Socrates (ca. 469-399 BCE) is hailed as one of the founders of Western philosophy, however, very little is known about him as a historical figure and philosopher. The best account of life and work of one of the most influential philosophers of all times is given by the later classical writers, in the first place by his students Plato and Xenophon and the playwright Aristophanes who was his contemporary. Despite that, the mentioned writers reveal that the ancient Greek philosopher made important contributions to philosophy as well as epistemology and logic. He is the inventor of the so-called Socratic method or elenchus which remains one of the most commonly used approaches not only to answer the fundamental questions of philosophy but it also serves as a tool for scientific research. Ironically, the most famous Socrates’ saying is “I only know that I know nothing”.
As mentioned earlier, Socrates’ life and work are surrounded by mystery. He did not write any philosophical works or left any writings. The knowledge we have about him both as a historical figure and philosopher is based exclusively on later classical writings. Uncertainty regarding Socrates’ life and work which is known as the Socratic problem is related to the fact that the information we have about him (besides the above mentioned authors, Socrates also appears in the works by Aristotle and the famous historian Thucydides) are philosophical and dramatic rather than historical texts. This makes it very difficult to create a picture of his life, work and philosophical thought.
Socrates’ student Plato is traditionally considered the best source about the philosopher’s life and work although many scholars emphasise that it is very difficult to distinguish between Plato’s and Socrates’ philosophical views and even more difficult to create an accurate account of Socrates’ life. As a result, some consider Xenophon to be more reliable source of information about Socrates as a historical figure.
Plato and Xenophon are the main sources for Socrates’ personal life. From their writing, we find out that the renowned ancient Greek philosopher was born to Sophroniscus, a stonemason (or perhaps a sculptor) and his wife Phaenarete who was a midwife. He spent his life in Athens where he was born but details of his early life are scarce. He is said to participate in the Peloponnesian War (431-04 BCE) and that he married relatively late with Xanthippe who was much younger from him. She bore him three sons – Lamprocles, Sophroniscus and Menexenus.
It is not certain what Socrates did for a living. According to Xenophon, he was completely devoted to philosophy, while Aristophanes says that he earned a living by teaching at a school he ran with Chaerephon. Plato, however, rejects the accounts of Socrates being paid for teaching. Then there are also accounts of him working as a stonemason, like his father. In the antiquity, he was credited with the creation of the Three Graces statues near Acropolis but this has been rejected by modern scholars.
The Gadfly of Athens
Plato portrays Socrates as the gadfly of Athens. He explains that Socrates loved to “test” the wisdom of those he considered to be wiser than him. But since most of the people he “tested” were statesmen and other influential people of Athens, he soon came to be known as the gadfly of Athens because his methods of testing wisdom made many influential people look everything but wise in the public. He also came into conflict with the elites and the general public in Athens by praising the city’s rival of Sparta although he claimed loyalty to Athens. It is speculated that his role of gadfly might had been one of the leading causes for his trial and execution. However, he remained the “gadfly of Athens” until the very end. At the trial, he apparently proposed that he should be paid a wage by the government and free dinners for lifetime when he had been asked to propose a punishment for his wrongdoing.
Trial and Execution
Those who persecuted and tried Socrates did not left any records. Again, Plato and Xenophon are the main sources for the events leading to the philosopher’s trial and execution. They tell us that Meletus, Lycon and Anytus charged Socrates with impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens. In his defence speech, he is said to defend his role as the “gadfly”, making it easy on his persecutors to sentence him to death. Both Plato and Xenophon tell us that he had an opportunity to escape and that his friend Crito even bribed the guards in the prison but he decided to stay. He was given to drink poison hemlock.
Socrates main contribution to Western philosophy is his method of inquiry that was called after him Socratic method, sometimes also known as elenchus. According to the latter, a statement can be considered true only if it cannot be proved wrong. The Socratic method which is dialectic breaks down a problem into a series of questions which are then sought to be answered. This method which is also used in scientific research by making a hypothesis and then either proving it correct or false, is by some suggested to be first used by Zeno of Elea (ca. 490-430 BCE) but it was Socrates who refined it and used it to solve ethical questions.
The philosopher’s beliefs are difficult to distinguish from Plato’s. According to some, they may have been reinterpreted by Plato but according to the others, the latter perhaps completely adopted Socrates’ philosophical thoughts and that his beliefs actually reflect those from Socrates. Thus the famous philosopher’s saying “I only know that I know nothing” can be in a way also claimed for his life and work.