hesiod, put it, "Keep away from the gossip of people. For rumour [the Greek pheme, via fama in Latin, gives us our word fame] is an evil thing by nature she's a light weight to lift up, yes, but heavy to carry and hard to put down again. Rumour never disappears entirely once people have indulged her."

Trial by media, by pheme, has always had a horrible potency. It was a slide in public opinion and the uncertainty of a traumatised age that brought Socrates to the hemlock. Rather than follow the example of his accusers, we should perhaps honour Socrates's exhortation to "know ourselves", to be individually honest, to do what we, not the next man, knows to be right. Not to hide behind the hatred of a herd, the roar of the crowd, but to aim, hard as it might be, towards the "good" life.

The Philosophy of Socrates

Socrates (470/469–399 bce), mentor of Plato and founder of moral philosophy, was the son of Sophroniscus (a statuary) and Phaenarete (a midwife). According to a late doxographical tradition, he followed for a time in his father’s footsteps – a claim regarded as apocryphal by most scholars despite the fact that Socrates traces his ancestry to the mythical statuary Daedalus (Euthyphro 11b8–9). He also describes himself as an intellectual midwife who, although himself barren, delivers young men of ideas with which they are pregnant (Theaetetus 149a1–151d3) – an image generally believed to be Plato’s middle-period description of Socrates rather than Socrates’ description of himself. The husband of Xanthippe – and later, according to some sources, of Myrto – he was the father of three sons, of whom two were still infants at the time of his death.

Although intimately acquainted with Athenian intellectual and cultural life, he was mightily unimpressed with both. He had little interest in the philosophical ideas of his predecessors, he disputed the alleged wisdom and moral authority of the poets, he expressed deep misgivings about the truth of Homeric theology, he lamented the lack of virtue in public and private life, and he had a low opinion of the sophists who professed to teach it. He had an even lower opinion of the politicians, whom he denounced as panderers to public taste more interested in beautifying the city than in improving the citizenry. Contemptuous of the opinions of “the Many,” he was an outspoken critic of democracy and exhorted his hearers to ignore the opinions of the ignorant and to attend only to the moral expert who knows about right and wrong (Crito 47c8–d3, 48a5–7). Indeed, among philosophers of classical antiquity, only Plato was more overtly anti-democratic.

Notable for his powerful intellect, he was invincible in argument and, in Xenophon’s awestruck phrase, “could do what he liked with any disputant” (Memorabilia 1.2.14–16). In Meno 79e7–80b2 he is compared to a stingray who numbs people’s minds and reduces them to helplessness. In Apology 30e1–31a1 he describes himself more positively as a gadfly trying to awaken the great Athenian steed from its intellectual and moral slumber. Despite his reputation as the paradigmatically rational man, willing to act only in accordance with the argument best supported by Reason (Crito 46b3–6), he attached great importance to his customary sign (daimonion), which gave practical guidance in the form of periodic warnings. He attached comparable importance to dreams and oracles. Indeed, were it not for one particular and well publicized oracular pronouncement, he might never have attracted the attention with which he has been showered for the past 2,500 years.

It seems that his friend Chaerephon had once asked the Delphic oracle whether anyone is wiser than Socrates and had been told that no one is. Astonished by this pronouncement, Socrates had initially tried to refute the oracle by interrogating numerous people with a reputation for wisdom – including the politicians, the poets, and the craftsmen – in hopes of finding someone wiser than himself. But he had failed. This disappointing venture had convinced him that the god was right: no one is wiser than Socrates, albeit only in the modest sense that, unlike these others, he does not claim to know what he does not know. He concluded that he had been given a divine mission to spend his life philosophizing, examining himself and others, convicting them of moral ignorance, and persuading them that they are in the same deplorable epistemic condition as he. For a variety of reasons, catalogued at some length in the Apology, Athens retaliated. At the age of 70, he was accused of not believing in the gods of the city, of introducing new gods, and of corrupting the youth. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death by hemlock. Having declined the chance to escape from prison, he was executed in 399.

Since Socrates wrote nothing, our knowledge of him is based wholly on the testimony of others. Anyone who undertakes to write about him must take a stand on the so-called “Socratic problem” generated by the fact that our three major sources of first-hand information – Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato – have handed down radically different and unreconcilable portraits. Which, if any, of these very different literary personae corresponds to the historical Socrates?

Scattered exceptions aside, most scholars have opted for Plato’s portrait. Aristophanes was a comic poet, and his Socrates is an obvious caricature. The Clouds is at once a parody of Socrates and a spoof of philosophy, written for laughs rather than as a source of reliable biographical information. Xenophon, on the other hand, was a Socratic apologist. His Socrates is a serious thinker, but he is also something of a bore – an inexhaustible conduit of numbingly predictable and eminently forgettable platitudes. It is hard to understand how so innocuous a person could have attracted the likes of Alcibiades and Critias or why anyone would have bothered to execute him. Plato answers these questions. His Socrates is neither an unabashed clown nor a benign moralizer, but a disturbing philosopher-critic – exactly the sort of person his contemporaries might have judged subversive and worthy of death.

