Who's Who Ancient Greece: Socrates

Socrates 470 BC-399 BC

socrates the original greatful deadSon of a midwife and sculptor, Socrates also became a professional sculptor, perhaps up until he was 40 years of age, after which he turned to philosophy instead, gathering young people around him and giving himself over to educating them through the art of conversation.

Little is known about his own education, though certainly he attended performances of tragedy and comedy as well as other artistic events, and followed the movements in philosophy and rhetoric.

He and his wife and three children were largely supported by his wealthy friend Kriton (Criton). Though not involved in politics, he was a dutiful citizen, obedient to the laws of the time. He was praised for his bravery during the Peloponnesian War in saving the life of Alcibiadhes (reported by the latter in Plato's Symposium). He was known as a very unique and mysterious figure in Athens, one with subtle intelligence, fine character, and his serenity and inner harmony, which he radiated.

Physically, he was a rather ugly man, loved by many, though disliked by many, perhaps the majority, who saw him as a Sophist.

He was motivated by the desire to raise the moral and intellectual level not only of the young, though closest to them, but also of his fellow citizens, by engaging them in his own search for virtue and justice.

Two of his famous sayings were:
'I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance', and
'I grow old ever learning.'

Rather that teaching what he believed to be truth, he taught the necessity for the search for the truth, especially in regard to how to be an ethical human being and citizen.

His focus was on the human realm rather than on the heavens. Unlike so many other philosophers of his time, he wrote nothing, and did not teach rhetoric, found a school, or travel around teaching. Nor did he give lessons, or accept money for his teaching, for which his chief method was dialogue.

His gift for asking simple questions brought people into discussions about social, political, ethical and religious issues. His pretense of ignorance in asking questions was called 'Socratic irony', his appearing not to know but wanting to learn from others what constituted such things as good and evil, beauy and ugliness, justice and injustice, and the like.

His aim was to inspire others to think for themselves by looking within for the truth, using the tool of reason, rather than expecting to learn it from others. His questions were simple the prod, to stir the process of self-inquiry, this method later called 'midwifery' (Socrates' mother's trade), in that it resembled the work of the midwife in aid the natural process of delivery.

Those who brought the charges against Socrates that led to his trial and death by poison hemlock, were three: Melitus, Anytus and Lykon. The charges stated: 'Socrates is guilty first of denying the gods recognized by the state in introducing new divinities, and secondly of corrupting the young'.

The custom at the time when one was charged with a crime and brought to court was to have a good orator prepare one's defence. This was done by Socrates' pupils, who engaged the famous orator, Lysis.

According to Plato's writings, Socrates refused to read the defence written for him. He stated that he had prepared his own defence during his life by right action, and in court he told the judges that rather than any punishment being imposed on him, he should be rewarded by the state by maintaining him in the Prytaneum, since he had devoted his life to improving the citizens.

He was found guilty of the charges brought against him and condemned to death. During the 30 days that Socrates spent in prison preceding his death, he conversed as he always had with his pupils, though in the prison, which became his school.

Though his pupil Kriton, who had supported him financially, urged him to escape, he chose to respect the laws of the state, just as he always had, and thus serve as a good example to his pupils as well. It was reported that he drank the cup of hemlock with the inner tranquility for which he had always been known. Among the words of Socrates quoted by Plato are a few on the subject of why he chose to speak informally with his pupils in the agora rather than give speeches to the public. Addressing his pupils, he says, "The reason for this is something that you have heard me say often, that I feel inside me something divine and supernatural", something that Melitus referred to derisively in his charges.

And this, which started in my childhood, is a voice which, when it is heard, urges me not to do something that I want to do, but it never urges me to do something.". (Apologia) The key words here, it seems, are 'I feel inside me something divine and supernatural', words very similar to the words attributed to Christ: 'The kingdom of God is within you'.

Established religions (and monolithic religious states) have often killed those who ask people to think for themselves, to seek the divine within, and to 'Question authority'.