Who Was Socrates? Socrates was a gifted thinker of ancient Athens who helped lay the foundation of
western philosophy. The methods he used and the concepts he proposed, along with his courageous
defense of his ideas against his enemies, profoundly influenced the philosophical and moral tenor of
western thought over the centuries. His refusal to compromise his intellectual intregrity in the face of a
death sentence set an example for all the world to follow.
What Is Philosophy? Philosophy is a discipline that attempts to identify the basic principles governing all
existing things, as well as the makeup of these things, through investigations that rely on the application
of reason rather than faith. Unlike science, philosophy permits intelligent speculation, via logical
arguments, on what is or is not true. For example, the great Italian philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas
(1225-1274) used reason alone to form his famous arguments for the existence of God. In developing his
ideas, Aquinas relied heavily on the philosophy of Aristotle, who was a pupil of Plato. Plato, in turn, was a
pupil of Socrates. The word philosophy comes from the Greek word philosophia, meaning love of
Key Facts About Socrates
Birth and Death: Socrates was born in Athens in 469 B.C. He was executed in 399 B.C. after a trial in
which he was found guilty of promoting dangerous ideas.
Imprisonment and Execution: Socrates spent one month on death row before being forced to drink
poison made from the hemlock plant. Drinking hemlock was the method of capital punishment in ancient
Athens. This mode of execution was like modern “lethal injection” except that the condemned prisoner
drank death rather than receiving it through a vein.
Parents: Socrates’s father was Sophroniscus, a sculptor or stonemason (according to unverifiable
accounts), and his mother was Phaenarete, a midwife.
Wife, Children: Socrates had two wives, Xanthippe and Myrto. Whom he married first is uncertain. There
is speculation that he married one of these women while he was still married to the other under an
Athenian decree allowing a man more than one wife to replenish the depleted population of Athens.
Socrates had three children: Lamprocles, probably the son of Xanthippe, and Sophroniscus and
Menexenus, probably the sons of Myrto. It is believed that Xanthippe was a nagging, scolding wife. If she
was, in fact, a shrew, she may have done humankind a service by driving Socrates out of the house,
providing him opportunities to conduct his philosophical investigations among the people of Athens.
Residence: As an adult, Socrates lived at Alopece, a deme (suburb) southeast of of Athens.
Education: In his youth, Socrates studied, music, literature, geometry, and gymnastics. He also
familiarized himself with the beliefs of leading philosophers. Like other Greeks, he extolled the works of
the Greek epic poet Homer.
Early Work: It is believed that Socrates worked for a while as a sculptor and, according to one account,
completed statues on the Acropolis of the three Graces (Aglaia, Thalia, and Euphrosyne), who were sister
goddesses associated with charm, grace, beauty, and fertility.
Military Duty: Socrates served with honor in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, fighting bravely at
the battles of Potidaeia, Delium, and Amphipolus. At Potidaeia, he rescued his wounded friend,
Alcibiades, from the battlefield. At Delium years later, he saved the life of his friend Xenophon, who had
been trapped under a fallen horse.
Later Work: After giving up manual labor, Socrates devoted his life to helping his fellow citizens see the
light of truth. His laboratory and classroom were the streets of Athens.
Appearance: Socrates was a short man with an ugly face. His most noticeable facial feature was a broad
nose above a bushy handlebar mustache and a beard. He walked barefooted, always directly connected
to the humility of dirt and dust. He wore a simple, unadorned himation, a robe-like garment wrapped about
Online Images of Socrates: Many images of Socrates are accessible via this Google link, but please
respect the provisions of copyright laws for images not in the public domain.
Personality and Lifestyle: Socrates was a man of charm and wit who made many friends. However,
because of his unvarnished candor and support of anti-democratic politicians and political ideas, he also
made many enemies even though it is said that he
never spoke in anger against anyone. Socrates apparently inherited a modest estate from his father–
enough, at least, to live on. He frequently spoke of having “visions” or “hearing voices.” However, he was
probably using these terms as metaphors for his intellect or conscience. It is said that he sometimes fell
into a day-long, immobilizing trance in which he worked on philosophical problems and listened to his
inner voice. According to Xenophon, he even went into such trances on the field of war.
