Socrates (//; Ancient Greek: Σωκράτης Sōkrátēs [sɔːkrátɛːs]; c. 470–399 BC) was a Greek philosopher from Athens who is credited as a founder of Western philosophy and the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought. An enigmatic figure, Socrates authored no texts and is known mainly through the posthumous accounts of classical writers, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon. These accounts are written as dialogues, in which Socrates and his interlocutors examine a subject in the style of question and answer, usually with Socrates taking the lead, and gave rise to the Socratic dialogue literary genre. Contradictory accounts of Socrates make a reconstruction of the history of his life nearly impossible, a situation known as the Socratic problem. Socrates was a polarizing figure in Athenian society. In 399 BC, he was accused of corrupting the youth and failing to acknowledge the city's official gods. After a trial that lasted a day, he was sentenced to death. He spent his last day in prison, refusing to escape.
|Born||c. 470 BC|
|Died||399 BC (aged approximately 71)|
|Cause of death||Execution by forced suicide by poisoning|
|Era||Ancient Greek philosophy|
|School||Classical Greek philosophy|
|Epistemology, ethics, teleology|
|Part of a series on|
"I know that I know nothing"
"The unexamined life is not worth living"
gadfly · Trial of Socrates
Socratic dialogue · Socratic intellectualism
Socratic irony · Socratic method
Socratic paradox · Socratic questioning
Socratic problem · Socratici viri
Plato · Xenophon
Antisthenes · Aristippus · Aeschines
|Academic Skepticism · Megarians · Bibliography · Cultural depictions · Cynicism · Cyrenaics · Platonism · Aristotelianism · Stoicism · Virtue ethics · The Clouds|
Plato's dialogues are among the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates to survive from antiquity, from which Socrates has become renowned for his contributions to the fields of rationalism, ethics and epistemology. This Platonic Socrates lends his name to the concepts of Socratic irony and the Socratic method. Socrates exerted a strong influence on philosophers in later antiquity and has continued to do so in the modern era. Depictions of Socrates in art, literature and popular culture have made him one of the most widely known figures in the Western philosophical tradition.
Sources and the Socratic problem
Socrates did not document his teachings and nothing written by him has survived. All we know of him comes from the accounts of others: mainly the philosopher Plato and the historian Xenophon, who were both his pupils, the Athenian comic dramatist Aristophanes (Socrates's contemporary), and Plato's pupil Aristotle, who was born after Socrates's death. The often contradictory stories from these ancient accounts only serve to complicate scholars' ability to reconstruct Socrates's true thoughts reliably, a predicament known as the Socratic problem. The works of Plato, Xenophon, and other authors who use the character of Socrates as an investigative tool are written in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutors and provide the main source of information on Socrates's life and thought. Socratic dialogues was a term coined by Aristotle to describe this newly formed literary genre. Only Plato's dialogues, along with a few that have been attributed to Plato but are probably the work of others in the mid fourth century BC, perhaps Plato's students, and those of Xenophon survive to the present day. While the exact dates of their composition are unknown, it is believed that most were written after Socrates' death. As Aristotle first noted, the extent to which the dialogues portray Socrates authentically is a matter of some debate.
Plato and Xenophon
Xenophon was a well-educated, honest man but he lacked the intelligence of a trained philosopher and couldn't conceptualize or articulate Socrates's arguments. Xenophon admired Socrates for his intelligence, his patriotism and his courage on the battlefield. Xenophon discusses Socrates in four of his works: the Memorabilia, the Oeconomicus, the Symposium, and the Apology of Socrates. He also mentions a story featuring Socrates in his Anabasis. Oeconomicus hosts a discussion on practical agricultural issues. Apologia offers the speeches of Socrates during his trial but is unsophisticated compared to Plato's work of the same title. Symposium is a dialogue of Socrates with other prominent Athenians during an after-dinner discussion, but is quite different from Plato's Symposium, differing not only in the names of those attending but in Socrates's presented ideas as well. In Memorabilia, he defends Socrates from the accusations of corrupting the youth and being against the gods; essentially, it is a collection of various stories gathered together to construct a new apology for Socrates.
Plato's representation of Socrates is not straightforward. Plato was a pupil of Socrates and outlived him by five decades. How trustworthy Plato is in representing the attributes of Socrates is a matter of debate; the view that he wouldn't have tried to alter Socratic thought (known as Tailor-Burket thesis) isn't shared by many contemporary scholars. A driver of this doubt is the inconsistency of the character of Socrates that he presents. One common explanation of this inconsistency is that Plato initially tried to accurately represent the historical Socrates, while later in his writings he was happy to insert his own views into Socrates's words. Under this understanding, there is a distinction between the Socratic Socrates of Plato's earlier works, and the Platonic Socrates of Plato's later writings, although the boundary between the two seems blurred.
Xenophon's and Plato's accounts differ in their presentations of Socrates as a person, with the picture of Socrates painted by the conservative Xenophon being dull, less humorous and less ironic than he is in Plato's depiction. Xenophon's Socrates also lacks the philosophical features of Plato's Socrates—ignorance, elenchus—and thinks enkrateia is of pivotal importance, which is not the case with Plato's Socrates. Generally, Logoi Socraticoi cannot help us to reconstruct the historical Socrates even in cases where their narratives overlap due to possible intertextuality.
Aristophanes and other sources
Writers of Athenian comedy, including Aristophanes, also commented on Socrates. Aristophanes' most important comedy with respect to Socrates is The Clouds, where Socrates is a central character of the play. Unfortunately, this characterization of Sophocles in Clouds is the only one that survives today. In this drama, Aristophanes presents a caricature of Socrates that leans towards sophistism, ridiculing Socrates as a crazy atheist. Socrates in Clouds is interested in natural philosophy, which agrees with Plato's depiction of him in Phaedo. What is certain is that by the age of 42, Socrates had already captured the interest of Athenians as a philosopher. Current scholarship does not deem Aristophanes' work as being very helpful in reconstructing the historical Socrates, except with regard to some characteristics of his personality, perhaps.
Other ancient authors who wrote about Socrates were Aeschines of Sphettus, Antisthenes, Aristippus, Bryson, Cebes, Crito, Euclid of Megara, Phaedo and Aristotle, all of whom wrote after Socrates's death. Aristotle was not a contemporary of Socrates; he studied under Plato at the latter's Academy for twenty years. Aristotle treats Socrates without the bias of Xenophon and Plato, who had an emotional tie with Socrates, and he scrutinizes Socrates's doctrines as a philosopher. Aristotle was familiar with the various written and unwritten stories of Socrates.
The Socratic problem
In a seminal work written in 1818, the philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher attacked Xenophon's accounts; his attack was widely accepted and gave rise to the Socratic problem. Schleiermacher criticized Xenophon for his naïve representation of Socrates—the latter was a soldier, Schleiermacher pointed out, and was unable to articulate Socratic ideas. Furthermore, Xenophon was biased in his depiction of his former friend and teacher, believing Socrates to have been unfairly treated by Athens, and sought to prove his points of view rather than to provide an impartial account, with the result being the portrayal of an uninspiring philosopher. By the early 20th century, Xenophon's account was largely rejected.
The philosophy professor Karl Joel, basing his arguments on Aristotle's interpretation of Socratic logos, suggested that the Socratic dialogues are mostly fictional, since various authors were just mimicking some Socratic traits of dialogue. Joel's view was dominant among scholars in the first half of the 20th century until philosophers such as Olof Gigon and Eugène Dupréel, in the middle of 20th century, proposed that the study of Socrates should focus on the various versions of his character and beliefs rather than aiming to reconstruct a historical Socrates. Later, it was suggested that the early Socratic dialogues of Plato were more compatible with other evidence for a historical Socrates than his later writings, an argument that is based on inconsistencies detected in Plato's own evolving depiction of Socrates. Vlastos totally disregarded Xenophon's account except when it agreed with Plato's. More recently, Charles H. Kahn has reinforced the skeptical stance on the unsolvable Socratic Problem, suggesting that only Plato's Apology has any historical significance.
Socrates was born in 470 or 469 BC to Sophroniscus and Phaenarete, a stoneworker and a midwife, respectively, in the Athenian deme of Alopece, so he was an Athenian citizen, having been born to relatively affluent Athenians. He lived close to his father's relatives and inherited, as was customary, part of his father's estate, securing a life free of financial troubles. His education followed the laws and customs of Athens. He learned the basic skills of reading and writing and, like most wealthy Athenians, received extra lessons in various other fields such as gymnastics, poetry and music. He was married, possibly twice; his marriage to Xanthippe took place when Socrates was in his fifties, and another marriage might have been with a daughter of Aristides, an Athenian statesman. He had three sons with Xanthippe. Socrates fulfilled his military service during the Peloponnesian War and distinguished himself in three campaigns.
In 406 BC, Socrates participated as a member of the Boule in the trial of six military commanders when his tribe (the Antiochis) comprised the prytany. The generals were accused of abandoning the survivors of some ships that had foundered in order to pursue the defeated Spartan navy, thereby having failed to uphold, in the eyes of many, the most basic of duties. Although the law required separate trials for these generals, the public had demanded a joint trial and capital punishment to be imposed in the event of a guilty verdict. Socrates stood alone from the prytany in refusing to accept this unconstitutional stance.
Another incident that illustrates Socrates's deep respect for the law is the arrest of Leon the Salaminian. As Plato describes in his Apology, Socrates and four others were summoned to the Tholos and told by representatives of the oligarchy of the Thirty (which began ruling in 404 BCE) to arrest Leon for execution. Again Socrates was the sole abstainer, choosing to risk the tyrants' wrath and retribution rather than to participate in what he considered to be a crime.
Socrates attracted great interest from the Athenian public and especially the Athenian youth. He was notoriously ugly, having a flat turned-up nose, bulging eyes and a large belly; his friends joked about his appearance. Socrates showed a hardy indifference to material pleasures, including his own appearance and personal comfort. He neglected personal hygiene, bathed rarely, walked barefoot, and owned only one ragged coat. He became known for his self-control in which he moderated his eating, his drinking, and his sex, although he did not practice full abstention. While he was physically attracted to both sexes, as was common and accepted in ancient Greece, he resisted his passion for young men because, as Plato describes, he was more interested in educating their souls. In his self-control, Socrates never sought to gain sexual favors from his disciples, as often happened with other older teachers and adolescent students. Politically, he did not take sides in the rivalry between the democrats and the oligarchs in Ancient Athens, criticizing both sharply when they were in power. The character of Socrates as exhibited in Apology, Crito, Phaedo and Symposium concurs with other sources to an extent that gives confidence in Plato's depiction of Socrates in these works as being representative of the real Socrates.
Socrates died in Athens in 399 BC after a trial for impiety and the corruption of the young that lasted for only a day. He spent his last day in prison among friends and followers who offered him a route to escape, which he refused. He died the next morning, in accordance with his sentence, after drinking poison hemlock. He had never left Athens, except during the military campaigns which he had participated in.
Trial of Socrates
In 399 BC, Socrates famously went on trial for corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens, and for impiety. Socrates defended himself unsuccessfully. He was found guilty by a majority vote cast by a jury of hundreds of male Athenian citizens and, according to the custom, proposed his own penalty, offering a fraction of his assets as compensation. The jurors declined his offer and ordered the death penalty. The official charges were corrupting youth, worshipping false gods and not worshipping the state religion.
By way of background: In 404 BC, the Athenians had been crushed by Spartans at the decisive naval Battle of Aegospotami, and subsequently, the Spartans laid siege to Athens. They replaced the democratic government with a new, pro-oligarchic government, named the Thirty Tyrants. Because of their tyrannical measures, some Athenians organized to overthrow the Tyrants—and, indeed, they managed to do so briefly—until a Spartan request for aid from the Thirty arrived and a compromise was sought. When the Spartans left again, however, democrats seized the opportunity to kill the oligarchs and reclaim the government of Athens. It was under this politically tense climate in 399 BC that Socrates was charged.
The accusations against Socrates were initiated by a poet, Meletus, who asked for the death penalty in accordance with the charge of asebeia. Other accusers were Anytus and Lycon. Anytus was a powerful democratic politician who was despised by Socrates and his pupils Critias and Alkiviadis. After a month or two, in late spring or early summer, the trial started and lasted for a day. The religious charges certainly had substance to them; Socrates had criticized the anthropomorphism of traditional Greek religion, describing it in several cases as a daimonion, an inner voice.
Plato's Socratic apology, meaning his defense of Socrates, starts with Socrates answering the various rumors against him that have given rise to the indictment. Firstly, Socrates defends himself against the rumor that he is an atheist naturalist philosopher, as portrayed in Aristophanes' The Clouds, or being a sophist—a category of professional philosophy teachers notorious for their relativism. Against the allegations of corrupting the youth, Socrates answers that he has never corrupted anyone intentionally, since corrupting someone would carry the risk of being corrupted back in return, and that would be illogical, since corruption is undesirable. On the second charge, Socrates asks for clarification. Meletus responds by repeating the accusation that Socrates is an atheist. Socrates is quick to note the contradiction between atheism and worshipping false gods, and perhaps ironically claims that he, himself, is God's gift to the Athenians, since his activities ultimately benefit Athens and by condemning him to death, Athens itself will be the greatest loser. After that, he claimed that even though no human can reach wisdom, philosophizing is the best thing someone can do, implying money and prestige are not as precious as commonly thought.
Socrates was given the chance to offer alternative punishments for himself after being found guilty. He could have requested permission to flee Athens and live in exile, but he didn't want to. Instead, according to Plato, he deliberately requested that a paltry fine should be imposed on him, even suggesting that free meals should be provided for him daily in recognition of his worth to Athens, although Xenophon wrote that he made no proposals. The jurors favored the death penalty. In return, Socrates warned jurors and Athenians that criticism of them by his many disciples was inescapable, unless they became good men. After a delay caused by Athenian religious ceremonial, Socrates spent his last day in prison, his friends visiting him and offering him an opportunity to escape, which he declined.
The question of what motivated Athenians to convict Socrates remains a point of controversy among scholars. There are two theories: the first is that Socrates was convicted on religious grounds, the second, that he was accused and convicted for political reasons. The case for it being a political persecution is usually challenged by the existence of an amnesty that was granted to Athenian citizens in 403 BC to prevent escalation to civil war; but, as the text from Socrates's trial and other texts reveal, the accusers could have fueled their rhetoric using events prior to 403 BC. Later ancient authors have claimed that the prosecution was political. For example, Aeschines of Sphettus (c.425–350 BC) writes: I wonder how one ought to deal with the fact that Alcibiades and Critias were associates of Socrates, against whom the many and the upper classes made such strong accusations. It is hard to imagine a more pernicious person than Critias, who stood out among the Thirty as the most wicked of Greeks. People say that these men ought not be used as evidence that Socrates corrupted the youth, nor should their sins be used in any way whatsoever with respect to Socrates, who does not deny carrying on conversations with the young." It was true that Socrates did not stand for democracy during the reign of Thirty, and that most of his pupils were against the democrats.
The argument for religious persecution is supported by the fact that the accounts of the trial by both Plato and Xenophon mostly focus on the charges of impiety. In the process of defending himself, Socrates is portrayed as making no effort to dispute the fact that he didn't believe in the Athenian gods. On the other hand, there were many skeptics and atheist philosophers during this time who managed to evade prosecution, as was demonstrated in The Clouds by Aristophanes, a political satire that was staged years before the trial. Another, more recent, interpretation synthesizes religious and political arguments, since during those times, religion and state were not separated.
A fundamental characteristic of Plato's Socrates is the Socratic method, or the method of refutation (elenchus). It is most prominent in the early works of Plato, such as Apology, Crito, Gorgias, Republic I, and others. Socrates would initiate a discussion about a topic with a known expert on the subject, usually in the company of some young men and boys, and by dialogue prove all of the expert's beliefs and arguments to be contradictory and wrong, by exposing the inconsistencies in the expert's reasoning. Socrates asks his interlocutor for a definition of the subject, then Socrates asks more questions where the answers of the interlocutor become at odds with his first definition, with the conclusion that the opinion of the expert was wrong in the first place. The interlocutor may come up with a different definition which again is placed under the scrutiny of Socrates's questions, with each round and repetition hoping to approach the truth more closely but more often revealing their ignorance on the matter. Since the interlocutors' definitions most commonly represent the mainstream opinion on a matter, the discussion places doubt on the common opinion. Another key component of Socratic method is that he also tests his own opinions, exposing their weakness along with the others, thus Socrates is not teaching or even preaching ex cathedra a fixed philosophical doctrine, since he humbly acknowledges his own ignorance while participating himself in searching for truth with his pupils and interlocutors.
