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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 a founder of Western philosophy and the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought. An enigmatic figure, Socrates authored no texts and is known mainly through the posthumous accounts of classical writers, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon. These accounts are written as dialogues, in which Socrates and his interlocutors examine a subject, and gave rise to the Socratic dialogue literary genre. Contradictory accounts of Socrates make the reconstruction of the history of his life nearly impossible, a situation known as the Socratic problem. Socrates was a polarizing figure in Athenian society. In 399 BC, he was accused of corrupting the youth and failing to acknowledge the city's official gods. After a trial that lasted a day, he was sentenced to death. He spent his last day in prison, refusing to escape.

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. This Platonic Socrates lends his name to the concepts of Socratic irony and the Socratic method. 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 did not document his teachings. All we know of him comes from the accounts of others: mainly the philosopher Plato and the historian Xenophon, both his pupils, the comedian Aristophanes (Socrates's contemporary) and Aristotle, who was born after Socrates's death. The often contradictory stories of ancient sources complicate scholars' ability to reconstruct Socrates's true thoughts reliably, a predicament known as the Socratic problem.[2] The works of Plato, Xenophon, and other authors on Socrates are written in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutors and provide the main source of information on Socrates's life and thought. They compose the majority of the Socratic dialogues, a term coined by Aristotle to describe the newly formed literary genre.[3] Only Plato's and Xenophon's dialogues survive to the present day. While their exact authorship dates are unknown, it is believed that most were written after Socrates death.[4] As Aristotle first noted, the extent to which the dialogues portray Socrates authentically is a matter of debate.[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 Athenians 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 the gods. 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 in 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, while later inserted his views on Socrates's sayings—under this understanding, there is a distinction between the "Socratic" Socrates of Plato's earlier writings, and the "Platonic" Socrates of Plato's later writings, though the boundary between the two seems 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] Xenophon's Socrates lacks the philosophical features of Plato's Socrates — ignorance, elenchus — and thinks enkrateia is of pivotal importance, which is not the case of Plato's Socrates.[19] Generally, Logoi Socraticoi cannot help us reconstruct the historical Socrates even in cases where their narratives overlap due to possible intertextuality.[20]

Aristophanes and other sources

Athenian comedians, including Aristophanes, also 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 depicts a caricature of Socrates that leans towards sophistism,[22] ridiculing Socrates as a crazy atheist.[23] Socrates in Clouds is interested in natural philosophy, as seen also in Plato's Phaedo. What is certain, is that by age 42, Socrates had already captured the interest of Athenians as a philosopher.[24] Current literature does not deem Aristophanes' 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]

The Socratic problem

In a 1818 seminal work, the philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher attacked Xenophon's accounts; 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. Furthermore, 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 to provide an impartial account, with the result being the portrayal of an uninspiring philosopher.[31] By the early 20th century, Xenophon's account was largely rejected.[32]

The philosophy professor Karl Joel, based on Aristotle interpretation of Socratic logos, suggested that the 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, in the middle of 20th century, proposed that our study should focus on 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 except when his account agreed with Plato's.[34] More recently, Charles H. Kahn, reinforced the skeptical stance on the unsolvable Socratic Problem, suggesting that only Apology has some historical significance.[35]


Battle of Potidaea (432 BCE): 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 BCE in Alopece, a deme of Athens, with both of his parents, Sophroniscus and Phaenarete being wealthy Athenians, thus making him an Athenian citizen.[37] Sophroniscus was a stoneworker while Phaenarete was a midwife.[38] He lived close to his father's relatives and inherited, as was the custom in Ancient Athens, part of his father's estate, securing a life free of financial troubles.[39] His education followed the laws and customs of Athens. He learned the basic skills of reading and writing and, like most wealthy Athenians, received extra lessons in various other fields such as gymnastics, poetry and music.[40] He married once or twice; one of his marriages was with Xanthippe when Socrates was in his fifties; the other one might have been with the daughter of Aristides, an Athenian statesman.[41] He had three sons with Xanthippe.[42] Socrates fulfilled his military service during the Peloponnesian War and distinguished himself in three campaigns.[36]

