Although certainly not the first philosopher, Socrates is the first of the great Greek philosophers. In fact, all of the Greek philosophers before him are often lumped together and called the “Pre-Socratic Philosophers.”
Socrates was an Athenian philosopher. Interestingly, he wrote nothing himself. What we know about Socrates comes mostly from Plato. Some information also comes from the general, Xenophon.
Socrates’ appearance is almost as legendary as his teachings. He was always shabbily dressed, always barefoot, snub-nosed, and pot-bellied.
Physically, Socrates was tough. He served in the heavy infantry of the Athenian army and he was known for his courage. Allegedly, he once went barefoot on a winter military expedition.
Early in his career, Socrates had an interesting thing happen to him. An entranced priestess at the Shrine of Delphi once proclaimed, “None is wiser than Socrates.” Socrates was puzzled at this, but he came to believe he was the wisest person because he realized that his wisdom meant nothing.
Socrates’ death is also famous. At age 70, capital charges were brought against Socrates. He was accused of introducing strange gods and corrupting the Athenian youth. Socrates was convicted and sentenced to death by a slim majority of 501 judges. He was put to death by drinking hemlock.
Socrates made several famous statements:
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”
For the most part, Socrates stayed away from politics. He believed he was called to pursue philosophy. He referred to himself as “gadfly” because like a horsefly on the back of a horse, he tried to sting his fellow Athenians into self-examination. He also opposed the Sophists, a pragmatic group of philosophers who offered their counseling services for a fee.
Unlike the Pre-Socratic philosophers before him, Socrates did not focus on cosmology. He wasn’t interested in what the earth was made of like many of the Pre-Socratic philosophers were. Instead, he focused mostly on ethics and what was right and just. For Socrates, philosophy was a way of life, not just speculation. To him, moral virtue and knowledge were one and the same thing.
Socrates believed that true knowledge came through dialogue and questioning. He was not content to just accept any old argument. For him, unfounded arguments needed to be challenged and uncritical claims to knowledge must be abandoned. In fact, Socrates is known for founding “The Socratic Method” which features a question approach and cross examinationto expose false claims to knowledge.
Socrates is also known for the “Socratic Paradox” which is the view that people sin or do the wrong thing because of lack of knowledge. According to Socrates, if people knew the right thing they would do it because it’s in their best interest. Or put another way, “No one does wrong voluntarily.”
As mentioned, Socrates didn’t write anything himself so his teachings come to us from the pen of Plato. Because of this, there is some question as to how accurate Plato represents what Socrates really said. Some scholars believe that Plato accurately recorded what Socrates said while others believe that Plato used Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. Nevertheless, to some extent, the accounts of Socrates in Plato’s works give us a picture of what Socrates actually believed.
In the work, “Euthyphro,” Plato records a dialog between Socrates and a man named Euthyphro who came to Athens to prosecute his own father. As the account explains, Euthyphro’s father captured a farm-laborer who had killed a servant in a brawl. Euthyphro’s father tied the farm-laborer up and threw him into a ditch where the murderer soon died of exposure to the elements. As a result, Euthyphro wanted to prosecute his father for the death of the farm-laborer who had killed another servant.
The subject of the discussion between Socrates and Euthyphro is the relationship between religion and morality. Euthyphro states that his prosecution of his father is something that will please the gods. Socrates points out that it may not be so easy to determine for sure what the gods actually love.
The most significant thing about the Euthyphro is that it shows Socrates’ method of cross-examination. It’s the Socratic Dialogue in action.
Plato's Apology gives the substance of the defense made by Socrates at his trial. Socrates was condemned to die by the vote of a small majority. When, according to Athenian legal practice, Socrates made an ironic counterproposition to the court's death sentence, proposing only to pay a small fine because of his value to the state as a man with a philosophic mission, the jury was so angered by this offer that it voted by an increased majority for the death penalty.
In Plato’s account of Socrates in the Crito, Socrates is waiting in prison for his execution. Friends meet with Socrates to offer him ways of escape, but he turns all their plans down.
Socrates says that the life worth living is the good life, which includes keeping the law. Fleeing the law, even if wrongly condemned, was not worth it for him.
In Plato’s account of Socrates in the Phaedo, Socrates meets with Phaedo and two others to discuss death and immortality right before Socrates is executed. Socrates states he has no fear of death. For him, a human being is a soul imprisoned in a body. Food, drink, and sex get in the way of the pursuit of knowledge. The philosopher longs for death so he can finally rid his soul of the carnal body. Socrates, thus, believed in the immortality of the soul. He offered three philosophical arguments for doing so:
1. The argument from the opposites —If two things are opposites, each of them comes into being from the other. Death and life are opposites. Thus, if a person dies, then he or she must live again.
2. The argument from recollection —We existed as a non-embodied soul before our physical life actually began. That is why we perceive things like justice and beauty and know them as such. We know these things through our senses so we must have learned them before our physical bodies existed.
3. The argument that the soul is indissoluble – The soul is involved with matters that are unchangeable such as equality, beauty, and justice. Thus, our souls are probably not subject to change, corruption, and death.
Socrates was, indeed, the first of the great philosophers. His life and death paved the way for the next two great Greek philosophers—Plato and Aristotle.