Actually, there is not one Socrates in the Platonic corpus there are two. The first is concerned almost exclusively with ethics. This is the Socrates of the early dialogues: the Apology, Crito, Charmides, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis, Protagoras, and Republic I. The second is equally concerned with ethics, but he is also deeply immersed in metaphysics, epistemology, logic, political philosophy, educational theory, and virtually every other area of philosophy. This is the Socrates of the middle dialogues: the Meno, Cratylus, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Republic II–X, Parmenides, Symposium, and Theaetetus. There are, in fact, two “Socratic problems.” Unlike the first, which is traceable to the unreconcilable discrepancies between the respective portraits of Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato, the second is traceable to the very different but equally unreconcilable discrepancies within the Platonic corpus. Many contemporary scholars have opted for a “developmentalist” solution according to which the views espoused by the Socrates of the early dialogues are those of the historical Socrates, whereas the views espoused by his (in many respects very different) counterpart of the middle dialogues are those of Plato.

Socrates’ appearance on the fifth-century Athenian scene marked a radical turning point in the development of Greek philosophy – so radical, in fact, that his predecessors are generically referred to as the pre-Socratics. Abandoning cosmological speculation on the ground that its physicalistic and reductionistic explanations ignore the rational determinants of human conduct (Phaedo 96a6–99d2), he occupied himself exclusively with practical questions. According to Aristotle (Metaphysics 987b1–3, 1078b17–19), Socrates searched for general and universal definitions of ethical terms. The originator of the What-is-F? question – What is piety? (Euthyphro), What is temperance? (Charmides), What is courage? (Laches) – he objected to elucidating moral concepts by appeal to particular cases or commonly held opinions (endoxa) and insisted on exact definitions. According to him, any adequate definition of piety must state the common character (eidos) possessed by all (and only) pious actions by which they are pious. The same is true of all the other virtues. Insofar as such a definition constitutes the necessary and sufficient conditions governing the application of the term under investigation, it serves as a standard (paradeigma) for determining what is and what is not an instantiation of it (Euthyphro 6e3–6). Only such definitions enable their possessor to escape from the epistemically unstable and morally precarious state of mind called belief or opinion (doxa) and to attain knowledge (episteme). Aristotle adds that, unlike Plato, Socrates did not ascribe separate existence to these universals (Metaphysics 1078b30–2) – a remark which has prompted many scholars to conclude that the historical Socrates did not subscribe to the full-blown Theory of Forms set forth in the Phaedo and the middle books of the Republic.

Socrates achieved high visibility (and later notoriety) because of the questions with which he afflicted his contemporaries and the arguments with which he refuted them. His instrument of refutation was the Socratic elenchus – from elencho¯, to examine or refute – that peculiarly Socratic method of argumentation which Aristotle calls “peirastic,” in which the interlocutor is refuted “from [his] own beliefs” (Sophistical Refutations 165b3–4, Topics 100a29–30). The interlocutor asserts a thesis, say, p Socrates thereupon elicits his assent to further theses, say q and r, and then argues that q and r entail not-p, the negation of the interlocutor’s original assertion. Socrates’ dialectical purpose is variously interpreted: according to some, he is trying to refute his interlocutor’s errors according to others, he is simply trying to demonstrate inconsistency in his interlocutor’s belief-set. Whichever view one adopts, the final outcome is always the same: the interlocutor, confident at first, is inexorably reduced to aporia – literally, without passage or a way out. According to (the perhaps overly optimistic) Socrates, anyone reduced to this salutary state of mind will acknowledge his moral ignorance and take up the philosophical quest for the knowledge he lacks.

Plato’s early dialogues reflect the Socratic conception of philosophy as a collaborative enterprise – a joint search for moral truth. By a “joint search,” Socrates does not just mean a discussion between two participants. The dialogues of philosophers like Cicero, Augustine, Anselm, and Berkeley satisfy that criterion but they are not joint searches in Socrates’ sense. In these non-Socratic dialogues, only one participant is searching for truth the other participant already has it. The interlocutor plays no vital role in the discovery he merely provides the occasion for the philosopher to communicate truth antecedently discovered – “To deliver a System,” in a Humean (see Hume) phrase.