In 406 Socrates participated as a member of the Boule in the trial of six commanders since his tribe (the Antiochis) comprised the prytany. The generals were accused of abandoning 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 capital punishment while having them under trial all together, rather than separately as the law of Athens dictated. While other members of the prytany bowed to public pressure, Socrates stood alone in not accepting this extralegal option.[43]

Another incident that illustrates Socrates's attachment to the law is the arrest of Leon the Salaminian. 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, who was to be brought back and executed. 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, despite the risk of subsequent retribution from the tyrants.[44]

Socrates greatly attracted the interest of the Athenian public and especially the Athenian youth.[45] He was notoriously ugly, having a flat turned-up nose, bulky eyes and a large belly; his friends joked about his appearance.[46] On top of being ugly, Socrates neglected personal hygiene: he walked barefoot, had only one torn coat. and bathed rarely, friends calling him "the unwashed". He refrained from excessive eating and sex, and although he drank wine, he was never drunk.[47] While he was physically attracted to both sexes, common and accepted in ancient Greece, he resisted his passion for young men as he was more interested in educating their souls.[48] Socrates was known for his self-control and never sought to gain sexual favors from his disciplines, as often happened with other older teachers and adolescent students.[49] Politically, he sat on the fence in terms of the rivalry between the democrats and the oligarchs in Ancient Athens, criticizing both sharply when they were in 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 depiction of Socrates in Plato's dialogues as a representation of the actual historical Socrates.[51]

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

Trial of Socrates

In 399 BC, Socrates famously went on trial for corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and for impiety.[55] Socrates defended himself unsuccessfully—he was found guilty by a majority vote cast by a jury of hundreds of male Athenian citizens.[56] According to the custom, he proposed a penalty (in his case, offering a fraction of his assets). Jurors declined his offer and ordered the death penalty.[56] The official charges were corrupting youth, worshipping false gods and not worshipping the state religion.[57]

In 404 BC, Athenians had been 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 – until the Spartan request for aid from the Thirty arrived, a compromise was sought. When Spartans left again, democrats seized the opportunity to kill the oligarchs and reclaim the government of Athens.[58] It was under this politically tense climate in 399 that Socrates was charged.[58]

The accusations against Socrates were initiated by a poet, Meletus, who asked for the death penalty per the charge of asebeia.[58] Other accusers were Anytus and Lycon. Anytus 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 the allegations of corrupting the youth, Socrates answered that he did not corrupt anyone intentionally, since corrupting someone would mean that one would themself 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 of atheism 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, but he didn't bring it up. Instead, according to Plato, he asked for free meals daily, or, alternatively, to pay a small fine. On the other hand, Xenophon wrote that he made no proposals.[66] The jurors favored 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 disciples 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; he declined their escape route.[65]

The question of what motivated Athenians to convict Socrates remains a point of controversy among scholars.[67] There are two theories: first, that Socrates was convicted on religious grounds and, second, on political grounds.[67] The case for it being a political persecution is usually challenged 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 reveal, the accusers could have fueled their rhetoric using events prior to 403.[68] Additionally, 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 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 as the most wicked of 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. While it was true that Socrates didn't believe in the 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, as was demonstrated in Clouds by Aristophanes, a political satire 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

The Debate Of Socrates And Aspasia by Nicolas-André Monsiau. Socrates discussions were not limited to a small elite group. Socrates engaged to dialogues with both genders, people from all social classes and foreigners.[73]

A fundamental characteristic of Plato's Socrates is the Socratic method, or method of refutation (elenchus).[74] It is most prominent in the early works of Plato, such as Apology, Crito, Gorgias, Republic I, and others.[75] Socrates would initiate a discussion about a topic with a known expert on the topic, then by dialogue prove them wrong by detecting inconsistencies in the expert's reasoning.[76] Socrates asks his interlocutor for a definition of the subject, then Socrates will ask more questions where the answers of the interlocutor will be at odds with his first definition, with the conclusion that the opinion of the expert is wrong.[77] The interlocutor may come 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 their ignorance on the matter.[78] Since the interlocutors' definitions most commonly represent the mainstream opinion on a matter, the discussion places doubt on the common opinion. 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; he humbly acknowledges his own ignorance while participating himself in searching for truth with his pupils and interlocutors.[79]

