Socrates - A Life Worth Living

Dates: Socrates was born c.469BC, and died 399BC.

The father of Socrates was a humble stonemason, and his mother a midwife. Socrates left no written record, and a formal account of his life was not produced until many centuries after his death. But good accounts of his ideas were given by his student Plato. These are in the form of dialogues, with Socrates playing the lead character. Plato's dialogues are the main source for most biographies of Socrates.

Socrates had the usual education of a citizen of Athens, which involved studying the Greek poets, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. To begin with, he followed his father's profession as a stonemason. But, later, he became a hoplite - a heavily armed foot-soldier - and fought in the Peloponnesian wars for Athens, against Sparta. His friends wrote of his great endurance and courage. In mid-life he became a self-styled philosopher, but did not teach in a classroom or become a reclusive academic. Instead, he went daily to public areas like gymnasia and market places and talked to anyone and everyone. Late in life, he married the shrewish Xanthippe and had three sons.

His friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi whether there was any wiser man than Socrates. The oracle responded "none". Socrates was perplexed by this as he thought he was not wise in any subject. This inspired him to approach poets, politicians and artists who were thought wise by themselves and others. He questioned them closely and thereby found they had no great wisdom. He concluded that his, perhaps, greater wisdom might be due to being fully conscious of his own ignorance. His life's mission came out of these observations. He decided to interrogate all men until he revealed to them their own ignorance, thereby increasing their wisdom. According to Xenophon, he became milder as he became older—moving from severe questioning to inculcating plain wisdom: perseverance, self-control, temperance, piety, and other simple virtues

From descriptions in early biographies, Socrates appears to have lived the humblest life. He bought the cheapest food and drink, had no shirt or shoes, and wore the same cloak summer and winter. But this gave him independence to do as he wished, and what he wished was to help himself and others come to greater knowledge and peace of mind.

Socrates argued for his convictions in the council of Athens without caring about the negative impact on himself. His unrestrained truth-telling led to a trial for denying the gods and corrupting the youth of the city. His speech for his own defence is recorded in the Apology (Gk. apologia, 'defence') by Plato. The conversations he had with friends, after being condemned to death, are recorded in two other Platonic dialogues: the Crito and Phaedo.

Socrates wrote no books, and we are dependent on Plato for knowledge of his philosophy. He is the main character, and probably the main inspiration for, most of Plato's writings. Whitehead declared that all philosophy is just "footnotes to Plato", and academics label all earlier Greek philosophers as Pre-Socratics.

Socrates did not have a great interest in metaphysics, his greatest passion was ethics. He wanted to know the difference between true knowledge and opinion, and relentlessly cross-examined his fellow citizens in his attempt to find the difference. He started with difficult, fundamental questions. (What is courage? What is justice? What is virtue?) The answers were then subjected to rigorous questioning, usually resulting in the original answer being revealed as inconsistent, defective or inadequate, and with no satisfactory alternative. The person being cross-examined was left helpless, but at least knowing the extent of his ignorance. It is likely that politicians, finding themselves ridiculed by this process, were instrumental in condemning the great philosopher.

Historical background

Socrates lived in such turbulent times that history and politics must make an appearance. His maturity was set against the background of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which began in 431BC when Athens violated a peace treaty. 

Internal politics was equally turbulent. In 411BC, democracy was overthrown in Athens by the oligarchical party, which was in turn replaced by the regime of the Five Thousand. The Peloponnesian War ended in 404BC after the Athenian navy was destroyed and Athens, under siege, capitulated.