This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.
Ten years after the death of Confucius, Socrates was born in
Athens in the fourth year of the 77th Olympiad on the sixth day
of the month of Thargelion, when the city was purified, according
to Diogenes Laertius' citation of Apollodorus' Chronology.1 In
Plato's account of Socrates' speech in his trial of 399 BC, Socrates
said he was seventy years old.2 Therefore he lived (469-399) during
the century which has been called the golden age of Athens. The
Greeks had stopped the Persians at Marathon in 490 and turned
them away for good in 480 at Salamis and in 479 at Plataea. With
security from foreign encroachment, the way was prepared for Aeschylus, Sophocles,
Pericles, the sophists, and Socrates.
Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and he referred to Daedalus, the traditional founder of sculpting and stone-masonry, as his ancestor.3 His biographer Diogenes Laertius wrote that some sources indicated that Socrates was employed on the stone-work of the draped figures of the Graces on the Acropolis.4 This is not unlikely since this work was commissioned by Pericles as a public works project when Socrates was a young man. His mother was Phaenarete, and in Plato's Theaetetus Socrates said she was a midwife.5
Socrates' wife Xanthippe, well-known as a shrew, bore him a son, Lamprocles; in Plato's Phaedo she said farewell to her husband on the last day of his life with a son in her arms.6 According to other sources recounted by Diogenes Laertius (including Aristotle), Socrates had a second wife, Myrto, who gave birth to Sophroniscus and Menexenus; some said that both were his wives at the same time, as the Athenians had passed an ordinance encouraging citizens to have children by another woman in order to increase the population, probably because of the Peloponnesian War.7
Little is known about Socrates' early life and education. Plutarch, in legendary fashion, wrote that an oracle told his father to let the child do whatever came into his mind, allow him free play without forcing anything on him, and pray to Zeus of the Market-Place and the Muses.8 Diogenes Laertius refered to Demetrius of Byzantium for the information that Crito was so taken with the grace of Socrates' soul that he took him out of a workshop and educated him.9 Again, Diogenes, a rather late and eclectic source, related a rumor that Euripides gave Socrates a treatise by Heraclitus, asking for his opinion. He replied, "The part I understand is excellent, and so too is, I dare say, the part I do not understand; but it needs a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it."10 So too it would take such a diver to get to the origins of Socrates' education.
More likely are the scant accounts of Plato concerning Socrates' education in philosophy. In the Parmenides, Socrates as a very young man went to hear Zeno read a treatise, and talked with him and Parmenides.11 What Socrates learned from them was probably different from what Plato portrayed in that dialog, but he did have Socrates mention meeting Parmenides in the Theaetetus where Socrates said he once observed Parmenides use the question-and-answer method.13
In the Meno Socrates implied that he had been educated by Prodicus as badly as Meno had been by Gorgias.14 Socrates often referred to Prodicus as an expert on words and said in the Cratylus, which deals with the origin of words, that he did not have the fifty-drachma course of lectures from Prodicus, but only the one-drachma course.15
In Plato's Symposium, Socrates claimed to have been instructed in love by the mystical Diotima of Mantineia, but nothing else is known of her, even whether she was human or an angel. In the Menexenus, Socrates said that he learned rhetoric from Aspasia who had taught Pericles, and that he was instructed in music by Connus.17
In summarizing the accounts of who Socrates' principal teachers were, Diogenes Laertius wrote that he was a student of Anaxagoras, Damon, and Archelaus, who was very fond of him.18 Archelaus was a student of Anaxagoras who was the first to bring natural philosophy to Athens. Archelaus said that the causes of growth or becoming are heat and cold, and that living creatures are generated from slime. Although Archelaus was called a physicist, he did discuss laws, goodness and justness, holding that justice depends not on nature but on conventions or laws. Diogenes went on to conclude that Socrates improved ethics so much that he was recognized as its inventor, while Archelaus was the last of the physicists.19 He also mentioned that as a youth Socrates traveled with Archelaus to Samos.20 In the Cratylus while discussing the word "justice," Socrates satirized the physicists' conception of it and referred to Anaxagoras' theory that it is mind and is ruled by itself.21 This leads us to Socrates' own description of his intellectual quest from Plato's Phaedo, which is so significant to his way of life that it is probably best to quote the autobiographical portions of the speech.