Scholars have questioned the validity and the exact nature of Socratic method, or indeed if there even was a Socratic method.[80] In 1982, the scholar of ancient philosophy Gregory Vlastos claimed the Socratic method could not be used to establish truth or falsehood of any particular beliefs. Vlastos argued it was rather simply a potent instrument for exposing inconsistency within an interlocutor's beliefs.[81] There have been two main lines of thought regarding Vlastos' arguments, depending on whether it is accepted that Socrates is seeking to prove wrong a claim.[82] According to the first line of thought, known as the constructivist approach, Socrates indeed seeks to refute a claim by his method, and it actually helps us in reaching affirmative statements.[83] The non-constructivist approach holds that Socrates merely wants to establish the inconsistency among the premises and conclusion of the initial argument.[84]

Socratic priority of definition

Socrates started discussions with the search for definitions.[85] In most cases, Socrates initiates his engagement with an expert on a subject seeking a definition (such as what is Virtue or Goodness) before discussing it further.[86] Giving definition a priority to any kind of knowledge is common in many of his dialogues, as in Hippias Major or Euthyphro.[87] Some scholars have argued that Socrates does not endorse this as a principle, because they can locate examples of him not doing so (e.g., in Laches, when searching examples of courage in order to define it).[88] In this line, Gregory Vlastos and other scholars have argued that the priority principle is actually of Platonic origin.[89] Philosophy professor Peter Geach, who accepts that Socrates endorses the priority of definitions, finds it fallacious, and criticizes it as follows: "We know heaps of things without being able to define the terms in which we express our knowledge".[90] The debate on the issue is still unsettled.[91]

Socratic ignorance

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Pythia was sited. Delphic aphorism Know thyself was important to Socrates, as evident in many Socratic dialogues by Plato, especially in Apology.[92]

Plato's Socrates often claims that he is aware of his own lack of knowledge, especially when discussing ethics (such as areté, i.e. goodness, courage) since he does not possess knowledge of the essential nature of such concepts.[93] For example, during his trial, with his life at stake, Socrates says: "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".[94] In another case, when he was informed that the prestigious Oracle of Delphi had declared 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".[95]

In some of Plato's dialogues, Socrates appears to credit himself with some knowledge, and seems strongly opinionated for a man who professes his own ignorance.[96] For example, in 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."[97]

This contradiction has puzzled scholars.[98] There are varying explanations of the inconsistency, mostly in terms of differing interpretations of the meaning of "knowledge". There is a consensus that Socrates holds that realizing one's lack of knowledge is the first step towards wisdom.[99] While Socrates claims he acquired cognitive achievement in some domains of knowledge, he denies any wisdom in the most important domains in ethics.[100]

Socratic irony

There is a widespread assumption that Socrates is an ironist, mostly based on the depiction of Socrates by Plato and Aristotle.[101] Socrates' irony is so subtle and slightly humorous that it often leaves reader wondering if Socrates is making an intentional pun.[102] Plato's Euthyphro is filled with Socratic irony. The story begins when Socrates is meeting with Euthyphro, a man who has accused his own father of murder. 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 that it is "most important that I become your student".[103] Socrates is commonly seen as ironic when using praises to flatter or when addressing his interlocutors.[104] Aristotle linked Socratic irony to a different meaning. Aristotle used the term eirōneia (a Greek word, later Latinized, from which the English word irony comes) to describe Socrates' self-deprecation. Eirōneia, then, contrary to modern meaning, meant to conceal a narrative that was not stated, while in today's "irony", the message is clear, even though untold literally.[101]

Scholars are divided on why Socrates uses irony. The mainstream opinion, since the Hellenistic period, perceives irony as a means to add a playful note to Socrates' speech so as to get the attention of the audience.[105] Another line of thought holds that Socrates conceals his philosophical message with irony, making it accessible only to those who can separate which parts of his statements are ironic and which are not.[106] Gregory Vlastos identified a more complex pattern of irony in Socrates, where his words have double meaning, both ironic and not; this opinion is not shared by many other scholars.[107]

Not everyone was amused by Socratic irony. Epicureans, the only post-Socratic philosophical school in ancient times that didn't identify themselves as successors of Socrates, based their criticism to Socrates on his ironic spirit, preferring 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."[108]

Socratic eudaimonism and intellectualism

For Socrates, the pursuit of eudaimonia (Greek: well-being) motivates all human action, directly or indirectly.[109] For Socrates, virtue and knowledge are linked to eudaimonia, but how close he considers their connection is still debated. Some argue that Socrates thought virtue, knowledge, and eudaimonia are identical, while another opinion holds that for Socrates virtue serves as a mean to eudaimonia (identical and sufficiency thesis respectively).[110] Another point of debate is whether, according to Socrates, people desire actual good, or rather what they perceive as good.[110]

In Plato's Protagoras (345c4-e6), Socrates implies that "no one errs willingly", which has become the hallmark of Socratic intellectualism.[111] Socrates is intellectualist because he gave a prominent role to virtue and knowledge. He was also a motivational intellectualist, since he believes that humans actions are guided by cognitive power to comprehend what they desire, while diminishing the role of impulses.[112] 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.[113] Texts that support Socrates intellectual motivism, as the Socrates thesis is named, are mainly the Gorgias 467c–468e (where Socrates discusses 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.[114] 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 left no space for irrational desires, even though some claim that Socrates acknowledged the existence of irrational motivations, just without them taking a primary role in decision-making.[115]


Henri Estienne's 1578 edition of Euthyphro, parallel Latin and Greek text. Estienne's translations were heavily used and reprinted for more than two centuries.[116] Socrates discussion with Euthyphro, still remains influential in theological debates.[117]

Socrates' religious nonconformity challenged views of his times and his critique reshaped religious discourse for the coming centuries.[118] In Ancient Greece there was no organized religion or sacred texts; religion intermingled with daily life of citizens, who performed their religious duties mainly with sacrifices to gods.[119] Whether Socrates was 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 hasn't yet ceased.[120]

Socrates discusses divinity and the soul mostly in Alcibiades, Euthyphro and Plato's Apology.[121] In Alcibiades he links the human soul to divinity, concluding "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."[122] Socrates' discussions on religion are under the scope of his rationalism,[123] Socrates, in Euthyphro, discusses piety where he reaches a revolutionary conclusion far from the age's usual practice. He deems sacrifices to gods useless, especially when they are reward-driven. Instead he calls for philosophising and the pursuit of knowledge as a means to worship the gods.[124] The rejection of traditional forms of piety placed a moral burden on ordinary Athenians, who also were his jurors at his trial.[125]

Socrates argued for inherently wise and just gods, a perception far from traditional religion at that time.[125] In Euthyphro, the Euthyphro dilemma arises: Socrates questions his interlocutor about the relation between piety 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?[126] The implications of this puzzle lead at least to the rejection of the traditional Greek theology, since the Homeric gods fought against each other. Socrates thought that goodness, in essence, is independent from gods, and gods must themselves be pious.[117]

Socrates affirms a belief in gods in Plato's Apology, where Socrates says to the jurors that he acknowledges gods more than his accusers.[127] For Plato's Socrates, the existence of gods is taken for granted; in none of his dialogues did he probe whether gods existed or not.[128] In Apology, a case for Socrates being agnostic can be made based on Socrates' discussion of the great unknown after death,[129] and in Phaedo (the dialogue with his students in his last day) Socrates hinges on his hopes of the immortality of the soul.[130] He also believed in oracles, divinations and other messages from gods. These signs did not offer him any positive belief on moral issues; rather, they were predictions of future events that couldn't be assessed through reason.[131]

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" (e.g., eyelids), a Creator should have created universe.[128] He then deduces that the Creator should be omniscient and omnipotent and also, that he created the universe for the advance of humankind, since humans naturally have many abilities that other animals do not.[132] At times, Socrates spoke of a single deity, while at other times he spoke of plural "gods". This has been interpreted as meaning he either believed that a supreme deity was in command of other gods, or of various gods as manifestations of the single deity.[133]

It has been puzzling how Socratic religious beliefs are consistent with his strict adherence to rationalism.[134] Philosophy professor Mark McPherran suggests that Socrates inspected and interpreted every divine sign through secular rationality for confirmation.[135] Professor of ancient philosophy A. A. Long suggests that for Socrates and his era, rationality was incorporated with religiousness, while it is in the later Judeo-Christian perspective that considered these two domains at odds with each other.[136]

Socratic daimonion

Alcibiades Receiving Instruction from Socrates, a painting by François-André Vincent, depicting Socrates daimon.[137]

In several cases (e.g., 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. Socrates claimed at his trial that this is what prevented him from entering into politics, elaborating that "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."[138] Modern scholarship variously interprets the Socratic daimōnion as a rational source of knowledge, an impulse, a dream or even a paranormal experience felt by an ascetic Socrates.[139]

Virtue and knowledge

Socrates is known for disavowing knowledge, embodied in his famous axiom "I know that I know nothing". This is often attributed to Socrates on the basis of a statement in Plato's Apology, though the same view is repeatedly found elsewhere in Plato's early writings on Socrates.[140] In other statements though, he implies or even claims he does have knowledge. For example, in Plato's Apology Socrates also says: "...but that to do injustice and disobey my superior, god or man, this I know to be evil and base...".(Ap. 29B6-7)[141] In his debate with Callicles, he says: "...I know well that if you will agree with me on those things which my soul believes, those things will be the very truth..."[141] Whether Socrates genuinely thought he lacked knowledge or merely feigned a belief in his own ignorance remains a matter of debate. A common interpretation is that he was indeed feigning modesty. According to Norman Gulley, Socrates did this to entice his interlocutors to discourse with him. On the other hand, Irwin Terrence claims that Socrates' words should be taken literally.[142] Vlastos argues that there is enough evidence to refute both claims, and argues that, for Socrates, there are two separate meanings of "knowledge" : Knowledge-C and Knowledge-E (C stands for "certain", and E stands for elenchus — i.e. the Socratic method). Knowledge-C is the something unquestionable whereas Knowledge-E is the result of Socrates' elenchus, his way of examining things.[143] Thus, Socrates speaks the truth when he says he knows-C something, and he is also truthful when saying he knows-E, for example that it is evil for someone to disobey his superiors, as he claimed in Plato's Apology[144] Not everyone was impressed by Vlastos' semantic dualism. Lesher argued that Socrates claimed in various dialogues that one word is linked to one meaning (i.e. in Hippias major, Meno, Laches).[145] Lesher's suggestion is that Socrates claimed that he had no knowledge regarding the nature of virtues, but thought that in some cases, someone could have knowledge on some ethical propositions.[146]

Socrates' theory of virtue states that all virtues are essentially one, since they are a form of knowledge.[147] 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 risks.[148] 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..."[149]


Socrates and Alcibiades, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

There exist textual passages suggesting that Socrates had a love affair with Alcibiades and other young males while other texts suggest that Socrates' friendship with young boys sought to improve them and were not sexual. In Gorgias, Socrates claims he was a dual lover of Alcibiades and philosophy, and his flirtatiousness is evident in Protagoras, Meno (76a–c) and Phaedrus (227c–d). However, the exact nature of the relation is not clear since Socrates was known for his self-restraint while Alcibiades admits in the Symposium that he had tried to seduce Socrates but failed.[150]

The Socratic theory of love is mostly deduced from Lysis, where Socrates talks about love.[151] 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 the Socratic doctrine on love, which is an egoistic one, according to which we only love people that are useful to us in some way[152] Others scholars disagree with Vlastos' view, either because they affirm that Socrates leaves room for non-egoistical love to a spouse, or deny that Socrates is suggesting any egoistical motivation at all.[153] A form of utility children have for parents, as Socrates claims in Symposium, is that they offer the false impression of immortality.[154] Scholars note that for Socrates, love is rational.[155]