Scholars have questioned the validity and the exact nature of the Socratic method, or indeed if there even was a Socratic method. In 1982, the scholar of ancient philosophy Gregory Vlastos claimed that the Socratic method could not be used to establish the truth or falsehood of any particular beliefs. Vlastos argued it was rather simply a potent instrument for exposing inconsistency within an interlocutor's beliefs. There have been two main lines of thought regarding this view, depending on whether it is accepted that Socrates is seeking to prove a claim wrong. According to the first line of thought, known as the constructivist approach, Socrates indeed seeks to refute a claim by this method, and the method helps in reaching affirmative statements. The non-constructivist approach holds that Socrates merely wants to establish the inconsistency among the premises and conclusion of the initial argument.
Socratic priority of definition
Socrates starts his discussions with a search for definitions. In most cases, Socrates initiates his discourse with an expert on a subject by seeking a definition (such as what is virtue or goodness or justice or courage) before discussing it further. Making a priority of finding a definition for any aspect of knowledge is common in many of his dialogues, as in Hippias Major or Euthyphro. Some scholars have argued that Socrates does not endorse this as a principle, because they can locate examples of him not doing so (e.g., in Laches, when searching for examples of courage in order to define it). Some have argued that this priority of definition comes from Plato rather than Socrates. Philosophy professor Peter Geach, accepting that Socrates endorses the priority of definitions, finds the technique fallacious, and criticizes it as follows: "We know heaps of things without being able to define the terms in which we express our knowledge". The debate on the issue is still unresolved.
Plato's Socrates often claims that he is aware of his own lack of knowledge, especially when discussing ethics (such as areté, i.e. goodness, courage) since he does not possess knowledge of the essential nature of such concepts. For example, during his trial, with his life at stake, Socrates says: "I thought Evenus a happy man, if he really possesses this art (technē), and teaches for so moderate a fee. Certainly I would pride and preen myself if I knew (epistamai) these things, but I do not know (epistamai) them, gentlemen". In another passage, when he was informed that the prestigious Oracle of Delphi had declared that there is no one wiser than Socrates, he relates: "So I withdrew and thought to myself: 'I am wiser (sophoteron) than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows (eidenai) anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know".
In some of Plato's dialogues, Socrates appears to credit himself with some knowledge, and can even seem strongly opinionated for a man who professes his own ignorance. For example, in his Apology, he says "It is perhaps on this point and in this respect, gentlemen, that I differ from the majority of men, and if I were to claim that I am wiser than anyone in anything, it would be in this, that, as I have no adequate knowledge (ouk eidōs hikanōs) of things in the underworld, so I do not think I have. I do know (oida), however, that it is wicked and shameful to do wrong (adikein), to disobey one's superior, be he god or man. I shall never fear or avoid things of which I do not know, whether they may not be good rather than things that I know (oida) to be bad."
This contradiction has puzzled scholars. There are varying explanations of the inconsistency, mostly in terms of differing interpretations of the meaning of "knowledge". There is a consensus that Socrates accepts that acknowledging one's lack of knowledge is the first step towards wisdom. While Socrates claims that he has acquired cognitive achievement in some aspects of knowledge, he denies any wisdom in the most important domains in ethics.
There is a widespread assumption that Socrates was an ironist, mostly based on the depiction of Socrates by Plato and Aristotle. Socrates' irony is so subtle and slightly humorous that it often leaves the reader wondering if Socrates is making an intentional pun. Plato's Euthyphro is filled with Socratic irony. The story begins when Socrates is meeting with Euthyphro, a man who has accused his own father of murder. Socrates bites Euthyphro several times (metaphorically) without his interlocutor understanding the irony. When Socrates first hears the details of the story, he comments, "It is not, I think, any random person who could do this [prosecute one's father] correctly, but surely one who is already far progressed in wisdom". When Euthyphro is boasting about his understanding of divinity, Socrates responds that it is "most important that I become your student". Socrates is commonly seen as ironic when using praises to flatter or when addressing his interlocutors. Aristotle linked Socratic irony to a different meaning. Aristotle used the term eirōneia (a Greek word, later Latinized, from which the English word irony comes) to describe Socrates' self-deprecation. Eirōneia, then, contrary to modern meaning, meant to conceal a narrative that was not stated, while in today's "irony", the message is clear, even though untold literally.
Scholars are divided on why Socrates uses irony. The mainstream opinion, since the Hellenistic period, perceives irony as a means to add a playful note to Socrates' speech so as to get the attention of the audience. Another line of thought holds that Socrates conceals his philosophical message with irony, making it accessible only to those who can separate the parts of his statements which are ironic from those which are not. Gregory Vlastos has identified a more complex pattern of irony in Socrates, where his words have a double meaning, both ironic and not, although this opinion is not shared by many other scholars.
Not everyone was amused by Socratic irony. Epicureans, the only post-Socratic philosophical school in ancient times that didn't identify themselves as successors of Socrates, based their criticism of Socrates on his ironic spirit, preferring a more direct approach to teaching. Centuries later, Friedrich Nietzsche commented along the same lines: "Dialectics lets you act like a tyrant; you humiliate the people you defeat."
Socratic eudaimonism and intellectualism
For Socrates, the pursuit of eudaimonia (Greek: well-being) motivates all human action, directly or indirectly. Virtue and knowledge are linked, in Socrates's view, to eudaimonia, but how closely he considered them to be connected is still debated. Some argue that Socrates thought that virtue, knowledge, and eudaimonia are identical, while another opinion holds that, for Socrates, virtue serves as a means to eudaimonia (the "identical" and "sufficiency" thesis, respectively). Another point of debate is whether, according to Socrates, it is actual good that people desire, or rather, only what they perceive as good.
