Socrates: Lover of Wisdom

Steve Wiener, Max Pfingsten
  • Author
    Steve Wiener

    Steve Wiener holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He has taught undergraduate classes in ancient and modern political theory, philosophy of history, American political thought, American government, the history the American Civil War, the philosophy of consciousness and rural populist movements in the American Midwest. He has over 20 years experience teaching college students in the classroom, as well as high school students and lifelong learners in a variety non-traditional settings.

  • Instructor
    Max Pfingsten

    Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

What is Socrates most known for and why is he important? Explore Socrates' legacy by studying Socrates' life and ideas as a philosopher. Updated: 08/02/2021

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What Is Socrates Most Known For?

Socrates is one of the most influential historical figures in Western civilization. Though he didn't write a word, he made such an impact on Athenian society that others were motivated to write about him. Writing about Socrates centuries after his death, scholars have described Socrates as as the creator of moral philosophy and a founder of the whole enterprise of western philosophy.

A bust of Socrates from the 1st century AD

Bust of Socrates

The Socratic Problem

The concept of the Socratic problem isn't a problem with Socrates himself, but rather a problem that arises from conflicting descriptions of him. Our knowledge of Socrates comes primarily from the writings of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. Plato and Xenophon were students of Socrates and Aristophanes a critic. The Socratic problem arises because of the contradictions among these sources.

For example, if Plato's description of Socrates is true, Aristophanes' conflicting version cannot be true. Or, as Kierkegaard wrote in his The Concept of Irony, if Xenophon's accounts of Socrates are true, the only reason the Athenians would have executed him was because he bored them to death. These discrepancies have created a challenge for scholars of Socrates.

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  • 1:17 Socratic Problem
  • 3:01 A Socratic Dialogue
  • 5:18 What Socrates Believed
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Socrates' Life | The Early Years

Socrates was born near Athens in 469 or 470 BCE. His father was a sculptor and his mother a mid-wife. Although it is difficult to determine precisely, some scholars have described Socrates' vocation as a stonemason. It is clear that he served as a hoplite, or an armored infantryman, in the Athenian military during the Peloponnesian War; he distinguished himself in the Battles of Delium and Potidaea. Some scholars claim that it was Socrates' military exploits that first brought him to the attention of his fellow Athenians.

As Plato wrote in his Apology, Socrates would later describe his role in Athenian society as a gadfly poking holes in the overblown egos and ideas of the Athenians who claimed wisdom and influence.

Socrates' History | Through the Lens of Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato

Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon certainly were contemporaries, although Plato never mentions Xenophon in his various dialogues and Xenophon mentions Plato only once in passing in his Memorabilia. Plato wrote about Socrates only after his death in 399 BCE while Aristophanes, a famous Athenian comic poet and playwright, attacked Socrates in his comedies while the philosopher was still alive.

These three authors provide us with our most complete knowledge of the life, thinking, and public activity of Socrates, with Plato the source of most of our knowledge. But, as philosopher Eric Voegelin stated, ''The Socrates who formed Plato was the Socrates as seen by Plato,'' an admonition relevant to Aristophanes and Xenophon as well. Because of these individual perspectives, their accounts are widely divergent.

Aristophanes

In The Clouds, Aristophanes' comic play about intellectual fashions in Athens written in 423 BCE, Socrates is the headmaster of ''The Thinkery.'' Aristophanes presents Socrates as someone who churns out cynically disrespectful students who ridicule Athenian traditional values. Aristophanes places Socrates in a basket floating around with his head in the clouds above the rest of the cast in the play. In hilarious fashion, Aristophanes has Socrates teaching his students about what causes the sound a gnat makes, how far a flea can jump, how to avoid an honest debt, and how to argue about anything.

Kierkegaard thought that Aristophanes' depiction of Socrates might be the most accurate in the sense of how Athenians looked at the philosopher. However, Plato reports that, at his trial, Socrates labeled his accusers as "utterly untruthful," grouping the comic poet with other attackers who remained anonymous. Even at the time, it's clear that contradictory depictions of Socrates were rampant.

Socrates in a basket, as portrayed by Aristophanes in The Clouds

The Clouds

Plato

Plato is the most famous student of Socrates. He wrote 35 dialogues, most of them about Socrates, and was present at the trial of Socrates, which he wrote about in the Apology. All of Plato's Socratic dialogues were written after Socrates' execution. The circumstances of the execution illuminated for Plato the utter failure of Athenian society to live up to its cultural and ethical values. Plato's purpose was to present Socrates as the only true statesman in Athens and as a philosopher - literally a ''lover of wisdom'' - whose sole purpose was to examine oneself to discover the ''right conduct of life.''

Xenophon

Xenophon, who was about the same age as Plato, was also a student of Socrates. Though he is best known as a historian, he chronicled several Socratic dialogues and, like Plato, wrote an account of his trial. He portrayed Socrates as a teacher of virtue, a conventional religious thinker, and a dispenser of valuable and practical advice. Xenophon's purpose was to show that Socrates was no threat to Athenian society and that he was unjustly accused, tried, and convicted.

What was Socrates' Philosophy?

Philosophy - from the Greek philosophia - means love of wisdom. As a philosopher, Socrates claimed no doctrines and espoused no theories. He did not have what today we call a philosophy of life. Socrates stated that the only reason he could be thought as wise was because he knew he was ignorant while others, though just as ignorant as he, believed they were wise. If Socrates could be said to have a philosophy, it would be to question every opinion to see if it holds up to the light of reason.

In Plato's dialogues, Socrates leads discussions about ideas of god, good and evil, beauty, justice and virtue. But he is always the questioner, forcing people to examine what they think.

As an example, in the Republic, Plato's dialogue that focused upon justice and injustice, Plato's brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon are attempting to define what a good action is. Is it a legal one? Is it what the stronger can simply get away with? The two men are prodded by Socrates to defend their definitions or to modify them. Socrates himself offers no answers or solutions. If human beings act to accomplish something they consider good, why do these actions sometimes end in evil consequences? In the end, the group concludes that the part of the soul that desires overwhelms the part that is rational, leading to the mistaken conclusion that the object of desire is ''good.''

Aristotle, a student of Plato, elaborated on Socrates' question of ''weakness of the will'' in his Nicomachean Ethics. He stated that although all human begins desire to do good, they still commit evil acts while thinking they are doing something good. So evil acts, for Aristotle, are the result of ignorance about the goal or method of action. This ethical question has since become one of the most defining considerations in Western philosophy and clearly demonstrates Socrates' lasting impact on philosophical thought.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is death according to Socrates?

According to Socrates, philosophy is the practice of dying. Death was nothing to be feared. He accepted death rather than betraying the way he lived his life.

What were Socrates main beliefs?

Socrates never advocated any doctrine. Socrates believed that the truth quest, or the process of questioning our opinions on important matters to see if they are knowledge or opinion, was the best way for human beings to live.

What is Socrates most famous statement?

The statement that ''the unexamined life is not worth living'' is one that Socrates is most remembered for. This represents his belief that the examination of one's thoughts, opinions, and senses is far more important than knowing the right answer.

Why is Socrates the best philosopher?

Socrates exemplified the Greek sense of "philosopher" as "lover of wisdom." He spent his life deeply examining established systems of thought and societal assumptions, setting the tone for the methods of inquiry into complex ideas used throughout history.

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