A marble head of Socrates
A marble head of Socrates in the Louvre
Bornc. 470 BC
Died399 BC (aged approximately 71)
Cause of deathExecution by forced suicide by poisoning
EraAncient Greek philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolClassical Greek philosophy
Notable students
Main interests
Epistemology, ethics, teleology
Notable ideas

Socrates (/ˈsɒkrətz/;[1] Ancient Greek: Σωκράτης Sōkrátēs [sɔːkrátɛːs]; c. 470 – 399 BC) was a Greek philosopher from Athens who is credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, and as being the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought. An enigmatic figure, he authored no texts, and is known chiefly through the accounts of classical writers composing after his lifetime, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon. Plato, Xenophon and other authors wrote in form of dialogues, Socrates and his interlocutors examining a subject—this gave rise to literature genre that was later named as Logoi Socraticoi (Socratic dialogues). Since the account of Plato and Xenophon are often contradictory, reconstruction of historical Socrates is nearly impossible, this is named as the Socratic problem. Socrates was a polarizing figure in Athenian society. In 399 BC, he was accused of corrupting the youth and not believing State Gods and after a trial that lasted a day, he was sentenced to death. He spent his last day in prison, refusing to escape as his followers were urging him.

Plato's dialogues are among the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates to survive from antiquity, from which Socrates has become renowned for his contributions to the fields of rationalism, ethics and epistemology. It is this Platonic Socrates who lends his name to the concepts of Socratic irony and the Socratic method. However, questions remain regarding the distinction between the real-life Socrates and Plato's portrayal of Socrates in his dialogues. Socrates exerted a strong influence on philosophers in later antiquity and in the modern era. Depictions of Socrates in art, literature and popular culture have made him one of the most widely known figures in the Western philosophical tradition.

Sources and the Socratic problem

Statue of Socrates in front of the modern-day Academy of Athens

Socrates didn't write down any of his teachings and what we know of him comes from the accounts of others; mainly his pupils, the philosopher Plato and the historian Xenophon, the comedian Aristophanes (Socrates's contemporary), and lastly Aristotle, who was born after Socrates's death. The often contradictory stories of the ancient sources make it incredibly difficult to reliably reconstruct Socrates's thoughts in the proper context; this dilemma is called the Socratic problem.[2] The works of Plato, Xenophon and other authors on Socrates were in the form of dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutors and provide the main source of information on Socrates's life and thought and compose the major part of Logoi Socraticoi, a term coined by Aristotle to describe its contemporary newly formed literature genre on Socrates.[3] As Aristotle first noted, authors imitate Socrates, but the extent to which they represent the real Socrates or are works of fiction is a matter of debate.[4] Only Plato's and Xenophon's dialogues survive to current era. The exact date of authoring each dialogue is unknown, but it is believed that most were written after Socrates death.[5]

Plato and Xenophon

Xenophon was a well educated, honest man but he lacked the intelligence of a trained philosopher and couldn't conceptualize or articulate Socrates's arguments.[6] Xenophon admired Socrates for his intelligence, patriotic stance during wartimes, and courage.[7] Xenophon discusses Socrates in four of his works: the Memorabilia, the Oeconomicus, the Symposium, and the Apology of Socrates—he also mentions a story with Socrates in his Anabasis.[8] Oeconomicus hosts a discussion on practical agricultural issues.[9] Apologia offers the speeches of Socrates during his trial but is unsophisticated compared to Plato's work of the same title.[10] Symposium is a dialogue of Socrates with other prominent Athenieans after dinner—quite different from Plato's Symposium—differing even in the names of those attending, let alone Socrates's presented ideas.[11] In Memorabilia, he defends, as he proclaimed, Socrates from the accusations against him of corrupting the youth and being against State religion. Essentially, it is a collection of various stories and constituted an apology of Socrates.[12]

Plato's representation of Socrates is not straightforward.[13] Plato was a pupil of Socrates and outlived him by five decades.[14] How trustworthy Plato is on representing Socrates is a matter of debate; the view that he wouldn't alter Socratic thought (known as Tailor-Burket thesis) isn't shared by many contemporary scholars.[15] A driver of this doubt is the inconsistency of the character of Socrates he presents.[16] One common explanation of the inconsistency is that Plato initially tried to accurately represent the historical Socrates, but later inserted his views on Socrates's sayings—under this understanding, there is a distinction among the early writing of Plato as Socratic Socrates, whereas late writing represent Platonic Socrates—a definitive line between the two being blurred.[17]

Xenophon's and Plato's accounts differ in their presentations of Socrates as a person—in Xenophon's portrait, he is more dull, and less humorous and ironic.[7] Plato's Socrates is far from conservative Xenophon's Socrates.[18] Socrates at Xenophon lacks the philosophical features of Plato's Socrates- ignorance, elenchus- or thinks enkrateia is of pivotal importance which is not the case at Plato's Socrates.[19] Generally, Logoi Socraticoi can not help us reconstruct historical Socrates even in cases where their narratives overlap due to possible intertextuality.[20]

Aristophanes and other sources

Athenian comedians, including Aristophanes, commented on Socrates. His most important comedy with respect to Socrates, Clouds, where Socrates is a central character of the play, is the only one to survive today.[21] Aristophanes limns a caricature of Socrates that leans towards sophistism,[22] ridiculing Socrates as a crazy atheist.[23] Socrates in Cloulds is interested in natural philosophy, something which is consisted with Plato's Phaedo claiming likewise. What is certain, is that by age 42, Socrates had already capture the interest of Athenians as a philosopher.[24] Current literature does not deem Aristophanes's work as helpful to reconstruct the historical Socrates, except with respect to some characteristics of his personality.[25]

Other ancient authors on Socrates were Aeschines of Sphettus, Antisthenes, Aristippus, Bryson, Cebes, Crito, Euclid of Megara, and Phaedo; all of whom wrote after Socrates's death.[26] Aristotle was not a contemporary of Socrates; he studied under Plato at the latter's Academy for twenty years.[27] Aristotle treats Socrates without the bias of Xenophon and Plato, who had an emotional bias in favor of Socrates—he scrutinizes Socrates's doctrines as a philosopher.[28] Aristotle was familiar with the various written and unwritten stories of Socrates.[29]