Social Life: Socrates enjoyed attending symposiums. These were drinking parties, held after a dinner, for
the elite of Athens. Symposiums featured games, music, gossip, and exchanges of ideas. Tongues
loosened by alcohol would wag freely about politics, religion, war, and philosophy. Socrates drank his fill
at these gatherings but remained sober and in command of his formidable intellect. During the day,
Socrates would talk with people he encountered on the street, using the opportunity to question them
about their views on justice, piety, courage, and other virtues by which human beings live. His pointed
questions–and the inability of his listeners to answer them satisfactorily–showed them that their
knowledge was incomplete or tainted with faulty ideas. Many of the brightest young men of Athens
followed Socrates through the streets to observe him in action. They no doubt enjoyed watching him
make a fool of pompous politicians or supposed wise men whose beliefs and teachings were founded on
Detailed Biographies of Socrates: You Infoplease access New Advent
Sources of Information About Socrates: Since Socrates himself never wrote a book and did not keep a
diary, all of the information about him comes from other writers. Chief among these writers was Plato
(427-347), who focused part or all of the following famous dialogues on Socrates.
Among others who wrote about Socrates or mentioned him in their works were Xenophon (431-350 B.C.),
a friend of Socrates; Aristophanes (450-388 B.C.), a playwright who satirized Socrates in The Clouds, a
comedy; Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), a pupil of Socrates; Plutarch (46-119 A.D.), a Greek biographer and
historian who mentions Socrates often in Parallel Lives; and Diogenes Laërtius, a Greek author who lived
between 200 and 300 A.D. Laërtius wrote Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers: Life of
Contributions of Socrates
One: Awakened thinkers to the need to examine and reexamine their political, moral, and philosophical
views in order to discover and root out errors and misconceptions that impede progress. Socrates
accomplished this task by demonstrating, through cross-examination of people he encountered, that
many accepted precepts, conventions, and beliefs were based on faulty logic or outright errors. A
quotation attributed to him states: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In other words, a human being
must not be complacent and self-satisfied; instead, he must be ever probing, exploring, and
reconnoitering his soul in order to discover ways to imrpove.
Two: Effectively rebutted a central tenet of the Sophists , traveling teachers who charged fees for
educating young men. This tenet maintained that the guiding principles of a society, such as justice and
truth, were relative concepts–that is, they changed according to the needs of men in a particular time and
place. What was considered right and just in Athens was not necessarily right and just in another society,
the Sophists maintained. One man’s virtue could be another man’s vice.
Three: Pioneered the use of inductive reasoning to draw logical conclusions. According to Aristotle,
Socrates founded the “scientific method.”
Four: Demonstrated that wrongdoing results from ignorance. If a man lies, Socrates might have said, he
does so because he does not understand the benefits of telling the truth.
Five: Inspired philosophers in his own time and in later times to pursue the truth through rigorous analysis
of available, facts, opinions, and so on. Two of the most important philosophers in the history of the world,
Plato and Aristotle, both esteemed Socrates as a supreme thinker and infused their philosophical systems
with Socratic thought. Plato was a pupil of Socrates, and Aristotle was a pupil of Plato.
Six: Showed the world the meaning of integrity and moral commitment by accepting a death sentence
rather than recanting his principles.
Seven: Made clear that a human being is more than his appearance. Socrates was ugly, wore old
clothes, and walked barefooted through the streets of Athens. But his mind and the words he spoke were
Religious Beliefs of Socrates
…….Socrates believed in a god or gods and in the immortality of the soul. He often referred to “God” in
the singular but also spoke of “gods.” He argued that an intelligent being was behind the construction of
the universe, a teleological argument that influenced many later philosophers. The best prayer, Socrates
said, was one in which a person simply asked God to work his will, since he knew best.
Socrates at Age 70, Before the Trial
The Old Philosopher as Viewed by the Imagination Through the Lens of History
By Michael J. Cummings © 2004
…….Socrates was old now, more than 70. Yet he still roamed the streets of Athens–barefooted, as
always–to help men purge their minds of faulty or outmoded ideas. Such ideas, Socrates knew, impeded
self-improvement and community progress.
