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Socrates (469–399 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A108-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Socrates, an Athenian Greek of the second half of the fifth century bc, wrote no philosophical works but was uniquely influential in the later history of philosophy. His philosophical interests were restricted to ethics and the conduct of life, topics which thereafter became central to philosophy. He discussed these in public places in Athens, sometimes with other prominent intellectuals or political leaders, sometimes with young men, who gathered round him in large numbers, and other admirers. Among these young men was Plato. Socrates’ philosophical ideas and - equally important for his philosophical influence - his personality and methods as a ‘teacher’ were handed on to posterity in the ‘dialogues’ that several of his friends wrote after his death, depicting such discussions. Only those of Xenophon (Memorabilia,Apology, Symposium) and the early dialogues of Plato survive (for example Euthyphro, Apology, Crito). Later Platonic dialogues such as Phaedo, Symposium and Republic do not present the historical Socrates’ ideas; the ‘Socrates’ appearing in them is a spokesman for Plato’s own ideas.

Socrates’ discussions took the form of face-to-face interrogations of another person. Most often they concerned the nature of some moral virtue, such as courage or justice. Socrates asked what the respondent thought these qualities of mind and character amounted to, what their value was, how they were acquired. He would then test their ideas for logical consistency with other highly plausible general views about morality and goodness that the respondent also agreed to accept, once Socrates presented them. He succeeded in showing, to his satisfaction and that of the respondent and any bystanders, that the respondent’s ideas were not consistent. By this practice of ‘elenchus’ or refutation he was able to prove that politicians and others who claimed to have ‘wisdom’ about human affairs in fact lacked it, and to draw attention to at least apparent errors in their thinking. He wanted to encourage them and others to think harder and to improve their ideas about the virtues and about how to conduct a good human life. He never argued directly for ideas of his own, but always questioned those of others. None the less, one can infer, from the questions he asks and his attitudes to the answers he receives, something about his own views.

Socrates was convinced that our souls - where virtues and vices are found - are vastly more important for our lives than our bodies or external circumstances. The quality of our souls determines the character of our lives, for better or for worse, much more than whether we are healthy or sick, or rich or poor. If we are to live well and happily, as he assumed we all want to do more than we want anything else, we must place the highest priority on the care of our souls. That means we must above all want to acquire the virtues, since they perfect our souls and enable them to direct our lives for the better. If only we could know what each of the virtues is we could then make an effort to obtain them. As to the nature of the virtues, Socrates seems to have held quite strict and, from the popular point of view, paradoxical views. Each virtue consists entirely in knowledge, of how it is best to act in some area of life, and why: additional ‘emotional’ aspects, such as the disciplining of our feelings and desires, he dismissed as of no importance. Weakness of will is not psychologically possible: if you act wrongly or badly, that is due to your ignorance of how you ought to act and why. He thought each of the apparently separate virtues amounts to the same single body of knowledge: the comprehensive knowledge of what is and is not good for a human being. Thus his quest was to acquire this single wisdom: all the particular virtues would follow automatically.

At the age of 70 Socrates was charged before an Athenian popular court with ‘impiety’ - with not believing in the Olympian gods and corrupting young men through his constant questioning of everything. He was found guilty and condemned to death. Plato’s Apology, where Socrates gives a passionate defence of his life and philosophy, is one of the classics of Western literature. For different groups of later Greek philosophers he was the model both of a sceptical inquirer who never claims to know the truth, and of a ‘sage’ who knows the whole truth about human life and the human good. Among modern philosophers, the interpretations of his innermost meaning given by Montaigne, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche are especially notable.

Citing this article:
Cooper, John M.. Socrates (469–399 BC), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A108-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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