Socratic problem

In a seminal work of 1818, philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher attacked Xenophon's accounts, and his attack was widely accepted and gave rise to the Socratic problem.[30] Schleiermacher criticized Xenophon on his naïve representation of Socrates—the latter was a soldier and was unable to articulate Socratic ideas. Further, Xenophon is biased in favor of his friend, believing Socrates was unfairly treated by Athens, and sought to prove his points of view rather than reconstruct an impartial account—with the result being the portrayal of an uninspiring philosopher.[31] By early 20th century, Xenophon's account was largely rejected.[32]

Philosopher professor Karl Joel, based on Aristotle interpretation of Socratic logos, suggested that Socratic Dialogues are mostly fictional since various authors were just mimicking some Socratic traits of dialogue.[33] Joel's view was dominant among scholars in the first half of 20th century, until philosophers Olof Gigon and Eugène Dupréel at the middle of 20th century propose that our study should focus to the various version of Socrates instead of aiming to reconstruct historical Socrates.[34] Later, Gregory Vlastos suggested that early Plato writings are more compatible with historical Socrates than later writings, an argument based on inconsistencies detected on Plato's Socrates; Vlastos totally disregarded Xenophon's account apart when he was confirming Plato.[34] More recently, Charles H. Kahn, continued the sceptic stance on the unsolvable Socratic Problem, suggesting that only Apology has some historical signifance.[35]


Battle of Potidaea (432 BC): Athenians against Corinthians (detail). Scene of Socrates (center) saving Alcibiades. 18th century engraving. According to Plato, Socrates participated in the Battle of Potidaea, the retreat of Battle of Delium and the battle of Amphipolis (422 BC)[36]

Socrates was born in 469 or 470 BC in Alopece, a deme of Athens, with both of his parents, Sophroniscus and Phaenarete being wealthy Athenians, thus he was an Athenian citizen.[37] Sophroniscus was a stoneworker while Phaenarete was a midwife.[38] He was raised living close to his father's relatives and inherited, as it was the custom in Ancient Athens, part of his father estate, that secured a life without financial scourges.[39] His education was according to laws and custums of Athens, he learned the basic skills to read and write, as all Athenians and also, as most wealthy Athenians received extra lessons in various other fields such as gymnastic, poetry and music.[40] He married once or twice. One of his marriages was with Xanthippe when Socrates was in his 50s, the other one might have been with the daughter of Aristides, an Athenian statesman.[41] He had 3 sons with Xanthippe.[42] Socrates fulfilled his military service during the Peloponnesian War and distinguished in three campaigns.[36]

During 406 Socrates participated as a member of the Boule to the trial of six commanders since his tribe (the Antiochis) comprised the prytany. The generals were accused that they had abandoned the survivors of foundered ships to pursue the defeated Spartan navy. The generals were seen by some to have failed to uphold the most basic of duties, and the people demanded their capital punishment by having them under trial all together- not separately as the law of Athens dictated. While other members of the prytany bow to public pressure, Socrates stand alone not accepting an illegal suggestion.[43]

Another incident that illustrates Socrates attachment to the law, is the arrest of Leon. As Plato describes in his Apology Socrates and four others were summoned to the Tholos, and told by representatives of the oligarchy of the Thirty (the oligarchy began ruling in 404 BC) to go to Salamis to arrest Leon the Salaminian, who was to be brought back to be subsequently executed. However, Socrates was the only one of the five men who chose not to go to Salamis as he was expected to, because he did not want to be involved in what he considered a crime and despite the risk of subsequent retribution from the tyrants.[44]

As a character Socrates was a fascinating man, attracting the interest of Athenian crowd and especially youth like a magnet.[45] He was notoriously ugly—having flat turned-up nose, bulky eyes and a belly—his friends used to joke with his appearance.[46] On top of being ugly, Socrates didn't pay any attention to his personal appearance. He walked barefoot, had only one torn coat and didn't bathe frequently, friends called him "the unwashed". He restrained from excesses such as food and sex despite his high sex drive, also he did consumed much wine but never was he drunk.[47] Socrates was physically attracted by both sexes- common and accepted in ancient Greece- but resisted his passion towards young men as he was interested in educating their souls.[48] Socrates was known for his self control and never sought to gain sexual favors from his disciplines, as it happened with other older men while teaching adolescents.[49] Politically, he was sitting on the fence in terms of the rivalry between the democrats and the oligarchs in the ancient Athens—he criticizes sharply both while they were on power.[50] The character of Socrates as exhibited in Apology, Crito, Phaedo and Symposium concurs with other sources to an extent to which it seems possible to rely on the Platonic Socrates, as demonstrated in the dialogues, as a representation of the actual Socrates as he lived in history.[51]

He died in Athens in 399 BCE after a one day trial for impiety and corruption of the young.[52] He spend his last day at prison, among friends and followers who offered him a route to escape. He died the next morning, after drinking hemlock.[53] He had never left Athens, except for the military campaigns he participated.[54]

Trial of Socrates

In 399 BC, Socrates went on trial for corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and for impiety.[55] Socrates defended himself but was subsequently found guilty by a jury of 500 male Athenian citizens (280 vs 220 votes).[56] According to the then custom, he proposed a penalty (in his case Socrates offered some money) but jurors declined his offer and commanded the death penalty.[56] The official charges were corrupting youth, worshipping false gods and not worshipping the state religion.[57]

In 404 BC, Athenians were crushed by Spartans at the decisive naval Battle of Aegospotami, and subsequently, Spartans sieged Athens. They replaced the democratic government with a new, pro-oligarchic government, named the Thirty Tyrants.[58] Because of their tyrannical measures, some Athenians organized to overthrow the Tyrants – and indeed they managed in doing so briefly – but as the Spartan request for aid from the Thirty arrived, a compromise was sought. But as Spartans left again, democrats seized the opportunity to kill the oligarchs and reclaim the government of Athens.[58] Under this politically tense climate in 399, Socrates was charged.[58]

The accusations against Socrates were initiated by a poet, Meletus, who asked for the death penalty because of Asebeia.[58] Other accusers were Anytus and Lycon, of which Anutus was a powerful democratic politician who was despised by Socrates, and his pupils, Critias and Alkiviadis.[58] After a month or two, in late Spring or early Summer, the trial started and lasted a day.[58] The religious charges stood true; indeed Socrates criticized the anthropomorphism of traditional Greek religion, describing it in several cases as a daimonion, an inner voice. [58]

The Socratic apology (meaning the defense of Socrates) started with Socrates answering the various rumors against him that gave rise to the indictment.[59] Firstly, Socrates defended against the rumor that he was an atheist naturalist philosopher, as portrayed in Aristophanes' The Clouds, or being a sophist – a category of professional philosophy teachers notorious for their relativism.[60] Against these corruption allegations, Socrates answered that he did not corrupt anyone intentionally, since corrupting someone would mean that one would be corrupted back, and that corruption is not desirable.[61] On the second charge, Socrates asked for clarification. Meletus, clarified that the accusation was that Socrates was a complete atheist. Socrates was quick to note the contradiction with the next accusation: worshipping false gods.[62] After that, Socrates claimed that he was God's gift, and since his activities ultimately benefited Athens, by condemning him to death, Athens would lose.[63] After that, he claimed that even though no human can reach wisdom, philosophizing is the best thing someone can do, implying money and prestige are not as precious as commonly thought.[64]

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787). Socrates was visited by friends in his last night at prison, his discussion with them gave rise to Plato's Crito and Phaedo.[65]

Socrates had the chance to offer alternative punishments for himself after being found guilty. He could have requested permission to flee Athens and live in exile, however he didn't bring it up. Instead, according to Plato, he asked for free meals daily, or alternatively, to pay a small fine, while Xenophon says he made no proposals.[66] Jurors decided upon the death penalty, to be carried out the next day.[66] In return, Socrates warned jurors and Athenians that criticism of them, by his many disciplines was inescapable, unless they became good men.[56] Socrates spent his last day in the prison, with his friends visiting him and offering him an escape; however, he declined.[65]

The question of what motivated Athenians to choose to convict Socrates remains a point of controversy among scholars.[67] The two notable theories are, first, that Socrates was convicted on religious grounds and, second, on to political ones.[67] The case for being a political persecution is usually objected to by the existence of the amnesty that was granted in 403 BC to prevent escalation to civil war; but, as the text from Socrates' trial and other texts reveals, the accusers could have fueled their rhetoric using events prior to 403.[68] Also, later, ancient authors claimed in various unrelated events that the prosecution was political. For example, Aeschines of Sphettus (c. 425 – 350 BC) writes: I wonder how one ought to deal with the fact that Alcibiades and Critias were the associates of Socrates, against whom the many and the upper classes made such strong accusations. It is hard to imagine a more pernicious person than Critias, who stood out among the Thirty, the most wicked of the Greeks. People say that these men ought not be used as evidence that Socrates corrupted the youth, nor should their sins be used in any way whatsoever with respect to Socrates, who does not deny carrying on conversations with the young."[69] It was true that Socrates did not stand for democracy during the reign of Thirty, and that most of his pupils were anti-democrats.[70] The argument for religious persecution is supported by the fact that the accounts of the trial by both Plato and Xenophon mostly focused on the charges of impiety. And, while it was true that Socrates didn't believe in Athenian gods, he did not dispute this while he was defending himself. On the other hand, there were many skeptics and atheist philosophers during that time that evaded prosecution, notably demonstrated in the political satire of The Clouds by Aristophanes that was staged years before the trial.[71] Yet another interpretation, more contemporary and more convincing, synthesizes religious and political arguments, since during those times, religion and state were not separated.[72]


Socratic method

A fundamental characteristic of Plato's Socrates is the Socratic method or method of "elenchus (elenchus or elenchos, in Latin and Greek respectively, means refutation).[73] It is most prominent in the early works of Plato, such as Apology, Crito, Gorgias, Republic I and other.[74] Socrates would initiate a discussion about a topic with a known expert on the topic, then by dialogue will prove them wrong by detecting inconsistencies in his reasoning.[75] Socrates asks his interlocutor for a definition of the subject, then Socrates will ask more questions where the answers of the interlocutor will be in odds with his first definition, with the conclusion the opinion of the expert is wrong.[76] Interlocutor may came up with a different definition which again be placed under the scrutiny of Socrates questions repeatedly, with each round approaching truth even more or realizing the ignorance on the matter.[77] Since the definition of interlocuter represent most commonly, the mainstream opinion on a matter, the discussion places doubt in the shared opinion. Also, another key component of Socratic method, is that he also tests his own opinions, exposing their weakness as with others, thus Socrates is not teaching or even preaching ex cathedra a fixed philosophical doctrine, but rather he humbly acknowledging the man's ignorance while participating himself in searching the truth with his pupils and interlocutors. [78]

Scholars have questioned the validity and the exact nature of socratic method or even if there is one indeed.[79] In 1982, preeminent scholar of ancient philosophy Gregory Vlastos claimed the Socratic Method could not be used to establish truth or falsehood of any particular beliefs. It was simply a potent instrument for exposing inconsistency within an interlocutor's beliefs. [80] There have been two main lines of replying to Vlastos arguments, depending on whether is accepted if Socrates is seeking to prove wrong a claim. .[81] According to the first line, known as the constructivist, Socrates indeed seeks to refute a claim by his method, and it actually helps us reaching positive statements.[82] The non-constructivism approach holds that Socrates merely wants to establish the inconsistency among the premises and conclusion of the initial argument.[83]