…….Over the years, the great god above had come to him time and again in visions and trances to remind
him that it was his calling to sow the seeds of curiosity in fallow intellectual soil. And to do this, he first had
to pull the weeds and the dying plants–misconceptions, unfounded beliefs, flawed principles. So it was
that he went about the city to uproot ignorance where he found it, even in men deemed wise by the
community. He would nettle them with questions that they could not answer, showing them that their
knowledge was shallow rather than deep.
…….Limber, quick of step, Socrates could range across the city proper on a hot day–up steps, down hills,
through pressing crowds in the marketplace. All along the way he stopped to talk with anyone, even the
fishmonger selling fresh catch from the Bay of Phaleron. To him, Socrates might have posed this
…….“What is a fish?”
…….The fish merchant might have answered, “A legless creature that swims in the ocean.”
…….To this, Socrates might have replied:
…….“The octopus and the whale are legless creatures that swim in the ocean. Are they fish?”
…….The fishmonger might then have scratched his head and realized his definition of fish was faulty.
…….Socrates was a short, ugly man with a simmian nose and beefy lips–unprepossessing in every way, a
lump of wrinkling flesh that passed for a human–but his tongue could wag with charm and wit. It was not
uncommon for the young to gather round him on the walkway of a stoa or the greensward of a temple to
hear him expose a supposedly wise man as a fool, thereby setting him on the road to knowledge, or to
hear Socrates expound on the importance of nurturing the development of the soul and its grasp of
morality, ethics, and the universe.
…….Once upon a time, Theaetetus–a teenager of uncommon intelligence– would follow and listen to the
old philosopher with other young men. One day Socrates asked Theaetetus to define knowledge. An easy
question, Theaetetus thought. He replied that skill at geometry was knowledge. So was the ability to
repair footwear. So were carpentry and all the other crafts. It was clear to Theaetetus that knowledge was
capability, artistry, the wherewithal to perform a useful activity. He was no doubt proud that he provided an
altogether suitable and unimpeachable answer. Socrates’s eyes rolled as the answer passed through his
ears and registered in the remote recesses of his brain.
…….Theaetetus, like Socrates, was not pleasing to look at. The gods had shaped both men with unsteady
hands, perhaps after a night of revelry, and dropped them out of the heavens unfinished, save for their
minds. Could the ill-formed Theaetetus have endeared himself to the ill-formed Socrates? It is not at all
unreasonable to assume so. But if there was a bond between Theaetetus and Socrates, it did nothing to
blunt the sharp edge of Socrates’s reply: Skill at geometry was not knowledge, Socrates said. Nor was
the ability to mend sandals or erect a temple. A spider may be skilled at spinning a web and a bird skilled
at building a nest, Socrates may have said. But their actions were not knowledge. Similarly, a man’s ability
to work geometric problems was an action indicating that he possessed knowledge; however, such an
ability was not knowledge itself. Knowledge was something else–something less obvious, something
more complex, something in the human soul.
…….Theaetetus, benefiting by the lesson, went on in the years to come to become a great mathematician,
helping to develop the theory of irrational quantities, thereby radically altering for the better humankind’s
understanding of numbers and computations. It cannot be said, of course, that Socrates contributed
directly to the development of this theory, but it can be surmised that he helped shape Theaetetus’s
comprehension of what constitutes a definition or statement of principles.
…….Under the questioning of Socrates, many other young men also went on to see beneath the veneer of
things, or beyond the boundaries of traditional thought. The philosopher Plato, his most famous pupil,
developed into one of the most important philosophers in the history of western civilization.
…….However, not all of Socrates’s listeners accepted his peripatetic critiques. Proud men, celebrated as
wise by the populace, balked at the philosopher’s characterization of them as empty vessels that echoed
with ignorance. Here was a dangerous man, they decided one day. In his zeal to challenge established
beliefs and traditions, Socrates was also injuring reputations. What was more he was leading the young
men of Athens astray. There was even talk that he was teaching them to reject the state gods in favor of a
supreme deity that possessed the fulness of truth and virtue.
