Mini-bio : Socrates.
The most influential Western philosopher of all time.
Ancient - Greek (470? - 399 BC)
Why it’s important for you to know him
His ideas laid the groundwork for all of Western Philosophy.
I. Write it down, or don’t, and hope one of your followers is taking notes.
Examining a history of any figure is problematic, because we are dependent on the accuracy and interpretations of the available documents and evidence we have to learn about someone. But Socrates is especially unique. He is arguably the most influential thinker in the history of Western Thought who never wrote anything down.
The only reason we know what we do is because his peers, including a notable student by the name of Plato, wrote about him. These accounts give a picture of sorts, but they also are at the root of what is called “The Socratic Problem,” which is this: we don’t known for sure what’s true and what’s not about Socrates. Plato, his student, wrote of him and about him, but we don’t know where the thoughts of Socrates merged or evolved into the thoughts of Plato. So we are left with an interesting challenge: what to accept as truth. Bear that in mind as we run through his life.
II. Early life - soldier, father, etc.
Socrates was from a respected family and spent his youth in Athens after the Persian Wars and the glorious victory at Salamis as Pericles led the Greeks through a great period of peace and prosperity. The city was rich, powerful, and the center of thinking and culture. In short, it was the hub of civilization.
He served in the army, and possibly saved the life of Alcibiades, who went on to have a renowned career in Athenian politics, mostly. More on that later.
But the military life was not where Socrates was to make his mark. In Plato’s Dialogues, he writes of how the Delphi Oracle proclaimed that no man was wiser than Socrates.
The oracle at Delphi was considered to be the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, and as such, was taken seriously when it came to prophetic pronouncements. Although it was wasn’t considered infallible, when the oracle said something was so…it was generally considered so. Socrates, however, was already showing the early signs of questioning authority that he became known for later. He wasn’t certain of this particular pronouncement.
III. Shift to focus on philosophy.
So he set out to learn what it meant to be wise. To do so, he began engaging in conversation with people. Poets, artisans, craftsmen, politicians.
Eventually, he came to a realization after a conversation with a politician that the truly wise recognize that they are not wise; that the difference between the politician and himself was :
“…he thinks he does know when he doesn’t, and I don’t know and don’t think I do: so I am wiser than he by only this trifle, that what I do not know I don’t think I do.”
IV. Hey you, you’re not as smart as you think.
After Socrates came to this epiphany, he made it his mission to make others aware of their ignorance.
Of course, people are usually very receptive to being informed of their ignorance. Even more excited when their own words are used, accurately and truly, to show their ignorance. That was sarcasm. We can start to see how Socrates starts the process of polarizing people into camps of either hardcore fans or vehement enemies.
He became a notable figure in the city and attracted the attention and admiration of many powerful characters. This can be a good thing, and sometimes not. In today’s world of phones and social media, people fight for attention and try to make their voices loud, in the time of Pericles and Socrates...public debate and discussion were both education and entertainment and made rockstars out of some. And of course anytime there’s a rockstar, there’s a host of sour figures on the sidelines who are resentful they’re not getting more attention.
V. The Sophists - twisted reasoning / Know Thyself / Aristophanes.
Socrates was a part of the circle of Pericles, the beloved (for a while) general and statesman of Athens during what is called the Golden Age (480-405 BC). No one in this inner circle held a belief in the pantheon of Olympus gods and their mythology, but Socrates was also deeply religious and had great interest in spiritual ideas of salvation and immortality.
Even with his involvement with political figures and interest in spirituality, his great focus was on philosophy.
Fifth-century Greece was a place of ideas; of Hellenic philosophy and the attempt to apply human reasoning to problem solving and explanations of the universe. Figures such as Democritus, Thales, and Pythagoras were investigating ideas in science and mathematics that anticipated modern discoveries by centuries.
But as in most revolutions or innovations, there were competing schools of thought. One of these schools was known as the Sophists. The word means wisdom, and they believed that reason should be used to study humanity, rather than the universe. Much of their focus was on practical things, such as winning arguments in politics and law. They became very adept at using logic and reasoning to crafty ends, and eventually gave the term sophistry a bad name - today the word refers to false, trivial logic for an ulterior purpose.
They helped shift thought inward and investigating how logic could be used to human problems. Socrates followed a similar path to them in this regard. He is often credited with the maxim “Know thyself,” which certainly is apropos, but was not actually coined by him (it was a longstanding phrase from the Delphi Oracle). Sometimes Socrates was accused of using their tricks, but the reality - as we know - is that he was similar to them primarily in the sense that they concentrated on human rather than scientific problems.
VI. Investigation of ideas.
More than anything, he was interested in exploring ideas. And he had a simple method for exploring these ideas. It was this:
He was okay being treated as stupid or simple, because it made it easier to draw people out. He continually asked for definitions.
What do you mean by virtue?
What do you mean by knowledge?
What is the soul?
He developed the idea of forcing an opponent or antagonist to define the words they use, which leads me to believe that many current political and religious figures would also not consider him to be a friend. He demanded clear and precise definitions in order to avoid “...the inexactitude of expression that comes from the ambiguous use of words.”
VII. Defining terms.
This was one of his greatest contributions to Western thought and the development of Greek philosophy: the emphasis on defining terms and clear and precise meanings. It led to The Socratic Method which involves a critical discussion or dialog of back and forth questions:
What do you mean by this?