Socratic priority of definition

Socrates used to start its discussion with his interlocutor with the search for definitions.[84] Socrates, in most cases, expects for an someone, who claims expertly on a subject, to have knowledge of the definition of his subject, ie Virtue, or Goodness, before further discussing it.[85] Giving definition a priority to any kind of knowledge, is profound in various of his dialogues, as in Hippias Major or Euthyphro.[86] Some scholars thought have argued that Socrates does not endorse this usualness as a principle, either because they can locate examples of not doing so (ie in Laches, when searching examples of courage in order to define it).[87] In this line, Gregory Vlastos, and other scholars, have argued that the endorsement of the priority principle, actually is a platonic endorsement. [88] Philosophy professor Peter Geach who accepts that Socrates endorses the priority of definitions, finds it though fallacious and he comments: "We know heaps of things without being able to define the terms in which we express our knowledge".[89] The debate on the issue is still unsettled.[90]

Socratic ignorance

Plato's Socrates often claims that he is aware of his own lack of knowledge, especially when discussing ethics (such as areté, goodness, courage) since he does not possess the knowledge of essential nature of such concepts.[91] For example, Socrates says during his trial, when his life was at stake: "I thought Evenus a happy man, if he really possesses this art ( technē ), and teaches for so moderate a fee. Certainly I would pride and preen myself if I knew ( epistamai ) these things, but I do not know ( epistamai ) them, gentlemen".[92] In another case, when he was informed that the prestigious Oracle of Delphi declare that there is no-one wiser than Socrates, he concluded "So I withdrew and thought to myself: 'I am wiser ( sophoteron ) than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows ( eidenai ) anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know".[93] But, in some Plato's dialogue, Socrates appears to credit himself with some knowledge and also he seems strongly opinioned which is weird of a man to hold a strong belief when he posses he has no knowledge at all.[94] For example, at his apology, he says "It is perhaps on this point and in this respect, gentlemen, that I differ from the majority of men, and if I were to claim that I am wiser than anyone in anything, it would be in this, that, as I have no adequate knowledge ( ouk eidōs hikanōs ) of things in the underworld, so I do not think I have. I do know ( oida ), however, that it is wicked and shameful to do wrong ( adikein ), to disobey one's superior, be he god or man. I shall never fear or avoid things of which I do not know, whether they may not be good rather than things that I know ( oida ) to be bad."[95]

This antiphasis has puzzled scholars.[96] There are varying explanations of the inconsistency, mostly by interpreting knowledge with a different meaning but there is a consensus that Socrates holds that realizing one's lack of knowledge is the first step towards wisdom.[97] While Socrates claims he acquired cognitive achievement in some domains of knowledge, in most important domains in ethics he denies any wisdom.[98]

Socratic irony

There is a widespread assumption that Socrates is an ironist, this is mostly based on the depiction of Socrates by Plato and Aristotle.[99] Irony of Socrates is so subtle and slightly humorous, that often leaves reader wondering if Socrates is making an intentional pun.[100] Plato's Euthyphro is filled with Socratic irony. The story begins when Socrates, is meeting with Euthyphro, a man that has accused his own father for murder- then turning your father to authorities was pretty unpopular. Socrates bites Euthyphro several times, without his interlocutor understanding the irony of Socrates. When Socrates first hears the details of the story, he comments, "It is not, I think, any random person who could do this [prosecute one's father] correctly, but surely one who is already far progressed in wisdom". When Euthyphro is boasting about his understanding of divinity, Socrates responds "most important that I become your student".[101] Socrates is seen as an ironist ironic commonly when using praises to flatter or when addressing his interlocutors.[102] Socratic irony was detected by Aristotle, but linked to a different meaning. Aristotle used the term eirōneia (a greek world, later latinized and ending up us the english word irony) to describe Socrates self-deprecation. Eironeia, then, contrary to modern meaning, meant to conceal a narrative that was not stated, while today's irony, the message is clear, even though untold literally.[99]

Explanation of why Socrates uses irony divides scholars. The mainstream opinion, since Hellenistic period, perceives irony is adding a playful note to Socrates that grasp the attention of the audience.[103] Another line is that Socrates conceals his philosophical message with irony, making it accessible only to those who can separate what parts of his thought are ironic and what is not.[104] Gregory Vlastos identified a more complex pattern of irony in Socrates, where his words have double meaning, in which one meaning is being ironical, the other is not- an opinion that didn't convinced many other scholars though.[105]

Not everyone were amused by Socratic irony. Epicourians, the only post-Socrates philosophical school in ancient times that didn't identified themselves as antecessors of Socrates, based their criticism to Socrates to his ironic spirit, while they preferred a more direct approach of teaching. Centuries later, Friedrich Nietzsche commented on the same issue: "dialectics lets you act like a tyrant; you humiliate the people you defeat."[106]

Socratic eudaimonism and intellectualism

For Socrates, the pursuit of eudaimonia is the cause of all human action, directedly or indirectly- eudaimonia is a Greek word standing for happiness or well-being.[107] For Socrates, virtue and knowledge are closely linked to eudaimonia- how close Socrates consider this relation, is still debatable. Some argue that Socrates though virtue, knowledge and eudaimonia are identical, another opinion holds that for Socrates virtue serves as a mean to eudaimonism (identical and sufficiency thesis respectively).[108] Another point of debate is whether, according to Socrates, people desire actual good- or rather what they perceive as good.[108]

At Plato's Protagoras (345c4-e6), Socrates implies that No-one errs willingly which has become the hallmark of Socratic intellectualism [109] Socrates is intellectualist because he is giving prominent role to virtue and knowledge. He is also a motivational intellectualist, since he believes that humans actions are guided by their cognitive power to comprehend what they desire, while diminishing the role of impulses.[110] Socratic priority to intellect as the mean to live a good life, diminishing or placing aside irrational beliefs or passions, is the hallmark of Socratic moral philosophy.[111] Text that support Socrates intellectual motivism, as Socrates thesis is named, are mainly the Gorgias 467c–468e (where Socrates discuss the actions of a tyrant actions that do not benefit him) and Meno 77d-78b (where Socrates explains to Meno his view that no-one wants bad things, unless he doesn't have knowledge of what is good and bad. [112] Socrates total rejection of akrasia (acting because of your irrational passions contrary to your knowledge or beliefs) has puzzled scholars. Most scholars believe that Socrates leaves no space for irrational desires, even though some claim that Socrates acknowledge the existence of irrational motivations but do not have a primary role when someone is judging what action would he take.[113]