In Plato's Protagoras (345c4-e6), Socrates implies that "no one errs willingly", which has become the hallmark of Socratic intellectualism. Socrates is intellectualist because he gave a prominent role to virtue and knowledge. He was also a motivational intellectualist, since he believed that human actions are guided by a cognitive power to comprehend what they desire, while diminishing the role of impulses. Priority given to the intellect as being the way to live a good life, diminishing or placing aside irrational beliefs or passions, is the hallmark of Socratic moral philosophy. Plato's dialogues that support Socrates's intellectual motivism—as this Socratic thesis is named—are mainly the Gorgias (467c–8e, where Socrates discusses the actions of a tyrant that do not benefit him) and Meno (77d–8b, where Socrates explains to Meno his view that no one wants bad things, unless they don't have knowledge of what is good and bad in the first place). Socrates's total rejection of akrasia (acting because of your irrational passions contrary to your knowledge or beliefs) has puzzled scholars. Most believe that Socrates left no space for irrational desires, although some claim that Socrates acknowledged the existence of irrational motivations, but without them taking a primary role in decision-making.
Socrates' religious nonconformity challenged the views of his times and his critique reshaped religious discourse for the coming centuries. In Ancient Greece, and therefore in Athens, organized religion was fragmented, celebrated in a number of festivals for specific gods, such as the City Dionysia, or in domestic rituals, and there were no sacred texts. Religion, therefore, intermingled with the daily life of citizens, who performed their personal religious duties mainly with sacrifices to various gods. Whether Socrates was a practicing man of religion or a 'provocateur atheist' has been a point of debate since ancient times; his trial included impiety accusations, and the controversy hasn't yet ceased.
Socrates discusses divinity and the soul mostly in Alcibiades, Euthyphro and in Plato's Apology. In Alcibiades Socrates links the human soul to divinity, concluding "Then this part of her resembles God, and whoever looks at this, and comes to know all that is divine, will gain thereby the best knowledge of himself." His discussions on religion always fall under the scope of his rationalism, Socrates, in Euthyphro, discusses piety where he reaches a revolutionary conclusion which takes him far from the age's usual practice: he deems sacrifices to the gods to be useless, especially when they are driven by the hope of receiving a reward in return. Instead he calls for philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge to be the principal way towards worshipping the gods. The rejection of traditional forms of piety placed a moral burden on ordinary Athenians, who were also his jurors at his trial.
Socrates argued that the gods were inherently wise and just, a perception far from traditional religion at that time. In Euthyphro, the Euthyphro dilemma arises: Socrates questions his interlocutor about the relationship between piety and the will of a powerful god: Is something good because it is the will of this god, or is it the will of this god because it is good? In other words, does piety follow the good, or the god? The implications of this puzzle lead to the rejection of the traditional Greek theology, since the Homeric gods fought against each other. Socrates thought that goodness, in essence, is independent from gods, and gods must themselves be pious.
Socrates affirms a belief in gods in Plato's Apology, where he says to the jurors that he acknowledges gods more than his accusers. For Plato's Socrates, the existence of gods is taken for granted; in none of his dialogues does he probe whether gods exist or not. In Apology, a case for Socrates being agnostic can be made, based on his discussion of the great unknown after death, and in Phaedo (the dialogue with his students in his last day) Socrates gives expression to a clear belief in the immortality of the soul. He also believed in oracles, divinations and other messages from gods. These signs did not offer him any positive belief on moral issues; rather, they were predictions of future events that couldn't be assessed through reason.
In Xenophon's Memorabilia, Socrates constructs an argument that resonates with a belief in intelligent design. He claims that since there are a lot of features in the universe that exhibit "signs of forethought" (e.g., eyelids), a divine Creator must have created the universe. He then deduces that the Creator should be omniscient and omnipotent and also, that he created the universe for the advance of humankind, since humans naturally have many abilities that other animals do not. At times, Socrates speaks of a single deity, while at other times he refers to plural "gods". This has been interpreted as meaning that he either believed that a supreme deity was in command of other gods, or that various gods were parts, or manifestations, of this single deity.
It has been a source of puzzlement how Socratic religious beliefs can be consistent with his strict adherence to rationalism. Philosophy professor Mark McPherran suggests that Socrates inspected and interpreted every divine sign through secular rationality for confirmation. Professor of ancient philosophy A. A. Long suggests that, for Socrates and his era, rationality and religiousness were not considered in any way to be mutually exclusive, while it is in the later Judeo-Christian perspective that these two domains seem to be at odds with each other.
In several texts (e.g., Plato's Euthyphro 3b5; Apology 31c–d; Xenophon's Memorabilia 1.1.2) Socrates claims he hears a daimōnic sign—an averting inner voice heard usually when he was about to make a mistake. Socrates claims at his trial that this is what prevented him from entering into politics, explaining further that: "The reason for this is something you have heard me frequently mention in different places—namely, the fact that I experience something divine and daimonic, as Meletus has inscribed in his indictment, by way of mockery. It started in my childhood, the occurrence of a particular voice. Whenever it occurs, it always deters me from the course of action I was intending to engage in, but it never gives me positive advice. It is this that has opposed my practicing politics, and I think its doing so has been absolutely fine." Modern scholarship has variously interpreted this Socratic daimōnion as a rational source of knowledge, an impulse, a dream or even a paranormal experience felt by an ascetic Socrates.
