Socrates, the most famous philosopher of all time, had one of the most subtle and complicated minds in the history of mankind. His thinking and teachings have survived as a beacon of light for almost 2,500 years. Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and many other great thinkers through the ages couldn’t manage to give a definitive analysis on Socrates’ ideas. But here is an introduction to Socrates that will help you get a generous taste of the life and thoughts of this illustrious, outstanding man.
Socrates, one of the world’s most enigmatic but most admired people, was born in 470 BC and died in 399 BC in Athens. He came from a poor and humble family. His father was a sculptor and his mother a midwife. Socrates initially followed his father’s profession, as was common at that time, but eventually he quit, dedicating himself fully to philosophy.
Information about the education of Socrates has not survived the ages. Some scholars have surmised that he may have been self-taught, basing his education on his own observations of the world and its people.
Socrates the Soldier
A lesser-known fact is that Socrates was also a soldier. He fought bravely in three campaigns of the Peloponnesian War, where he showed outstanding courage and selflessness, and remarkable endurance for the hardships he experienced during and after the battle.
In the Symposium, a philosophical text by Plato, a young man named Alcibiades praises Socrates’ courage and his power to ignore cold and fear. Alcibiades says Socrates saved his life in battle and then declined to be honoured for it. In the Apology, which is Plato’s report of the speech Socrates made in his own defence, Socrates compares the act of retreating from philosophy to a soldier’s retreat from the enemy when it seems likely that he will be killed in battle.
Socrates and the Thirty Tyrants
After the end of the Peloponnesian War and the dissolution of democracy, Athens was governed by the Thirty Tyrants. These Thirty Tyrants responded to people they considered a threat to their tyranny by confiscating property and condemning rebellious citizens to death. Socrates was one of their hardest critics and often came in conflict with them, and especially with his one-time friend and former student Crito of Alopece. It was one of the key reasons behind his death sentence.
“I know that I know nothing.” — Socrates
Socrates didn’t leave behind a single written word. All we know about his philosophical quests and teachings comes to us through other greats of that era – Aristotle, Xenophon, and, of course, Plato whose accounts are considered the most credible. Plato, who was also one of the greatest philosophers in history as well, tells us that Socrates was an honest and decent man, and a citizen loyal to the laws of his state.
Socrates was a deep thinker and a dedicated lover of scepticism. His thoughts and questions focused mainly around the everyday problems of human life. This is one of the principal ways that Socratic thinking is differentiated from that of the pre-Socratic philosophers, whose special field was natural philosophy.
Teachings and speeches of Socrates often revolved around the value of morality, bravery, kindness, loyalty to fair laws and to one’s country. He pointed out the negative effects of the opposites of these virtues. He taught young people, especially the progeny of the wealthy, not to overvalue material things and not to care about gaining more riches, but instead to behave morally and to feed the spirit.
Socrates believed that people could solve problems and uncover the truth using logic as their only tool. He is best known for his teaching method called the “Socratic Method.” Socrates, in his deliberations, pretended to be entirely ignorant, completely unaware of the issues under discussion. But by asking question after question, he worked to elicit the truth from his conversational partner who, in the end, after answering all the questions, was brought to “the truth,” as Socrates called the conclusions of these dialogues. This method is also known as the “maieutic” method, which refers to the notion that the truth is inside the mind and just as a midwife brings into the world a new baby, Socrates brought out the truth from his debaters.
1. Purpose of Politics
Socrates viewed ethics and politics as closely connected with each other. In his opinion, politics without ethics carries no value, and becomes harmful. “The highest of all virtues is the political art which includes statecraft and makes men good politicians and public officials.”
In other words, Socrates thought that the purpose of politics was not to capture power, nor it was an art to remain in power. Political ethics make good and proper citizens. Both public and private persons must learn the art of political ethics.
2. Concept of Law
Socrates also discussed the concept of law. He divided law into unwritten divine law and written human law. He cautioned us by pointing out that there was no discrepancy between these two sets of laws. Justice was the root of all the laws. If a law is not justified by justice, it is useless. If anything is not approved by justice, it cannot be legal. To be precise, Socrates gave priority to justice in his thought system and in this respect he followed his predecessors. He devised the theory of concord which means the citizens must show allegiance and obedience to law.
3. Nature of Political Systems
Socrates was a great supporter of philosopher-king. He did not like democracy, oligarchy, hereditary aristocracy and tyranny. Only a philosopher-king, he thought, could serve the purpose of the polis. Socrates gave a brief classification of government which runs as follows. Rule of men over the unwilling mass was to him a tyranny. Property qualification for office was, for him, a plutocracy.
It was democracy when all people were allowed to participate in the government. Socrates recommended only the rule of the wise. All other forms of government, in his opinion, were unsuitable.
Related with the concept of justice is equality and Socrates greatly emphasized it. Equality is a political virtue and it is the utmost duty of the wise ruler to ensure it. A polis must be based on equality. Violation of equality would result in disorder, chaos and disruption of normal activities of the polis. Socratic equality is geometrical equality. By geometrical equality Socrates means political justice and equity or right judgement in terms of political virtue as distinct from simple numerical or arithmetical equality.
Socrates’ Trial and Execution
For all his greatness and popular acclaim, Socrates had fanatic enemies as well, the result of his great powers of persuasion over the people and his influential opposition to the arbitrary authorities of his time. Unfortunately, this opposition led to his death.
In 399 BC, Socrates was accused of “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and of “corrupting the Athenian youth.” Many historians believe that these charges were fabricated by misrepresenting questions that Socrates posed while teaching according to his Socratic method. The penalty dictated that he should voluntarily drink a poisonous brew made from hemlock. Even though Socrates could have saved his life by escaping from prison, he preferred to die just as he had lived – with dignity and courage, honoring the beliefs and values he had spent his life teaching.