Socrates is one of the three greatest philosophers of Greek classical thought and, together with Aristotle and Plato, helped to provide the foundations of Western thought. Socrates was the first of this triumvirate, although he did not produce any written records of his beliefs.
A number of issues concerning his beliefs remain controversial, and there is still doubt about the reasons for his death and whether he could or should have sought to escape his fate.
Socrates was born in Athens a decade after the Battle of Salamis signaled the end of the Persian attempts to conquer Greece. Consequently, he was born into a society that was coming to terms with its physical independence and matching that with intellectual independence, although that had been expressed by what are now called the pre-Socratics in terms mostly of vague metaphysics and religious speculation.
The main event during his lifetime was the Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta, which was also seen as a struggle between personal independence and the militarization of society. The ultimate defeat of militarism did not occur until the long and perilously difficult years of warfare had passed, with the coarsening of public life and morals that accompanied the war.
Socrates was at the forefront of public life in Athens. Xenophon describes him as being part of the circle of Pericles and the other prominent leaders of Athenian society. It is also possible that he worked for a period with Archelaus, a pupil of Anaxagoras, who is reputed to be the first Athenian philosopher. He also may have been familiar with the subjects of geometry and astronomy.
Not withstanding these advantages in society, it is believed that the later part of his life was lived in poverty, as he is so depicted in a play by Aristophanes. Socrates spent most of his working life teaching and practicing philosophy, and he has been depicted as a man so captured by the world of the mind that he could be found unmoving like a statue, completely rapt in thought.
He married Xanthippe comparatively late in his life and had three children with her, who survived him when he was arrested by the state on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and not worshipping the gods of the city. He was brought to trial and condemned to death.
Socrates chose to swallow the hemlock that killed him even though it is likely that he could have escaped from confinement had he so desired. However, Socrates believed it was his duty to continue to serve the state and so acquiesced in the process.
It is from Aristotle and, especially, Plato that understanding of Socrates’ beliefs may be found. Aristotle’s main commentary is contained in Metaphysics, while Plato created a number of dialogues in which Socrates was supposed to have been a participant, notably in Crito and Phaedo, while his Apology of Socrates claims to be a set of speeches the philosopher made at his trial in making a case for his vindication.
Both Aristotle and Plato report that one of his main philosophical methods is the use of syllogism in the effort to ascertain what a thing is. Socrates was concerned with the application of reason in the search for the true nature of humanity and of society, which was quite a different body of knowledge from that which occupied pre-Socratic philosophy.
The syllogism is a technique that requires the pupil to question personal beliefs through answering the questions of the teacher. The pupil must first state a position in respect of some ethical concern, which is one that cannot be settled by an immediate objective test and is subjective.
Socrates then poses supplementary questions that the pupil is required to answer by either an affirmative or a negative response. Socrates guides the dialogue until the pupil is obliged to come to the opposite of his or her original statement.
Socrates uses this technique both as a philosophical tool, with which he develops knowledge by adding premises to those already existing and thereby developing the argument, while also claiming that he had no real knowledge of any sort, which could be demonstrated by the same method.
This technique can be used by the skilled questioner to demonstrate the opposite of any moral position and comes close to the accusation made against the early Sophists that they would use debating technique merely to advance their own interests rather than in the pursuit of truth.
Socrates tried to bypass this accusation by claiming that he never taught anybody anything and that his technique merely pursued the answers to genuine questions, and that it was beyond his control (or even interest) what those answers ultimately turned out to be. Socrates left himself open to accusations of impropriety by this method, and he was condemned by a number of people who supported the concept of immutable truths or moral guidelines for a variety of reasons.
But this form of inductive reasoning is at the heart of the beginning of the scientific approach, which was subsequently used by Aristotle to start the classification of existing knowledge. The word Socrates used for the opposing premise used in constructing a syllogism was irony, and this concept has survived to the modern day as meaning an action that contradicts the words used to describe it.
Despite the complaints made about Socrates, he believed he was a staunch defender of the concept of absolute morality. He considered this the center of the soul’s quest for truth and virtue, a quest on which the great majority of people had scarcely embarked.
Only through a rigorous application of reason could there be any kind of understanding of true morality, which is that which also provides the greatest level of pleasure to the soul, the soul being identical with the individual.
He rejected the existing religious concept that held the soul separate from the individual. Consequently, what is good for the soul is also good for the body. This leads to a connection with hedonism, which became more fully expressed through the work of Epicurus and his followers.
However, Socrates was more concerned to show that the pleasure a person derives from life and to some extent the value of a person’s life depends on the soul’s ability to understand true goodness.
Only true goodness brings happiness, according to Socrates, because any activity that is not inspired by the quest for goodness will bring unintended unhappiness or misfortune to the individual, the surrounding people, or society as a whole. For this reason Socrates opposed early innovations with the concept of democracy since the majority of people were not to be trusted to be motivated by true goodness but, instead, false and probably unexamined desires.
This should not really be construed as elitism since Socrates believed that the elite of society was no more likely to be properly educated in morality than anyone else. However, he would have maintained that he was the only person in Athens suited for rule, and that the optimum arrangement would have seen him installed as a tyrant like Peisistratus.
The Legacy of Socrates
As one of the seminal thinkers of Western philosophy, Socrates’s legacy has been enormous. Perhaps his most influential legacy was one of the earliest—the distinction between idea or concept and reality that was to become such an important part of Plato’s thought.
Socrates was also influential in the development of the educational system. He opposed the utilitarianism of the early Sophists and their tuition that was aimed at educating people and empowering them into achieving a better type of life.
Instead, he believed that since virtue was the true goal of humanity but could not be taught, the proper type of education should center on the rigorous and personal search for reality. This led to a debate as to the purpose of education in society that has persisted until the present day.
However, the Socratic idea that it is possible to lead the mind to profound truths without previous knowledge of the background to those truths is no longer widely supported in academic institutions. Instead the Western tradition features the mastery of content as well as the ability to guide the mind to the truths behind or beyond that content.
Socrates has also been considered a founding father of science and of agnosticism, although these attributions depend on contested ideas of exactly what he originally said and believed. It is perhaps in his trial and death that Socrates remains most central to the Western imagination.
Some have conflated the charges of corrupting the youth of Athens with homosexual activities with his followers, which would have been a common enough activity at the time. He has been viewed as both foolish pederast and heroic supporter of the truth in an age of religious persecution and the suppression of freedom of speech.
Existing Athenian popular sources referring to Socrates are mostly those found in satirical plays in which he is lumped together with Sophists as a kind of disreputable wordsmith with questionable hygiene habits. This representation clashes noticeably with the striking and compelling personality of Plato’s descriptions.
His legendary status as defender of personal liberty has been buttressed by the notion that he would have been able to escape from confinement in Athens had he so desired. That he chose to stay and administer to himself the fatal poison renders him something of a martyr. According to Plato’s account, at the moment of his death, Socrates was concerned with ensuring that all his remaining domestic duties and chores were complete.