Not often does a man come along who changes the world so dramatically that after his coming things will never be the same. It takes a man of great wisdom
, inner strength and morals to do so. Socrates was such a man. With his humbleness and clarity of thought, he changed the whole world. To fully understand him we must find out about his life, his times, and his country.
Socrates was born some time around 470 B.C. in the Greek city-state of Athens. He was the son of a sculptor named Sophroniscus and a midwife named Phaenarete. He grew up during the golden age of Greece when the great statesman Pericles brought Athens to its prime. His early education consisted of literature, music and gymnastics. Following in the trade of his father, Socrates became a sculptor. He made a statue of the Three Graces of Greek Mythology that stood outside the Athenian acropolis until the second year of the common era. In the Peloponnesian Wars, Socrates served as a hoplite and was said to have displayed courage at many battles.
Later in life Socrates became interested in the teachings of the Sophists. The Sophists were a large group of skilled rhetoricians who were paid to teach and often trained aspiring politicians who wised to learn how to excel in their field. He also became familiar with the ideas of past Greek philosophers and was very interested in the social and political state of Athens. His interest in these areas led him to leave sculpture and devote his time in search of the truth.
Socrates was an unattractive man, though extremely popular in Athens because of his keen sense of humour and wit, a humour that held no traces of satire or cynicism. He was also very bold and self controlled. One of his shortcomings was that he often spoke of his lust for the young. In later years, he still retained this lust. He was said to find beauty in many things, but in mankind he was completely enamoured.
Socrates received the call to philosophy from an inner voice that he often spoke of. This voice supposedly instructed him in moral and ethical matters. Another factor that led him to philosophy was that he thought he knew nothing. This realization drove him mad because he could not be content with the fact that he knew nothing. He set out with the help of his fellow citizens to learn more about their world, their situation, and how to enhance both himself and the citizens of Athens.
One strong characteristic of Socrates was that he was exceptionally patriotic. He loved Athens and recognized that it was the ideals and atmosphere of Athens that made him what he was. His whole method of philosophy demonstrated this point. When he would converse with people it was for his good as well as theirs. He was well aware of this. He even stated at his trial that he did not do anything but assist Athenians in their mental growth. He devoted his entire life to it.
Socrates would spend his time in the agora and city square looking for anyone who would take the time to talk to him. He did not care if the person he was talking to was a known thinker or not. This was because he believed that all knowledge was hidden inside each and every man and that it only took common sense and reasoning for the truth to become apparent. Socrates entered these discussions under the guise that he was completely ignorant and that he had no idea as to what the outcome of the argument would be. The common thread that ran through all of Socrates’ discourses was that the person he was talking to always left the conversation looking like a fool. Anything that you believed to be fact would be challenged, and in most cases, proven wrong. This led Socrates to make many enemies, though it was never his intention to do so. He simply wanted to do a favour to his fellow Athenian by enlightening him with the truth.
Socrates is known to have said frequently that the wisest man is the man that knows he is not wise. Following his own words, Socrates always claimed to know nothing. He did not, however, deny the fact that a man could obtain wisdom; whenever he heard of such a man he would rush up to him and discourse to find out the root of his wisdom. After Socrates would debate with these so called men of wisdom he would find that they had no more wisdom than anybody else. Socrates would always end up as the wiser person, because he at least recognized that he knew nothing.
In Athens during the time of Socrates there was a great number Sophists. Sophists could be seen as pretentious and arrogant. Their name, which means a wise and informed person showed this. They believed that they were the wisest people in the land and if anyone wanted to be allowed to share this wisdom they would have to pay for it. You can look at some modern teachers that way. They always believe they are right an no one can tell them otherwise. Socrates, although taught by Sophists, was strongly opposed to them and their method of teaching. He would go out of his way to talk to Sophists, and then would break them down in the following manner: first, he would question them in regards to wisdom, and, after discoursing with them, he would fid that they had no more wisdom than anybody else. Finally, he would state that they did not have the right to accept money for the teaching of wisdom. This makes complete sense, because he, finding they had no wisdom would state that they had nothing to teach except complete nonsense and were getting paid for it.