"Then hear what I will say.
For I, Cebes," he said, "when young
was tremendously eager for this wisdom,
which they call the study of nature.
For it seemed to me to be magnificent,
to know the causes of each thing,
why each thing comes into being
and why it perishes and why it exists;
and I often changed myself topsy-turvy
considering first such things:
do heat and cold take some putrefaction, as some argued,
and then living things grow together;
and is it the blood by which we think,
or the air or fire, or none of these,
and is the brain what provides the sensations
of hearing and seeing and smelling,
and out of these does memory and opinion come,
and out of memory and opinion received
does knowledge according to these become stable?
And considering the ruin of these things,
and the state of heaven and earth,
until finally it seemed to be unnatural for me
to consider this matter at all.
"But when I heard someone reading out of a book,
as he said, of Anaxagoras, and arguing that
it is the mind which sets in order and causes everything,
I was pleased by this cause
and it seemed to me good to have some way
for the mind to be the cause of everything,
and I thought, if this is so,
the mind in ordering orders everything
and puts each thing itself how it is best to have it;
so if anyone wishes to discover the cause of each,
how it is generated or perishes or exists,
one must discover about it,
how it is best for it either to be
or to experience anything whatsoever or to do.
And then out of this argument nothing else is fitting
for a person to consider concerning both it and others,
but the virtue and the best.
And it is necessary to know this and the worst;
for the knowledge about them is the same.
"Contemplating these things I was glad to think
I had discovered a teacher of the causes of reality
according to my mind in Anaxagoras,
and to me would be shown first
whether the earth is flat or round,
and when shown, he would explain the cause and necessity,
arguing the better and why it was better for her to be such;
and if he said she was in the center,
he would explain how it was better
for her to be in the center;
and if these things would be proved,
I was prepared to yearn no longer
for any other kind of cause.
"And I was prepared also thus about the sun,
learning in like manner about both the moon
and the other stars,
the speed toward each other and courses
and the other phenomena,
how it is better for each of them
both to do and undergo what is undergone.
"For I never thought that,
having said they were ordered by mind,
any other cause would be offered for them
than that it is best to have them so as they are;
so having given a cause to each and to all in common
I was thinking it was being explained
what was best for each and good for all in common;
and I would not give up these hopes for a great deal,
but taking the books very seriously
I read them as quickly as I could in order to know
as quickly as possible the best and the worst.
"So from this wonderful hope, friend, I was swept away,
when advancing in reading
I saw the man made no use of the mind
nor did he charge any causes in the ordering of things,
but air and ether and water
and many other oddities were charged.
"And it seemed to me it was most like experiencing as if
someone said that Socrates does everything he does by mind,
and when attempting to explain the causes of each thing I do,
should say first that because of these things
I am now sitting here:
my body being composed out of bones and muscles,
and the bones are hard
and have joints separating them from each other,
and the muscles can be contracted and relaxed,
surrounding the bones with the flesh
and skin which contains them;
so raising the bones in their sockets
loosening and tightening the muscles
makes possible the bending which is now my care,
and because of this cause
I am sitting here in a bent position;
and concerning the discussion with you
he would argue other causes
such as voice and air and hearing and many other such causes,
neglecting to say the true causes that,
since it seemed to the Athenians it was best to condemn me,
and so because of these things
it seemed to me best to sit here,
and more right staying to undergo
whatever judgment they order;
since by the dog,
I fancy long ago these muscles and bones
would have been either around Megara or Boeotia,
carried by an opinion of the best,
if I did not think it was more just and beautiful
before fleeing and escaping
to undergo the judgment which the city may impose.
"But to call such things causes is very odd;
and if anyone should say that without having such things
as bones and muscles and other things I have,
I could not have done what seemed to me best,
one would be saying the truth;
yet to say because of these things I do what I do
and I do these by mind,
but not from choosing what is best,
would be a far-fetched and rash way of speaking.