Socrates has no system. On the contrary, he disavows all knowledge. Yet although devoid of wisdom, he is a lover of it – a searcher in search not only of truth, but also of other searchers. Unlike other philosophers who employ the dialogue form, Socrates refutes his interlocutors’ false beliefs not in hopes of replacing them with true ones, but in hopes of replacing them with a desire for true ones. But he will not – indeed, cannot – supply them himself. His primary task is to convict his interlocutors of moral ignorance and thereby render them fit dialectical partners. The proximate end of philosophizing is not the discovery of truth, but the realization that one does not have it. The etymological definition of “philosophy” as “the love of wisdom” has become so hackneyed through repetition that it is easy to forget that it originally meant something important. As a lover of wisdom, the philosopher is distinguished from all who claim to be wise. Philosophy is search. According to Socrates, this is not only the best life it is the only life. The unexamined life is not worth living (Apology 38a5–6). It is in living the examined life, rather than in enjoying the epistemic benefits which result from living it, that the highest human happiness is to be found (Apology 38a1–2). The activity of philosophizing is not a means to happiness, understood as an end distinct from philosophizing and contingently connected to it as a causal consequence it is happiness.

No account of Socrates would be complete without a brief discussion of his views. Although he disavows all knowledge, certain theses surface, or are alluded to, so often that commentators have not hesitated to ascribe them to him. (1) The soul is more important than the body. By “the soul,” Socrates does not mean some metaphysical entity distinct from the body and capable of existing independently of it. (On the subject of immortality, he remains an agnostic.) The soul is “that in us, whatever it is, which is concerned with justice and injustice” (Crito 47e7–48a1). As such, it is our most priceless possession and its care our most important task. (2) One ought never to requite evil with evil (Crito 49b10–11). Since the soul is benefited by acting justly and harmed by acting unjustly (Crito 47d3–5), one ought never to act unjustly – not even if one has been treated unjustly oneself. In thus repudiating the lex talionis, Socrates dissociates himself from the typically Athenian view – formally refuted in Republic 331e1–336a10 – that justice consists in helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies. (3) It is better to suffer than to commit injustice (Gorgias 474b2–4). Since acting unjustly harms the soul of the wrongdoer, thereby damaging that in him which is concerned with justice and injustice, it is psychologically and morally preferable to endure any amount of unjust treatment than to be unjust oneself. (4) No one errs voluntarily. This thesis – the so-called “Socratic paradox” – constitutes the very heart of Socratic intellectualism. Since everyone desires happiness, and since the good is beneficial and the evil harmful, it follows that all desire is for the good, i.e. that no one desires evil recognized as evil, but only because it is mistakenly judged to be good (Meno 77b6–78b2). Hence, whoever knows what is good and what is evil will never act contrary to his knowledge (Protagoras 352c2–7). In a word, moral weakness (akrasia) is impossible all wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. (5) The doctrine of the unity of the virtues. Socrates believed that the virtues constitute a unity – not in the sense that each is identical with the others, but in the sense that they are inter-entailing in such a way that one cannot have any single virtue without having all the others, e.g. one cannot be courageous without being wise (Protagoras 360d8–e6).

Socrates’ death inspired the Sokratikoi logoi – a collection of ostensibly biographical but, in fact, bewilderingly diverse and discrepancyridden “Socratic conversations” that contain such an indistinguishable blend of fact and fiction that even Aristotle despaired of assigning them to a precise literary genre (Poetics 1447b8–10). Socrates’ views were subsequently championed by the so-called “Socratics,” the most important of whom were Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Euclides – the founders, respectively, of the Cynic, the Cyreniac, and the Megarian Socratic “schools.” Each focused on one aspect of Socrates’ thought to the exclusion of the rest, and each regarded himself as the genuine perpetuator and true heir of his thought.

Further Reading

Benson, Hugh H.: Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates (New York: Oxford, 1992).
Beversluis, John: Cross-examining Socrates: A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato’s Early Dialogues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Brickhouse, Thomas C. and Smith, Nicholas D.: Plato’s Socrates (New York: Oxford, 1994).
Gower, Barry S. and Stokes, Michael C.: Socratic Questions: The Philosophy of Socrates and Its Significance (London: Routledge, 1992).
Gulley, Norman: The Philosophy of Socrates (London: Macmillan, 1968).
Guthrie, W. K. C.: Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971).
Patzer, Andreas (ed.): Der historische Sokrates (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1987).
Plato: Early Socratic Dialogues, ed. Trevor J. Saunders (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987). [Contains Ion, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Euthydemus.] ——: Gorgias, trans. with notes T. Irwin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).
——: Protagoras, trans. with notes C. C. W. Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).
——: The Trial and Death of Socrates, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1975).
Santas, Gerasimos: Socrates, Philosophy in Plato’s Early Dialogues (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979).
Taylor, A. E.: Socrates (Edinburgh: Peter Davies, 1932).
Vlastos, Gregory (ed.): The Philosophy of Socrates. A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971).
——: Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).