…….One day, Socrates received a summons to appear before the people’s magistrate to face charges
brought by three of his enemies: the poet Meletus, the politician Anytus and the orator Lycon. In their
sworn affidavit, they accused Socrates of corrupting the youth of Athens and of promoting his own
divinities over the official gods of the state. The accusers appeared to represent members of a faction
long hostile to Socrates and his ideas. They despised him not only for the reasons cited by Meletus,
Anytus, and Lycon, but also for his well-known opposition to democracy. Socrates had made it clear on
more than one occasion that democracy was a defective form of government because it granted common,
uneducated men on the street the right to vote and make important decisions. In addition, Socrates’s
enemies opposed him for his tutelage, support, and defense of politicians who were out of favor with the
ruling establishment (politicians who had fallen under his spell as young men).
…….One such politician was Alcibiades (450-404 B.C.). In his youth, he had everything a young Athenian
could hope for: wealth, good looks, intelligence, courage. He also had Socrates as a friend and mentor.
During the wars against Sparta, he and Socrates–his elder by 19 years–fought together at Potidaea in
432, where Socrates defended him when he was wounded. In 415, Alcibiades was to share command of
a force bound for the Sicilian city of Syracuse, allied with Sparta. However, before he and his troops
embarked, someone committed a grave offense against the messenger god, Hermes, vandalizing busts
of his image throughout Athens. The citizens blamed Alcibiades, rightly or wrongly. Although Alcibiades
denied the charge and requested an investigation, no investigation was conducted. After he arrived at
Sicily, Athens ordered him to return home. On his way back, he discovered that he had been condemned
to death. He then escaped to Sparta and informed its leaders of Athenian war plans. In 411, however, he
changed sides again after helping the Athenian fleet win an important victory, and he returned to Athens in
407 as an esteemed citizen and military commander. However, after he lost a naval battle, the Athenians
deposed him again and he moved to Phrygia (Turkey). But his enemies tracked him down, set his home
on fire, and murdered him when he was attempting to escape. Because Socrates had once befriended
and instructed Alcibiades, Socrates’s enemies maintained that Alcibiades had been acting on principles
taught by Socrates.
…….Following is a condensed version of Socrates’s testimony, which I adapted from the account of the
trial presented by his pupil Plato and from observations by the Greek historian Xenophon and later
writers. Whether the accounts and observations of these men accurately reflect the tenor of the
proceedings against Socrates has never been established. Plato’s account in his dialogue The Apology
provides the most reliable information.
…….After a hearing, the citizens indicted Socrates and called him to trial before the boule, a council of 500
citizens, acting as the jury. It was one of the most memorable trials in history because of Socrates’s cool
but defiant defense of his right to think. Plato, a pupil of Socrates, recorded the proceedings.
…….Under Athenian law, the accused conducted his own defense. However, the law permitted him to use
a speech prepared by an attorney. Such a speech was written for Socrates, but he rejected it, deciding
instead to rely solely on his own abilities. He also rejected the option of bringing his wife and sons to court
(who, through weeping and body language, could have won him sympathy), as was his right.
…….Led by Meletus, the accusers presented their case in a morning session that may have lasted three
hours. Then Socrates took the floor.
Socrates Presents His Defense: A Condensed Adaptation of Plato’s Apology
Click here to access the complete text of The Apology (translated by Benjamin Jowett)
…….Good citizens of Athens, I am not a clever orator, although my accusers maintain otherwise
in their fear that I will use eloquence to sway people to my side. However, if by eloquence they
mean truthfulness, then I am eloquent, for I indeed speak the truth. I am old now, over 70, and I
beg you to judge me by my words and their meaning, not by my manner, since I am but a clumsy
newcomer to court proceedings.
…….Let me first tell you that the attacks against my character have old roots. In fact, when many
of you were just boys, there were those who began poisoning you against me, saying that I
committed evil and through clever arguments that I could make bad alternatives appear good,
and vice versa. You were impressionable then, easily swayed by their falsehoods. There are
many who have spoken ill of me, but I do not know their names–except for the dramatist
Aristophanes, who unjustly belittled me in his play The Clouds.
…….Among you in this assembly are men who know that I have been maligned, for they have
been with me during my conversations with people. I ask you to speak up, you who have heard
me. Tell your neighbors the truth so that they will know that I am innocent.
