Philosophy 10 - 1.3 Socrates as a Paradigmatic Historical Philosopher

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain Socrates’s appreciation for the limits of human knowledge.
  • Identify Socrates’s primary moral principles.
  • Describe Socrates’s life, death, and philosophical interests.
  • Compare Socrates’s moral philosophy with classical Indian philosophy.

Socrates is a foundational figure for Western philosophy. Even though he did not write any works himself, his life and thought are captured by three different, contemporary sources whose works we still have. Socrates is depicted in several of Aristophanes’s comedic plays. Aristophanes, an accomplished Athenian playwright, won several dramatic competitions of his day. Eleven of his 40 plays survive, and in three of them—The Clouds, The Frogs, and The Birds—Socrates appears as a main character. Aristophanes’s depiction of Socrates is ridiculous, and Plato appears to think that this depiction is partially responsible for Socrates’s ultimate trial and death. Another contemporary of Socrates, the historian Xenophon, wrote an account of Socrates’s trial and death in his Memorabilia. Finally, and most important, Socrates’s student and friend Plato made Socrates the central figure in nearly all of his dialogues. Plato and Aristotle are the most influential of the Athenian philosophers and have had a profound influence on the development of Western philosophy. Plato wrote exclusively in the form of dialogues, where his characters engage in discussion centered on philosophical issues. Most of what we know about Socrates is derived from Plato’s depiction of him as the primary questioner in most of the dialogues. Therefore, even though Socrates did not write works of his own, his life—and death—remain a testament to his profound and impactful philosophical life. For that reason, it is useful for us to consider the figure of Socrates as a paradigm of the philosophical life.

The white marble bust emphasizes the wrinkled forehead and receding hairline of Socrates with a pug nose, curly locks, and a full beard.
Figure 1.8 Roman 1st century marble sculpture of Socrates, which is perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. (credit: “Head of Socrates, 1st Century, A.D.” by Nathan Hughes Hamilton/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In particular, Socrates’s defense of himself during his trial is in many ways a defense of the philosophical life. Socrates was accused by a young, upstart politician named Meletus of corrupting the youth and undermining the gods of the city. These crimes were considered to be a kind of treason that undermined the legitimacy and future of Athenian democracy. The speech Socrates gave in his own defense to the Athenians, as recorded by Plato, remains a vivid and compelling defense of the sort of life he lived. In the end, his defense was not successful. He was convicted, imprisoned, and killed in 399 BCE. Plato provides accounts of the trial and death, not only in the Apology, but also in the Crito, where Socrates argues with his friend Crito that it would be unjust for him to escape from prison, and in the Phaedo, where Socrates engages in a debate with several close friends, arguing in his jail cell just before he dies that the soul is immortal.

Read Like a Philosopher

This excerpt from Plato’s Apology, translated by Benjamin Jowett, records one account of Socrates’s defense at his trial. He is responding to accusations made against him in front of the Assembly, which was the main governing body and jury for trials in Athens. This body was composed of 500 citizens.

I dare say, Athenians, that someone among you will reply, “Why is this, Socrates, and what is the origin of these accusations of you: for there must have been something strange which you have been doing? All this great fame and talk about you would never have arisen if you had been like other men: tell us, then, why this is, as we should be sorry to judge hastily of you.” Now I regard this as a fair challenge, and I will endeavor to explain to you the origin of this name of “wise,” and of this evil fame. . . . I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit, and will tell you about my wisdom—whether I have any, and of what sort—and that witness shall be the god of Delphi. You must have known Chaerephon; he was early a friend of mine, and also a friend of yours, for he shared in the exile of the people, and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether—as I was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt—he asked the oracle to tell him whether there was anyone wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself, but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of this story.

Why do I mention this? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, “What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god and cannot lie; that would be against his nature.” After a long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.” Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.” Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.

After this I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me—the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, “Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle.” And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear!—for I must tell you the truth—the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better. I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and of the “Herculean” labors, as I may call them, which I endured only to find at last the oracle irrefutable. When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them—thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.

At last I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and in this I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom—therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and the oracle that I was better off as I was.

This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies, and I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.” And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax