Socrates

This article is about the philosopher. See also Socrates (football player) and Socrates Scholasticus for the 4th-century Christian church historian.


Socrates (470 B.C - 399 B.C) was a Greek (Athenian) philosopher and one of the most important icons of the Western philosophical tradition.

His most important contribution to Western thought is his method of enquiry, known as the method of elenchos, which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts. For this, Socrates is customarily regarded as the father and fountainhead for ethics or moral philosophy, and hence philosophy in general.

Socreates's method of elenchos consists of questions and answers about the definitions or logoi (singular logos), seeking to characterise the general characteristics shared by various particular instances. To the extent to which this method is designed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, it was called the method of maieutics. Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method. Oddly, however, Aristotle also claimed that this method is not suitable for ethics.

Socrates applied his method to the examination of the key moral concepts at the time, often called the five cardinal virtues, namely, piety, wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. Such an examination challenged the implicit moral beliefs of the interlocutors, bringing out inadequacies and inconsistencies in their beliefs, and usually resulting in puzzlement known as aporia. In view of such inadequacies, Socrates himself professed his ignorance, but others still maintained their knowledge claim, whereby Socrates claimed that he being aware of his ignorance is wiser than those who, though ignorant, still claimed knowledge. This paradoxical claim was known by the anecdote of the Delphic oracular pronoucement that Socrates was the wisest of all men.

Socrates used this claim of wisdom as the basis of his moral exhortation. Accordingly, he claimed that the chief goodness consists in the caring of the soul concerned with truth and understanding, that "wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state", and that life without examination is not worth living. Socrates also claimed that to be wronged is better than to do wrong. It is one of the most enduring puzzles in the Socratic studies how Socrates's paradoxical claim about ignorance and wisdom could provide the foundations for his moral beliefs.

Socrates left no writings; references to military duty may be found in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. He was the main character of Aristophanes's play The Clouds, produced when Socrates was in his midforties. Socrates appeared in other plays by Aristophanes, and also in plays by Callias, Eupolis and Telecleides, in all of which Socrates and the Sophists were criticised for “the moral dangers inherent in contemporary thought and literature”. The main source of the historical Socrates, however, is the writings of his two disciples, Xenophon, and Plato. Another important source is various references to him in Aristotle's writings.

Socrates's father was Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and his mother Phaenarete, a midwife. He was married to Xanthippe who bore him three sons. By the cultural standards of the time, she was considered a shrew. Socrates himself attested that he having learned to live with Xantippe would be able to cope with any other human being, just as a horse trainer trained on wilder horses could be more competent. Socrates enjoyed going to Symposia, drink-talking sessions. He was a legendary drinker, remaining sober, even after everyone else in the party became drunk senselessly. He fought at the Battle of Potidaea, the Battle of Delium and the Battle of Amphipolis. We know from Symposium that Socrates was decorated for bravery. In one instance he stayed with the wounded Alcibiades, and probably saved his life. During such compaigns, he also showed his extraordinary hardiness, walking without shoes and coat in winter.

Socrates lived during the time of transition from the height of Athenian Empire to her defeat by Sparta and its coalition in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens was seeking to recover from humiliating defeat, upon the instigation of three leading figures at the time, the Athenian public court tried Socrates for impiety and for corrupting the young, found him guilty as charged, and executed him by ordering him to drink hemlock - see the Trial of Socrates.

The trial of Socrates gave rise to a great deal of debate, giving rise to a whole genre of literature, known as the Socratic logoi. It is generally believed that although Socrates was one of the noblest men, the Athenians were not totally unjust in condemning him. Socrates's elenctic examination was resented by influential figures of his day, whose reputations for wisdom and virtue were debunked by his questions. The annoying nature of elenchos earned Socrates the moniker "gadfly of Athens." Socrates's elenctic method was often imitated by the young men of Athens, which greatly upset the established moral values and order. It is known that there was also a political motive for the indictment of Socrates, despite that three years earlier a general amnesty on all political crimes was decreed. Indeed, even though Socrates himself fought for Athens and argued for obedience to law, at the same time he criticised democracy, especially, the Athenian practice of election by lot, ridiculing that in no other craft, the craftsman would be elected in such a fashion. Such a criticism gave rise to suspicion by the democrats, especially when his close associates were found to be enemies of democracy. Alcibiades, known to be Socrates's lover, betrayed Athens in favour of Sparta, and Critias, his sometime disciple, was a leader of the 30 tyrants, (the pro-Spartan oligarcy that ruled Athens for a few years after the defeat), though there is also a record of their falling out.

In addtion, Socrates held unusual views on religion. He made several references to his personal spirit, or daimonion, although he explicitly claimed that it never urged him on, but only warned him against various prospective events. Many of his contemporary were suspicious of Socrates's daimonion as a rejection of the state religion. It is generally understood that Socrates's daimonion is akin to intuition. Moreover, Socrates claimed that the concept of goodness, instead of being determined by what the gods wanted, actually precedes it.




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