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 gratification but at what's best."[156] His claim illustrates his aversion for the established democratic assemblies and procedures such as voting—as Socrates didn't hold any respect for politicians and rhetoricians for using tricks to mislead the public.[157] He never ran for an office or suggested any legislation.[158] His aim was to help the City to flourish—that was his true political art.[157] As a citizen he was lawful. He obeyed the laws, completed his military duty by fighting wars abroad. His dialogues were not about contemporary political decisions, such as the Sicilian Expedition.[158]

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, for him, politics was about shaping the moral landscape of the City through philosophy rather than electoral procedures.[159] 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: he disobeyed the one order the oligarchic government of the Thirty Tyrants handed to him; he was respecting laws and the political system of Athens, which was formulated by democrats; and lastly, he was so satisfied with democratic Athens that he didn't want to escape prison and the death penalty. On the other hand, there is some evidence that Socrates leaned towards oligarchy: most of his friends supported oligarchy; he was contemptuous of the opinion of the many; and in Protagoras his argumentation had some anti-democratic elements.[160] A less mainstream argument suggests that Socrates was for democratic republicanism as he placed the City above the people and stands in the middle ground of democrats and oligarchs.[161]

Another suggestion is that Socrates was in line with liberalism, a political ideology formed in the Age of Enlightenment. This argument is mostly based on Crito and Apology, where Socrates talks about the mutually-beneficial relationship between the city and its citizens.[162] 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.[163] Ιn the broader picture, Socrates' counsel would be for citizens to follow orders of the state, unless, after much reflection, they are deemed unjust.[164]


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 him: Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, the Cynics, and the Stoics.[165] The interest on Socrates kept increasing until the third century CE.[166] He was considered as the man who shifted philosophy from the study of Nature, as it was the case for pre-Socratic philosophers, to the study of humanity.[167] They all accepted the Socratic priority of eudaimonia: happiness, restrained from excesses that ultimately end in misery. They differed in response to fundamental questions such as the purpose of life or the nature of arete (goodness) since Socrates has not handed them an answer, and so philosophical schools diverted greatly in their interpretation of him.[168]

Immediate followers of Socratism were his pupils, Euclid, Aristippus and Antisthenes, who had drawn independent trajectories among themselves.[169] Antisthenes had a profound concept of material goods since virtue was all that mattered, a line that lead to Diogenes and the Cynics.[170] On the opposite end, Aristippus taught for money and lived a luxurious life; after leaving Athens and returning to his home city of Cyrene, he founded the Cyrenaic philosophical school which was based on hedonism, living an easy life with physical pleasures. His school passed to his grandson, bearing the same name. There is a dialogue in Xenophon's work where Aristippus claims he wants to live without wishing to rule or be ruled by others.[171] Also, on epistemology, Aristippus had a skeptical stance claiming that we can be certain only of feelings, resonating with the Socratic knowledge of our ignorance.[172] 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 was built on the pre-Socratic monism of Parmenides. For Parmenides, only one thing existed and that was the "good" Socrates was searching for; Euclid continued Socrates' thought. The full doctrines of Socrates pupils are difficult to reconstruct. It is clear however, that their impact reached Cicero.[173]

Stoics relied heavily on Socrates.[174] They applied the Socratic method as a tool to avoid inconsistencies. Their moral doctrines on how to live a smooth life through wisdom and virtue, i.e., the crucial role of virtue for happiness, the relation between goodness and ethical excellence, all echoed Socratic thought.[175] At the same time, the philosophical current of Platonism was claiming Socrates as their predecessor, in ethics and in their theory of knowledge (skepticism). Arcesilaus, the head of the Academy after Plato, reflected Socrates' ignorance, and on ethics competed with Stoics on who was the continuation of Socrates.[176] Stoics insisted on knowledge-based ethics, whereas Arcesilaus relied on Socratic ignorance. Stoics replied asserting that Socratic ignorance was part of Socratic irony (they aversed irony), an argument that ultimately became the dominant narrative of Socrates in later antiquity.[177]