Socrates was always trying to set himself apart from the Sophists, although he was not against the idea of Sophistry. The only problem with it was that no one alive was qualified for it, or at least no one he had come across yet. As Socrates said at his trial “Five denars are a small price to pay for the greatest gift to man.” He could be seen as a better deal than the Sophists for the simple reason that it did not cost any moey to learn from him.
Socrates had many beliefs which were the backbone of his philosophies. A major one was that he who knows what is good will do good. If a man acts wrongly it is because he does not know any better. This also leads to the conclusion that man will be unhappy as long as he does wrong because one cannot be happy if he ignores his own better judgement. Because of this, Socrates stressed that man should never cease to learn, justifying this by saying that the more you know, the less possible it is for you to be an immoral person.
Another belief that Socrates that held was the belief in pure forms. This means that everything in this world has a pure form in another world, where we go when we die. Take for example a flower. The flower we see is like the interpretation of the pure form of that flower. Because of this Socrates did not look highly upon painting. This was because what you paint is an interpretation of the pure form; and therefore you are moving further and further away from what you should be paying attention to, which is the pure form.
Socrates made enemies because of the way he got his philosophical point across. Many people in the government saw him as a threat to the state with his radical ideas and the fact that he had grown in favor among young Athenians. With this new following the statesmen were afraid of the influence he was building. They set out to put an end to the whole following of Socrates by making him an example of what happens when you go against the state. Socrates was put to trial, charged with corrupting the youth, neglecting the gods of the state, and introducing deities, meaning the voice inside his head that he often referred to.
The trial of Socrates is described by his student Plato in his Apollogy. Socrates offered along defence and one by one broke down the claims of his accusers. First he addressed the charge of corrupting the youth and refuted it by stating that all of the youth that had followed him have grown into virtuous and important citizens. He used the fathers of his followers to confirm this. Next he addressed the charge that he was an atheist. To prove his point he entered into a conversation with one of his accusers. He first attempted to prove the fact that he of often spoke of demigods. He did this by using the third and last charge against him as an example. After that was shown, he moved on to say that demigods are the sons of the gods of Olympus. This is not contested at all. Lastly he concluded that he could not believe in the sons of the gods without fist believing in the gods themselves. His accusers could find no argument against this, and the second charge, much like the first, was proved to be false. Again in a lengthy rebuttal Socrates overcame the third accusation like the rest.
Although Socrates managed to prove that all the accusations against him were false, he was found guilty and condemned to drink hemlock and die. This was partly because he said that he was too valuable a member of Athenian society to be killed or exiled, and that only a small fine should be the penalty. He called himself a gift from the gods sent to Athens to show the citizens the moral and proper way to live their lives, and that if they did kill him they would not soon find a person that could even come close to doing the job that he did for the Athenians. This enraged the Athenian court and led many to vote against him.
Socrates’ death was delayed because of an Athenian custom that did not allow the killing of criminals for a period of sixty days (the sixty days of Athens). During his long stay in the prison, his friends planned an escape and bribed the prison guards. However, Socrates would not escape. He rationalized it to his friend Crito in this manner: he was a result of the laws and the lifestyle of Athens; a product of his city. He could have chosen to live somewhere else, but he did not. He agreed to live by the rules of Athens, and if those rules condemned him to die, there was no way he could morally justify his escape. By this time, though he was already an old man. He did not want to run around as a criminal just so that he could live another six months, or as he stated, “So I may eat a meal”.
His moral fibre would not allow him to escape, so he accepted his fate. On the day he was to die, he said to his wife Xanthippe and three children, then sent them away so he could die with his friends. He conversed with them for hours until the time came to drink the poison. He spent the last minutes of his life the same way he spent the rest of it, trying to find the truth. Socrates lived to be seventy years old.
Nothing was the same after the death of Socrates. Through his disciple Plato, and Plato’s disciple Aristotle, the whole of European thought was changed. Even in the face of death, he would no back down or do something he believed to be wrong so that he might live. I wonder what might have been had only thirty voters on the Athenian council changed their minds. Would we be different or better as a result? One thing is for sure, we owe a great debt to Socrates. Because of him we are all better off.
From my collection of old high school essays: