Beck Index
Confucius and Socrates Contents


Manner and Attitudes

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Love of Friendship
Desire to Learn
Ironic Modesty
Religious Beliefs
Devotion to Truth
Attitude toward Death


Socrates was known for his particular style of life and attitudes almost as much as for his method of questioning and his ideas. His poverty and simple life have led many to associate this life-style with philosophy. Certainly there have been others inclined toward philosophy who have reduced the physical trappings of their lives; yet among the Greeks no one stands out for living this way before Socrates. It is natural that philosophers being more concerned with the soul and intangibles should care less about money-making. Aristotle tells us how Thales was criticized for his poverty, indicating that philosophy was of no use. However, Thales used astrology to foretell a large olive crop and proceeded to corner the market on olive-presses, becoming quite wealthy when the harvest came in.1 Many of the sophists lived in grand style off the fees they gained from giving lessons. Yet Socrates accepted no payment and was looked upon as being quite poor. We have noted how in his trial he suggested that he be maintained at public expense owing to his service to the citizens and personal poverty. There he stated that he neglected money-making and property which most men care for, because he thought he was too honorable to waste his time in these useless pursuits when he could be conferring the greatest benefit on individual citizens - the encouragement toward wisdom and goodness.2

Xenophon informs us that Socrates' entire property and possessions might sell for about five minas; yet Socrates felt himself to be rich since he was not in need of more money, while Critobulus who owned material goods worth a hundred times as much would need even three times what he already had to satisfy his wants and keep up his style of life.3 In the Memoirs of Socrates Xenophon recalls a conversation which he felt he must record. The sophist Antiphon pointed out to Socrates that the fruits he was reaping from philosophy were all kinds of unhappiness - the poorest food and drink, a poor cloak used summer and winter, and no shoes or coat. All this was because he refused to take money which was a joy itself, making one more independent and happier. According to Antiphon, teachers attempt to make their students imitate them, and therefore Socrates must be a teacher of unhappiness. Socrates responded as follows:

Antiphon, you seem to have a notion that my life is so miserable, that I feel sure you would choose death in preference to a life like mine. Come then, let us consider together what hardship you have noticed in my life. Is it that those who take money are bound to carry out the work for which they get a fee, while I, because I refuse to take it, am not obliged to talk with anyone against my will? Or do you think my food poor because it is less wholesome than yours or less nourishing? or because my viands are harder to get than yours, being scarcer and more expensive? or because your diet is more enjoyable than mine? Do you not know that the greater the enjoyment of eating the less the need of sauce; the greater the enjoyment of drinking, the less the desire for drinks that are not available? As for cloaks, they are changed, as you know, on account of cold or heat. And shoes are worn as a protection to the feet against pain and inconvenience in walking. Now did you ever know me to stay indoors more than others on account of the cold, or to fight with any man for the shade because of the heat, or to be prevented from walking anywhere by sore feet? Do you not know that by training, a puny weakling comes to be better at any form of exercise he practices, and gets more staying power, than the muscular prodigy who neglects to train? Seeing then that I am always training my body to answer any and every call on its powers, do you not think that I can stand every strain better than you can without training? For avoiding slavery to the belly or to sleep and lust, is there, think you, any more effective remedy than the possession of other and greater pleasures, which are delightful not only to enjoy, but also because they arouse hopes of lasting benefit? And again, you surely know that while he who supposes that nothing goes well with him is unhappy, he who believes that he is successful in farming or a shipping concern or any other business he is engaged in is happy in the thought of his prosperity. Do you think then that out of all this thinking there comes anything so pleasant as the thought: 'I am growing in goodness, and I am making better friends?' And that, I may say, is my constant belief.

Further, if help is wanted by friends or city, which of the two has more leisure to supply their needs, he who lives as I am living or he whose life you call happy? Which will find soldiering the easier task, he who cannot exist without expensive food or he who is content with what he can get? Which when besieged will surrender first, he who wants what is very hard to come by or he who can make shift with whatever is at hand?

You seem, Antiphon, to imagine that happiness consists in luxury and extravagance. But my belief is that to have no wants is divine; to have as few as possible comes next to the divine; as that which is divine is supreme, so that which approaches nearest to its nature is nearest to the supreme.4

Socrates' manner of living is referred to in numerous places. In Aristophanes' The Clouds Socrates and Chaerephon are referred to as "barefoot vagabonds."5 Phaedrus says that Socrates is always barefoot,6 but in Plato's Symposium Socrates is especially dressed up for the banquet as he is wearing sandals which is commented upon as being unusual.7 Xenophon writes that Socrates was always in the open, going early in the morning to the public walks and training-grounds (gymnasia), spending mid-day in the market-place, and the remainder of the day wherever the most people were to be met; he was usually talking, and anyone could listen.8

According to Diogenes Laertius, Socrates declined Charmides' offer to give him some slaves from which he might gain some income.9 In fact Socrates induced Alcibiades or Crito with their friends to ransom Phaedo from slavery after he had been captured during the fall of Elis and forced into a house of ill-fame.10 Diogenes also records how Alcibiades tried to give Socrates a large site where he could build a house, but he replied, "Suppose, then, I wanted shoes and you offered me a whole hide to make a pair, would it not be ridiculous for me to take it?" And when he saw the multitude of wares for sale he used to say to himself, "How many things I can do without!" Also Diogenes writes that his way of life was so well-disciplined that several times when disease broke out in Athens he was the only man not to become infected.11 Although he never accepted money, in Diogenes' life of Aristippus, one of the Socratics who did receive pay, Aristippus says, "Socrates, too, when certain people sent him corn and wine, use to take a little and return all the rest."12


In Xenophon's Defense of Socrates Socrates also refers to the pronouncement of the oracle of Apollo, and asks the jury if they know of any man who is less of a slave to his bodily appetites than he is. He declares that he does not accept money nor gifts though they are often offered to him eagerly, and that when Athens was under siege by the Spartans' blockade and others were bemoaning their fate, he got along without feeling any more deprivation than when the city was highly prosperous. The reason he gives is that he has devised more pleasurable experiences from the resources of his soul without spending money than could ever be found in expensive delicacies from the market.13

Xenophon describes Socrates' method of disciplining his appetites.

He schooled his body and soul by following a system which, in all human calculation, would give him a life of confidence and security, and would make it easy to meet his expenses. For he was so frugal that it is hardly possible to imagine a man doing so little work as not to earn enough to satisfy the needs of Socrates. He ate just sufficient food to make eating a pleasure, and he was so ready for his food that he found appetite the best sauce; any kind of drink he found pleasant, because he drank only when he was thirsty. Whenever he accepted an invitation to dinner, he resisted without difficulty the common temptation to exceed the limit of satiety; he advised those who could not do likewise to avoid appetizers that encouraged them to eat and drink what they did not want: for such trash was the ruin of stomach and brain and soul.14

In carnal matters Xenophon writes that "he had trained himself to avoid the fairest and most attractive more easily than others avoid the ugliest and most repulsive."15

In Plato's Symposium Socrates attends a banquet and does not appear to care whether the others eat or drink excessively. In fact Eryximachus excludes Socrates from the decision as to whether they shall drink or not for the reason that he is able to drink or abstain with equanimity.16 Having drunk the night before, they decide not to drink, but when Alcibiades arrives already drunk, he gets a drinking party started. He downs a half-gallon vessel of wine and orders the attendant to fix the same for Socrates. (The Greeks mixed water with their wine.) Alcibiades observes that his little scheme will have no effect on Socrates since he can drink any quantity of wine without getting the least bit drunk, and Socrates empties the goblet.17 Later some revelers broke in, and everyone drank large amounts of wine. By morning everyone had either left or passed out drunk except Aristophanes, Agathon, and Socrates who were still passing around a large goblet of wine as Socrates was contending that the genius of tragedy and comedy are the same and that the true artist could write both. The famous comedy-writer and prize-winning tragedian drowsily assented and then dropped off to sleep. Socrates tucked them in, got up, took a bath, and spent his day as usual before retiring to his home in the evening.18

Alcibiades also described Socrates' ability to endure fatigue as when they were together on the expedition to Potidaea.

His endurance was simply marvelous when being cut off from our supplies, we were compelled to go without food - on such occasions, which often happen in time of war, he was superior not only to me but to everybody; there was no one to be compared to him. Yet at a festival he was the only person who had any real powers of enjoyment; though not willing to drink, he could if compelled beat us all at that and most wonderful of all, no human being has ever seen Socrates drunk. That, if I am not mistaken, will be tested before long. His fortitude in enduring cold was surprising. There was a severe frost, for the winter in that region is really tremendous, and everybody else either remained indoors, or if they went out had on an amazing quantity of clothes, and were well shod, and had their feet wrapped in felt and fleeces: in the midst of this, Socrates with his bare feet on the ice and in his ordinary dress marched better than the other soldiers who had shoes, and they looked darkly at him because they thought he despised them.19

That Socrates' exceptional temperance came naturally to him due to his constitution is challenged by an anecdote related by Cicero. A physiognomist, Zopyrus, who could discern a man's nature from his physical appearance enumerated several vices to which Socrates would be prone. His companions ridiculed the assertions for they had never seen them in him. However, Socrates himself supported the man's interpretation saying that he did have natural tendency toward the vices named, but that he had cast them out of him with the help of reason.20 Socrates apparently was an outstanding example of self-control and moderate temperament in his personal habits.

His disposition was also well under control as he never seemed to lose his poise and polite manner nor was he ever known to become angry, fearful, or depressed. Crito, when visiting Socrates in prison, comments on how even-tempered Socrates has always been, especially how easily he has accepted his sentence of death. "I have often thought you to be of a happy disposition throughout your whole life, and now seeing your present misfortune I think so more than ever, as you bear it so easily and calmly."21

Diogenes Laertius mentions several anecdotes which illustrate Socrates' imperturbability to quarrels. Socrates often staved off serious fighting by using his sense of humor. When he was told that a certain person spoke ill of him, he replied, "Yes, for he has not learned to speak well." When someone asked if he found another person offensive, he answered, "No, for it takes two to make a quarrel." Neither did the satires of the comic poets bother him, since, he used to say, "If they show our faults they do us good, and if not they do not touch us." The wife of Socrates, Xanthippe, has been recognized as one of the greatest shrews in history, as is indicated by these stories. One time Xanthippe scolded him, and then, probably because she could not make him angry, drenched him with water. Socrates responded, "Did I not say that Xanthippe's thunder would end in rain?" Alcibiades called Xanthippe's temper intolerable. "But I have got used to it," said Socrates, "like the creaky crank of an old well. You do not mind the cackle of geese." "No," replied Alcibiades, "but they furnish me with eggs and goslings." "And Xanthippe," said Socrates, "is the mother of my children." When she ripped the coat off his back in the market-place and his acquaintances urged him to hit back, he said, "Yes, by Zeus, so that while we are sparring each of you may say, 'Good for you, Socrates!' 'Way to go, Xanthippe!'" He said he lived with such a woman just as horsemen are fond of spirited horses and "just as, when they have mastered these, they can easily handle the rest, so I in company with Xanthippe shall learn to adapt myself to the rest of mankind."22

Diogenes cites Demetrius of Byzantium for the information that often, due to his forcefulness in argument, men attacked him with their fists or tore his hair out, that most of the time he was laughed at and despised, and yet he bore all these things patiently. Even when he had been kicked, and someone was surprised at how quietly he took it, Socrates said, "If a donkey had kicked me, should I have taken him to court?"23 As we observe Socrates in conversation, we shall be able to see more examples of how he was able to avoid personal animosity in the arguments.

In Xenophon's Symposium Socrates handles unpleasant criticism and turns the discussion away from personal invective. A Syracusan spitefully asked Socrates if he was the one nick-named the "Thinker," a reference to Aristophanes' satire of his "Think-shop." Socrates asks in turn if it is not better than to be called "Thoughtless." Then the man blames Socrates for thinking on celestial subjects, referring to the current blasphemy concerning natural phenomena for which Anaxagoras was condemned. Socrates asks him if there is anything more celestial than the gods, but the Syracusan accuses him of being concerned with unbeneficial things. Whereupon Socrates banters with him saying that the gods cause rain and light under the heavens and thus are beneficial. (Actually in the Greek the play is on the word meaning "from above.") A little acid creeps in as Socrates says, "If the pun is strained, you are responsible, since you are giving me the business." Then the man asks him to measure the distance between them in flea's feet, a reference to Aristophanes' version of Socrates' geometry. At this point Antisthenes cannot help but commend to Philip that this man resembles one who has a tendency to abuse. Philip agrees, and says there are many such people. Socrates cautions them not to make comparisons lest they become like those who stoop to abuse. Even if they should praise all those who are better than he, it is the same thing, and they certainly should not compare him to those who excel him in villainy. Socrates suggests that they do not compare him to other people at all, for it is better to remain silent on matters that are not proper to discuss. Thus, concludes Xenophon, this unpleasantness was quenched.24 Apparently Socrates did not believe in personal comparisons or fault-finding. However, others at the banquet kept urging Philip to go on with his comparisons, while some opposed. As the clamor increased, Socrates suggested, "Since we all want to talk, would this not be a fine time to join in singing?" He immediately began a song, and they all sang together. After they had finished and other entertainments had been brought in, Socrates began a conversation with the Syracusan without the least bit of resentment.25

Love of Friendship

Socrates expressed his love and friendship in many ways. In the Lysis he declares that all his life he has had an eager desire for friendship more than anything else in the world.26 In the Phaedrus Socrates is made to give an argument against love which he is ashamed of doing, but after his divine sign stopped him from leaving it at that, he gives a speech in praise of love, ending it with a prayer to Love (Eros) in gratitude for the art of love he has been given.27

In Plato's Symposium Socrates plays with quotes from Homer in order to invite Aristodemus to the banquet to which Agathon had in fact been intending to invite him.28 At this banquet we see that Socrates was more inclined to praise than to criticize, as is indicated by the compliments he pays Agathon for the way he handled himself at the performance of his tragedy.29 Later after Socrates has given his speech in praise of love, the only subject he claims to know about, Alcibiades gives a speech in praise of Socrates. At its conclusion Alcibiades accuses Socrates of starting out as someone's lover and then getting them to fall in love with him, as happened with Charmides, Euthydemus, and Alcibiades himself.30 Socrates, however, loved their souls and not their bodies as can be seen not only from Alcibiades' speech in the Symposium31 but also from the Alcibiades dialogue attributed to Plato.32

In concluding his defense of Socrates against the written accusations of Polycrates, Xenophon called Socrates "one of the people and a friend of mankind," and said he "spent his life in lavishing his gifts and rendering the greatest services to all who cared to receive them. For he always made his associates better men before he parted with them."33 This was the expression of an altruistic love. For Socrates, to strive to become a better person and to help others to do so also was not only the best life, but to the person who is aware that he is improving himself the happiest in addition. This quest for goodness enriched the love of friendship among Socrates and his associates.

For they live best, I think, who strive best to become as good as possible: and the pleasantest life is theirs who are conscious that they are growing in goodness. And to this day that has been my experience; mixing with others and closely comparing myself with them, I have held without ceasing to this opinion of myself. And not I only, but my friends cease not to feel thus towards me, not because of their love for me (for why does not love make others feel thus towards their friends?), but because they think that they too would rise highest in goodness by being with me.34

Socrates was able to laugh at himself. In Xenophon's Oikonomikos he refers again to Aristophanes as he describes himself: "I who am supposed to be a mere chatterer with my head in the air, I who am called - the most senseless of all taunts - a poor beggar?"35 He then goes on by an example to show that a horse requires no possessions to be a good horse, and therefore he may yet learn to be a good man.

Desire to Learn

This leads us to perhaps the most dominant attitude of Socrates---his tremendous love of learning. In the Theaetetus Socrates says that he studies geometry, astronomy, harmony, and arithmetic, but there is still a question he must investigate.36 This attitude of learning rather than teaching is essential to the Socratic method of inquiry and is found throughout the dialogues. In Plato's Symposium Socrates relates how he went to Diotima to be taught the mysteries of love, because he was aware of his ignorance.37 In Plato's Euthydemus Socrates decides to take lessons from Euthydemus and his brother, Dionysodorus, the latest experts in the skillful use of argument. However, he is a little afraid that he might embarrass them as he has his harp teacher, Connus, since he is old and still trying to learn.38 When they begin to trick him with verbal sophistry, Socrates attempts to make meaningful distinctions to clarify the argument. However, Euthydemus becomes upset, so Socrates immediately gives up his point and takes again the attitude of the student in order to further the discussion.

Here I perceived he was annoyed with me for distinguishing between the phrases used, when he wanted to entrap me in his verbal snares. So I remembered Connus, how he too is annoyed with me whenever I do not give in to him, with the result that he now takes less trouble over me as being a stupid person. So having decided to take lessons from this new teacher, I thought that I had better give in, lest he should take me for a blockhead and not admit me to his classes. So I said, 'Well, if you think fit, Euthydemus, to proceed thus, we must do so; in any case I suppose you understand debating better than I do, being versed in the method, while I am just a layman. Begin your questions, then, again.'39

In the Republic Thrasymachus describes the wisdom of Socrates as of one who refuses to teach, but goes around learning from others and not even paying them thanks. Socrates' only disagreement with this is that he is grateful; but since he lacks money, he pays in praise instead.40 In the Lesser Hippias Socrates declares that he pays attention when someone is speaking, especially if he seems to be wise, because he desires to learn; therefore he questions him thoroughly and examines and compares what he says.41 Later on in the discussion he again emphasizes his persistence in asking questions, and he prides himself on this one thing alone---that he is not afraid to learn.42

Again, in the Phaedrus Socrates considers himself to be an amateur in the art of speaking, but is forced into making at attempt due to his love of discourse and Phaedrus' threat to withhold future discourse from him.43 So important was learning and discussions to Socrates that he felt he could not live in any other way. He explains this to the jury in Plato's Defense of Socrates from which comes the famous statement: "For man the unexamined life is not living."44 In Xenophon's Defense of Socrates Socrates asks why he should be prosecuted when he is "judged by some to be supreme in what is man's greatest good - education."45

Ironic Modesty

Associated with Socrates' attitude of learning is his attitude of modesty and humility which has been described as Socratic irony. His constant protests that he is not wise or skillful or that he is only an amateur are contrasted to his praise and compliments on the abilities of others. This tension is ironic and humorous especially since the human tendency is to over-estimate the value of oneself while under-estimating others. Perhaps Socrates was working excessively to overcome this tendency within himself; or maybe because most people do think more highly of themselves than others, Socrates' position only seems unnatural and artificial. In the context of his desire to learn, however, the ironic modesty appears to serve a useful purpose, for how can one be open to learn and change and grow by holding too firmly to the previous notions of what one thinks one knows?

In the Euthydemus Socrates gives an example of an argument which exhorts one toward virtue. When it is concluded he apologized for its roughness and length and is ready to hear a better one from Dionysodorus or Euthydemus.46 As the discussion gets going, Socrates uses this modesty to say that he does not understand rather than saying he disagrees. Thus he is open to learn and does not block the discussion process. Likewise, he prefaces his point with disclaimers so that it can be more easily accepted as a mere attempt toward a solution. This is Socrates' ironic manner: "Well, Euthydemus, it is because I do not at all understand these clever devices, even when they are right: I am only a dull sort of thinker. And so I may perhaps be going to say something rather clownish; but you must forgive me."47 Euthydemus and Dionysodorus are attempting to show that there are no false statements. Socrates shows that this means there are no mistakes. After a while they refuse to answer him, but are able to trip up Socrates on the word "intend." Socrates admits his mistake, showing that either mistakes are possible or that they did not just prove him wrong. When Ctesippus praises the brothers for their foolishness, Socrates heads off a quarrel by reminding Ctesippus of the visitors' skill in verbal tricks.48 Regardless of the discussion topic Socrates' manner remains polite and praiseworthy of others.

The listeners were usually aware of the Socratic irony and occasionally commented upon it. In Plato's Symposium Agathon and Socrates compliment each other on their wisdom, each hoping to receive some from the other. After Socrates says that his own wisdom is poor, questionable, and no better than a dream, Agathon says that he is mocking.49 In the Protagoras Socrates praises the eminent sophist of that name for being able to use long speeches and short answer methods, while he admits himself that he is not good at long speeches due to a poor memory. When Protagoras refuses to keep his answers short, Socrates decides to leave; but the others talk him into staying. Alcibiades declares that Socrates would not forget long answers in spite of his ironic way of saying he is forgetful.50

In Plato's Apology, Socrates takes exception to the belief that he is a clever speaker, though he does claim that he will speak only the truth. He asks the jury to pardon him for his ignorance of courtroom speeches and his use of language which is more akin to the market-place.51 Later he says that although he does not teach people and take money for it, he does admire the sophists who do, such as Gorgias, Prodicus, and Hippias.52 However, it is clear from both Plato's and Xenophon's account of Socrates' defense that by appearing to exalt himself Socrates did antagonize the jury.53 Apparently, many felt that his humility was insincere, and they were probably more concerned about his religious beliefs and his claims of a divine mission.

