Life is the most precious, unique, and complex defining feature of individuals. Its vitality is displayed in our fierce protection of it. Its uniqueness defines who we are as individuals. Finally, its complexity forces us to understand that we are helpless in controlling many aspects that define it. A quest to understand life reduces our existence on earth to a meaningless journey, filled with self-glorification and uneventful occurrences. It is when an individual claiming to have such a profound understanding of life brings this realization to the forefront that knowledge loses its power and becomes dangerous. An individual defining the only meaningful existence motivates the masses into either a frantic pursuit to fulfill the stipulations or to quickly silence the originator of their fear. The ultimate fear is that the time we spend on earth is meaningless without achieving the difficult task of understanding it, and the source of this idea, Socrates.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” -Socrates
This is the quote that affirms my belief in questioning every aspect of life from authoritative figures to the origin of my own opinions. It also strikes fear deep within the hearts of those who conform to another’s definition of life; we should choose our path wisely, for we only get one. From the second we are born until our last breath, human nature drives us to explore and grasp the world around us. The exploration is a difficult undertaking. It is easy to accept society’s pre-conceived definitions. It takes a truly enlightened and courageous person to explore the intangible thoughts. In 5th Century B.C., one man did such a thing and went against common beliefs. He accepted the fate of execution rather than acquiesces and accept life as it was. Socrates preferred succumbing to the Athenian judgment of death, because discontinuing his search for purpose would have been death in itself. Socrates revolutionized, in fact practically invented, the science of philosoph!
y. His work proved to be the major turning point in separating philosophy from other sciences. It has been said that science is what we think we know, and philosophy is what we are sure we don’t know. Socrates searched for answers by asking questions of people who had a definite stance on a certain view. Using what later came to be called the Socratic method, he asked a question, then took the opposing stance and asked simple questions that challenged the original definite claim his counterpart claimed. Using reason, Socrates could infer truths and undermine any statement. This method of questioning searched for definitions of “universal truths” and turned philosophy from the study of how actions are viewed by the majority into how our mind’s preconceived notions affect our views on right and wrong. Rather than asking, “How do I live a better life?”, Socrates would search for what it was in man that caused actions, rather than find environmental factors that shape the!
way society views a good life. His constant questioning of so-called truths proved to be as harmful to his existence as it was beneficial to his studies. Socrates began to make a mark on the world that couldn’t be overshadowed, even by his death. His devotion to beliefs was put to the test in 399 B.C. when a panel of citizens convicted him of impiety and sentenced him to death. His death was an attempt to erase his ideas from the minds of individuals daring enough to question the structure of an acceptable life, and to discourage anyone from continuing his work. He serves as history’s first martyr for philosophy, refusing to abandon his principles to save his own life. His student, Plato, is one of the only links between our world and the work of Socrates.
Socrates was born in 470 B.C., in Athens, Greece. His mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. She was exceptionally intellectual but her gender prevented her from receiving a formal education. His father, Sophroniscus, was an expert stonecutter. He provided a comfortable middle-class living for his wife and son (Mason 27). As a child, Socrates didn’t fit in with his peers; he wasn’t as physically inclined as they were. He did take particular interest in scholastics. While not achieving a formal education, he was tutored to different extents by many of the Sophists in Athens. They were all impressed with his ability to grasp abstract ideas (Russell 59-63). This desire to learn was manifested in his style of teaching, which promoted advancement for both student and teacher. He enlightened his pupils by merely posing questions to elicit deeper consideration than the conventional method of forcing an idea on them. Questioning the ideas and views, not those who held them, was!
the focus of the curriculum. Socrates was an only child, who desired attention throughout his life. As a teen, he learned his father’s trade.
Socrates was said to have lived in Athens his entire live, he left for six years in his early twenties. He voluntarily served in the Grecian Army during the Peloponnesian Wars along side his father. They served as hoplite soldiers. A hoplite was a heavily armored warrior with high stature in the Greek military. The Hoplite status affirms his father’s wealth, because hoplites had to supply their own armor and weapons, which were very expensive. An interesting effect of his service in the war was the heavy armor which, combined with the physical demands of a foot solider, transformed the weakling who preferred books to the gym into a man of great physical strength, with a body immune to the harsh physical elements (“Socrates” 2). During one of the peacetime breaks from duty, he married an educated Athenian woman, named Xanthippe. They had three sons. During the wars he was exposed to the world’s undesirable elements and saw firsthand both the good and evil man was capab!
le of. Toward the end of his military service while at a camp in-between battles, he awoke early one morning and stood on top of a nearby hill, in the mud, motionless for the entire day. Nobody attempted to disturb his trance-like state. At the next morning’s sunrise, he turned around, walked down the hill, and continued his normal duties with no mention of what had happened.
Shortly after the day entranced, upon his return to Athens, and end of military service, he gave up stonecutting and invested the money he had earned with his inheritance from his father, only to never work again. His days were now spent in the city conversing with anyone who would listen about various reflective concepts (Hulse 73, 105). While he still provided for his family, his new fascination with seeking truths disconnected him from his home life. Some accounts suggest that his wife resented their new meager lifestyle. Divorce wasn’t a logical option, so Xanthippe made do. Diogenes Laertius recorded many stories that show Socrates’s humor and good nature with regards to his impoverished earthly existence and his brash intellect.
Once his wife Xanthippe became infuriated at his indifference toward her reproach. She then drenched him with water out of frustration. When later asked of the incident Socrates responded, “Did I not say that Xanthippe’s thunder would end in rain?” One man spoke up and called her temper intolerable. Socrates justified his endurance of it by saying, “But I have got used to it, like the creaky crank of an old well. You do not mind the cackle of geese?” The man replied, “No, but they furnish me with eggs and goslings.” “And Xanthippe,” said Socrates, “is the mother of my children. When she ripped the coat off my back in the market and you urged me to hit back, I abstained. Why? Yes, by Zeus, so that while we are sparring each of you may say, ‘Good for you, Socrates!’ ‘Way to go, Xanthippe!’” Socrates had an interesting perspective on his unmanageable wife. He said that he lived with just such a woman, just as horsemen are fond of spirited horses, and when they have ma!
stered them, they can easily handle the rest. “I am in the company of Xanthippe so I shall learn to adapt myself to the rest of mankind,” Socrates quoted (Brickhouse). He and his family survived modestly from the money he provided. Socrates was noted to profess neglecting money-making and property acquisitions, because he thought his time spent gaining these useless objects would be of greater benefit if it were spent conferring with the citizens of Athens. He admitted to his modest amount of possessions and his lack of desire for them.
Once the Sophist, Antiphon, tried to publicly humiliate Socrates by pointing out that his ideas had earned him only unhappiness. He made reference to his lack of shoes, one set of clothing, poor cloak, and simple food. Antiphon said teachers want students to mimic themselves, and since Socrates refused to accept payment for his services, he was passing along his unhappiness to his students. Socrates responded with, “…those who take money are bound to carry out the work for which they get a fee, …I am not obligated to talk with anyone against my will.” Socrates then remarked of his meager food, “…the greater the enjoyment of drinking, the less the desire for drinks that are not available.” “….if help is needed by the city…,he who cannot exist without expensive food is less desired than he who is content with what he can get.” He went on to explain, “As for cloaks, they are changed on account of cold or heat, and shoes are worn as a protection to the feet against pain an!
d inconvenience in walking. Nor did you ever know me to stay indoors more than others on account of cold, or to fight with any man for the shade because of the heat, or to be prevented from walking anywhere by sore feet? Do you not know that by training, a puny weakling comes to better at any form of exercise he practices, and gets more staying power, than the muscular prodigy who neglects to train?” And to finish driving the dagger into Antiphon’s pride-filled heart, Socrates finished with, “You seem, Antiphon, to imagine that happiness consists in luxury and extravagance. But my belief is that to have no wants is divine; and that which is divine is supreme (Strauss 311).” His exceptional stamina and exercise, along with distaining from gluttony, kept Socrates in excellent health until, at the age of 70, he was accused of impiety and sentenced to death. In another example of his apathy for worldly goods, one of Socrates’s wealthy students attempted to repay his teacher, but found the task impossible. The student Alcibiades, tried to give Socrates land and material to build a home fitting for such a great teacher. Socrates replied, “Suppose, then, I wanted shoes and you offered me a whole hide to make a pair, would it not be ridiculous for me to take it?” Socrates was full of questions and admitted to having few answers. Another student sent him corn, vittles and wine directly to his house. As befitting of Socrates, he took a little and returned all the rest (Hulse 188). These are just some examples of Socrates’s ability in using his wit to charismatically display his virtues.