Socrates religious nonconformity challenged views of his times and his critique reshaped religious discourse for the coming centuries.[114] It was an era when religion was quite different from today- no organized religion and sacred text with the religion intermingling with daily life of citizen who performed their religious duties mainly with sacrifices το gods.[115] Whether Socrates have been piety, a man of religion or a provocateur atheist has been a point of debate since ancient times, his trial included impiety accusations, and the controversy haven't yet ceased.[116]

Socrates discusses divinity and soul mostly in Alciviades, Euthyphro and Plato's Apology.[117] In Alciviades he links human soul to divinity. He is discussing and concludes "Then this part of her resembles God, and whoever looks at this, and comes to know all that is divine, will gain thereby the best knowledge of himself."[118] Socrates discussions on religion, are under the scope of his rationalism,[119] Socrates, at Euthyphro, discussing piety where reaches a revolutionary conclusion far from the age's usual practice. Socrates deems sacrifices to Gods useless, especially that are reward-driven. Instead he calls for philosophising and pursuit of knowledge as a mean to worship gods. [120] The rejection of traditional forms of piety placed moral burden to ordinary Athenians- who also were his jurors at his trial.[121] Also, Socrates reasoning was providing an wise and just Gods, a perception far from traditional religion that.[121] It is in is Euthyphro that arises the what is now known as Euthyphro dilemma, at where he questions his interlocutor about the relation between pious and gods will or commands: Is something pious because it is the will of god, or is something the will of gods because it is pious?[122] Implications of this puzzle leads at least to the rejection of the traditional Greek theology; since Homeric Gods used to fight each other, whilst Socrates thought that goodness, as essence, is independent from god, and gods must be pious.[123]

Belief in Gods is affirmed by Socrates in Plato's Apology, where Socrates says to the jurors that he recognize gods more than his accusers.[124] For Plato's Socrates, the existence of gods is taken for granted, in no of his dialogues did he examined whether gods did exist or not. [125] On Apology, a case for Socrates being agnostic can be made based on Socrates talk of the unknown after death.[126], and in Phaedo (the dialogue with his students in his last day) Socrates hinds on his hopes of the immortality of the soul. [127] He also believed in oracles, divinations and other messages from gods, but these signs were not offering him any positive belief on moral issue, rather they were predictions of future events that couldn't be assessed through reason.[128]

In Xenophon's Memorabilia, Socrates constructs an argument resonating with the argument of intelligent design. He claims that since there are lot of features in the universe that exhibit "signs of forethought" (ie eyelids), a Maker should have created universe.[125] He then rationally deduce that the Maker should be omniscient and omnipotent and also, created the universe on the advance of humankind, since we naturally have many skills other animals do not.[129] Socrates did speak of a single deity, other times of gods; meaning he either believed that a supreme deity was in command of other gods, or the various gods were manifestations of the single deity.[130]

It has been puzzling how Socratic religious beliefs are consistent with his strict adherence to rationalism.[131] Philosophy professor Mark McPherran, suggests that Socrates inspected and interpreted every divine sign through secular rationality for confirmation.[132] Professor of ancient philosophy A. A. Long suggests that for Socrates and its era, rationality was incorporated with religiousness; it is in the later judeochristianic perspective that considered these two domains at odds with each other.[133]

Socratic daimonion

In several cases (i.e.Plato, Euthyphro 3b5; Apology 31c–d; Xenophon Memorabilia 1.1.2) Socrates claims he hears a daimōnic sign -an averting inner voice heard usually when he was about to make a mistake. It was this sign that prevented Socrates from entering into politics, Socrates claimed at his trial. There, he further elaborated: "The reason for this is something you have heard me frequently mention in different places – namely, the fact that I experience something divine and daimonic, as Meletus has inscribed in his indictment, by way of mockery. It started in my childhood, the occurrence of a particular voice. Whenever it occurs, it always deters me from the course of action I was intending to engage in, but it never gives me positive advice. It is this that has opposed my practicing politics, and I think its doing so has been absolutely fine."[134] Modern scholarship varies in the interpretation of socratic Daimonion, whether being a rational source of knowledge, an impulse, a dream or even a paranormal experience felt by an ascetic Socrates.[135]

Virtue and Knowledge

Socrates is known for disavowing knowledge, a relevant well known comment is his axiom "I know that I know nothing" which often attributed to Socrates, based on a statement in Plato's Apology; the same view is repeatedly found elsewhere in early Plato writings on Socrates.[136] But it contradicts other statements of Socrates, when he claims he has knowledge. For example, in Plato's Apology Socrates says: "...but that to do injustice and disobey my superior, god or man, this I know to be evil and base...".(Ap. 29B6-7)[137] Or at his debate with Callicles: "...I know well that if you will agree with me on those things which my soul believes, those things will be the very truth..."[137]But does it reflect a truthful opinion of Socrates or is he pretending he lacks knowledge, is a matter of debate. A usual interpretation is that he is not telling the truth. According to Norman Gulley, Socrates is trying to entice his interlocutors to a discussion. On the opposite side, Irwin Terrence claims that Socrates words should be taken literally.[138] Vlastos after exploring text, he argues that there is enough evidence to refute both claims. Vlastos claims that for Socrates, knowledge can take two separate meanings, Knowledge-C and Knowledge-E (C stands for Certain, and E stands for Elenchus-ie the socratic method). Knowledge-C is the something unquestionable whereas Knowlegde-E is the result of his elenchus, his way of examining things.[139] So, Socrates speaks the truth when he says he knows-C something, and he is also true when he knows-E that is evil for someone to disobey his superiors, as he claimed in Plato's Apology [140] Not everyone was impressed by Vlastos semanic dualism, J.H. Lesher argued that Socrates claimed in various dialogues that one word is linked to one meaning (ie in Hippias major, Meno, Laches).[141] Lesher way out of the problem is by suggesting that Socrates claim that he had no knowledge referred to the nature of virtues, but also Socrates thought that in some cases, someone could have knowledge on some ethical propositions.[142]

Socrates theory of virtue stands that all virtues are essentially one since they are a form of knowledge.[143] In Protagoras Socrates makes the case for the unity of virtues using the example of courage: if someone has knowledge of the danger, he can undertake risky tasks- for example a well trained diver can swim in a deep sea cave.[144] Aristotle comments: "...Socrates the elder thought that the end of life was knowledge of virtue, and he used to seek for the definition of justice, courage, and each of the parts of virtue, and this was a reasonable approach, since he thought that all virtues were sciences, and that as soon as one knew [for example] justice, he would be just..."[145]


Socrates and Alcibiades, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

There are a couple of textual passages that suggest that Socrates had a love affair with Alkiviades and other young males but also, other text suggest that Socrates did not practice pederasty, which was common in ancient Greece, and his friendship with young boys indented to improve them. In Gorgias Socrates claims he was a dual lover of Alkiviades and philosophy, and his flirtinousness is evident at Protagoras, Meno (76a–c) and Phaedrus (227c–d). But the exact nature of the relation is not clear, since Socrates was know for his self-restraining, and, as for Alkiviades, in Symposium admits that he had tried to seduce Socrates, but failed.[146]

The Socratic theory of love is mostly deduced by Lysis where Socrates talks about love.[147] There, at a wrestling school, Socrates talks to Lysis and his friends. They start their dialogue with investigating parental love and how their love is manifested with respect to freedom and boundaries they set for their child. Socrates concludes that if Lysis is utterly useless, nobody will love him, not even his parents. While most scholars take this text rather humorously, Gregory Vlastos suggests that it reveals Socratic doctrine on love which is an egoistic one- according to which we only love people that they are use us in some way, we want to benefit from them.[148] Others scholars disagree with Vlastos view, either because they affirm that Socrates leaves room for non-egoistical love to spoure, or deny that Socrates is suggesting any egoistical motivation at all.[149] A form of utility children have for parents, as Socrates claims in Symposium is they offer the fault impression of immortality.[150] In any case, for Socrates, love is rational.[151]

Socratic philosophy of politics

Socrates view himself as a political artist. In 'Plato's Gorgias. He tells Callimachus: "I believe that I'm one of a few Athenians – so as not to say I'm the only one, but the only one among our contemporaries – to take up the true political craft and practice the true politics. This is because the speeches I make on each occasion do not aim at gratifi cation but at what's best."[152]. His claim illustrates his aversion for the established democratic asseblies and procedings as votings- as Socrates didn't held any respect for politicians and rhetorians for using tricks to mislead the public.[153] He he never run for an office or suggested any legislation.[154] His aim was to help the City to flourish- that was his true political art.[153] As a citizen he was lawful. He obeyed the laws, completed his military duty with fighting wars abroad. His dialogues were not about contemporary political decisions- such as the Sicilian Expedition.[154]

Socrates was scrutinizing citizens, among them powerful members of Athenian society and brought the contradictions of their beliefs to light- Socrates believed he was doing them a favor since, since for Socrates politics was about shaping the moral landscape of the City through philosophy rather than electoral procedures.[155] In the polarizing climate among oligarchs and democrats in ancient Greece, there is a debate where Socrates stood. While there is no clear textual evidence, one mainline holds that Socrates was leaning towards Democracy with main arguments i)disobeyed the one order the oligarchic government of Thirty Tyrants handed to him, ii)he was respecting laws and the political system of Athens which was formulated by democrats and lastly iii)he was so satisfied with -democratic- Athens, he didn't want to escape prison and death penalty. On the other hand, oligarching leaning Socrates opinions is based on i)most of his friends were oligarchists, ii)he was contemptful the of the opinion of the many and iii) in Protagoras his argumentation had some anti-democratic elements.[156] A less mainstream argument suggests that Socrates was for democratic republicanism as he placed the City above the persons and stands in the middle ground of democrats and oligarchs.[157]

Another suggestion is that Socrates was in line with liberalism- a political ideology formed in the Age of Enlightenment but Socrates though has some parallel lines its moral considerations. This argument is mostly based on Critias and Apology where Socrates talk about mutual benefits of the citizen who prefers to stays in the City and the city, resonates the reasoning of 17th century social contract.[158] Also, Socrates has been seen as the first proponent of civil disobedience. Socrates strong objection to injustice, as he says in Critias: one ought never act unjustly, even to repay a wrong that has been done to oneself" along with his refusal to serve the Thirty Tyrants order to arrest Leon are suggestive of this line.[159] But in the broader picture, Socrates counsel would be for citizens to follow orders of the state, unless, after much reflection, are deemed unjust.[160]


Hellenic era

Carnelian gem imprint representing Socrates, Rome, 1st century BC–1st century AD.

Socrates impact was immense in philosophy after his death. Almost all philosophical currents after Socrates, traced their roots to Socrates- Plato's Academy, Aristotle Lyceum, Cynics, Stoics.[161] And the interest on Socrates, despite the antiphatic picture it was drawn since he left no written scriptures, kept increasing till the third century CE.[162] He was considered as the man who shifted philosophy from the study of the Nature, as it was the case by pre-Socratic philosophers, to the study the human.[163]They all accepted socratic priority of audaimonia happiness, restrained from excesses that ultimately end in misery but since fundamental questions on the purpose of life or the nature of arete (goodness) were not given a handed, philosophical schools diverted greatly in their interpretation of Socrates.[164]

Immediate followers of Socratism were his pupils, Euclid, Aristippus and Antisthenes who draw independent between them trajectories.[165] For Antisthenis had a profound concept of material goods since virtue was all that mattered, a line that lead to Diogenes and the Cynics.[166] On the opposite end, Aristippus tought for money and lived a luxurious life, after leaving Athens and returned to his home city Cyrene, founded the Cyrenaic philosophical school which was based on hedonism, living an easy life with physical pleasures (women, scents, fine clothing). His school passed to his grandson, baring the same name. There is a dialogue in Xenophon work where Aristippus claims he wants to live without wishing to rule or be ruled by others.[167] Also, on epistemonology, Aristippus had a sceptical stance claiming that we can be certain only on feelings resonating with socratic knowledge of our ignorace.[168] Euclid, was a contemporary of Socrates and after his trial and death, he left Athens for the nearby town of Megara, where he founded a school, named The Megarians. His theory took from pre-Socratic monism of Parmenides of What-Is. Only one thing exists according to Parmenides and that is the good Socrates as searching for, Euclid continued Socrates thought. Anyway, their doctrine is hard to reconstruct. It is clear though their impact reached Cicero and [169]

Stoics relied heavily by Socrates.[170] They applied the Socratic method as a tool to avoid inconsistencies. Their moral doctrines on how to live a smooth live through wisdom and virtue, ie the crucial role of virtue for happiness, the relation between goodness and ethical excellence, all echoed Socratic though.[171] The same time, the philosophical current of Platonism was claiming Socrates as their predecessor, in ethics and in their theory of knowledge-skeptism. Arcesilaus, the head of the Academy after Plato, reflected Socrates ingorance, and on ethics compete with Stoics on who is the continuation of Socrates .[172] Stoics insisted on the knowledge based ethics whereas Arcesilaus relied on Socratic ignorance. Stoics replied asserting that Socratic ignorance was part of Socratic irony (though themself weren't approving irony) an argument that ultimately became the dominant narrative of Socrates in the later antiquity.[173]

While Aristotle did held Socrates as a major philosopher, his writing didn't include him as much as some pre-Socratic philosophers and most of his followers didnt comment on Socrates. One of Aristotle pupils though unleashed an ad hominem attack to Socrates. Aristoxenus authored a book full of Socrates scandals- but was not received well by ancient critiques. Epicureans later weaponized socratic irony in their polemic against Socrates.[174] They also attacked him for superstition, given his story with the Delphi oracle.[175] Epicurus, the founder of epicurianism living in the 3rd and 4th century BC came across various currents claiming to be Socratic. They critique Socrates for his character and various faults, but mostly focused on his irony which deemed as inappropriate for a philosopher, anti-pedagogical and also, his socratic ignorance didn't resonate with their criteria of truths.[176]

Medieval world

Depiction of Socrates by 13th century Seljuk illustrator

Socratic thought find its way to Islamic Middle East alongside those of Aristotle and Stoicism. Plato's works on Socrates, as well as other ancient Greek literature, were translated to Arabic and prominent early Muslim scholars such as Al-Kindi, Jabir ibn Hayyan, Muʿtazila. For Muslim scholars, Socrates was hailed and admired for combining his ethics with his life stance, maybe because of resembling Prophet's life.[177] Socratic doctrines were alter to match Islamic faith, Socrates, according to Muslim scholars made arguments for monotheism, for a caring god in particular, or of the temporality of this world and about reward in our next life.[178] His influence on the Arabic world carried to modern days.[179]

In mediaval times, little of Socrates thought survived and was reproduced by christian scholars such as Lactantius, Eusebius and Augustine. Most of sources were kept in Byzantium, where Socrates was studied under a strong christian lens.[180] After the fall of Constantinople, much of sources were fled to the latin world. They were translated, but still, Socrates and classical literature were addressed with hostility in the Christian world.[181]

During the early phase of Italian Renaissance two different narratives of Socrates developed.[182] On one hand, the humanist movement revived the interest in classical authors and in particular, Leonardo Bruni translated many of Plato's Socratic dialogues while his pupil Giannozzo Manetti authored a well circulated book, Life of Socrates. They both presented a civic version of Socrates, with Socrates being humanist and supported of republicanism. Bruni and Manetti were mostly interested in defending secularism, as a non-sinful way of life, so presenting a Socrates align with the christinian morality would assist their cause. In doing so, they censored parts of his dialogues, especially those who indicate homosexuality or any suspicions to pedophilia (with Alkiviades), or misrepresenting socratic ignorance as a tool and his daimon as a god.[183] On the other hand, a different picture of Socrates was presented by Italian Neoplatonists led by the influential philosopher and priest Marsilio Ficino who was impressed by the un-hierarchical and informal way of Socrates teaching which he tried to mimic Socrates teaching style. Ficino portrayed a holy picture of Socrates, finding parallels with the life of Jesus Christ. For Ficino and his followers, socratic ignorance signified his acknowledgement that his wisdoms is God-given (through his inner voice- Socratic daimon)[184]

Modern times

In early modern France, Socrates image was dominated by features of his private life in various novels and satirical plays, instead of his philosophical thought.[185] But few thinkers did use Socrates with respect to the controversies of the era, like Théophile de Viau who draw a christinized Socrates accused of atheism,[186] while for Voltaire, Socrates was representing a reason-based theist.[187] Michel de Montaigne wrote extensively on Socrates, linking him to rationalism to counterweight its contemporary religious fanatics.[188]

German idealism of the 18th century revived the philosophical interest on Socrates mainly by Hegel's work. For Hegel, Socrates marked a turning point in history of humankind by the introduction of the principle of free subjectivity or self-determination. While Hegel hails Socrates for his contribution, he nonetheless justifies Athenian court for Socrates call for self-determination would be destructive of the Sittlichkeit (a Hegelian term signifying the way of life as shaped bye the institutions and laws of the State.[189] Also, Hegel sees Socratic use of rationalism as a continuation of Protagoras subjectivism as stated by the homo mensura principle, but refined: it is our reasoning that measures all things.[190] Socratic method also came into focus of Hegel, as of it close relation with Hegelian dialectics. Hegel didn't see socratic method as maieutic, since it was used to refute various arguments, not to yield any positive opinions.[191] Also, Hegel consider Socrates as a predecessor of later ancient skeptic philosophers, even though he never clearly explained why.[192]

Søren Kierkegaard considered Socrates his teacher.[193] He authored his dissertation on Socrates The Concept of Irony With Continual Reference to Socrates.[194] There he argues that Socrates in not a moral philosopher- he is purely an ironist, Kierkegaard argues.[195] He also focused on the Socratic silence. For Kierkegaard, Socratic avoidance of writing is a sign of humbleness and derives from the truly acceptance of his ignorance [196] Not only Socrates didn't write anything, but his contemporaries misreconstructed him as a philosopher, leaving us with an impossible task to comprehend Socrates though.[194] Only Plato's Apology was close to real Socratic, according to Kierkegaard.[197] In his writings, he revisited Socrates quite frequently and his view on him as a pure ironist, shifted at later stage of Kierkegaard, where he found ethical elements in Socratic though.[195] Socrates was not only a subject of study for Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard paralleled his task as a philosopher to Socrates. He writes "The only analogy I have before me is Socrates; my task is a Socratic task, to audit the definition of what it is to be a Christian", with his aim being to bring society closer to the Christian ideal, as he saw that Christianity had become a formality, void of any Christian essence.[198] Further, Kierkegaard denied of being a Christian, as Socrates denied of possessing any knowledge, aiming to intrigue their contemporaries.[199]

The hostility of Friedrich Nietzsche against Socrates for reshaping the philosophical landscape of humanity is well known. [200] Nietzsche accused Socrates for what he saw as deterioration of the ancient Greek civilization during the 4th century BC and had lasting effect, at his first book The Birth of Tragedy (1872). For Nietzsche, Socrates turned the scope of philosophy from pre-Socratic naturalism to rationalism and intellectualism. He writes: "I conceive of [the Presocratics] as precursors to a reformation of the Greeks: but not of Socrates"; "with Empedocles and Democritus the Greeks were well on their way towards taking the correct measure of human existence, its unreason, its suffering; they never reached this goal, thanks to Socrates".[201] The effect, that of the creation of a perverse last up to date, our culture is a Socratic culture.[200] At a later publishing The Twilight of the Idols (1887) Nietzsche continued his offensive against Socrates, focusing on Socratic arbitrary linking of reason to virtue and happiness. He writes: "I try to understand from what partial and idiosyncratic states the Socratic problem is to be derived: his equation of reason = virtue = happiness. It was with this absurdity of a doctrine of identity that he fascinated: ancient philosophy never again freed itself [from this fascination]",[202] From late 19th century until early 20th, most common explanation of Nietzsche's hostility towards Socrates was his anti-rationalism, he saw Socrates as the father of European rationalism.At the mid of the 20th century, philosopher Walter Kaufmann published an article arguing for Nietzsche's admiration of Socrates and current mainstream opinion is of Nietzsche being ambivalence towards Socrates.[203]

Continental philosophers Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss and Karl Popper, after experiencing the horrors of World War II, amidst the rise of totalitarian regimes, saw Socrates as an icon of individual conscience.[204] Arendt, at hers Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) sees the qualities of Socrates constant questioning and self-reflection could prevent the banality of evil.[205] Conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, considers Socrates political thought paralleling Plato's. He sees an elitist Socrates at Plato's Republic as exemplifying why polis is not, and could not be an ideal way of organizing life, since philosophical truths can not be digested by the masses.[206] The contrary view is held by Karl Popper who considers Socrates fundamentally opposing Plato's totalitarian ideas. For Popper, Socratic individualism, along with athenian democracy, lead to the creation of their most significant contribution to humankind, the open society, which is the hallmark of his philosophy- as described in his "Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).[207]

Socrates in popular culture

Socrates has been widely recognized for his significance outside his discipline. His icon appears in various aspects in popular culture. His name was given to philosophy institutions and programs, buildings, parks, even a crater in Moon bares his name. He has been present in novels, books, films, tv series, songs and compositions. Socrates inspired a generation of romantic poets- Percy Bysshe Shelley compared Socrates to Jesus. American statemen like Benjamin Franklin and James Madison spoke highly of Socrates, so did Martin Luther King Jr. who attributed academic freedom to Socrates.[208]

See also


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  198. ^ Muench 2009, pp. 390–391:Quote from Kierkegaard essay My Task (1855)
  199. ^ Muench 2009, p. 394.
  200. ^ a b Raymond 2019, p. 837.
  201. ^ Porter 2009, pp. 408-409; Ambury 2020, Legacy: How Have Other Philosophers Understood Socrates?.
  202. ^ Porter 2009, pp. 410–411.
  203. ^ Raymond 2019, pp. 837–839.
  204. ^ Ahbel-Rappe 2011, p. 127.
  205. ^ Ahbel-Rappe 2011, pp. 137-138.
  206. ^ Ahbel-Rappe 2011, pp. 138-140.
  207. ^ Ahbel-Rappe 2011, pp. 140-142.
  208. ^ Nails 2020, The Socratic tradition and its reach beyond philosophySee also Supplement "The Reception of Socrates"


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Further reading

  • Brun, Jean (1978). Socrate (sixth ed.). Presses universitaires de France. pp. 39–40. ISBN 978-2-13-035620-2. (in French)
  • Benson, Hugh (1992). Essays on the philosophy of Socrates. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-506757-6. OCLC 23179683.
  • Rudebusch, George (2009). Socrates. Chichester, U.K. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-5085-8. OCLC 476311710.
  • Taylor, C. C. W. (1998). Socrates. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-287601-0.
  • Taylor, C. C. W. (2019). Socrates: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-883598-1.
  • Vlastos, Gregory (1994). Socratic Studies. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-44735-5.

External links

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