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Socrates
Ancient Greek Philosopher
The Greek Alphabet

Introduction:

Socrates (470-399 BC) was a hugely influential philosopher of ancient Greece. This father of Western thought is most famous for his "Socratic Method". This method, his central philosophy, was to question everything: "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing." Central to his philosophy was the supremacy of logic, where reasoning was touted as being able to surmount anything. What we know of him and his teachings was written by his students, as none of his own writings survived.

Biography:

The little we know of Socrates was chronicled by his followers, primarily Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon. Born in Athens in 469 or 470 BC, Socrates was uneducated and came from a humble background. Yet, he was eager to learn—around 450 BC, when he was a young man, he sought to meet visiting philosophers, including Parmenides and Zeno of Elea. Some sources state that Socrates was a mason before becoming a philosopher and teacher. In any case, he became a celebrated soldier, fighting in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). In 406 BC, he may have also belonged to the boule, part of the citizen government of Athens.

It was only later in life that Socrates focused on philosophy. According to Xenophon, Socrates' wife Xanthippe was not thrilled about this new profession. Philosophy paid little and, on top of that, he was reportedly so involved in his work that he was a less than attentive parent. But it should be remembered that, since all we know about him comes from a scarce few biographies, these scraps about his life are more conjecture than anything.

Philosophy:

Socrates felt that happiness came from developing knowledge. Central to this was that people should always seek to understand themselves. To do so, he promoted the "unorthodox" practice that one should question everything. We now call this the Socratic Method. Rather than simply lecturing his students, Socrates would just keep asking them questions to get his pupils to think about each answer. Some of this involved breaking up a complex problem into smaller, more manageable questions to work out, while some got the students to recognize hidden biases and assumptions. Socrates was even reported to have walked around Athens, starting similar conversations with anyone he came across!

Many of his teachings concerned ethics, even though he felt morality was not something that could actually be taught. With that being said, he believed that all humans possessed virtue given to them by the gods, and it was just a matter of growing and nurturing one's virtue through wisdom. Through this, he had tremendous faith that when humanity came together into a community they—together—had every potential to create a virtuous and "good" society.

Interwoven throughout Socrates' teachings was an insistence that even he was ignorant and could make mistakes: thus the need to have others puzzle out their own answers. Still, accounts vary on if he was paid for his teaching and on whether or not he started a school. One story even suggests that he spent much of his life wandering in poverty. Whatever the case, Socrates became popular with many Athenian youths who enjoyed watching Socrates questioning (and usually besting) their strict elderly teachers. No one seemed able to escape his scrutiny.

Here's an example of what one of Socrates' questioning conversations was like:

Student: This is so boring. I can't stand school.
Socrates: Oh? Then why do you go?
Student: Because my parents make me.
Socrates: Why do they want you to go to school?
Student: To learn things.
Socrates: Is that not important?
Student: I guess. Still boring, though.
Socrates: Perhaps. But why is it important to learn?
Student: So I get smarter.
Socrates: How does that help you?
Student: It helps prepare me for things after school.
Socrates: How so?
Student: The stuff I learn will help me find a job.
Socrates: Why would you want to do that?
Student: To get money!
Socrates: Do you value that?
Student: Of course! It will get me food and a home.
Socrates: Why would you want that?
Student: So I can support a family.
Socrates: Ah yes, that sounds lovely. I suppose you want children as well?
Student: Of course!
Socrates: So you want to do well at school, so that your future son will one day try to avoid classes.

Through this method, Socrates coaxed others into arriving at answers themselves (so that they could follow the logical reasoning and see why the conclusion made sense). Still, many of his philosophies fell counter to contemporary mainstream Greek opinions. Socrates had many opponents who felt he was arrogant and condescending by challenging their principles. Eventually, this opposition grew to alarming heights.

His Trial and Death:

Socrates' philosophy revolved around questioning everything. So, while he frequently asserted that he loved his city and community, he felt that Athens could only be improved by questioning its politics and traditions. Unfortunately, what he viewed as constructive criticism, many Athenians saw as grievous, almost traitorous insults. In 399 BC, he was put on trial for the "crimes" of not being religious (though he actually was), of being a corrupting force, and of insulting the populace. The last wasn't difficult to prove as, even at his trial, Socrates was reportedly scoffing at the other side's arguments. He even utilized the Socratic method at his trial, seeking to prove how silly the charges were. This, seen as arrogance, likely did not help his chances. He was found guilty.

Socrates had the chance to request exile rather than execution, but he bluntly stated that rather than being punished they ought to pay him for all he had done to help Athens. The court didn't see the humor in this. Rather than lightening the punishment, he was sentenced to death in 399 BC. His horrified friends offered to bribe his captors to free him, but he refused. Socrates was executed by drinking hemlock, prepared from a poisonous plant.

Legacy:

Socrates' philosophies directly influenced the world long after his death. Yet, perhaps the most apt legacy he left was in the passion he instilled in his students. Foremost among his followers was Plato (427-347 BC), the famed philosopher who, in turn, would be a mentor to the equally pivotal Aristotle (384-322 BC). Many of Plato's early writings specifically focused around Socrates and his ideas, giving his mentor a voice when none of Socrates' own work has survived.

In this way, Socrates' determination to question everything in pursuit of wisdom inspired a multitude of philosophers whose own ideas would last through the ages.

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