Greek Philosopher - Main source of Western Thought
Socrates (c. 470 - 399 BCE)
Socrates was a Greek philosopher and the main source of Western thought. Little is known of his life except what was recorded by his students, including Plato
Socrates was born circa 470 BC, in Athens, Greece. We know of his life through the writings of his students, including Plato and Xenophon. His “Socratic method,” laid the groundwork for Western systems of logic and philosophy. When the political climate of Greece turned, Socrates was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning in 399 BC. He accepted this judgment rather than fleeing into exile.
Born circa 470 BC in Athens, Greece, Socrates’s life is chronicled through only a few sources—the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon and the plays of Aristophanes. Because these writings had other purposes than reporting his life, it is likely none present a completely accurate picture. However, collectively, they provide a unique and vivid portrayal of Socrates’s philosophy and personality.
Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, an Athenian stone mason and sculptor, and Phaenarete, a midwife. Because he wasn’t from a noble family, he probably received a basic Greek education and learned his father’s craft at a young age. It is believed Socrates worked as mason for many years before he devoted his life to philosophy. Contemporaries differ in their account of how Socrates supported himself as a philosopher. Both Xenophon and Aristophanes state Socrates received payment for teaching, while Plato writes Socrates explicitly denied accepting payment, citing his poverty as proof.
Socrates married Xanthippe, a younger woman, who bore him three sons—Lamprocles, Sophroniscus and Menexenus. There is little known about her except for Xenophon’s characterization of Xanthippe as “undesirable.” He writes she was not happy with Socrates’s second profession and complained that he wasn’t supporting family as a philosopher. By his own words, Socrates had little to do with his sons’ upbringing and expressed far more interest in the intellectual development of Athens’ young boys.
Socrates believed that philosophy should achieve practical results for the greater well-being of society. He attempted to establish an ethical system based on human reason rather than theological doctrine. He pointed out that human choice was motivated by the desire for happiness. Ultimate wisdom comes from knowing oneself. The more a person knows, the greater his or her ability to reason and make choices that will bring true happiness. Socrates believed that this translated into politics with the best form of government being neither a tyranny nor a democracy. Instead, government worked best when ruled by individuals who had the greatest ability, knowledge, and virtue and possessed a complete understanding of themselves.
For Socrates, Athens was a classroom and he went about asking questions of the elite and common man alike, seeking to arrive at political and ethical truths. Socrates didn’t lecture about what he knew. In fact, he claimed to be ignorant because he had no ideas, but wise because he recognized his own ignorance. He asked questions of his fellow Athenians in a dialectic method (the Socratic Method) which compelled the audience to think through a problem to a logical conclusion. Sometimes the answer seemed so obvious, it made Socrates’s opponents look foolish. For this, he was admired by some and vilified by others.
During Socrates’s life, Athens was going through a dramatic transition from hegemony in the classical world to its decline after a humiliating defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Athenians entered a period of instability and doubt about their identity and place in the world. As a result, they clung to past glories, notions of wealth, and a fixation with physical beauty. Socrates attacked these values with his insistent emphasis on the greater importance of the mind. While many Athenians admired Socrates’s challenges to Greek conventional wisdom and the humorous way he went about it, an equal number grew angry and felt he threatened their way of life and uncertain future.
In Hegel’s view the coming of Socrates signals a shift in the relationship between the individual and morality. The immediate now had to justify itself to the individual consciousness. Hegel thus not only ascribes to Socrates the habit of asking questions about what one should do but also about the actions that the state has prescribed. With Socrates, consciousness is turned back within itself and demands that the law should establish itself before consciousness, internal to it, not merely outside it (408-410). Hegel attributes to Socrates a reflective questioning that is skeptical, which moves the individual away from unreflective obedience and into reflective inquiry about the ethical standards of one’s community.
Generally, Hegel finds in Socrates a skepticism that renders ordinary or immediate knowledge confused and insecure, in need of reflective certainty which only consciousness can bring (370). Though he attributes to the sophists the same general skeptical comportment, in Socrates Hegel locates human subjectivity at a higher level. With Socrates and onward we have the world raising itself to the level of conscious thought and becoming object for thought. The question as to what Nature is gives way to the question about what Truth is, and the question about the relationship of self-conscious thought to real essence becomes the predominant philosophical issue (450-1).
The jury was not swayed by Socrates’s defense and convicted him by a vote of 280 to 221. Possibly the defiant tone of his defense contributed to the verdict and he made things
worse during the deliberation over his punishment. Athenian law allowed a convicted citizen to propose an alternative punishment to the one called for by the prosecution and the jury would decide. Instead of proposing he be exiled, Socrates suggested he be honored by the city for his contribution to their enlightenment and be paid for his services. The jury was not amused and sentenced him to death by drinking a mixture of poison hemlock
Before Socrates’s execution, friends offered to bribe the guards and rescue him so he could flee into exile. He declined, stating he wasn’t afraid of death, felt he would be no better off if in exile and said he was still a loyal citizen of Athens, willing to abide by its laws, even the ones that condemned him to death. Plato described Socrates’s execution in his Phaedo dialogue: Socrates drank the hemlock mixture without hesitation. Numbness slowly crept into his body until it reached his heart. Shortly before his final breath, Socrates described his death as a release of the soul from the body.