Philosopher Profile: Socrates (470-399 BC)

Bust of Socrates

While to date I’ve read very little actual philosophy – I’m up to Book 5 (‘chapter’. They’re chapters) of Plato’s Republic, and that’s about it – I’ve already read enough about the history of philosophy to know that while there have been many distinguished philosophers in both the Eastern and Western tradition only a small handful of these have been the true giants, the people who shaped the thinking not only of their time but of subsequent generations up to the present day.

These guys, then, deserve special attention, and first on the list is Socrates who, as one book I read on the history of philosophy said, influenced ‘everyone who came after him’.

So who was Socrates? That’s a slightly difficult question to answer, because one thing he wasn’t was Someone Who Actually Wrote Stuff Down. Everything we know about Socrates has therefore been pieced together from the works of his contemporaries and successors, particularly Plato, who was his student and a bit of a fan, and who used Socrates as his mouthpiece, notably in The Republic.

In fact, Socrates is a lot like Jesus in terms of the evidence (or lack therefore) of his existence which he left behind, only less controversial, possibly because he didn’t claim to be God and had the decency to stay safely dead once the authorities made him that way.

But I digress. Socrates lived in Athens, which at that time was basically the shining beacon of European cultural advancement in multiple areas including civil engineering (temples, aqueducts), politics (early democracy, although there was a period of rule by ‘tyrants’ during Socrates’ lifetime), and, of course, intellectual life, driven by a number of philosophers who now get to be collectively known as the pre-Socratics because they were unlucky enough to live before Socrates. He served in the Athenian army against Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian Wars (Athens lost, and the weakening of the various Greek city-states caused by the war paved the way for the rise of Alexander the Great), was twice married, and appears to have been deeply opposed to accepting payment for his teaching and philosophising, possibly supporting himself through his work as a stone-mason instead.

According to Plato his dominant method of instruction was to assume a position of ignorance on a given subject and instead question the other person about it. In this way he exposed inconsistencies in what they said, allowing them to either iron them out and thus strengthen their position, or else demonstrating that the position was intellectually untenable and should be abandoned. This question-and-answer pursuit of truth through discussion (dialectic) with pretended ignorance (Socratic irony) is referred to to this day as ‘The Socratic Method’.

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

Four years after the re-establishment of democracy in Athens, Socrates was placed on trial on charges of impiety and corrupting youth. His defence is recorded by Plato in ‘Apology’, which I haven’t read, and was unsuccessful: Socrates was sentenced to death by poison, and although he apparently could have escaped he instead submitted to his sentence. His death is recounted by Plato in Phaedo.

So that’s Socrates, THE philosopher to know. Now you know.

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