For the discussion is unable to distinguish that
the cause is in reality something else,
and the other is that without which
the cause could never be a cause;
so it appears to me many are groping as in the dark,
attaching a false name to a stranger,
when they address a cause this way.
"And so someone by putting a whirlwind around the earth
makes the earth remain below heaven,
and another as a flat trough
supported on a foundation of air;
but of the power which is able now to establish these
placing them as is best,
they neither seek this
nor do they think it has any divine force,
but they believe they can discover an Atlas
stronger and more immortal and all-embracing than this,
and in truth they do not think at all of the good
which must both unite and embrace.
"Therefore of such causes
I would like to become a student
wherever, whenever, from anyone;
but since I was deprived of this and did not find it
nor was I able to learn it from another,
about the second voyage seeking for the cause
which I conducted,
do you wish me," he asked, "to add what I did, Cebes?"
"I do wish it enormously," he said.22
And so began the Socratic quest for knowledge of the good.
Not having found a teacher who could satisfy him, Socrates decided
to develop his own methods of searching into the good based on
this underlying intuition that all things have a divine or intelligent
cause directed toward what is best.
In Plato's Defense of Socrates Socrates stated to the jury that he was never anyone's teacher, that he never demanded payment before he would converse with anyone, and that his discussions were open to anyone who cared to listen.23 In this speech he explained another event which led him into a quest for wisdom. His friend from youth, Chaerephon, went to the Delphic oracle asking if there was anyone who was wiser than Socrates, and the Pythian priestess responded that there was not. Since Socrates was not aware of any real wisdom within himself, he decided to see if he could find someone else who was wise. Therefore he went to those who claimed they were wise - politicians, poets, artisans, and others. This was Socrates' interpretation of his mission commanded by the oracle of the god Apollo. However, after questioning and cross-examining these people, Socrates discovered they were not really wise after all. Because he was not able to find the wisdom he was seeking and because he considered this task more important than anything else, the pursuit of wisdom became Socrates' full-time job for the rest of his life.
Therefore I am still even now going around
searching and inquiring according to the god,
of both citizens and strangers, who I think are wise;
and when one seems to me not so,
aiding the god I point out that they are not wise.
And because of this occupation
there is no leisure worth mentioning for me
to attend to the business of the city nor of the household,
but I am in extensive poverty on account of serving the god.24
Later in the same speech Socrates offered his poverty as evidence
that he never was paid for teaching anyone.25
In Xenophon's Oikonomikos we find Socrates searching for someone good and noble (beautiful), the combination of which is often translated as a "gentleman."
It took me quite a little time to visit
our good builders, good smiths, good painters, good sculptors,
and other people of the kind,
and to inspect those of their works that are declared to be beautiful;
but I felt a desire to meet one of those
who are called by that grand name "gentleman,"
which implies "beautiful" as well as "good,"
in order to consider what they did to deserve it.
And, first, because the epithet "beautiful" is added to "good,"
I went up to every person I noticed,
and tried to discover whether I could anywhere see
goodness in combination with beauty.
But after all, it was not so:
I thought I discovered that some who were beautiful to look at
were thoroughly depraved in their minds.
So I decided to let good looks alone,
and to seek out someone known as "a gentleman."26
Here is a similar kind of quest to the one described in Plato,
only in different terms typical of their perspectives - one from
the philosopher and the other from a simple moralist and country
Diogenes Laertius cited Aristoxenus as his reference for the information that Socrates had made money, invested it, and collected the interest.27 Also Plutarch in his life of Aristides referred skeptically to Demetrius' statement that Socrates invested seventy minas with Crito. This is not necessarily contradictory, as Socrates could have made some money as a stone-cutter when younger and then lived minimally on the interest as he pursued his quest. Diogenes cited two sources that said that Socrates and his pupil Aeschines were the first to teach rhetoric.28 This seems misleading since Gorgias was well-known for giving instruction in rhetoric during Socrates' lifetime, and although Socrates discussed rhetoric it was not as though he gave classes in it. It is likely that Aeschines taught rhetoric, perhaps later on. Diogenes also related that Socrates may have collaborated with the tragedian Euripides on his plays.29 This is highly speculative; but they were contemporaries, and it is not impossible that Socrates' conversation might have stimulated a few ideas for Euripides.
