Born: 469 BC. Died: 399 BC.
Socrates, the celebrated Greek philosopher and moralist, was born at Athens in the year 469 B.C. His father, Sophroniskus, was a sculptor and he followed the same profession in the early part of his life. His family was respectable in descent, but humble in point of means. He had the usual education of the Athenian citizen, which included not only a knowledge of the mother tongue, and readings in the Greek poets, but also the elements of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy as then known. Excepting in connection with his philosophical career, few circumstances of his life are known. He served as a hoplite, or heavy-armed foot-soldier, at the siege of Potidaea, at the battle of Deliurn, and at Amphipolis, and his bravery and endurance were greatly extolled by his friends.
An interesting thing about Socrates was that his religious thoughts were very different from basically about everybody during that time. While the Greeks were busy worrying about pleasing some petty gods running around on top of Mount Olympus, Socrates was focused on the idea of a much greater and perfect God that created everything and that watched over all of us. He thought that there was a higher and greater God than that of the pagan Greek gods. Socrates would make fun of the Greek gods through the Iliad and the Odessy. He would read sections of them to his students, talking about their jealousy and pride. Socrates would wonder how people actually believe them to be gods as imperfect as they were. To Socrates they were just immortal humans with magical powers.
Somewhere about the middle period of his life, he relinquished his profession as statuary, and gave himself up to the career that made him famous. Deservedly styled a philosopher, he neither secluded himself for study, nor opened a school for the regular instruction of pupils. He disclaimed the appellation of teacher; his practice was to talk or converse, "to prattle without end," as his enemies said. Early in the morning he frequented the public walks, the gymnasia for bodily training, and the school where youths were receiving instruction; he was to be seen at the market-place at the hour when it was most crowded, among the booths and tables where goods were exposed for sale. His whole day was usually spent in this public manner. He talked with any one, young or old, rich or poor, who sought to address him, and in the hearing of all who stood by. As it was engaging, curious, and instrutive to hear, certain persons made it their habit to attend him in public as companions and listeners.
Another peculiarity of Socrates was his persuasion of a special religious mission, of which he believed that he had received oracular intimation. About the time when he began to have repute as a wise man, an admirer and friend, Chaerephon, consulted the oracle at Delphi, as to whether any man was wiser than Socrates. The priestess replied "none." The answer, he said, perplexed him very much; for he was conscious to himself that he possessed no wisdom, on any subject, great or small. At length he resolved to put the matter to the test, by taking measure of the wisdom of other persons as compared with his own. Seleting a leading politician, accounted wise by himself and others, he put a series of questions to him, and found his supposed wisdom was no wisdom at all. He next tried to demonstrate to the politician himself how much he was deficient; but he refused to be convinced. He then saw a meaning in the oracle, to the effect that his superiority to others lay not in his wisdom, but in his being fully conscious of his ignorance. He tried the same experiment on other politicians, then on poets, and lastly on artists and artisans, and with the same result. Thereupon, he considered it as a duty imposed on him by the Delphian god, to cross-question men of all degrees, as to their knowledge, to make them conscious of their ignorance, and so put them in the way of becoming wise. According to Xenophon, he would pass from his severe cross-questioning method, and address to his hearers plain and homely precepts, inculcating self-control, temperance, piety, duty to parents, brotherly love, fidehty in friendship, diligelice, etc.
Cicero said that "Socrates brought down philosophy from the the heavens to the earth." The previous philosophies consisted of vast and vague speculations on nature as a whole, blending together Cosmogony, Astronomy, Geometry, Physics, Metaphysics, etc. Socrates had studied these systems, and they had left on his mind a feeling of emptiness and unsuitability for any human purpose. It seemed to him that men's endeavors after knowledge would be better directed to human relationships, as involving men's practical concerns. Accordingly he was the first to proclaim that "the proper study of mankind is man;" human nature, human duties and human happiness make up a field of really urgent and profitable inquiry.
In the year 400 B.C., an indictment was laid against Socrates, in the following terms; "Socates is guilty of crime; first, for not worshipping the gods whom the city worships, and for introducing new divinities of his own; next for corrupting the youth. The penalty due is death." The trial took place before a court composed of citizen-judges, like modern-day juries, but far more numerous; the number present seems to have been 557.
His defense is preserved by Plato, under the title Apology of Socrates. He dwelt on his mission to convit men of their ignorance for their ultimate benefit; pronounced himself a public blessing to the Athenians; declared that if his life was preserved he would continue in the same course; and regarded the prospect of death with utter indifference. By a majority of five or six he was adjudged guilty and sentenced to death by poison. The last day of his life he passed in conversation with his friends on the Immortality of the soul. He then drank the hemlock, and passed away with the dignity and calmness becoming his past career.
- Although Socrates never wrote anything of his own, we did manage to come to know and understand Socrates’s thoughts and methods through some dialogs recorded mostly by his follower and disciple Plato. We can’t exactly be sure that these are all of Socrates’s words. Probably the closest record of Socrates’s actual words was his farewell speech given while he was in court called The Apology.
- "A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong-acting the part of a good man or of a bad." (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "[The affidavit] says that Socrates is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own." (when he sentenced to death from "Apology" by Plato)
- "Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know." (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "Are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul?" (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "I have a sufficient witness to the truth of what I say-my poverty." (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live." (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "If you think that by killing men you can prevent someone from censuring your evil lives, you are mistaken. That is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable. The easiest and noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves." (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend-a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens-are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all!" (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "Neither in war nor yet at law ought I or any man to use every way of escaping death. ... The difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness." (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "O men of Athens ... either acquit me or not; but whichever you do, understand that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times." (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child; it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do." (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "The unexamined life is not worth living." (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "Young men of the richer classes, who have not much to do, come about me of their own accord; they like to hear the pretenders examined, and they often imitate me, and proceed to examine others; there are plenty of persons, as they quickly discover, who think that they know something, but really know little or nothing; and then those who are examined by them instead of being angry with themselves are angry with me: this confounded Socrates, they say; this villainous misleader of youth!" (from "Apology" by Plato)
- "This is ... self-knowledge-for a man to know what he knows, and what he does not know." (from "Charmides" by Plato)
- "Speech is a kind of action." (from "Cratylus" by Plato)
- "The worst of all deceptions is self-deception." (from "Cratylus" by Plato)
- "Doing evil in return for evil ... is the morality of the many. ...
We ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him." (from "Crito" by Plato)
- "The nearest way to glory ... is to strive to be what you wish to be thought to be." (from "De officiis" by Cicero)
- "A man may be thought wise; but the Athenians, I suspect, do not much trouble themselves about him unless he begins to impart his wisdom to others." (from "Euthyphro" by Plato)
- "The poets are only the interpreters of the Gods." (from "Ion" by Plato)
- "Anonymous: Should I marry or not?
Socrates: Whichever you do you will repent it." (from "Lives of Eminent Philosophers" by Diogenes Laertius)
- "How many things I can do without." (from "Lives of Eminent Philosophers" by Diogenes Laertius)
- "I am nearest to the gods in that I have the fewest wants." (from "Lives of Eminent Philosophers" by Diogenes Laertius)
- "It takes two to make a quarrel." (from "Lives of Eminent Philosophers" by Diogenes Laertius)
- "The rest of the world lives to eat, while I eat to live." (from "Lives of Eminent Philosophers" by Diogenes Laertius)
- "There is only one good, that is, knowledge; and only one evil, that is, ignorance." (from "Lives of Eminent Philosophers" by Diogenes Laertius)
- "If the truth of all things always existed in the soul, then the soul is immortal. Wherefore be of good cheer, and try to recollect what you do not know, or rather what you do not remember." (from "Meno" by Plato)
- "Virtue comes to the virtuous by the gift of God." (from "Meno" by Plato)
- "The highest wisdom consistts] in distinguishing between good and evil." (from "Moral Letters to Lucilius" by Seneca the Younger)
- "Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels." (from "Moral Letters to Lucilius" by Seneca the Younger)
- "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?." (from "Phaedo" by Plato)
- "I would ask you to be thinking of the truth and not of Socrates: agree with me, if I seem to you to be speaking the truth; or if not, withstand me might and main, that I may not deceive you as well as myself in my enthusiasm, and like the bee, leave my sting in you before I die." (from "Phaedo" by Plato)
- "Let a man be of good cheer about his soul, who having cast away the pleasures and ornaments of the body as alien to him and working harm rather than good, has sought after the pleasures of knowledge; and has arrayed the soul, not in some foreign attire, but in her own proper jewels: temperance, and justice, and courage, and nobility, and truth-in these adorned she is ready to go on her journey to the world below, when her hour comes." (from "Phaedo" by Plato)
- "Let us suppose that there are two sorts of existences-one seen, the other unseen. ...
The seen is the changing, and the unseen is the unchanging." (from "Phaedo" by Plato)
- "Wars are occasioned by the love of money." (from "Phaedo" by Plato)
- "I educate, not by lessons, but by going about my business." (from "Representative Men" by Ralph Waldo Emerson)
- "Memory, the mother of the Muses." (from "Theaetetus" by Plato)
- "Nothing ever is, but all things are becoming. ... All things are the offspring of flux and motion." (from "Theaetetus" by Plato)
- "Philosophy begins in wonder." (from "Theaetetus" by Plato)