Virtue and knowledge
Socrates is known for disavowing knowledge, embodied in his famous axiom "I know that I know nothing". This is often attributed to Socrates on the basis of a statement in Plato's Apology, though the same view is repeatedly found elsewhere in Plato's early writings on Socrates. In other statements though, he implies or even claims that he does have knowledge. For example, in Plato's Apology Socrates says: "...but that to do injustice and disobey my superior, god or man, this I know to be evil and base...".(Ap. 29B6-7) In his debate with Callicles, he says: "...I know well that if you will agree with me on those things which my soul believes, those things will be the very truth..." Whether Socrates genuinely thought he lacked knowledge or merely feigned a belief in his own ignorance remains a matter of debate. A common interpretation is that he was indeed feigning modesty. According to Norman Gulley, Socrates did this to entice his interlocutors to discourse with him. On the other hand, Irwin Terrence claims that Socrates's words should be taken literally. Vlastos argues that there is enough evidence to refute both claims, and argues that, for Socrates, there are two separate meanings of "knowledge" : Knowledge-C and Knowledge-E (C stands for "certain", and E stands for elenchus, i.e. the Socratic method). Knowledge-C is the something unquestionable whereas Knowledge-E is the result of Socrates's elenchus, his way of examining things. Thus, Socrates speaks the truth when he says he knows-C something, and he is also truthful when saying he knows-E, for example that it is evil for someone to disobey his superiors, as he claims in Plato's Apology Not everyone has been impressed by this semantic dualism. Lesher argued that Socrates claimed in various dialogues that one word is linked to one meaning (i.e. in Hippias major, Meno, Laches). Lesher suggests that although Socrates claimed that he had no knowledge regarding the nature of virtues, he thought that in some cases, someone could have knowledge on some ethical propositions.
Socrates' theory of virtue states that all virtues are essentially one, since they are a form of knowledge. In Protagoras, Socrates makes the case for the unity of virtues using the example of courage: if someone has knowledge of the danger, he can undertake risks. Aristotle comments: "...Socrates the elder thought that the end of life was knowledge of virtue, and he used to seek for the definition of justice, courage, and each of the parts of virtue, and this was a reasonable approach, since he thought that all virtues were sciences, and that as soon as one knew [for example] justice, he would be just..."
There exist textual passages suggesting that Socrates had a love affair with Alcibiades and other young males, while other texts suggest that Socrates' friendship with young boys sought only to improve them and were not sexual. In Gorgias, Socrates claims he was a dual lover of Alcibiades and philosophy, and his flirtatiousness is evident in Protagoras, Meno (76a–c) and Phaedrus (227c–d). However, the exact nature of his relationship with Alcibiades is not clear since Socrates was known for his self-restraint, while Alcibiades admits in the Symposium that he had tried to seduce Socrates but failed.
The Socratic theory of love is mostly deduced from Lysis, where Socrates engages in a discussion about love at a wrestling school in the company of Lysis and his friends. They start their dialogue by investigating parental love and how it manifests with respect to the freedom and boundaries which parents set for their child. Socrates concludes that if Lysis is utterly useless, nobody will love him, not even his parents. While most scholars consider this text to be humorous in intention, it has also been suggested that it reveals the Socratic doctrine on love, which is an egoistic one, according to which we only love people who are useful to us in some way. Others scholars disagree with this view, arguing that Socrates doctrine leaves room for non-egoistical love for a spouse, while still others deny that Socrates is suggesting any egoistical motivation at all. A form of utility that children have for parents, as Socrates claims in Symposium, is that they offer the false impression of immortality. Scholars note that for Socrates, love is rational.
Socratic philosophy of politics
Socrates viewed himself as a political artist. In Plato's Gorgias, he tells Callimachus: "I believe that I'm one of a few Athenians—so as not to say I'm the only one, but the only one among our contemporaries—to take up the true political craft and practice the true politics. This is because the speeches I make on each occasion do not aim at gratification but at what's best." His claim illustrates his aversion for the established democratic assemblies and procedures such as voting—as Socrates didn't hold any respect for politicians and rhetoricians who would stoop to using tricks to mislead the public. He never ran for office or suggested any legislation. His aim was to help the city flourish—that was his true political art. As a citizen, he abided by the law. He obeyed the rules and carried out his military duty by fighting wars abroad. His dialogues, however, make little mention of contemporary political decisions, such as the Sicilian Expedition.
Socrates spent his time conversing with citizens, among them powerful members of Athenian society, scrutinizing their beliefs and bringing the contradictions of their ideas to light. Socrates believed he was doing them a favor since, for him, politics was about shaping the moral landscape of the city through philosophy rather than electoral procedures. There is a debate over where Socrates stood in among the polarized political climate among ancient Athens' oligarchs and democrats. While there is no clear textual evidence, one widely held theory holds that Socrates leaned towards democracy: he disobeyed the one order that the oligarchic government of the Thirty Tyrants handed to him, he respected laws and the political system of Athens (which was formulated by democrats), and lastly, it is argued that his affinity for the ideals of democratic Athens was a reason why he didn't want to escape prison and the death penalty. On the other hand, there is some evidence that Socrates leaned towards oligarchy: most of his friends supported oligarchy, he was contemptuous of the opinion of the many and was critical of the democratic process, and his conversation in Protagoras, from the pen of Plato, displays some anti-democratic elements. A less mainstream argument suggests that Socrates was for democratic republicanism, placing Athens above the people and occupying in the middle ground of democrats and oligarchs.
Yet another suggestion is that Socrates was in line with liberalism, a political ideology formed in the Age of Enlightenment. This argument is mostly based on Crito and Apology, where Socrates talks about the mutually beneficial relationship between the city and its citizens. Also, Socrates has been seen as the first proponent of civil disobedience. Socrates' strong objection to injustice, along with his refusal to serve the Thirty Tyrant's order to arrest Leon, are suggestive of this line: as he says in Critias, "One ought never act unjustly, even to repay a wrong that has been done to oneself." Ιn the broader picture, Socrates' counsel would be for citizens to follow the orders of the state, unless, after much reflection, they deem them to be unjust.
