Biography (469-399 B.C.E)

“To find yourself, think for yourself.”

  • Lived during the Golden Age of Athens—the foundation of Western culture. He was born ten years after Confucius died.
    • Little is known about his early life, but Socrates was widely known to be dissatisfied with the knowledge he acquired from other teachers—led to the development of his own method ofDeath of Socrates education.
    • “Therefore I am still even now going about and searching and investigating at the god’s behest anyone, whether citizen or foreigner, who I think is wise; when he does not seem so to me, I help the god by showing that he is not wise. And by reason of this occupation I have no leisure to attend to any of the affairs of the state worth mentioning, or of my own, but am incessantly in poverty due to my service to the god.”
  • Standards of beauty are different in different eras, and in Socrates’ time beauty could easily be measured by the standard of the gods, stately, proportionate sculptures of whom had been adorning the Athenian acropolis since about the time Socrates reached the age of thirty. Good looks and proper bearing were important to a man’s political prospects, for beauty and goodness were linked in the popular imagination. The extant sources agree that Socrates was profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man—and resembling not at all the statues that turned up later in ancient times and now grace Internet sites and the covers of books. He had wide-set, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass. Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style (even while Athens and Sparta were at war), and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and looking arrogant.
  • As a young man, Socrates was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he would never meet a wiser man. As a result, he spent the rest of his life testing those who considered themselves wise.
  • Socrates was ultimately tried by the city of Athens for corrupting the youth.
    • Socrates is guilty of not believing in the gods in which the state believes, but brings in other new divinities; he also wrongs by corrupting the youth.”
    • Socrates’ trial was before a group of 501 jurors—and he was condemned by 80 votes. When the decision of sentencing was raised, Socrates suggested that the city pay for his meals, and then that he pay a fine that was the equivalent of one dollar. They chose to put him to death, largely because he antagonized them.
  • One of the most significant Western Philosophers—the world of philosophy is often divided between Socratic and pre-Socratic thought. According to Professor Lee Archie, Professor Emeritus at Lander University, Socrates had immense influence on almost every philosophical school that emerged after him, as this chart shows


The Philosophy of Socrates

  • Study of Human Nature.  Socrates marks the transition from philosophy as a study of the universe to a study of human nature.
  • Self Education. The only true wisdom and knowledge comes from self-education and self-discovery.  Socrates said that he was “the wisest man” he knew, for he knew that he “knew nothing.”
  • The Nature of Virtue 
    •  Socrates believed that no one did wrong willingly and that those who do wrong do it out of ignorance of what was the right thing to do. Socrates believed that only an understanding of one’s soul could one find genuine happiness.
    • No one does an action believing that it is evil. All of our actions are undertaken with a view towards doing some good.
    • It is better to suffer injustice at the hands of other than to do unjust actions oneself.
  • Moral Scale. Socrates had established a sort of moral scale by which to measure the inherent good of things. At the bottom of this scale was external good; money, possessions and material wealth. Near the middle of the scale was the good of the body; health, strength, and the like. At the top of the scale was the good of the soul; wisdom and moral integrity.
  • Destroy AssumptionsSocrates said that philosophy is a peculiar practice because it builds by destroying and what it destroys is assumptions.

The Socratic Method

  • Socrates used a teaching device called the elenchus,which is close in meaning to cross-examination. Truth is discovered in conflict of ideas and the answers ones gives to questions.
  • Leads to the development of the dialectic, the idea that wisdom is generated through conflict of ideas—that a thesis and antithesis in conflict will generate synthesis, or wisdom.
  • One of the techniques used in this questioning has become known as Socratic irony. Despite the widespread belief that Socrates was very intelligent, he would profess ignorance to draw out answers and extend the questioning.
  • The purpose of questioning for Socrates was not to humiliate or anger those in power, but to help them discover truth.
  • For Socrates, philosophy was less about knowing the right answers and more about the strenuous effort to find those answers. Philosophy, according to Socrates, was a lifelong quest (Tarnas).
  • Benjamin Franklin admired Socrates and Jesus as models of wisdom, writing of the former: “I found this [Socratic] method the safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore, I took delight in it, practiced it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victory that neither myself nor my causes always deserved.”
  • Socrates famously said, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” summarizing his philosophy.

The full presentation of Socrates notes is available here.

Xenophon’s Vision of Socrates (Second Semester)

  • Plato was not the only person to write about Socrates. A different account comes from the Greek soldier and philosopher Xenophon, who argued that Socrates was “ever of human things.”
  • As British philosopher Martin Cohen has put it, “Plato, the idealist, offers an idol, a master figure, for philosophy. A Saint, a prophet of ‘the Sun-God’, a teacher condemned for his teachings as a heretic.”
  • His Socrates danced for joy and exercise, dispensed wisdom about everyday affairs, and argued for an orderly world ruled by benevolent gods.
  • Rather than Plato’s version of Socrates as a man who mocked people in the streets, Xenophon depicted him as someone who gently tried to “cure the intellectual perplexities of his friends.”
  • In Xenophon’s dialogues, Socrates leads his listeners to a conclusion gently rather than exposing the error of their ways.
  • The existence of benevolent Gods. Xenophon argued that Socrates believed in the idea of ordered system of utility in the universe.
    • His Socrates argues against a man who mocks the idea of the gods: “For humans and many other animals, there are ‘eyes so that they can see what can be seen, and ears so that they can hear what can be heard’, eyelids, eyelashes, molars and incisors, erotic desire to aid procreation; all these are ‘the contrivance of some wise craftsman who loves animals’. And what about the cosmos as a whole? ‘Are you, then, of the opinion that … those surpassingly large and infinitely numerous things are in such an orderly condition through some senselessness?’
    • As with the individual aspects of the natural world, so also with the system of the world as a whole: it is an orderly, and therefore beautiful, cosmos
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