Socrates Biography – Greek Philosopher, Thinker, Philosophy, Western Thought, Father of Western Philosophy

Socrates Essay
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Socrates Biography and Legacy

Everyone has heard of Socrates. It does not matter who you are or what you do. It does not matter if you are interested in philosophy or ancient Greece or not. It does not even matter if you know exactly who he was or what he did. What matters is that almost everyone has heard of the name Socrates. And that is rightly so, for few men have had as much impact and influence on western thought and the world of philosophy as the great Socrates has.

Now, for those of you who are genuinely curious as to who he was, what he did, or what he stood for, allow me to introduce him in a brief manner.

Socrates was a Greek philosopher who is regarded as the founder of Western philosophy and the first moral philosopher of the ethical tradition of thought. He was born either in 470 or 469 BCE (people still argue on this point) in Athens.

His father, Sophroniscus, was a stoneworker, and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. The family was rather affluent, and Socrates, like most wealthy Athenians of the time, received a good and basic education in reading and writing and some extra lessons in poetry, music, and gymnastics.

According to his most famous student Plato, Socrates served in the military during the Peloponnesian War and took an active part in the Battle of Potidaea, the Battle of Delium, and the Battle of Amphipolis.

Over the course of his life, Socrates slowly turned into the quintessential philosopher and thinker, both in his thinking as well as in his physical appearance. He stopped caring about material pleasures and is said to have neglected his appearance and personal hygiene by rarely bathing and walking everywhere barefoot in an old worn-out ragged coat, which was the only one he owned.

Because of his shabby and careless appearance, he was often described as ugly, with bulging eyes and a large belly. But he did not care. Such things were of no importance to him by then.

I shall stop here now with my introduction of him, for I believe this was more than enough. I feel if I keep going I might surely end up saying something wrong or inaccurate about the man, not because of my carelessness but because he was such an enigmatic figure who wrote no texts of his own and is only known through the writings of others, mainly Plato and Xenophon.

And this is one of the main reasons why it is impossible to reconstruct a historical and philosophical image of Socrates when there are so many contradictory and variable accounts of his life.

And if great and worthy historians and scholars were not able to successfully undertake such a mammoth task, one can hardly expect me to do so. If only Socrates had taken out some time and written something about his life and his philosophy, our lives would be so much easier, although many eminent scholars would be unemployed. For the greater cause, I guess their unemployment would be worth it.

But let us keep our grumbling and complaining for another day and move on with this essay, for this is neither the time nor the place. What do I aim to address in this essay? you might wonder. What do I seek to achieve? What exactly about Socrates do I wish to discuss here? His life? His philosophy? Maybe both?

Well, the truth is that I myself do not know. I have no answers to the above questions or any other questions you might have. That is why I struggled so much to decide on the title of this goddamn essay and came up with nothing better than On Socrates. That was the whole extent of my creativity regarding the title. I do not know if I am going to talk about his life or his philosophy or both or none. One thing is for sure, I do not seem to have much in-depth knowledge about any of those things, and so I shall not pretend.

Bear with me, for I myself do not know where I intend to go with this essay. This might very well be the most pointless, time-consuming, and redundant essay on Socrates yet. Do not later accuse me of not warning you. Now let’s move on!

Most of what we know about Socrates comes from accounts that were written as dialogues by his students/disciples/admirers, whatever one might wish to call them. These dialogues have given birth to the Socratic Dialogue literary genre, in which Socrates and his interlocutors examine a particular subject through questions and answers.

Among all the various accounts, the most well-known and comprehensive ones belong to Plato, Socrates’ most famous student. So what do these dialogues of Plato entail? Well, let us discuss it in brief, without going into too much detail, for as I mentioned earlier, even I do not know much about it.

In Plato’s texts, Socrates and his interlocutors are usually found to be examining and analyzing the various aspects of a particular issue, whether ethical, moral, or metaphysical in nature or some abstract meaning of one of the virtues or vices. In the end, they are usually unable to define what they thought they understood and were certain to be true.

Allow me to detail this method a little. It went something like this:

Socrates would begin the dialogue by asking his interlocutor, usually an expert on a particular subject, for a definition of the subject. And as he would ask more questions, the expert’s answers would eventually contradict the first definition, arriving at the conclusion that the expert did not really know the definition in the first place. The expert may then come up with a new and different definition, which would again be questioned by Socrates. In such a manner they would hope to arrive at the truth, of course, never really arriving at it. More often than not they would reveal their own ignorance in the process. Since the expert’s definitions usually represent the mainstream opinion on a subject, the dialogue places doubt on common and popular opinions.

This form of dialogue of using questions and answers to explore an issue came to be known as the Socratic Method of questioning, or elenchus. This method is a form of argumentative dialogue between individuals that is based on asking and answering questions in order to stimulate critical thinking and bring out underlying presuppositions and ideas.

The inconclusive way in which most of these dialogues come to an end lends credibility to the fact that Socrates was known to openly proclaim his ignorance, often saying that the only thing he was truly aware of was his total ignorance. He considered this awareness of his ignorance to be the very first step in philosophizing.

Plato’s texts reveal how Socrates went about philosophizing in areas such as ethics, morals, metaphysics, rationalism, religion, God, etc. But then there also comes the doubt, the uncertainty, and the contradiction with which Plato’s dialogues are ridden, especially regarding the character of Socrates.

Plato’s portrayal of Socrates is certainly not straightforward or consistent or entirely trustworthy. Its complete authenticity has been up for debate for centuries now, and many contemporary scholars have pointed out the obvious inconsistencies in Socrates’ character between Plato’s earlier and later works. These inconsistencies have led to the general impression that, although Plato tried to accurately represent Socrates in his initial works, his later writings probably included many of his own views disguised as Socrates’ words.

And what do I think of such inconsistencies? Well, nothing. I think nothing of it. Although I find it to be something inevitable and not surprising in the least, I would still like to declare myself neutral in this situation, one who merely states the information he possesses in his hands without necessarily taking sides. But one thing is for sure, we cannot expect a completely true and fair account of Socrates from any source. Most of it will no doubt remain mere speculation.

Then comes the account of Xenophon, who talks about Socrates in four of his works: the Memorabilia, the Oeconomicus, the Symposium, and the Apology of Socrates to the Jury.

In Memorabilia, Xenophon mainly presents his own defense of Socrates (who was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and being against the Gods) through a collection of dialogues. Oeconomicus primarily deals with agricultural issues and household management. In Symposium, the themes addressed include virtue, wisdom, laughter, beauty, and desire, and in it, Socrates prides himself on his knowledge of the art of match-making. And in the Apology of Socrates, of course, Xenophon describes the trial of Socrates, much like Plato’s Apology, although both works have substantial differences.

However, Xenophon’s account of Socrates’ life is not given the same weightage as that of Plato’s (and I am sure Xenophon is not at all happy about this!). This is mainly because Xenophon was a soldier (which is, sadly, an occupation always used to discredit his works), not a philosopher, who is often accused of not being able to conceptualize and articulate Socrates’ views and arguments. He has also been criticized for his naive representation of Socrates as an uninspiring philosopher.

Furthermore, Xenophon and Plato’s Socrates are more often than not substantially different from each other. Xenophon’s Socrates is not as ironic and humorous as Plato’s and is of the opinion that self-control (in every sphere of life including eating, drinking, etc.) is of great importance. Socrates’ character also lacks the I know that I know nothing characteristic in Xenophon’s descriptions.

Other ancient authors who wrote about Socrates were Aristophanes, Aeschines Socraticus, Aristippus, Crito, Euclid of Megara, Antisthenes, and several more. But perhaps the most important one would have to be Aristotle, who was a student at Plato’s Academy for twenty years.

Aristotle was not a contemporary of Socrates, and so he was able to write about him without any bias, something which neither Plato nor Xenophon could claim to do. Aristotle examined Socrates as a philosopher and did not write much about his life. Most of Aristotle’s writings are concerned with the early dialogues of Plato.

Taking into consideration so many sources of information on Socrates’ life and philosophy, many of which are inconsistent and contradictory to each other, one can hardly fail to see how the Socratic Problem comes into existence. What is the Socratic Problem, you ask? Well, it means attempting to reconstruct an accurate image of Socrates, historically as well as philosophically, with the help of all these various sources of information.

By the time Socrates was in his mid-forties, he had become a fairly well-known figure among Athenians, especially the youth who regarded him as a wise philosopher. He was said to have married twice and had three sons. His views were considered controversial for the time, which was also what attracted the curiosity of Athenians toward him.

Many of his views regarding God and religion seemed to be against the usual practice of the time. His religious non-conformity and criticism challenged the views of the time and even of the coming centuries. For example, Socrates considered sacrifices to the Gods to be useless, especially when those sacrifices were done in the hope of receiving some kind of reward in return. Instead, he advocated that the practice of philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge were the most important ways of worshipping the Gods. He even openly rejected traditional forms of piety as being driven by self-interest and instead called on Athenians to self-examine themselves to seek religious experience.

Although these views were controversial enough, Socrates did not stop there. He held the view that the Gods were inherently wise and just, which was also against traditional religion at the time. He was of the opinion that goodness was independent of the Gods and that the Gods themselves had to be pious. This view was against traditional Greek theology. This theme is best addressed in Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro, which basically asks the question: Does piety follow the good or the God? And this question gives rise to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

For holding such controversial views, Socrates was accused of impiety and called a provocateur atheist, although he was never known to have questioned the existence of God. His dialogues reveal that he not only believed in the Gods but also believed in divination, oracles, and other messages from the Gods, even though these beliefs are found to be inconsistent with his strict adherence to rationalism.

Anyway, with these views of his which he openly stated, the people of Athens accused him of corrupting the youth (who were his greatest admirers) and being against the Gods and eventually brought him to trial. Socrates’ trial is now one of the most famous and discussed events in the history of western philosophy. But I will address that later on in this essay, and even when I do so, I shall refrain from going into too much detail, for the trial of Socrates itself deserves a whole other long and winding essay.

So for now, let us discuss his philosophy on a few important subjects.

One driving factor in Socrates’ philosophy is knowledge. Socrates believed that a lot of vital and important things could be achieved and experienced through the pursuit of knowledge. When it came to virtue, he believed that all virtues are a form of knowledge, and, therefore, essentially one, as knowledge is united and hence all virtues are united as well.

It is due to this opinion of his that Socrates believed that the only reason a person was not good was that they lacked knowledge, which basically subscribes to the dictum no one errs willingly.

Like most views of Socrates, this one too has been debated for centuries, with scholars agreeing and disagreeing with each other. But most of them somewhat agree on one point, for Socrates, love was rational. In Plato’s dialogue, Lysis, Socrates discusses love, friendship, and other forms of intimate bonds. In it, while exploring parental love and how it manifests with respect to the freedom and boundaries that parents set for their children, Socrates comes to the conclusion that if Lysis (a boy who is one of the characters in the dialogue) was utterly useless, not even his parents may love him. This basically points to the view that we only love people who are in some way or the other useful to us.

Although many scholars believe that Socrates said this in humor, some suggest that Socrates held an egoistic view of love.

Now, when it comes to Socrates and politics, this is quite a tricky subject to address. No one really knows for certain if Socrates leaned more toward oligarchy or democracy or neither or both. Once again, much like everything else regarding Socrates, his views on politics are also somewhat shrouded in speculation. Therefore, it is hard, and maybe even impossible, for one to define his exact political philosophy.

His dialogues and discourses rarely make any mention of the political decisions of the time. And neither did he ever run for office or suggest any legislation. One could say that for Socrates, politics was more about shaping the moral landscape of the city and its people through philosophy rather than through electoral procedures. However, in some of his dialogues such as Crito and Apology, he talks about a mutually beneficial relationship between the city and its citizens.

Socrates was of the opinion that all citizens were essentially free and morally autonomous, but if they chose to remain within a city, they had to accept the city’s laws and authority over them, unless it were truly unjust. This made him an early advocate of civil disobedience. For instance, when the Thirty Tyrants (a pro-Spartan oligarchy that began ruling Athens in 404 BC after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War) ordered the arrest of Leon the Salaminian for execution, Socrates refused to serve the order. He was the only one, out of four others who were summoned, who abstained from serving the order and chose to risk retribution rather than take part in something he considered unjust.

Now about his trial. The most famous event in the history of western philosophy. As mentioned earlier, I shall only give a brief account of it. So brief that, as silly as it may sound, I hope to address it in just one small paragraph. So here we go!

In 399 BC, Socrates was charged with three crimes. One, for corrupting the youth. Two, for worshipping false gods. And three, for not worshipping the state religion. He defended himself unsuccessfully, was found guilty by a majority vote cast by a jury of hundreds of Athenians (apparently all men), and was given the death penalty. He spent his last day in prison with his friends and followers. They offered him a route to escape, it is said, but he refused. The next morning, in accordance with his sentence, he died after drinking poison hemlock.

That’s it. My promised task of addressing the trial in one paragraph is done. It is easy when I had no ambition or intention to provide you with any substance or detail regarding the trial. Now, allow me to conclude this essay while some grace and integrity still reside within me.

Whether one agrees with Socrates’ views or not, his influence on the world of philosophy cannot be denied or ignored. Almost all philosophical schools after his death can be traced back to him either directly or indirectly. This includes Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, the Cynics, and even the Stoics.

And as all these schools differed on fundamental questions such as the purpose of life (for Socrates never gave them a definite or direct answer to such questions), they began interpreting his thoughts and views in different ways.

Platonism greatly borrowed from Socrates’ philosophy, particularly in its theory of knowledge and ethics. The moral doctrine of the Stoics focused on how to live a good life through virtue and wisdom, assigning virtue an important role in attaining happiness. They also applied the Socratic Method of questioning to avoid inconsistencies.

The influence of Socrates’ philosophy continued to extend and spread throughout the medieval period and modern times, reaching even the Islamic Middle East, where the works of Plato on Socrates were translated and studied by Muslim scholars who admired him for combining his ethics with his lifestyle. His philosophy even played a vital role in the thought of the Italian Renaissance, especially within the humanist movement.

But more than this I shall not continue. I will refrain from going into more detail about his influence on medieval and modern times. I feel I have already said enough, too much maybe, without possessing much in-depth knowledge on the subject. And most importantly, this essay has already gone on long enough. It is too long even for my own liking, let alone yours.

Permit me to end this essay with some self-reflection.

Did I address each and every view or thought or idea of Socrates in this essay? Of course not! Did I cover his entire philosophy on every topic and issue? Absolutely not! Do not be silly. Volumes of books by great eminent scholars were unable to achieve such a task, so do not even bother with me. I have chosen to only address his philosophy on very few, select fundamental issues, and that too only superficially, on a surface level.

I will be the first to admit that you will fail to find anything substantial or in-depth in this essay. But you must understand, that is mainly because that was never my intention. My only intention was to attempt to write a brief essay on one of the greatest and most influential philosophers to have ever lived, without harboring any false hope of trying to cover his entire philosophy on life and its issues and the world beyond. That is a task I would hate to undertake, for I believe it to be as difficult as it is impossible.

And, at last, did I do any justice to Socrates and his philosophy in this little essay of mine? Probably not. I never intended to.