Socrates' impact was immense in philosophy after his death. Almost all philosophical currents after Socrates traced their roots to him: Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, the Cynics, and the Stoics. Interest in Socrates kept increasing until the third century AD. He was considered to be the man who moved philosophy from a study of the natural world, as was the case for pre-Socratic philosophers, to a study of humanity. The Socratic priority of eudaimonia was accepted among all his successors: happiness, restrained from excesses that ultimately end in misery. They differed in response to fundamental questions such as the purpose of life or the nature of arete (goodness), since Socrates had not handed them an answer, and therefore, philosophical schools subsequently diverged greatly in their interpretation of his thought.
Immediate followers of Socratism were his pupils, Euclid, Aristippus and Antisthenes, who drew differing conclusions among themselves and followed independent trajectories. Antisthenes had a profound contempt of material goods since virtue was all that mattered, a line of thought that was continued by Diogenes and the Cynics. On the opposite end, Aristippus endorsed the accumulation of wealth, and lived a luxurious life; after leaving Athens and returning to his home city of Cyrene, he founded the Cyrenaic philosophical school which was based on hedonism, living an easy life with physical pleasures. His school passed to his grandson, bearing the same name. There is a dialogue in Xenophon's work where Aristippus claims he wants to live without wishing to rule or be ruled by others. In addition, Aristippus maintained a skeptical stance on epistemology, claiming that we can be certain only of our own feelings, resonating with the Socratic understanding of our ignorance. Euclid was a contemporary of Socrates. After Socrates' trial and death, he left Athens for the nearby town of Megara, where he founded a school, named the Megarians. His theory was built on the pre-Socratic monism of Parmenides. For Parmenides, only one thing existed and that was the "good" Socrates was searching for; Euclid continued Socrates' thought. The full doctrines of Socrates' pupils are difficult to reconstruct. It is clear however, that their impact reached Cicero.
The stoics relied heavily on Socrates. They applied the Socratic method as a tool to avoid inconsistencies. Their moral doctrines focused on how to live a smooth life through wisdom and virtue, giving a crucial role to virtue for happiness and the relation between goodness and ethical excellence, all of which echoed Socratic thought. At the same time, the philosophical current of Platonism claimed Socrates as their predecessor, in ethics and in their theory of knowledge (skepticism). Arcesilaus, the head of the Academy after Plato, continued the Socratic philosophy of ignorance, and competed with the Stoics over who was the true heir of Socrates with regard to ethics. While the Stoics insisted on knowledge-based ethics, Arcesilaus relied on Socratic ignorance. The Stoics reply to Arcesilaus was that Socratic ignorance was part of Socratic irony (they themselves disapproved the use of irony), an argument that ultimately became the dominant narrative of Socrates in later antiquity.
While Aristotle considered Socrates a major philosopher, his writing didn't focus on him to the same degree as it did on other, pre-Socratic philosophers, and most of his followers didn't comment on Socrates at all. One of Aristotle pupil's unleashed an ad hominem attack on Socrates: Aristoxenus authored a book full of Socrates' scandals; it was not well-received by ancient critics. The Epicureans later weaponized Socratic irony in their polemic against Socrates. They also attacked him for superstition, given his story with the Delphi oracle. Epicurus, the founder of epicureanism, living in the 4th and 3rd century BC, came across various currents claiming to be Socratic. The Epicureans criticized Socrates for his character and various faults, and focused mostly on his irony, which was deemed inappropriate for a philosopher and unseemly for a teacher. Also, his Socratic ignorance didn't resonate well with their criteria of truths.
Socratic thought found its way to the Islamic Middle East alongside that of Aristotle and the Stoics. Plato's works on Socrates, as well as other ancient Greek literature, were translated into Arabic by prominent early Muslim scholars such as Al-Kindi, Jabir ibn Hayyan, and the Muʿtazila. For Muslim scholars, Socrates was hailed and admired for combining his ethics with his lifestyle, perhaps because of the resemblance in this regard with Muhammad's life. Socratic doctrines were altered to match Islamic faith: according to Muslim scholars, Socrates made arguments for monotheism, for a caring god in particular, and for the temporality of this world and rewards in the next life. His influence on the Arabic world continues to the present day.
In medieval times, little of Socrates' thought survived in the Christian world as a whole; however, works on Socrates from Christian scholars such as Lactantius, Eusebius and Augustine were maintained in the Byzantine Empire, where Socrates was studied under a strong Christian lens. After the fall of Constantinople, many of the texts were brought back into the world of Roman Christianity, where they were translated into Latin. Overall, ancient Socratic philosophy, like the rest of classical literature before the Renaissance, was addressed with hostility in the Christian world at first.
During the early phase of the Italian Renaissance, two different narratives of Socrates developed. On the one hand, the humanist movement revived interest in classical authors and in particular, Leonardo Bruni translated many of Plato's Socratic dialogues, while his pupil Giannozzo Manetti authored a well-circulated book, a Life of Socrates. They both presented a civic version of Socrates, with Socrates being a humanist and a supporter of republicanism. Bruni and Manetti were mostly interested in defending secularism as a non-sinful way of life, and so presenting a view of Socrates that was aligned with the Christian morality assisted their cause. But in doing so, they had to censor parts of his dialogues, especially those which appeared to promote homosexuality or any possibility of pederasty (with Alcibiades), or of representing Socratic ignorance as a tool and his daimon as a god. On the other hand, a different picture of Socrates was presented by Italian Neoplatonists led by the influential philosopher and priest Marsilio Ficino, who was impressed by the un-hierarchical and informal way of Socratic teaching, which he tried to replicate. Ficino portrayed a holy picture of Socrates, finding parallels with the life of Jesus Christ. For Ficino and his followers, Socratic ignorance signified his acknowledgement that all wisdom is God-given (through his inner voice—Socratic daimon)
In early modern France, Socrates's image was dominated by features of his private life rather than his philosophical thought, in various novels and satirical plays. Some thinkers used Socrates to highlight and comment upon controversies of their own era, like Théophile de Viau who portrayed a Christianized Socrates accused of atheism, while for Voltaire, the figure of Socrates represented a reason-based theist. Michel de Montaigne wrote extensively on Socrates, linking him to rationalism as a counterweight to contemporary religious fanatics.