Despite historians’ inability to provide detailed information about the early life of Socrates, there are a few records of his dialogues and discoveries. The problems with them are that his students recorded many of these details, and depending on their motivation, the stories can be quite different. Plato’s dialogues of Socrates hold more validity because he was a friend of Socrates who actually received his teachings. Plato’s accounts are detailed, but not consistently labeled as being Socrates’s views or his own. The very fact that this gifted man chose not to record his ideas is a testament to his understanding of man to a degree beyond words. Plato inquired about his lack of records and his reply was that knowledge was a living, interactive thing, not to be affected by constraints. He felt his method of inquiry, questioning people on their positions that they held, was essential to understand the nature of man. By asserting and questioning the position, the questions became contradictory to the assumptions they yielded, proving the initial position was in error (Vlastos 33). Socrates never asked the same question twice, nor could anyone find a method to the questions he posed. He considered every individual idea unique and dependent on the time, setting, circumstances, and individual person that held it. He himself never took a position on the idea, declaring anything right or wrong was not the way he taught. He took a different angle on the concept, which challenged his student’s conviction. Socrates’s innate understanding on how the world works allowed him to see faults in our logic (Gomez 42). While it outwardly appeared that Socrates was educating his listeners, he claimed to be gaining knowledge from them, making him the student. Socrates was obsessed with acquiring knowledge. He said he realized he knew nothing. It was the limited knowledge that he possessed which enabled him to understand, and made him wiser than the re!
st of the world. Theaetetus, who claimed to have knowledge, failed to explain knowledge to Socrates. Socrates used questions to prove that knowledge is neither perception, nor true judgment. Socrates knew it was a display of ignorance to appear knowledgeable (Kolak 13).
The Oracle at Delphi challenged Socrates’s declaration of his lack of knowledge in 438 B.C. Cracks revealing the shape of a ￥, were said to have formed on the Oracle. Chaerephon asked if Socrates was the wisest in all world (Jowett). To the Greeks, the Oracle was a tool for communication with gods. This is when his views gained a wider base of acceptance. Either driven by self-preservation, or his distaste of the unproven, Socrates denied its implications. He claimed he had no knowledge at all. His wisdom came from him admitting that he knew nothing at all. The admission of his own ignorance made him wiser than anyone else. In other words, while Socrates was at a knowledge level of zero, everyone else was at a negative value, because they thought they possessed knowledge they did not have. This was the detriment that was holding everyone back; their own pride.
When the Oracle at Delphi claimed that no one was wiser than Socrates, he responded by attempting to disprove the prophecy. Although Plato never mentioned it, some think Socrates received special access to the Oracle to test its powers. If he did, he continued to disprove the declaration of the Oracle by venturing out to seek wiser people than himself. He would ask them questions, and one by one, he exposed their ignorance. He thought poets should be wise, but when tested, they couldn’t explain the meaning of their poetry. He determined they could write poetry because of their innate talents. Not that the words in their poetry were a testament to their wisdom. The politicians were exposed to only be concerned with their own best interests. Their candor in oration allowed every idea they had to become law, not that their ideas were just enough alone to make them law. Finally, of the craftsmen, he said, “I went to the craftsmen, for I was conscious of knowing practically nothing, and I knew that I would find they had knowledge of many fine things… Each of them, because of his success at his craft, thought himself very wise in other most important pursuits, and this error of theirs overshadowed the wisdom they had (Cora 58).” In his own mind, he wasn’t sagacious; his wisdom lay in the fact that he realized that he lacked knowledge. They ignorantly thought their skills were more developed than they actually were. A quote from the Lilla explains it best, “The life represented by Socrates’s own was, above all, an antityrannical life, the noblest one because it is supremely self-aware of its own tyrannical inclinations. That self-awareness is what distinguishes the behavior of Plato from that of philotyrannical intellectuals in twentieth-century Europe (Stone).” It was this discovery that led to Socrates’s statement recorded in Phaedo. He said to possess pure knowledge, one must escape from the body and observe matters in themselves with t!
he soul by itself. That refers to society’s preoccupation with the body and material objects, while ignoring what matters, truth. Everything else was a distraction. Although he never admitted agreeing with the Oracle, Socrates soon reestablished his deep conviction of truth searching (Jowette).
Socrates would challenge anyone with a pretense to knowledge. He philosophized by questioning one’s beliefs. Socrates never claimed to teach and never sought out people to engage in discussion with. For Socrates, gaining knowledge was not accomplished by accepting an opinion because of its widespread acceptance. Rather, personal advancement toward wisdom is only gained through continuous self-criticism. Philosophy involved not learning the answers but searching for them. While Socrates posed more questions than answers, he was in love with the goal of truth. This is evident in his detachment from everything worldly, and his eagerness to be open and honest about his own nature making deductions using reason. His main aim was to get the citizens of Athens to desire virtue. Virtues allow the realization of ignorance to better the soul. These abstract concepts of our existence are as difficult to attain now as they were in ancient Greece, but he definitely believed in the importance. He tackled the impossible task of sharing (and gaining) his knowledge by becoming a keen examiner, able to stimulate the mind to the point of questioning everything. He never used a set pattern to question. His method over time has been broken down into the three basic parts, in order to gain a better understanding of it.
There are three parts to his ‘Socratic Method’ of seeking truths. First, the subject claims knowledge of anything and can make a true statement describing it; then Socrates poses a series of questions that when answered by the subject, disprove the original statement. Sometimes the propositions that Socrates made didn’t contradict the original idea until hours of examination. If the subject’s statement is then disproved by a subsequent response posed by Socrates and agreed to by the subject, it is accepted as not being a universal truth (showing the union of Truth, Beauty and Good). This process uses reason to bring out an arrogant generalization, because no idea is always true. The subject must know that their intelligence is not at stake; the examination requires a separation of body (pride) from their soul (consciousness) with no distractions being considered. The consideration of different views challenges our values; this is the key to finding truths. Emphasis w!
asn’t placed in finding a solution, but the searching for them (Prior 118).
The desire of wisdom was the underlying motivator of Socrates. The term “Philosophy” gained new meaning through Socrates. His focus was concentrated on human actions shaped by their morals and ethics. Socrates proved valid that man uses reason to cater to his natural tendency to cast vices aside in order to follow the moral action. Socrates wisdom led him to believe that one does bad because he either doesn’t know better, the circumstances mitigate the deed, or we believe at the time of the act that we are following the advancement toward our own pursuit of happiness. He said man isn’t always motivated to do the worthy thing for the sake of being moral, but the consequences of immoral behavior sometimes mold our responses. He opposed the contemporary craving for living extravagantly, the instant gratification that provokes us. Socrates originated the phrase, “know thyself,” and suggested that examining your own motivations and psyche was the only way to gain virtue (Benson 7). The most efficient path to ‘living well’ is to have a well-rounded moral psyche that controls our thoughts, which is ultimately in control of the physical self. Happiness then is determined by the perception of acting rightly. This was all determined so he could find the path that forced the right action at all times. His own actions were kept in check by his moral psyche. The self-discipline of moral reasoning, suspended above the sprawling net of temptation, allowed for his only desire to be obtained – pursuit of true happiness
He stated that no one voluntarily makes a mistake (voluntarily meaning consistent with true will). This allowed for him to understand his own intrinsic moral motivations. He now understood his views, the reasons for their shortcomings, and how to correct them, if necessary, in order to achieve happiness. He did admit that people gave in to temptation. This only occurred if you weren’t aware of your own morals. A morally wrong action could be taken with no remorse if it yielded an advantage for the doer. After all, who would really choose to harm themselves, or impede their advancement? This self-examination relied heavily on logical reasoning (Jowett). He believed being good in purpose was impossible unless the do-gooder had standards for a good deed. Therefore, a deed without a positive label couldn’t be considered virtuous. Above all, Socrates did not want to define good as it pertained to living well. An illustration is shown in the common courtesy our society demands of knocking on the door before entering a room. This is the proper action to show courtesy and privacy in our society. The stone castles and Ionic temples didn’t contain doors to knock on. Walking into a room without an announcement wasn’t considered in bad taste in 5th Century B.C. It depends on society’s definition of a good and proper action. Socrates was unwilling to define good because that would have implied one action more desirable than another.
To Socrates, goodness and virtue were synonymous. He believed that virtues are the key to living a good life, and without them, nothing else can be appreciated. This relates to his underprivileged existence. He could chase after the “Athenian Dream’ of being a consumer, keeping up with the “Homers”, but he felt that the acquisition of wealth didn’t bring virtue or goodness, but that virtue brought wealth. He wished for everyone to attain virtue and attempted to shift people’s understanding of knowledge, so they could live a good life. His noble intentions were not to glorify his name or teachings; he simply had insight he felt compelled to sharing with the rest of the world.
Despite his untiring convictions, his ideas weren’t popular with the 5th century’s critics. Athenians viewed Socrates as a Sophist. He deeply detested this association because the Sophists’s ideas were in direct conflict with his teachings. They were professional teachers who claimed to have knowledge (Taylor 53). To Socrates, they were a temporary fix during the transition of Pre-Socratian Philosophy to the Socratic ideology. While these so-called experts educated Socrates, he exceeded capabilities in every way. The Sophists were concerned with how virtue (or any subject) could be taught, rather than gained. They focused on using the current system of beliefs to their advantage. They readied their students with the proper tools to manipulate society. While Socrates tried to make everyone aware of their own ignorance, the Sophists played on it. Using society’s fears and ignorance, they empowered their students with skills to manipulate society’s shortcomings to their own advantage. They only provided the appearance of knowledge and virtue. Socrates wasn’t concerned with anything on the surface, because the surface isn’t a correct representation of what’s inside.
It was during the ongoing conflict that the Sophist, Protagoras, and Socrates were recorded in the play Protagoras. During a debate, Socrates complimented Protagoras for being able to give long speeches with short answers. Socrates admitted that he was not good at long speeches due to short memory. Socrates was referring to Protagoras’s desire to hold the floor, even when he had nothing to say. When Protagoras refused to shorten his answers, Socrates left. In ancient Athens, leaving in the middle of someone else’s speech was a display of disrespect . Socrates soon paid the price of public humiliation for his hostility toward Sophists. Since the Sophists only lent their teaching services for a fee, only the upper class could afford to learn rhetoric skills. Many of these students were soon to be political leaders, playwrights. This close relationship allowed for the Sophists to impose their distaste of Socrates on their students. His dangerous freethinking and materi!
al abandonment was not within the realm of control the Sophists had over Athenians. While Socrates saw that they were deceiving society and tailoring the truth to suit their political desires, their young contemporaries were convincing the public that Socrates was an ignorant criminal (Trendennick 2). The triumph of deceit over true virtue was how Sophists justified their underhanded deeds. In that lies Socrates’s fatal oversight. He dealt with reason and assumed people were reasonable; however, reason rarely guides politics. The mockery of his teaching, as portrayed in the allegories of the day, wasn’t aimed at embarrassing him. The jury pool was being tainted.
Socrates had the Sophists trying their hardest to keep him silent, he had playwrights casting a gloomy shadow over his reputation, and every politician in Athens using their political clout to arrest him before his ideas caught on. It would have been a devastating blow to the political hierarchy of Athens. For their effort, it would seem that Socrates had quite a crowd gathering beneath him to attract so much attention. The fact is that Socrates ideas were too abstract and so far ahead of the time that the average citizens of Athens couldn’t grasp or reason with his concepts. What one doesn’t understand, they dismissed as nonsense. There were two fundamental problems impeding Socrates and his fellow citizens from agreement. The first was that the ideas and discoveries he made were not simple enough to learn overnight. The only thing more underdeveloped than the public’s understanding was their attention span. Socrates’s truths took him nearly thirty years to comprehen!
d. The great minds that were truly into self-advancement were the only people Socrates could convey his messages to. The second problem was that Socrates was a horrible teacher (Russell 14). He never professed to being a teacher, but he was the only person in the world that had ever viewed a good life as the abandonment of material possessions and the yearning for virtue; in fact it took nearly fifteen hundred years before anyone could follow up and expand on his works (Plato and Aristotle could grasp but not expand). To use Plato’s parable, Socrates had brought the sun into the cave in order to show people how they should live their lives. To his detriment, he lacked the finesse of persuasion, only teaching by realization. His form of questioning didn’t intend to but often came off brash and arrogant. His aggressiveness toward publicly displaying his wit, by examining opposing views and exposing the ignorance of those who held them, did grab the attention of Athenians,! but affirmed the character portrayed by his opposition as an ill-spirited man of no faith.
Socrates was a courageous and virtuous man, but I am of the opinion that he became frustrated with society’s apathy toward his revelations. Socrates didn’t seek people to engage in conversation, but he was a well-known philosopher who welcomed discussion. The irony of his death was that it came when he was seventy years old. In 400 B.C., this was exceptionally old. It is worth noting that the man was clearly close to his death, and while not deathly ill, he had outlived most of the pampered Athenians around him.
Why the sudden interest in quieting him after forty years of questions? There are two explanations: One is that in 411, and then in 401 B.C., the Athenian democracy was overthrown by the surrounding civilizations that were emerging as military powers. Sparta was one of these ever-threatening powers. Prior to the two previous revolts, many of Sparta’s younger men were venturing into Athens to converse with the enlightened Socrates. It was either a scouting mission in order to gather information about the city before invading it, or perhaps Socrates was the instigator of the foreign attacks. Whichever was the case, the political leaders of Athens blamed Socrates for inciting invaders to attack. In 399 B.C., there were an increasing number of young Spartan warriors traveling to Athens to challenge the views of the wise old Socrates. The recently instated political leaders weren’t about to let history repeat itself for the third time. They were threatened by the ideas So!
crates was arming the young people of Greece with and assumed he was encouraging the rebellious potential of the Spartans (Stone 140). I feel I must say that while it was Socrates steadfast view to teach to all, he would never commit a crime against his state. His nature would not allow his ideas to destroy Athens unless he persuaded it to change. No matter the reason(s) were for charging him with impiety, corruption of the youth, and undermining of religious beliefs, it came to be.
The idea of putting him on trial was that of Meletus, who spoke on behalf of the poets; Anytus, who represented the craftsmen; and Lycon, on behalf of the rhetoricians. These three men acted as prosecutors and brought the charges against Socrates. In his defense, he had no one but himself. Many of his closest followers denounced him. Meletus, a life-long opposition of Socrates, had some political influence and was able to get the trail to a jury within weeks. When Socrates appeared before his three accusers and the panel of 500 citizens he, as it is told in Plato’s Apology, asked for the court’s forgiveness for he felt the only way he could answer to the charges was by using dialogue. The natural tongue wasn’t permitted in the Athenian court of law, but this case had many flaws and his defense was sure to have little effect on the outcome, so it was allowed (Philipson 294).
The Apology was written as an account of Socrates’s defense; the Greek word apology literally means self-defense speech. His plan can be interpreted as an attempt to defeat the validity of the charges using formal logic. He answered to the charge of impiety (unholyness) by forcing Meletus to admit it was impossible. He asked Meletus, “Is there anyone who believes in supernatural activity, but not supernatural things?” Meletus admitted no. Socrates then clarified the definition of supernatural things as being the gods or the children of the gods. Meletus agreed. Socrates said that since he taught of supernatural activity he obviously believed in supernatural things, therefore could not be an atheist. After making a fool of his accusers, Socrates then moved to the next accusation of corrupting the youth. Socrates began this by again asking Meletus if it was better to live in a good or bad society. He was trying to get Meletus to admit that this charge was either not a!
gainst the law or Meletus hadn’t been enforcing the laws of Athens for the prior forty years. Meletus didn’t bite, so Socrates, always ready with a question, posed, “Who makes the young good? The Jury? The Council? The Assemble?” Meletus answered yes to all of them. Then Socrates asked if he (Socrates) was the only force corrupting the youth. Meletus confirmed that. Then Socrates attempted to incite the jury with his interrogation methods by further damaging Meletus’s reputation. Socrates started, “Take the case of horses; do you bel