While Aristotle considered Socrates a major philosopher, his writing didn't include him as much as some pre-Socratic philosophers, and most of his followers didn't comment on Socrates. One of Aristotle pupil's unleashed an ad hominem attack on Socrates: Aristoxenus authored a book full of Socrates' scandals, but was not well-received by ancient critics. Epicureans later weaponized Socratic irony in their polemic against Socrates.[178] They also attacked him for superstition, given his story with the Delphi oracle.[179] Epicurus, the founder of epicureanism, living in the 3rd and 4th century BC, came across various currents claiming to be Socratic. They criticized Socrates for his character and various faults, and focused mostly on his irony, which was deemed inappropriate for a philosopher, anti-pedagogical. Also, his Socratic ignorance didn't resonate well with their criteria of truths.[180]

Medieval world

Depiction of Socrates by 13th century Seljuk illustrator

Socratic thought find its way to Islamic Middle East alongside that of Aristotle and the Stoics. Plato's works on Socrates, as well as other ancient Greek literature, were translated to Arabic by 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 the resemblance with the Prophet's life.[181] Socratic doctrines were altered to match Islamic faith: according to Muslim scholars, Socrates made arguments for monotheism, for a caring god in particular, and for the temporality of this world and rewards in the next life.[182] His influence on the Arabic world carried to modern days.[183]

In medieval 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.[184] After the fall of Constantinople, many of the texts were brought to the Latin world, and were translated. Overall, Socrates, like the rest of classical literature, was addressed with hostility in the Christian world.[185]

During the early phase of the Italian Renaissance, two different narratives of Socrates developed.[186] 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 a humanist and supporter of republicanism. Bruni and Manetti were mostly interested in defending secularism, as a non-sinful way of life, so presenting a Socrates aligned with the Christian morality would assist their cause. In doing so, they censored parts of his dialogues, especially those which indicate homosexuality or any suspicions of pedophilia (with Alcibiades), or misrepresenting Socratic ignorance as a tool and his daimon as a god.[187] 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 Socratic teaching, which he tried to mimic. 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 wisdom is God-given (through his inner voice—Socratic daimon)[188]

Modern times

Socrates along with his wives (he was married once or twice) and students, appears in many paintings. Here Socrates, his two Wives, and Alcibiades, a painting by the Dutch Golden Age artist Reyer van Blommendael. Often, his wife Xanthippe, alone or with Myrto (the other alleged wife of Socrates) is depicted emptying a pot (hydria) over Socrates[189]

In early modern France, Socrates's image was dominated by features of his private life in various novels and satirical plays, instead of his philosophical thought.[190] Some thinkers used Socrates with respect to the controversies of the era, like Théophile de Viau who drew a Christianized Socrates accused of atheism,[191] while for Voltaire, Socrates was representing a reason-based theist.[192] Michel de Montaigne wrote extensively on Socrates, linking him to rationalism to counterweight its contemporary religious fanatics.[193]

In the 18th century, German idealism revived philosophical interest in Socrates, mainly through Hegel's work. For Hegel, Socrates marked a turning point in the 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 the Athenian court, for Socrates' call for self-determination would be destructive of the Sittlichkeit (a Hegelian term signifying the way of life as shaped by the institutions and laws of the State).[194] Also, Hegel sees Socratic use of rationalism as a continuation of Protagoras' subjectivism, as stated by the homo mensura principle ("Man is the measure of all things"), somewhat modified: it is our reasoning that measures all things.[195] The Socratic method also came into focus of Hegel, as it is closely related to Hegelian dialectics. Hegel didn't see the Socratic method as maieutic, since it was used to refute various arguments, not to yield any positive opinions.[196] Also, Hegel consider Socrates as a predecessor of later ancient skeptic philosophers, even though he never clearly explained why.[197]

Søren Kierkegaard considered Socrates his teacher.[198] He authored his dissertation on Socrates, The Concept of Irony With Continual Reference to Socrates.[199] There he argues that Socrates is not a moral philosopher but is purely an ironist.[200] He also focused on Socratic silence: for Kierkegaard, Socratic avoidance of writing is a sign of humility and derives from the true acceptance of his ignorance. [201] Not only did Socrates not write anything, but his contemporaries misconstrued him as a philosopher, leaving us with an impossible task in comprehending Socratic thought.[199] Only Plato's Apology was close to the real Socrates, according to Kierkegaard.[202] In his writings, he revisited Socrates quite frequently; at a later stage, Kierkegaard's view on him as a pure ironist shifted, and he found ethical elements in Socratic thought.[200] Socrates was not only a subject of study for Kierkegaard, for he 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.[203] Further, Kierkegaard denied being a Christian, as Socrates denied possessing any knowledge, aiming to intrigue their contemporaries.[204]

The hostility of Friedrich Nietzsche against Socrates for reshaping the philosophical landscape of humanity is well known.[205] Nietzsche accused Socrates for what he saw as deterioration of the ancient Greek civilization during the 4th century BC and after, in 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".[206] The effect, Nietzsche believed, was a perverse situation that lasted to this day: our culture is a Socratic culture.[205] 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]",[207] From the late 19th century until the early 20th, the most common explanation of Nietzsche's hostility towards Socrates was his anti-rationalism; he considered Socrates 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 that Nietzsche was ambivalent towards Socrates.[208]

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.[209] Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), sees how Socrates' constant questioning and self-reflection could prevent the banality of evil.[210] Conservative philosopher Leo Strauss considers Socrates' political thought as paralleling Plato's. He sees an elitist Socrates in Plato's Republic as exemplifying why the polis is not, and could not be, an ideal way of organizing life, since philosophical truths cannot be digested by the masses.[211] The contrary view is held by Karl Popper, who considers Socrates as 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).[212]

Socrates in popular culture

The statue of Socrates outside the National Library of Uruguay, Montevideo.

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, programs, buildings, parks, and even a crater on the Moon bears 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 statesmen like Benjamin Franklin and James Madison spoke highly of Socrates, as did Martin Luther King Jr. who attributed academic freedom to Socrates.[213]

See also


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  4. ^ Döring 2011, pp. 24–25.
  5. ^ Dorion 2011, pp. 7–9.
  6. ^ Guthrie 1972, pp. 13–15.
  7. ^ a b Guthrie 1972, p. 15.
  8. ^ Guthrie 1972, pp. 15–16 & 28.
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  16. ^ May 2000, p. 20; Dorion 2011, p. 6.
  17. ^ May 2000, p. 20; Waterfield 2013, pp. 3–4.
  18. ^ May 2000, pp. 19–20.
  19. ^ Dorion 2011, pp. 4, 10.
  20. ^ Waterfield 2013, pp. 10–11.
  21. ^ Guthrie 1972, pp. 39–41.
  22. ^ Guthrie 1972, pp. 39–51.
  23. ^ Ahbel-Rappe 2011, p. 5.
  24. ^ Konstan 2011, pp. 85, 88.
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  38. ^ Nails 2020, A Chronology of the historical Socrates in the context of Athenian history and the dramatic dates of Plato's dialogues; Guthrie 1972, pp. 1–2.
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  200. ^ a b Muench 2009, p. 389.
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  202. ^ Muench 2009, p. 390.
  203. ^ Muench 2009, pp. 390–391:Quote from Kierkegaard essay My Task (1855)
  204. ^ Muench 2009, p. 394.
  205. ^ a b Raymond 2019, p. 837.
  206. ^ Porter 2009, pp. 408-409; Ambury 2020, Legacy: How Have Other Philosophers Understood Socrates?.
  207. ^ Porter 2009, pp. 410–411.
  208. ^ Raymond 2019, pp. 837–839.
  209. ^ Ahbel-Rappe 2011, p. 127.
  210. ^ Ahbel-Rappe 2011, pp. 137-138.
  211. ^ Ahbel-Rappe 2011, pp. 138-140.
  212. ^ Ahbel-Rappe 2011, pp. 140-142.
  213. ^ Nails 2020, The Socratic tradition and its reach beyond philosophySee also Supplement "The Reception of Socrates"


Further reading

External links