In the 18th century, German idealism revived philosophical interest in Socrates, mainly through Hegel's work. For Hegel, Socrates marked a turning point in the history of humankind by the introduction of the principle of free subjectivity or self-determination. While Hegel hails Socrates for his contribution, he nonetheless justifies the Athenian court, for Socrates' insistence upon self-determination would be destructive of the Sittlichkeit (a Hegelian term signifying the way of life as shaped by the institutions and laws of the State). Also, Hegel sees the Socratic use of rationalism as a continuation of Protagoras' subjectivism, as stated by the homo mensura principle ("Man is the measure of all things"), somewhat modified: it is our reasoning that measures all things. The Socratic method also came to influence Hegel, as it is closely related to Hegelian dialectics. Hegel didn't see the Socratic method as maieutic, since it was used to refute various arguments but not to yield any positive conclusions. Also, Hegel considered Socrates as a predecessor of later ancient skeptic philosophers, even though he never clearly explained why.
Søren Kierkegaard considered Socrates his teacher. He authored his masters thesis on Socrates, The Concept of Irony With Continual Reference to Socrates. There he argues that Socrates is not a moral philosopher but is purely an ironist. He also focused on Socrates' avoidance of writing: for Kierkegaard, this avoidance was a sign of humility deriving from a true acceptance of his ignorance. Not only did Socrates not write anything down, but his contemporaries misconstrued and misunderstood him as a philosopher, leaving us with an almost impossible task in comprehending Socratic thought. Only Plato's Apology was close to the real Socrates, according to Kierkegaard. In his writings, he revisited Socrates quite frequently; at a later stage, Kierkegaard's view on him as a pure ironist shifted, and he found ethical elements in Socratic thought. Socrates was not only a subject of study for Kierkegaard, he was a model as well, for Kierkegaard paralleled his task as a philosopher to Socrates. He writes, "The only analogy I have before me is Socrates; my task is a Socratic task, to audit the definition of what it is to be a Christian", with his aim being to bring society closer to the Christian ideal, since he believed that Christianity had become a formality, void of any Christian essence. Kierkegaard denied being a Christian, as Socrates denied possessing any knowledge, so aiming to intrigue their contemporaries.
The hostility of Friedrich Nietzsche against Socrates for reshaping the philosophical landscape of humanity is well known. Nietzsche accused Socrates of responsibility for what he saw as the deterioration of the ancient Greek civilization during the 4th century BC and after, in his first book The Birth of Tragedy (1872). For Nietzsche, Socrates turned the scope of philosophy from pre-Socratic naturalism to rationalism and intellectualism. He writes: "I conceive of [the Presocratics] as precursors to a reformation of the Greeks: but not of Socrates"; "with Empedocles and Democritus the Greeks were well on their way towards taking the correct measure of human existence, its unreason, its suffering; they never reached this goal, thanks to Socrates". The effect, Nietzsche proposed, was a perverse situation that had continued down to his day: our culture is a Socratic culture, he believed. In a later publication, The Twilight of the Idols (1887), Nietzsche continued his offensive against Socrates, focusing on the arbitrary linking of reason to virtue and happiness in Socratic thinking. He writes: "I try to understand from what partial and idiosyncratic states the Socratic problem is to be derived: his equation of reason = virtue = happiness. It was with this absurdity of a doctrine of identity that he fascinated: ancient philosophy never again freed itself [from this fascination]", From the late 19th century until the early 20th, the most common explanation of Nietzsche's hostility towards Socrates was his anti-rationalism; he considered Socrates the father of European rationalism. In the middle of the 20th century, philosopher Walter Kaufmann published an article arguing for Nietzsche's admiration of Socrates, and current mainstream opinion is that Nietzsche was ambivalent towards Socrates.
Continental philosophers Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss and Karl Popper, after experiencing the horrors of World War II, amidst the rise of totalitarian regimes, saw Socrates as an icon of individual conscience. Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), sees how Socrates' constant questioning and self-reflection could prevent the banality of evil. Conservative philosopher Leo Strauss considers Socrates' political thought as paralleling Plato's. He sees an elitist Socrates in Plato's Republic as exemplifying why the polis is not, and could not be, an ideal way of organizing life, since philosophical truths cannot be digested by the masses. The contrary view is held by Karl Popper, who considers Socrates as fundamentally opposing Plato's totalitarian ideas. For Popper, Socratic individualism, along with Athenian democracy, lead to the creation of their most significant contribution to humankind, the open society, which is the hallmark of Popper's philosophy, as described in his Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).
Socrates in popular culture
Socrates has been widely recognized for his contribution to philosophy, but his fame is more widespread than this and he appears in many aspects of popular culture. His name has been given to philosophical institutions, programs, buildings and parks. Even a crater on the Moon bears his name. He has featured in novels, books, films, TV series, songs and compositions. Socrates inspired a generation of Romantic poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley compared Socrates to Jesus. American statesmen like Benjamin Franklin and James Madison spoke highly of Socrates, as did Martin Luther King Jr. who attributed the attainment of academic freedom to him.
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