In 423 BC Aristophanes' comedy The Clouds was produced at the Great Dionysia, and it was awarded third place out of three plays entered. The play was revised before it was published a few years later.30 The main character Socrates worships clouds and other scientific phenomena rather than the gods while running a "think-shop" for those who would learn the "unjust logic." If he was not already well-known in Athens, it certainly would have made him famous, as virtually all the citizens attended the theater. In Plato's Defense of Socrates, Socrates was shown 24 years later attempting to set straight the record in regard to the satirical misrepresentations of him still current in Athenians' minds from this play.31 Although the jests were made in fun (as there is no sign of animosity between Socrates and Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium), they eventually turned to tragedy when many Athenians took them seriously.
Apparently Socrates spent almost his whole life in Athens. He once said it was because he loved to learn from people, and they were more easily found in the city than in the country.32 The only generally accepted travels of Socrates were on military expeditions. According to Plato, Socrates fought in a severe battle at Potidaea,33 was praised for his courage in the retreat from Delium by the general, Laches,34 and in his trial stated that he obeyed his commanders at Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium.35 In Plato's Symposium Alcibiades described how Socrates was determined to fight off any foes as he and Laches retreated with the other Athenians at Delium. Alcibiades also told how Socrates saved his life and his weapons when he was wounded at Potidaea and then encouraged the generals to give the prize of valor to the officer Alcibiades rather than himself.36
Socrates ventured into political life as little as possible because he considered it too dangerous for a lover of truth and justice. If he opposed injustice and illegality publicly he might have been put to death much sooner; therefore he chose to fight for right as a private citizen.37 However, when his tribe was serving as Prytanes, it became his duty as president to take the votes, and he was laughed at because he did not know how to do it.38 While Socrates was in this position, the Athenian Senate wanted to try together the naval commanders who had not buried the dead after their victory at Arginusae. This was clearly illegal to group them together, not allow them time to prepare their defense, and because the popular assembly was not a court and had no right to condemn to death. In spite of popular opinion at the time, Socrates flatly refused to be a party to the illegality as is attested to by Xenophon in his history Hellenica39 and his Memoirs of Socrates40 and by Plato in his Defense of Socrates.41 Six men were condemned and executed, though the illegality was generally recognized afterwards.42 This was during the democracy.
When the oligarchy of the Thirty took over at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, Socrates was summoned and ordered with four other men to bring in Leon from Salamis to be executed. Although Socrates has been criticized for having friends and students in this government, he refused to be implicated in their crimes and ignored the order, going straight home. He might have died for it, but this government was soon after thrown out of power.43
Finally in 399 BC Socrates was brought to trial and accused by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon with the following charge: "Socrates is guilty of not believing in the gods in which the state believes, but brings in other new divinities; he also wrongs by corrupting the youth."44 In Plato's Defense of Socrates, Meletus was said to represent the poets, Anytus the artisans and politicians, and Lycon the orators.45 Diogenes Laertius indicated that Lysias wrote a speech of defense for Socrates, but he rejected it as not suited to him.46 Xenophon recounted attempts by Hermogenes to get Socrates to prepare his speech to the jury ahead. Socrates replied that his entire life had been occupied with questions of right and wrong, and this was the best preparation. When Hermogenes pressed the point that juries are often misled by arguments and condemn innocent men, Socrates said that whenever he started to think out his defense, his divine sign prevented him.47 Diogenes Laertius related a doubtful story that Plato ascended the platform and began to address the court in spite of his youth, but that they shouted for him to sit down.48
