Socrates (469–399 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

2. Life and sources (cont.)

Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates, Symposium and Memorabilia (or Memoirs) may well reflect knowledge of Plato’s own Apology and some of his early and middle period dialogues, as well as lost dialogues of Antisthenes and others. Xenophon composed the Memorabilia over many years, beginning only some ten years after Socrates’ death, avowedly in order to defend Socrates’ reputation as a good man, a true Athenian gentleman, and a good influence upon his young men. The same intention motivated hisApology and Symposium. Anything these works contain about Socrates’ philosophical opinions and procedures is ancillary to that apologetic purpose. Plato’s Apology, of course, is similarly apologetic, but it and his other early dialogues are carefully constructed discussions, strongly focused upon questions of philosophical substance. Plato evidently thought Socrates’ philosophical ideas and methods were central to his life and to his mission. Xenophon’s and Plato’s testimony are agreed that Socrates’ discussions consistently concerned the aretai, the recognized ‘virtues’ or excellences of character (see Aretē), such as justice, piety, self-control or moderation (sōphrosynē), courage and wisdom; what these individual characteristics consist in and require of a person, what their value is, and how they are acquired, whether by teaching or in some other way. In his Apology and elsewhere Plato has Socrates insist that these discussions were always inquiries, efforts made to engage his fellow-discussants in coming jointly to an adequate understanding of the matters inquired into. He does not himself know, and therefore cannot teach anyone else – whether by means of these discussions or in some other way – either how to be virtuous or what virtue in general or any particular virtue is. Furthermore, given his general characterization of virtue (see §§4–5), Plato’s Socrates makes a point of suggesting the impossibility in principle of teaching virtue at all, by contrast with the Sophists who declared they could teach it. Virtue was not a matter of information about living or rote techniques of some sort to be handed on from teacher to pupil, but required an open-ended personal understanding that individuals could only come to for themselves. Xenophon, too, reports that Socrates denied he was a teacher of aretē, but he pays no attention to such issues of philosophical principle. He does not hesitate to show Socrates speaking of himself as a teacher (see Apology 26, Memorabilia I 6.13–14), and describes him as accepting young men from their fathers as his pupils (but not for a fee), and teaching them the virtues by displaying his own virtues to them for emulation, as well as through conversation and precepts. Perhaps Socrates did not insist on holding to strict philosophical principles in dealing with people on whom their point would have been lost.

In his Apology Plato’s Socrates traces his practice of spending his days discussing and inquiring about virtue to an oracle delivered at the shrine of Apollo at Delphi. Xenophon also mentions this oracle in his Apology. A friend of Socrates’, Chaerephon, had asked the god whether anyone was wiser than Socrates; the priestess answered that no one was. Because he was sure he was not wise at all – only the gods, he suspected, could actually know how a human life ought to be led – Socrates cross-examined others at Athens with reputations for that kind of wisdom. He wanted to show that there were people wiser than he and thus discover the true meaning of the oracle – Apollo was known to speak in riddles requiring interpretation to reach their deeper meaning. In the event, it turned out that the people he examined were not wise, since they could not even give a self-consistent set of answers to his questions: obviously, true knowledge requires at least that one think and speak consistently on the subjects one professes to know. So he concluded that the priestess’s reply had meant that of all those with reputations for wisdom only he came close to deserving it; he wisely did not profess to know these things that only gods can know, and that was wisdom enough for a human being. Because only he knew that he did not know, only he was ready earnestly to inquire into virtue and the other ingredients of the human good, in an effort to learn. He understood therefore that Apollo’s true intention in the oracle had been to encourage him to continue his inquiries, to help others to realize that it is beyond human powers actually to know how to live – that is the prerogative of the gods – and to do his best to understand as far as a human being can how one ought to live. The life of philosophy, as led by him, was therefore something he was effectively ordered by Apollo to undertake.

We must remember that Socrates was on trial on a charge of ‘impiety’. In tracing his philosophical vocation back to Apollo’s oracle, and linking it to a humble recognition of human weakness and divine perfection, he was constructing a powerful rebuttal of the charges brought against him. But it cannot be literally true – if that is what he intended to say – that Socrates began his inquiries about virtue only after hearing of the oracle. Chaerephon’s question to Apollo shows he had established a reputation in Athens for wisdom before that. That reputation cannot have rested on philosophical inquiries of another sort. In Plato’s Phaedo Socrates says he had been interested as a young man in philosophical speculations about the structure and causes of the natural world, but he plainly did not take those interests very far; and in any event, his reputation was not for that kind of wisdom, but wisdom about how to lead a human life. In fact we do not hear of the duty to Apollo in Xenophon, or in other dialogues of Plato, where we might expect to find it if from the beginning Socrates thought Apollo had commanded his life of philosophizing. However, we need not think Socrates was false to the essential spirit of philosophy as he practised it if in looking back on his life under threat of condemnation for impiety he chose, inaccurately, to see it as initially imposed on him by Apollo’s oracle.

Despite its impressiveness, Socrates’ speech failed to convince his jury of 501 male fellow citizens, and he died in the state prison by drinking hemlock as required by law. His speech evidently offended the majority of the jurors by its disdain for the charges and the proceedings; Xenophon explains his lofty behaviour, which he thinks would otherwise have been lunatic – and damaging to his reputation – by reporting that he had told friends in advance that as a 70-year-old still in possession of his health and faculties it was time for him to die anyhow, before senility set in. Furthermore, his ‘divine sign’ – the ‘voice’ he sometimes heard warning him for his own good against a contemplated course of action – had prevented him from spending time crafting a defence speech. (This voice seems to have been the basis for the charge of introducing ‘new’ gods.) So he would do nothing to soften his manner in order to win his freedom. Even if this story is true, Plato could be right that Socrates put on a spirited, deeply serious defence of his life and beliefs – one that he thought should have convinced the jurors of his innocence, if only they had judged him intelligently and fairly.

Citing this article:
Cooper, John M.. Life and sources (cont.). Socrates (469–399 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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