Socrates the Man
Many, when first studying Socrates, see him as a man who was not humble, though I have always thought the opposite. While I find it interesting, I am not surprised many of my students hold this opinion. One of the reasons people have come to see Socrates as arrogant and egocentric is that we know of him through the writings of Plato, who was (in my opinion) an elitist. So when we read his version of The Apology, for example, we get a Platonic elitist flavor added to the words of Socrates.
Conversely, consider Xenophon’s account of The Apology. The historian paints a more levelheaded, even-keeled Socrates. This is, no doubt, the writer’s own flavor added to his work. This is part of the challenge of studying Socrates. We have no first-hand accounts. As an example of Socrates’ possible humility, though, consider these words he spoke near the end of Plato’s Apology:
“And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others,” Socrates says, “but the truth is … that God only is wise.”
Writer of Nothing
The biggest challenge when studying Socrates is the fact that, unlike virtually every thinker to come after him, we wrote nothing down. He was constantly engaging in conversation to deepen knowledge and understanding. So, for Socrates, capturing and idea in writing would freeze that idea and neither reflect nor allow any further development of it.
The desire not to forever capture something is hardly unique to Socrates. It is actually common among actors. Many actors who perform more often on stage than screen dislike the idea of movie and TV acting because it captures one performance of a script forever. Whereas a stage performance is gone as soon as it happens and then happens again tomorrow.
Fortunately for us, Socrates had dedicated students who kept detailed records of their teacher’s thoughts and ideas. We understand Socrates primarily through the writings of Plato, with the help of Xenophon, et al. Now, each adds his own perspective and flavor, so it’s difficult to get a clear idea of the real essence of Socrates without reading everything and finding commonalities.
The Socratic Method
“I know only one thing: that I know nothing.” This quote is commonly attributed to Socrates and is believed to be uttered in his apology at his trial. It is more commonly translated in The Apology by Plato as, “I know that I have no wisdom, small or great.” Related: “I don’t pretend to know what I don’t know.” Whatever the translation or whenever or wherever Socrates spoke these words, they support his position that he did not possess the knowledge which he sought in others.
Socrates considered himself something of a midwife as he helped to nurture and deliver knowledge rather than preach it or impart it. He accomplished this by using we now call the Socratic Method. Wisdom came from dialogue, he believed. He asked question after question until he helped a person come to a level of understanding. Socrates believed in constantly interrogating one’s own beliefs, examining one’s life. “The unexamined life,” he said, “is not worth living.”
Beauty of the mind, he thought, is more valuable than beauty of the body. We could hardly have our modern world without questioning what it is to be human in the world around us.
Socrates’ followers were primarily young aristocrats, the future leaders of the city-state Athens. He encouraged independent and even radical thought among them. During Socrates’ life in ancient Greece, the gods were thought to be everywhere and influencing people’s everyday lives. Few people were willing to question this religious convention as such doubts would be unpopular with the public and, more importantly, the government. Socrates, however, challenged the traditional role of the gods and believed that humans had the ability to shape their own destinies.
Socrates was the first to put ethics at the center of his philosophical thinking and teaching. The only evil, he believed, was ignorance. Socrates examined matters of right and wrong, believing that ignorance of what was good was the only motivation for evil. In other words, Socrates believed that when a person committed an evil act, they were ignorant of what was actually good. Their belief of what was good was skewed and they thought they had a good reason for doing a bad thing. Modern philosophers refer to this as Socratic virtue or apparent good.
One should never take revenge, Socrates believed, for it would harm one’s soul and do no damage to the target of the revenge. He believed the soul to be eternal and that by which we can be judged wise or foolish. Socrates did not, however, believe that anyone could harm our soul. Only we could do that to ourselves. Doing evil, harming others, seeking revenge all harmed our soul, Socrates believed. Punishment for such evildoings should not harm offenders, but cure and purify a damaged soul. Socrates was a proponent of justice reform.
Trial and Death
Considering what he believed and how he encouraged others—especially future leaders—to contemplate, Socrates eventually made an enemy of the Athenian government. Finally, at the age of 70, he was accused of teaching heresy (questioning the gods) and corrupting the youth of Athens. He stood trial.
In The Apology, Plato recounts Socrates’ self-defense argument. He spoke the words that came to him in the moment and promised to focus solely on the truth. “Think only of the truth of my words, and give heed to that,” Socrates said. “Let the speaker speak truly and the judge decide justly.”
Knowing the likely outcome of the trial, Socrates concluded his defense saying, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.” It is worthy of note that here, and in other parts of his speech, Socrates uses the singular word “God” rather than the commonly accepted plural “gods.” Perhaps it was a final jab at the monotheistic beliefs of ancient Greece. Nonetheless, the trial did not end well for Socrates as the more than 500 jurors found him to be arrogant in his apologetic defense. He was sentenced to death for putting his own philosophy into practice.
Socrates waited a full month in jail before he was executed. In that time, his friend Crito paid him a visit and begged Socrates to allow him to assist in a prison escape. Socrates refused citing a social contract with the Athenian government, among other objections detailed in Plato’s aptly-titled dialogue, Crito. Also refusing the option of exile from Athens, Socrates was put to death by poison hemlock, an end to what he called the sickness of existence.
His last words, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius (the god of healing).”
Socratic Questions for Pondering
How do I live a good life?
What is a just society?
Is wealth a good thing?
What makes us truly happy?
What kind of life should we lead?
What kind of people should we be?
How do we decide what is good?
What is justice?
David, Jacques Louis. The Death of Socrates. 1787, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. (Public Domain)
Fieser, James and Samuel Enoch Stumpf. Philosophy: A Historical Survey with Essential Readings, 9 ed. McGraw Hill, 2015.
Genius of the Ancient World. “Socrates.” British Broadcasting Company. YouTube.com. 2017.
Plato. The Apology (of Socrates). Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. classics.mit.edu.
Plato. Crito. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. classics.mit.edu. 360 BC.
Xenophon. The Apology (of Socrates). Trans. H.G. Dakyns. Project Gutenberg. gutenberg.org.