Socrates gave a spontaneous speech relying on reason and explaining why he did not choose to bring in his wife and children to plead for him as was customary.49 There were 501 men on the jury, and he was condemned by a majority of sixty votes. The prosecutors proposed the death penalty, and Socrates had the opportunity to offer an alternative. Not believing he had committed any wrong, Socrates first suggested free meals for himself at public expense. This was naturally unpopular with a jury which had just condemned him. He ruled out exile and imprisonment as unfitting for him, and finally he suggested a minimal fine of one mina. However, his friends Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Aristobulus told him they would pay 30 minas for him.51 Socrates had offered the equivalent of a few dollars, and his friends had made it several hundred dollars. However, the jury had become more antagonized, and the vote against him was greater than it had been before by eighty changed votes.52 According to Xenophon the death penalty was illegal except in proved cases of thievery, kidnapping, and temple-robbing.53
Socrates was placed in prison, but his execution was delayed on account of the sacred holidays when a ship was sent to Delos every year to commemorate the heroic adventure of Theseus when he went to Crete with the fourteen youths and maidens, saving them and himself and ending the Athenians' tribute to King Minos and the Minotaur. No executions could take place until the ship returned, and it was delayed several days by contrary winds.54 This gave his friends the chance to visit Socrates each day and converse with him. He also passed his time composing verses based on Aesop's fables, for he had had dreams urging him to work on making music.55
On the last day of his life his chains were removed, and he was visited by his wife Xanthippe and his little boy in her arms as well as by his friends in philosophy.56 Plato described the events in detail in his Phaedo. When the guard suggested that excessive talking and excitement might hinder the effect of the poison, Socrates refused to stop talking and declared that he would drink it twice or three times if necessary.57 As sunset approached, Socrates went to bathe in order to save the women the trouble of bathing the corpse. When Crito asked how they should bury him, Socrates replied he would have to catch him first, meaning the soul, but that they might bury the body in the way they felt was appropriate. After bathing, he said goodbye to his wife and three sons. Not allowing any delay of the correct procedure, Socrates followed the instructions in drinking the poison and walking around until his legs felt heavy. Then he laid down on his back, covering himself up. He removed the cover for a moment to ask his friend Crito to pay a debt for him to Aesculapius, the god of healing. He covered his body again, and a moment later he died.58
1. Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers II,
2. Plato Defense of Socrates 17.
3. P. Euthyphro 11.
4. Diogenes Laertius II, 19.
5. P. Theaetetus 149.
6. P. Phaedo 60.
7. Diogenes Laertius II, 26.
8. Plutarch Moralia 589.
9. Diogenes Laertius II, 20.
10. Ibid. II, 22.
11. P. Parmenides 127.
12. P. Theaetetus 183.
13. P. Sophist 217.
14. P. Meno 96.
15. P. Cratylus 384.
16. P. Symposium 201.
17. P. Menexenus 235-236.
18. Diogenes Laertius II, 19.
19. Ibid. II, 16.
20. Ibid. II, 23.
21. P. Cratylus 413.
22. P. Phaedo 96-99 (46-47).
23. P. Defense of Socrates 33.
24. P. Defense of Socrates 23 (9).
25. P. Defense of Socrates 31 (18).
26. Xenophon Oeconomicus VI, 13-17.
27. Diogenes Laertius II, 20.
28. Ibid. II, 20.
29. Ibid. II, 18.
30. Aristophanes Introduction by Rogers, B. Vol. I, p. 262.
31. P. Defense of Socrates 19.
32. P. Phaedrus 230.
33. P. Charmides 153.
34. P. Laches 181.
35. P. Defense of Socrates 28.
36. P. Symposium 220-221.
37. P. Defense of Socrates 31-32.
38. P. Gorgias 473-474.
39. Xenophon Hellenica I, vii, 15.
40. X. Memoirs of Socrates I, I, 18; IV, iv, 2.
41. P. Defense of Socrates 32.
43. Ibid. and P. Seventh Letter 324-325.
44. X. Mem. I, I, 1, and P. Defense of Socrates 24.
45. P. Defense of Socrates 23.
46. Diogenes Laertius II, 40-41.
47. X. Mem. IV, viii, 4-5.
48. Diogenes Laertius II, 41.
49. P. Defense of Socrates 34-35.
50. Ibid. 36.
51. Ibid. 36-38.
52. Diogenes Laertius II, 42.
53. X. Mem. I, ii, 62.
54. P. Phaedo 58.
55. P. Phaedo 60.
57. Ibid. 63
58. Ibid. 115-116.
This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.
Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato