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Socrates: Life, Death and Philosophy

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  • 0:06 What We Know
  • 1:17 Socratic Problem
  • 3:01 A Socratic Dialogue
  • 5:18 What Socrates Believed
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture is a whirlwind tour through the life of Socrates. It begins with an explanation of the Socratic problem, followed by an examination of his philosophy. The lecture ends with a summary of Socrates' legacy.

What We Know of Socrates

It is difficult to say anything certain about Socrates. Though he is considered the 'Father of Philosophy,' Socrates himself never wrote a thing. What we know of him comes from the accounts of his friends and students writing long after his death.

Despite this limitation, we are fairly certain about a few things. We are pretty sure that Socrates was born in Athens around 469 B.C. He may well have followed his father's trade as a stone mason. He probably served in the Athenian army at some point in his life.

In his later life, Socrates apparently was a man of some importance. He was a member of Athens' Boule, a citizen council that voted on important matters of state.

Sometime along the way, Socrates became interested in philosophy.

Though his ideas earned him many friends and students among the elite of Athens, Socrates seems to have also upset a lot of people with his philosophical inquiries. Socrates was brought to trial in 399 B.C. under charges of corrupting the youth of the city. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock poison.

The Socratic Problem

That is what we know about Socrates, but this short account raises as many questions as it answers. What was Socrates' philosophy? Why did the Athenian city state consider Socrates so dangerous? And, finally, why did his successors consider him so important?

To answer these, we must attempt to draw reliable information from some obviously biased and often clearly fictitious sources. This issue is known as the Socratic Problem. Though several ancient authors mention Socrates, our primary source is his student Plato. We have two good reason to distrust Plato's accounts of Socrates.

The first is obvious. As Socrates' student, his account is clearly biased in his master's favor.

The second is more complicated. After Socrates' death, Plato began writing a series of dialogues featuring his master. In these dialogues, Socrates engages in philosophical debates with other wise men of his age. The problem is that it is difficult to tell which ideas belong to Socrates and which ideas belong to Plato.

Plato is our primary source of information about Socrates
Plato

It is generally believed that Plato's early dialogues are attempts to preserve his master's message, while his later work is more original. When we look at his dialogues we can see a rather clear distinction between the two. In his early dialogues, Plato has Socrates ask a lot of questions. In his later dialogues, Plato has Socrates make a lot of statements.

From this evidence, scholars believe that Socrates' contribution to philosophy was a way of asking questions, questions which his successors then tried to answer.

A Socratic Dialogue

Let us therefore look at those early dialogues and their questions. Discussion of the later dialogues can be found in our lecture on Plato. Socratic dialogues go something like this:

Socrates: Hello, Fred!

Fred: Oh, hello there, Socrates.

Socrates: I'm sure glad I ran into you. I have a question for you about piety and I know you to be a very pious man. Everyone in town says it - 'that Fred, he's a pious one.' And I'm so stupid, I don't know anything about piety, and I thought that you, the great Fred might tell me something about piety.

Fred: Very well, Socrates. What is your question?

Socrates: What is piety?

Fred: Piety is what I'm doing now. I'm on my way to the temple to worship Zeus.

Socrates: That's just an example of a pious action. What is piety?

Fred: Um, piety is doing what pleases the gods.

Socrates: Ah, that's much better, a good general statement…but don't the gods sometimes disagree? Like, things that are pleasing to Artemis might not be so pleasing to Aphrodite? Work at cross purposes, you see.

Fred: Well, yes, but there are things they all find pleasing. Doing those things is pious. And there are things they all find displeasing and doing those things is impious.

Socrates: So, let me get this straight. Are the gods pleased by actions because they are pious? Or are actions pious because they please the gods?

Fred: Well, no. I mean, yes. I mean...what?

Socrates: If all the Gods all agreed that eating babies pleased them, would that make eating babies pious?

Fred: Certainly not!

Socrates: But you just said that piety is what all the gods agree is pleasing.

Fred: Yes, but... but... but...(Fred's head explodes).

Socrates: Hmph, I guess I'll never know what piety is.

What Socrates Believed

While Socrates may have learned nothing from this exchange, we can learn a great deal. First, we can see why Socrates was considered something of a nuisance by the important people of Athens. Even if he didn't make their heads explode, he certainly raised some serious doubts about their ideas. The fact that he did so in a public place only made it more embarrassing.

Second, Socrates rarely offers his own ideas. Instead, he looks for flaws or inconsistencies in the ideas of others. This is the heart of Socrates' philosophy. Socrates knows that he knows nothing, whereas everyone else is under the mistaken impression that they know something.

But Socrates is doing more than popping egos here. What Socrates is doing is establishing a higher standard for truth. Truth must be logically consistent. It should not contradict itself. That is Socrates' dangerous idea.

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