…….Then there are those who say that I teach for money. That charge has no basis in fact,
although there are some who make the rounds of cities to teach for money, such as Gorgias of
Leontium, Prodicus of Ceos, and Hippias of Elis. Young men who could learn for nothing from
their own citizens willingly pay these men. Right now a Parian named Evenus is living in Athens
to accept payment of five minae a lesson to teach. I know this from Callias, who pays Evenus to
teach his sons. Well, good for Evenus if it is true that he is wise enough to teach people. If I had
his knowledge I would be proud and self-satisfied. But the fact is, I really am ignorant.
…….Why, then, you might ask, do people say that I am wise? Why do they say I am evil? I will
…….There was a man–you may remember him–named Chaerephon, who was a friend of mine
and of the people. One day, he asked the oracle at Delphi whether anyone was wiser than I am.
The prophetess at Delphi said no man was wiser than I. Although Chaerephon has since died,
his brother is still alive and can confirm this answer.
…….Anyway, dumbfounded by this answer, I went to many supposedly wise men, including
politicians, to find one person who was wiser than I am. Surely there had to be someone who
knew more than I did. But everywhere I went, I found the people I interviewed wanting in wisdom
and told them so. Consequently, I made many enemies. I even talked with artistans, who thought
they were wise but really were not. Poets, I found, were excellent writers but did not comprehend
what they wrote. My listeners began to imagine that I claimed to have the wisdom that they
lacked. But the truth of the matter is this: The oracle called me wise because I am the only man
who realizes how little he knows. So, when I seek out wise people and discover that they know
little but think they know much, I am only demonstrating the truth of the oracle’s finding. As you
are aware, I have been absorbed by this task.
…….The young men who observe me later imitate what I do. When they expose esteemed men
as unwise, these latter men blame me for leading the youth astray. Going further, they say I
deliberately stir up trouble by challenging traditional beliefs and promoting strange religious
ideas, including my own gods.
…….But my chief accuser here, Miletus, is the one who is doing wrong. Although he professes to
be concerned about the youth of our community, he does not care about them at all. Tell me,
Miletus, is it better to live among good citizens or bad ones?
…….Miletus: Good ones.
…….Socrates: Is there someone who would rather be hurt than helped by people around him?
…….Socrates: Do I deliberately corrupt youth?
…….Socrates: All right, then, why would I want to corrupt people when I know that doing so will
make them want to harm me. You just agreed that no one would want to live around people he
knows would harm him. As for religion, do you accuse me of teaching different gods or of being
…….Miletus: You are an atheist.
…….Socrates: But you say I teach spiritual concepts and believe in strange divine beings. How
curious it is that I believe in gods and not believe in gods at the same time. The fact is, it appears
that you and others here are going to condemn me simply because I have the courage to tell the
truth. In this respect, I am like Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors in the Trojan War. He
knew that if he avenged the death of his friend Patroclus by killing the Trojan warrior Hector, he
was fated to die. But rather than live in disgrace, he killed Hector and died with honor. In my
case, if you offered to free me if I stopped practicing philosophy in my honest and truthful way, I
would reject your offer. As long as I live, I shall obey God and continue to tell the truth to anyone I
encounter. Of course, it would be foolhardy of you to execute me, for it would be hard to replace
a gadfly like me. God commissioned me to search for the truth, and I have done so with all my
heart to the extent that I have neglected my own needs for the sake of you. Since I was a child, a
divine voice has spoken to me, has given me signs, telling me to me to prod and question other
men in order to put them on the road toward true wisdom. But if I am evil, let the young men I
corrupted and their relatives come forth and speak against me. They will not, of course, because
they know that I am not evil.
…….By a vote of 280 to 220, the council finds Sophocles guilty and sentences him to death.
However, under Athenian law, a convicted person can propose an alternative sentence. Socrates
proposes a small fine and, in an act of defiance, suggests that he be allowed to dine at taxpayer
expense at a public table reserved for esteemed citizens of Athens. The council rejects his
proposal by an even larger vote. A month later, he is executed by the prescribed method of
capital punishment: drinking poison.