Religious Beliefs

In defending Socrates against the charges of religious heresy, Xenophon states that Socrates openly offered sacrifices constantly in his home and at the state temples; he also was known for using divination.54 In Xenophon's Defense of Socrates Hermogenes reports that Socrates declared to the jury that any of them could have seen him sacrificing at the communal festivals and on the public altars.55 At the opening of Plato's Republic Socrates describes how he and Glaucon went down to the Peiraeus to offer their prayers to the goddess Artemis.56

Xenophon summarized Socrates' attitude towards religion in four points: 1). He obeyed and counseled others to obey the command of the Priestess at Delphi that their duty was to follow the customs of the state. 2). He believed in praying only for good gifts since the gods know best what is good; to pray for a specific thing such as gold or power was like gambling for an uncertain result. 3). Though one's sacrifices may be humble due to poverty, the gods care only for the piety of the giver; otherwise the gods would be showing favor to the unjust rich. 4). He considered the counsel of the gods to be superior to human opinions.57 This is made clear in another passage by Xenophon about how Socrates believed that the gods are concerned with human affairs, and, contrary to some people' beliefs, Socrates thought that the gods are omniscient of all man's words, actions, and secret purposes, that they are omnipresent, and that they give signs to men of all that concerns them.58

Near the beginning of Plato's Defense of Socrates, Socrates expresses his doubts as to the outcome of the trial, but he asks only that it may be as it pleases God, for the law must be obeyed.59 Both Xenophon and Plato refer to the Delphic oracle's pronouncement concerning Socrates in reply to the question from Chaerephon. In Xenophon's account, "Apollo answered that no man was more free than I, or more just, or more prudent."60 Plato gives us greater detail of how Socrates interpreted the oracle's response as his divine mission, as we have discussed in the previous chapter. Socrates goes on to say that even if the court agreed to let him go, he could not give up his mission of stimulating others toward wisdom and exhorting them toward virtue and care of the soul. No, he would rather die than disobey God, for he believed that God had made him a gift to the city and that no greater good had ever happened to them than his service to God. He would not change his way even if he had to die many times.61 Apparently Socrates' conviction in his divine mission was unshakable. Even though he was facing death, Socrates was not afraid. He believed that "no evil can come to a good man either in life or after death, since God does not neglect him."62

Socrates believed that God was guiding him and that occasionally he was inspired by the divine presence. At the end of Plato's Crito, Socrates suggests that they accept the results of the argument since that is the way God leads, and the sound as of flutes echoes within him, not allowing him to hear any other reason.63 In the Phaedrus Socrates feels himself to be inspired by the divine presence of the place, granting him an exceptional eloquence.64 Socrates also recognized that whatever abilities he had were given to him by God. In the Theaetetus he asserts that both he and his mother received the art of midwifery from God.65

The most unique aspect of Socrates' religious experience was his personal guiding spirit or divine sign (daimon or daimonion). In the Republic Socrates assumes that few or none have experienced the divine sign as in his case.66 Both Xenophon and Plato recorded an explanation of this phenomenon in defending Socrates against the charges of impiety. For Xenophon it was a form of divination like omens, oracles, coincidences, and sacrifices. He writes that Socrates declared that this deity gave him signs. "Many of his companions were counseled by him to do this or not to do that in accordance with the warnings of the deity: and those who followed his advice prospered, and those who rejected it had cause for regret."67 Xenophon goes on to say that he would have appeared as a fool if he did not have absolute confidence that these messages came from a god. Xenophon also recorded that the divine sign interrupted Socrates twice when he began to think out his defense; therefore he decided to make no preparations.68 In Xenophon's account of the courtroom speech, Socrates describes "this divinity" as a voice similar to the cries of birds, the thunder clap, and the voice of the Delphic priestess. Socrates considers his calling it "this divine thing" more truthful and holy than ascribing the gods' power to birds. He offers as evidence the many counsels he has revealed to his friends which have been given to him by God, and in not one case has the event shown that he was mistaken.69

In Plato's Defense of Socrates Socrates mentions that it was the divine sign which warned him against going into politics. It is this divine and spiritual thing which Meletus was ridiculing in the indictment. Socrates describes it, "I have had this from my childhood; it is a sort of voice that comes to me, and when it comes it always holds me back from what I am thinking of doing, but never urges me forward."70 At the end of the trial, Socrates consoles those who voted to acquit him by telling them that from that morning when he left his house and came into the court and throughout his speech the divine sign did not oppose him once; therefore the events which occurred are not bad, and death must be a good thing.71

In the Phaedrus after Socrates had given a speech about love which he did not feel right about, he started to leave, but the divinity gave him the sign. He explains what happened to Phaedrus.

My good friend, when I was about to cross the stream, the spirit and the sign that usually comes to me came - it always holds me back from something I am about to do - and I thought I heard a voice from it which forbade my going away before clearing my conscience, as if I had committed some sin against God. Now I am a seer, not a very serious one, but, as the bad writers say, sufficient for my own purposes; so now I understand my error. How prophetic the soul is, my friend! For all along, while I was giving my speech, something bothered me, and 'I was distressed,' as Ibycus says, 'lest I be buying honor among men by sinning against the gods.' But now I have seen my error.72

Socrates goes on to give a speech more praiseworthy of the effects of love.

In the Alcibiades I Socrates approaches Alcibiades telling him that he has avoided talking with him up until then due to the divine sign.73 Now he is ready to be educated with Socrates, who himself also wishes to learn. The only difference between them is that the guardian of Socrates is better and wiser than Pericles, the guardian of Alcibiades, because it is God.74 In the Theaetetus Socrates explains that God has allowed him to be a midwife in delivering the wisdom of others, but not to bring forth wisdom himself. Of those who associate with him, those to whom God is gracious make wonderful progress. The wisdom is within them, but God and Socrates help to deliver it. After a while some go their own way and value images and pretense more than the truth until again it becomes obvious that they are ignorant. When such men return to Socrates and eagerly request to join him again, the spiritual monitor comes to Socrates forbidding him to associate with some of them but allowing him to converse with others who then again make progress.75

In his life of Aristippus, Diogenes Laertius records that Aristippus was the first of the Socratics to charge fees and send money to his teacher. Once he sent twenty minas, but Socrates returned it, saying the divinity would not let him take it. In fact, Diogenes adds, the very offer annoyed him.76

Cicero in his treatise "On Divination" describes actual incidents where Socrates' sign proved to be correct. His friend Crito once went walking where a bent branch of a tree released and struck him in the eye. When Socrates saw him with his eye bandaged later, he explained to Crito that his divine warning had occurred. He had tried to call him back, but Crito had ignored him. Also in the battle of Delium when Socrates was retreating with Laches, his commander, they came to a place where three roads meet. Socrates refused to take the road the others had chosen, and they asked him why. He replied, "The god deters me." Those who went the other way met the enemy's cavalry. Cicero adds that Antipater has gathered numerous cases of the remarkable premonitions received by Socrates; but since they are well known, he felt no need to recount them.77

Plutarch in a dramatic dialogue of the liberation of Thebes in 379 BC includes a discussion by Simmias and others "On the Divine Sign of Socrates," which is the title of the piece. One man held that Socrates had rescued philosophy from the fables and superstition of Pythagoras and the wild exaltation of Empedocles to steady it by relying on sober reasoning in pursuing the truth. However, Theocritus offers the divine sign as evidence that Socrates also used divine inspiration. He cites an incident when Socrates' sign warned some men not to walk down a certain street. They, wishing to prove him wrong, proceeded and met with a drove of swine who in the narrow street covered them with mud, knocking some down. The divine sign is differentiated from superstitious beliefs regarding whether someone sneezes on the right or left. Also the incident at Delium with Laches is mentioned which had been often talked about in Athens.78

Later on Simmias explains how the sign worked for Socrates. He once asked Socrates about it. Socrates said he had no faith in anyone who talked of visual communication, but whenever people said they heard a voice he paid close attention and asked about the details. Simmias goes on to describe a mental apprehension of the soul which often comes while asleep in dreams. He explains that the higher abilities of the soul are usually overwhelmed by emotions and desires so that people do not listen to the messages. However, Socrates' intelligence was pure and free from emotions so that he was sensitive enough to understand the unspoken language of the spirit. His body and his intelligence were so finely tuned that his soul could transmit divine understanding and his mind could consciously receive it. Simmias compares this to man's ability to hear the sounds of speech and convert them into understanding.79

Then Simmias, a Pythagorean, tells the story of Timarchus, a young friend of Socrates' son Lamprocles who died a few days after his friend and by his wish was buried next to Lamprocles. About three months before, Timarchus, after consulting only Cebes and Simmias, descended into the crypt of Trophonius, a dream oracle. He remained there two nights and a day before ascending in the morning with a radiant countenance. Timarchus said that he offered a prayer in the darkness. Then, not sure whether he was awake or dreaming, he heard a crash and felt a blow on his head, releasing his soul. It expanded like a sail as it mingled joyfully with the air. He heard a pleasant whirring sound, and as he looked up, he could not see the earth, but only islands of colors. He experienced many things, and then a voice asked him if he had any questions. He did, and many things about what happens to souls in the other world between death and birth were explained to him. When the voice ceased, he wished to turn to see who it was; but he felt again a sharp pain in his head and found himself back in his body in the crypt. When Timarchus returned and died in the third month as the voice had predicted, Simmias and Cebes told Socrates the story. Socrates criticized them for not telling him about it while Timarchus was still alive, because he would have liked to question Timarchus about it more closely. Part of what was explained by the voice was that the divinities of people can travel around and gain information for the soul, and those who are obedient to their divinity become inspired.80

There were also other ways in which Socrates claimed to receive messages from God. In Plato's Defense of Socrates he explains that he goes around examining people who claim to be wise because he has been "commanded to do this by God through oracles and dreams and in every way in which any man was ever commanded by divine providence to do anything whatsoever."81 In his life of Alcibiades Plutarch tells how Socrates and an astrologer prophesied the ill fate of the famous Sicilian expedition, Socrates by the intervention of his divine sign and the other by rational consideration or divination.82 At the beginning of the Theaetetus Euclides recalls how Socrates had predicted that the young Theaetetus would become a notable man if he lived. He felt this was prophetic since now Theaetetus had shown himself to be noble and courageous in battle and was in danger of dying due to his wounds.83

In Plato's Symposium Socrates stopped on the way to the banquet in a fit of abstraction. He suggested that his companion go on. When a servant was sent after him, he found him immobile. Socrates did not respond to his calls.84 In the same dialogue Alcibiades describes how Socrates entered into a fit of abstraction on one of their expeditions. It started in the morning as he was thinking about something which he could not resolve. He would not give up but continued pondering until noon. People began to notice and talk about how Socrates had been fixed in thought since dawn. By evening some curious Ionians brought out their mats to sleep in the open air, for it was summer, so that they might watch to see if he would stand there all night. There he stood until it became light. As the sun rose he offered a prayer to the sun and walked away.85 It is plain that Socrates had tremendous powers of endurance and also that he spent considerable time meditating within himself.

Socrates also paid attention to the messages in his dreams. In a discussion with Protarchus in the Philebus, Socrates is asked if he is able and willing to distinguish pleasure and knowledge. This asking for his willingness relieves Socrates of fear, and he recollects something from the gods. He remembers having heard long before in a dream, or perhaps when awake, a discussion about pleasure and wisdom.86 This indicates that some of the ideas that came to Socrates during conversations may have come from these types of inspiration.

In the Crito Socrates shares a dream he had just had before he awakened to find his friend sitting next to him. Crito has told him that the ship from Delos is expected that day, and therefore Socrates must die on the next day. However, Socrates doubts that it will arrive that day, because the dream indicated he would depart on the third day. "I dreamed that a beautiful, fair woman, clothed in white raiment, came to me and called me and said, 'Socrates, on the third day you will come to fertile Phthia.'"87

In prison on the last day of his life, Socrates (in the Phaedo) explains to his friends why he has at this point in his life taken to composing hymns and verses. He says that he often had dreams telling him to work at making music. For most of his life he interpreted these to mean philosophy, but in the last few days he decided he had better work on what is usually meant by music and poetry, so concerned was he that he obey the message of the dreams.88

Devotion to Truth

According to Xenophon, Socrates thought it was irrational to believe that all matters are within the grasp of the human mind without divine aid.

But it is no less irrational to seek the guidance of heaven in matters which men are permitted by the gods to decide for themselves by study: to ask, for instance, Is it better to get an experienced coachman to drive my carriage or a man without experience? Is it better to get an experienced seaman to steer my ship or a man without experience? So too with what we may know by arithmetic, measurement or weighing. To put such questions to the gods seemed to his mind profane. In short, what the gods have granted us to do by help of learning, we must learn; what is hidden from mortals we should try to find out from the gods by divination: for to him who is in their grace the gods grant a sign.89

Since Socrates believed that people can know and use their wisdom, he criticized the public policy of electing public officials by lot. He reasoned that no one selected a pilot or builder or musician in this way, and certainly mistakes in statecraft could be as dangerous as mistakes in other crafts. Although he was accused of subverting the laws of the state by his criticism, Socrates still held selection by wisdom and persuasion were less likely to lead to violence while producing better results.90

Socrates was searching for the truth, and popular opinion or many false witnesses meant nothing to him if he did not think they were right.91 In the Gorgias Socrates affirms that he loves the truth and philosophy most of all, and that he preferred that "the whole world should be at odds with me, and oppose me, rather than that I myself should be at odds with myself, and contradict myself."92 In the Crito Socrates reasons with his friend as to whether it would be best for him to escape from prison. Socrates first states that he is one who must be guided by reason. He then reasons that he ought to follow the opinion of the wise rather than that of the ignorant many. Socrates also holds that it is not merely life that is valuable, but the good life. Therefore, he should not do what he knows is evil even in return for evil. Consequently Socrates decided not to try to escape from prison.93

Socrates generally had a positive attitude and was inclined to think the best of anyone, at least until he had examined them. In Plato's Euthyphro Socrates discusses with this man the charges Meletus has brought against him. Socrates assumes, or at least ironically states, that Meletus must be a wise man if he knows who corrupts the youth and how. Socrates praises him for taking special care of the young as they are usually in most need of help; he hopes that Meletus will bring many blessings to the state.94

However, Socrates was aware of the prejudices against him, and he tells Euthyphro that they are jealousies aimed at any man who tries to impart his cleverness to others. Socrates says he shares himself with others because of his love for men.95

In Plato's Defense of Socrates Socrates delineates in more detail the prejudices against him. He attempts to change them, although he is aware of the difficulty of such a task in the amount of time allowed. He chooses to respond to these long-held prejudices before discussing the official indictment itself. These consist of the usual objection to sophists and scientific speculators such as Anaxagoras who "search into what is in heaven and under the earth," who can "make the worse argument appear better," and who also teaches these things to others. He has gotten this reputation and image in the public's mind due to the comedy of Aristophanes. There is also the false report he receives money like the sophists. What has Socrates really done to cause these prejudices to arise? He explains it is on account of a certain wisdom he has which was proclaimed by the Delphic oracle. In searching for a man wiser than himself he examined and revealed to many men who claimed to be wise that they were not truly wise. These included politicians, poets, craftsmen, and others. The result was that they hated him for showing up their conceit and pretense of knowledge. Also the young men who listened to Socrates went on to examine other pretenders, and they, instead of becoming angry at these men, blamed Socrates for misleading the youth. Finally he points out that the enmity towards him present in the courtroom is a proof that he is speaking the truth.96 After refuting Meletus' formal charges, he concludes that it is this enmity which will condemn him, and in all probability other good men as well.97

Again, preferring the wise and good life to mere survival, Socrates rejected imprisonment and exile when he was asked to choose an alternative to the death penalty.98 After being condemned to death, Socrates spoke to those who voted against him saying that he had no regrets about the way he conducted his defense. He warned them that they cannot run away from their own injustice, and he prophesied to them that far heavier punishments will fall on them. Killing him would not stop the young from accusing them. Their best way of escape would be to improve themselves.99 Xenophon also shows Socrates as unperturbed by his own fate but concerned about the perjury of his condemners.100

Attitude toward Death

Xenophon declares that there was no record of death being so nobly borne as in the case of Socrates.101 He adds that Socrates felt he would be spared the burdens of old age such as becoming blind, deaf, and duller in learning and remembering. Also by dying then he would be remembered more by posterity.102 Xenophon agreed with Plato that Socrates refused to set an alternative punishment, because it would imply that he thought he was guilty.103

