Society / People

470BC , Duration 71Y

Event #5212: Socrates

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Text #9121

"Socrates", in Wikipedia.

Socrates, Sōkrátēs; (470/469 – 399 BC) was a classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy. He is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon and the plays of his contemporary Aristophanes. Plato’s dialogues are among the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates to survive from antiquity, though it is unclear the degree to which Socrates himself is “hidden behind his ‘best disciple’, Plato”. […]

Socrates never individually wrote anything that remains extant. As a result, all first-hand information about him and his philosophies depend upon secondary sources. Furthermore, close comparison between the contents of these sources reveals contradictions, thus creating concerns about the possibility of knowing in-depth the real Socrates. This issue is known as the Socratic problem, or the Socratic question. […]

Details about the life of Socrates can be derived from three contemporary sources: the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon (both devotees of Socrates), and the plays of Aristophanes. […]

Socrates lived during the time of the transition from the height of the Athenian hegemony to its decline with the defeat by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens sought to stabilize and recover from its humiliating defeat, the Athenian public may have been entertaining doubts about democracy as an efficient form of government. Socrates appears to have been a critic of democracy, and some scholars interpret his trial as an expression of political infighting. […]

Socrates’ death is described at the end of Plato’s Phaedo. Socrates turned down Crito’s pleas to attempt an escape from prison. After drinking the poison, he was instructed to walk around until his legs felt numb. After he lay down, the man who administered the poison pinched his foot; Socrates could no longer feel his legs. The numbness slowly crept up his body until it reached his heart. Shortly before his death, Socrates speaks his last words to Crito: “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

Asclepius was the Greek god for curing illness, and it is likely Socrates’ last words meant that death is the cure—and freedom, of the soul from the body. Additionally, in Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths, Robin Waterfield adds another interpretation of Socrates’ last words. He suggests that Socrates was a voluntary scapegoat; his death was the purifying remedy for Athens’ misfortunes. In this view, the token of appreciation for Asclepius would represent a cure for Athens’ ailments. […]

If anything in general can be said about the philosophical beliefs of Socrates, it is that he was morally, intellectually, and politically at odds with many of his fellow Athenians. When he is on trial for heresy and corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens, he uses his method of elenchos to demonstrate to the jurors that their moral values are wrong-headed. He tells them they are concerned with their families, careers, and political responsibilities when they ought to be worried about the “welfare of their souls”. Socrates’ assertion that the gods had singled him out as a divine emissary seemed to provoke irritation, if not outright ridicule. Socrates also questioned the Sophistic doctrine that arete (virtue) can be taught. He liked to observe that successful fathers (such as the prominent military general Pericles) did not produce sons of their own quality. Socrates argued that moral excellence was more a matter of divine bequest than parental nurture. This belief may have contributed to his lack of anxiety about the future of his own sons. […]

Socrates frequently says his ideas are not his own, but his teachers’. He mentions several influences: Prodicus the rhetor and Anaxagoras the philosopher. Perhaps surprisingly, Socrates claims to have been deeply influenced by two women besides his mother: he says that Diotima (c.f. Plato’s Symposium), a witch and priestess from Mantinea, taught him all he knows about eros, or love; and that Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, taught him the art of rhetoric. John Burnet argued that his principal teacher was the Anaxagorean Archelaus but his ideas were as Plato described them; Eric A. Havelock, on the other hand, considered Socrates’ association with the Anaxagoreans to be evidence of Plato’s philosophical separation from Socrates. […]

In the Dialogues of Plato, though Socrates sometimes seems to support a mystical side, discussing reincarnation and the mystery religions, this is generally attributed to Plato. Regardless, this view of Socrates cannot be dismissed out of hand, as we cannot be sure of the differences between the views of Plato and Socrates; in addition, there seem to be some corollaries in the works of Xenophon. In the culmination of the philosophic path as discussed in Plato’s Symposium, one comes to the Sea of Beauty or to the sight of “the beautiful itself” (211C); only then can one become wise. (In the Symposium, Socrates credits his speech on the philosophic path to his teacher, the priestess Diotima, who is not even sure if Socrates is capable of reaching the highest mysteries.) In the Meno, he refers to the Eleusinian Mysteries, telling Meno he would understand Socrates’ answers better if only he could stay for the initiations next week. […]

Perhaps the most interesting facet of this is Socrates’ reliance on what the Greeks called his “daimōnic sign”, an averting (ἀποτρεπτικός apotreptikos) inner voice Socrates heard only when he was about to make a mistake. It was this sign that prevented Socrates from entering into politics. In the Phaedrus, we are told Socrates considered this to be a form of “divine madness”, the sort of insanity that is a gift from the gods and gives us poetry, mysticism, love, and even philosophy itself. Alternately, the sign is often taken to be what we would call “intuition”; however, Socrates’ characterization of the phenomenon as daimōnic may suggest that its origin is divine, mysterious, and independent of his own thoughts. […]

Some modern scholarship holds that, with so much of his own thought obscured and possibly altered by Plato, it is impossible to gain a clear picture of Socrates amid all the contradictory evidence. That both Cynicism and Stoicism, which carried heavy influence from Socratic thought, were unlike or even contrary to Platonism further illustrates this. The ambiguity and lack of reliability serves as the modern basis of criticism—that it is nearly impossible to know the real Socrates.

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