What do you mean by that?
This emphasis is what led later to Plato’s logical clarity and Aristotle’s science of logic. In fact, the first principle of logic, as Aristotle describes, is the clear definition of terms. Aristotle went on to develop the art of logical definition.
The Socratic Method was also a catalyst later on in the creation of the Scientific Method that is fundamental today and that focuses on questioning hypotheses and evidence in order to get to the truth.
Socrates was a relentless lover of knowledge and pursuer of ideas. Throughout his dialogues with Athens’ citizens, he came to believe more and more in the idea that humans know nothing of how to live their lives virtuously in order to obtain happiness.
VIII. The problem with too much democracy.
Socrates was a free-thinker, evidenced most strongly by his insistence that people listen with their conscience, not that of the gods. However, he was also a steadfast and loyal citizen of his city-state. He saw part of his role as being to help others understand the responsibilities of citizenship. As a part of Pericles’ circle, he probably identified to some extent with the general’s democratic ideals, as opposed to those of the aristocrats...yet he was also not afraid to speak out about the faults of democracy and the dangerous influence of uninformed, uneducated voices emotionally ranting and clamoring for attention.
In Plato’s The Republic (book 6), Socrates compares democracy to a ship. The basic idea is this: if you’re on a ship that’s going through a storm, who do you want captaining the ship: the captain, or a group of untrained passengers? Socrates wasn’t necessarily against democracy, but he was against the idea of the uneducated having a vote in a society’s fate. He believed that voting should be taught, because people are foolish unless they are taught otherwise.
IX. Peloponnesian War, reign of terror, death.
The short-version backdrop for Athens at this point in Socrates’ life is this: Athens is at war with Sparta, Yes, that Sparta, the Sparta that raises warriors from birth and leaves the weak in the cold for the wolves to eat. That Sparta. This is known as the Peloponnesian War, which technically took place in three phases from 431 to 404 BC.
Guess what? Athens is losing.
And then...they’re no longer losing. They lost. Badly. Horribly. Utterly. Athenian democracy is no more. Under Sparta’s direction, an aristocratic government is installed known as The Thirty Tyrants. A reign of terror follows, a reign which two thousand years later a certain Maximilian Robespierre must certainly have been familiar with (see: French Revolution, late 1700s AD).
Socrates, because he is a patriot and a citizen, takes a break from heavy philosophical musings and agrees to be named to the The Council of Five Hundred. He bravely stands up the Spartans and resists orders to arrest intended victims, and probably would have been killed himself if the Council hadn’t been overthrown and democracy restored.
Tragically, though, the democrats are able to do what the oligarchs couldn’t: kill Socrates. Spoiler alert: he’s about to die, in one of history’s greatest deaths until Jesus the Christ.
He is charged with “impiety and the corruption of youth;” trumped up charges that are the most convenient way to attack him, given there’s nothing else they can come up with. He is accused of diverting youth from the religion of their ancestors - the Olympian gods. This was a ridiculous charge, as Athenians were not above poking fun at their own gods - one of Socrates’ greatest enemies, the comic playwright Aristophanes, wrote and performed many hilarious parodies of the gods that could certainly be considered blasphemous. Point is, they were not especially sensitive to this, as opposed to the Catholic Church in Spain eighteen hundred years later.
It was the best way to get Socrates though. Scholars have tried to figure out how this approach got anywhere. It might be something like this: remember Alcibiades, the soldier and leader whose life Socrates had saved as a young man? Alcibiades turned traitor in the Pelopponnesian War. Another friend, Critias, had been a pupil and went on to become one of the Thirty Tyrants and instigators of the reign of terror against the democrats.
The democrats are now back in power. And Socrates has been linked to two men connected to the bad guys. Choose your friends wisely, or at least don’t save the wrong guy on the battlefield. So Socrates, unfairly, is linked to these two hated figures and with the forces of anti democracy.
They couldn’t go after him politically, however, because an amnesty was in place that would have covered Socrates. But...blasphemy against the gods. No amnesty for that. Convenient.
Historians believe that the goal was to silence Socrates, not to actually push for his actual execution. Socrates, however, was scornful and unbending; an Athenian citizen to the last. He ridiculed the accusation and refused to apologise, retract, or bend. He was condemned to death by a close vote of 500 Athenians, and still might have been able to accept a lesser penalty, but he refused, saying that:
Instead of being punished for his teachings, he should receive a public reward. He offered to pay a tiny sum as a fine. The amount was so small that it was insulting. His friends offered to raise money and pay more, but he refused, saying that he was ready and willing to die. They tried to help him escape, but he also refused, saying that because he was a citizen, it was part of his social contract to accept the sentence.
Thirty days later, surrounded by friends and conversing to the last, Socrates drank hemlock, a deadly poison. Even to the last moment, he was discussing important matters of life and death and the soul.
Unfortunately, even at the last, he was still not writing anything down.
Socrates is rightly considered one of the most influential philosophers in Western Thought. He inspired countless others to become critics of government and society and to continually seek wisdom through questioning and demanding the clear definition of terms.
The way he went about learning, about focusing reason inward on the human mind and on constant hairsplitting and pursuing truth has been inspiring for thousands of years and laid a bedrock for many big idea thinkers who came later, most notably Plato and Aristotle.