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Socrates, the Founder of Western Philosophy

Socrates the founder of western philosophy
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David. Public Domain

Socrates is the most important exponent of Western philosophy, with his ideas forming a continuum from Ancient Greece to today’s Western thought.

It has been said of Socrates that he “brought philosophy down from the stars to the earth,” because, thanks to his own personality, philosophers ceased to deal with natural phenomena and began to deal with man and society.

In fact, many philosophers before Socrates dealt with political problems, while Democritus grappled with ethical issues. However, it was Socrates who advanced these issues by applying philosophical thinking to them.

The reason that Socratic interests marked the history of philosophy is found in the Socratic way of thinking itself, in the fact that Socrates was not interested in the right way of living and action, either personally or socially.

Contrary to philosophers before him, Socrates sought the principle of every moral concept, which is not influenced by historical and social conditions nor by individual perception.

In other words, he sought the absolute and rejected the relative; he studied the essence of morality and disregarded outward moral issues.

Socrates’ ideas about morality brought him to the courts of Ancient Greece, where he was accused of disrespecting the gods, being a subversive and of corrupting young people.

The charges were very serious and the philosopher was sentenced to death, a sentence he received without complaint.

Life of Socrates

Socrates was born to Sophroniscus and Faenarete in Alopece, a deme of Athens. His father was a stone cutter and Faenarete a well-known midwife.

Socrates lived with his family in Alopece, somewhere near the border of today’s Ano Nea Smyrni and Palaio Faliro. Very little is known about his childhood; however he had a natural intelligence for all things without having received any formal education.

It is said that as a child, Socrates lacked good manners and helped his father in the stonecutting business. According to historian Porphyrius, he was disobedient to his father’s orders.

Socrates began learning the art of sculpting but later abandoned it. According to Pausanias, in Athens there was a marble relief depicting the three graces, which was said to have been made by Socrates himself.

It is said that one time the philosopher Archelaus entered the workshop where Socrates was working and was impressed by the young man’s arguments in claiming payment from a customer.

At the time, Socrates was 17 and Archelaus invited him to become his student. However, Socrates had said that he had also been trained by Prodicus, to whom he paid tuition.

Soon Socrates abandoned sculpture to devote himself to philosophy. He spent the rest of his life teaching — not in school, but discussing morality, religion, social and political issues in every part of the city with people from all walks of life.

In 431 BC, when the Peloponnesian War was about to break out, Socrates fought at Potidaea – a city-state threatening to break away from Athens. Socrates fought in the battlefield and also in the subsequent siege of the city.

The philosopher fought in the campaign for three years, returning to Athens as part of a victorious army, while also distinguishing himself on the battlefield.

With the first phase of the Peloponnesian War raging, Socrates fought at the Battle of Delium. The battle, in 424 BC, provides the first recorded incident of what call today “friendly fire” casualties.

The reason was that confused hoplites began fighting each other, unable to distinguish fellow Athenians from their enemies, the Boeotians.

Despite some early victories, the Athenians were defeated. Nevertheless, Socrates seems to have maintained some order in his retreat.

The Athenian general Laches praised the philosopher, saying: “If all the Athenians had fought as bravely as Socrates, the Boeotians would have erected no (victory) statues.”

Socrates’ last military service was at Amphipolis. Approaching 48 by then, his role in the battle is unclear. Spartan victory at Amphipolis soon led to an armistice with Athens, and the first phase of the war was over.

After the war Socrates married Xanthippi, with some historians claiming that he later married a woman named Myrto. It is also said that since many Athenians were killed in the Peloponnesian War, a special law was passed that allowed married men to have children with another woman.

Plato and Xenophon, however, mention only Xanthippi, a strong-headed, mouthy woman. In a dialogue between Socrates and Alcibiades, Alcibiades wonders how he can withstand the nagging of Xanthippi — to which Socrates answers: “Just as you withstand the croaking of geese, because they give you eggs and goose chicks, so Xanthippi gives me children, too.”

Regardless of whether there were two wives or one, Socrates had three sons: Lambrocleas, Menexenos and Sophroniscus.

All later philosophers and historians agreed that Socrates’ three sons were not distinguished in anything, while Aristotle even described them as lazy.

Xanthippi is mentioned by Xenophon in the play “Symposium”, where Antisthenes characterizes her as the most difficult to withstand of all women that ever existed.

Socrates, when asked how he endured living with such a woman, replied that just as those who wish to become the best horsemen choose the most wild of horses to tame, he chose Xanthippi so he could learn to deal with all people, even the most difficult.

Socrates’ marble portrait at the Louvre. Credit: Sting/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

The philosophy of Socrates

Socrates did not leave any written works. However, his student Plato recorded the dialogues he had with his teacher — and through them we see Socrates’ way of thinking.

Initially engaged in cosmological theories in the hope of discovering how the universe works but frustrated by the conjectures of the natural sciences, Socrates decided to embark on his own journey in search of true wisdom.

According to some sources, the iconic Greek philosopher was more interested in the moral development of man and his shaping as a good citizen.

However, according to the dialogues with Plato, he had an instinct for metaphysics and laid the foundations of a transcendental philosophy.

Plato’s early works on Socrates most certainly contain Socrates’ way of thinking, while his later writings most probably reflect ideas of Plato himself.

Aristotle attributed to Socrates the use of inductive logic or inductive symbolism aimed at discovering a universal and unchangeable definition. That is, the ability to achieve an accurate concept or definition in a subject.

Socrates seems to consider important a universal definition that is mainly related to moral behavior and considers it useful to keep man away from the vortex of the relativity of sophism, which has a strong presence in our time.

For example, if we have a universal definition of justice, we have a secure basis for not only judging the action of an individual but also for the solid construction of the moral rules of society.

By inductive reasoning, Socrates was not so much interested in solving problems of logic, but in discovering a universal or rather universal definition.

Using the dialectical method (i.e., dialogue) he started from a less precise definition and reached a more precise, valid and universal definition through intense dialogue with his interlocutor.

This method could be humiliating for many as it proved their ignorance but also because Socrates was particularly eager to provoke the debate. The humiliation of the interlocutor was not Socrates’ purpose. His sole purpose was to discover the truth.

Socrates called this method the “obstetric method”, as it aimed to lead to the birth of a true and absolute definition or an entirely true idea.

Socrates’ mission was to try to persuade people to tend to their soul and encourage them to be noble, and virtuous and to try to find the wisdom that lies within them.

He urged people to follow moral rules and always be just. For Socrates, justice is what helps man to achieve true happiness and to have balance in his soul.

Socrates believed that pleasure is good, but true and lasting happiness can only be achieved by moral people. Socrates argued to the end that there is a higher eternal human nature, with universal moral values ​​that serve and guide human behavior.

The trial and death of the great philosopher

In 399 BC, the great Athenian philosopher was taken to court on two charges: asebeia (impiety) against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state.

The accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.”

The death sentence was the legal consequence of asking politico-philosophic questions of his students, which resulted in the two accusations of moral corruption and impiety.

At trial, the majority of the jurors voted to convict him of the two charges; then, consistent with common legal practice voted to determine his punishment and agreed to a sentence of death by drinking a poisonous concoction of hemlock (conium maculatum).

Socrates had many followers who would gladly have acted to save him from the death penalty. Crito, a wealthy friend of Socrates, told the philosopher that he would bribe the guards so he could escape from jail.

Socrates, however, flatly refused to be rescued — possibly because he believed that a philosopher should not fear death.

Plato’s Apology of Socrates is an early philosophic defense of Socrates, presented in the form of a Socratic dialogue. Socrates asks the jury to judge him by the truth of his statements, not by his oratorical skill.

Although Aristotle later classified the dialogue as a work of fiction, it remains today as a useful historical source about the great philosopher.

Aristotle believed the dialogue, particularly the scene where Socrates questions the judge, Meletus, represented a good use of interrogation.

Except for Socrates’ two dialogues with Meletus, about the nature and logic of his accusations of impiety, the text of the Apology of Socrates is in the first-person perspective and voice of the philosopher Socrates.

During the trial, in his speech of self-defense, the ancient philosopher twice mentions that Plato is present at the trial.

Later historians suggest that the true reason behind Socrates’ prosecution and death penalty were political, as the government of Athens was turning away from democracy after the defeat in the Peloponnesian War.

Socrates’ famous quotes

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.

When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.

The easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.

Wisdom begins in wonder. 

When you want wisdom and insight as badly as you want to breathe, it is then you shall have it.

Remember that there is nothing stable in human affairs; therefore avoid undue elation in prosperity, or undue depression in adversity.

Remember what is unbecoming to do is also unbecoming to speak of. 

Be of good cheer about death, and know this of a truth, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.

He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Think not those faithful who praise all thy words and actions; but those who kindly reprove thy faults.

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.

Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.

Only the extremely ignorant or the extremely intelligent can resist change.

I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.

In childhood be modest, in youth temperate, in adulthood just, and in old age prudent. 

The greatest blessing granted to mankind comes by way of madness, which is a divine gift.

He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.

I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.

Contentment is natural wealth; luxury is artificial poverty.

It is better to change an opinion than to persist in a wrong one.

Understanding a question is half an answer.

Prefer knowledge to wealth, for the one is transitory, the other perpetual.

The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.

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