In facing death Xenophon describes Socrates as "blithe in glance, in manner, in gait." In fact he consoled those who were weeping in anticipation of his loss. The devoted Apollodorus cried out, "But Socrates, what I find hardest to bear is that I see you being put to death unjustly!" Socrates, stroking his head, replied, "My beloved Apollodorus, would you rather see me put to death justly?" and he smiled. Xenophon relates that Socrates did not weaken in the presence of death, but was cheerful not only in the expectation but in meeting death as well.105

Diogenes Laertius records another incident involving Apollodorus. He offered Socrates a beautiful garment to die in, but he replied, "What, is my own good enough to live in but not to die in?" When someone told him that he was condemned by the Athenians to die, Socrates, or perhaps it was Anaxagoras, answered, "So are they, by nature."106

In Plato's work, Phaedo describes the mood of Socrates' friends on the last day of his life. Phaedo felt a mixture of pleasure and pain as he enjoyed the philosophical discussion but reflected upon Socrates' imminent death. "This double feeling was shared by us all; we were laughing and weeping by turns, especially the excitable Apollodorus."107 Socrates calmly answers their questions about the soul, its separation from the body at death, and its immortality. He even describes the experiences of the soul after its release from the body. Socrates appears to be looking forward to his going to the "joys of the blessed," as he reprimands Crito for identifying him with a dead body. After bathing, he said goodby to his children and the women of his family. Then he sent them out to avoid their outcries as he was dying. When he took the poison, most of his friends were flowing tears, and Apollodorus let out an emotional cry which affected them all. Only Socrates was able to remain calm and bring them back to themselves. In that calmness he quite peacefully died.108


1. Aristotle Politics 1259a.
2. Plato Apology 36.
3. Xenophon Oeconomicus II, 3-4.
4. X. Memorabilia I, vi, 1-10.
5. Aristophanes The Clouds 103-104.
6. P. Phaedrus 229.
7. P. Symposium 174.
8. X. Mem. I, i, 10.
9. Diogenes Laertius II, 31.
10. Ibid. II, 105.
11. Ibid. II, 24-25.
12. Ibid. II, 74.
13. X. Apology 15-18.
14. X. Mem. I, iii, 5-6.
15. X. Mem. I, iii, 14.
16. P. Symposium 176.
17. Ibid. 213-214.
18. Ibid. 223.
19. Ibid. 220.
20. Cicero Tusculan Disputations IV, xxxvii, 80.
21. P. Crito 43.
22. Diogenes Laertius II, 35-37.
23. Ibid. II, 21.
24. X. Symposium VI, 6-10.
25. Ibid. VII, 1-2.
26. P. Lysis 211-212.
27. P. Phaedrus 257.
28. P. Symposium 174.
29. Ibid. 194.
30. Ibid. 222.
31. Ibid. 216-219.
32. P. Alcibiades I 131.
33. X. Mem. I, ii, 60, 61.
34. X. Mem. IV, viii, 6-7.
35. X. Oeconomicus XI, 3-7.
36. P. Theaetetus 145.
37. P. Symposium 207.
38. P. Euthydemus 272.
39. Ibid. 295.
40. P. Republic I, 338.
41. P. Lesser Hippias 369.
42. Ibid. 372.
43. P. Phaedrus 236.
44. P. Apology 38.
45. X. Apology 21.
46. P. Euthydemus 282.
47. Ibid. 286-287.
48. Ibid. 287-288.
49. P. Symposium 175.
50. P. Protagoras 335-336.
51. P. Apology 17-18.
52. Ibid. 19.
53. X. Apology 32.
54. X. Mem. I, i, 2.
55. X. Apology 11.
56. P. Republic I, 327.
57. X. Mem. I, iii, 1-4.
58. X. Mem. I, I, 19.
59. P. Apology 19.
60. X. Apology 14.
61. P. Apology 28-30.
62. Ibid. 41.
63. P. Crito 54.
64. P. Phaedrus 238.
65. P. Theaetetus 210.
66 P. Republic VI, 496.
67. X. Mem. I, I, 2-5.
68. X. Apology 4.
69. Ibid. 12-13.
70. P. Apology 31.
71. Ibid. 40.
72. P. Phaedrus 242.
73. P. Alcibiades I 105-106.
74. Ibid. 124.
75. P. Theaetetus 150-151.
76. Diogenes Laertius II, 65.
77. Cicero Divination I, liv, 123.
78. Plutarch Moralia 580-582.
79. Ibid. 588-589.
80. Ibid. 589-594.
81. P. Apology 33.
82. Plutarch Alcibiades.
83. P. Theaetetus 142.
84. P. Symposium 174-175.
85. Ibid. 220.
86. P. Philebus 20.
87. P. Crito 44.
88. P. Phaedo 60-61.
89. X. Mem. I, I, 9.
90. X. Mem. I, ii, 9-11.
91. P. Gorgias 472.
92. Ibid. 482.
93. P. Crito 46-49.
94. P. Euthyphro 2-3.
95. Ibid. 3.
96. P. Apology 18-24.
97. Ibid. 28.
98. Ibid. 37.
99. Ibid. 38-39.
100. X. Apology 24-26.
101. X. Mem. IV, viii, 1-3.
102. X. Mem. IV, viii, 8-10; X. Apology 5-9.
103. X. Apology 23.
104. Ibid. 27-28.
105. Ibid. 33.
106. Diogenes Laertius II, 35.
107. P. Phaedo 59.
108. Ibid. 115-118.

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Life of Confucius
Attitudes of Confucius
How Confucius Taught
What Confucius Taught
Example of Confucius
Influence of Confucius


The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Example of Socrates
Influence of Socrates
Confucius and Socrates Compared

Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato

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