Socrates: The founder of western philosophy never wrote a thing?

150px-VatsocSocrates is one of the most recognized philosophers of all time. Born in ancient Greece,  he is the founder of western philosophy, which shapes the study in ways even today.  He led an interesting life that led to death as a martyr for his beliefs. In this relatively short post, I’m going to give a little background on the man behind the marble carved statue, and discuss some key features of his life.

He never wrote anything down? – The Socratic Problem

Yes, like the title suggests, we have absolutely no written evidence by Socrates’ hand. Everything we know about him was written down by his students and other bystanders. The most famous of these was Plato. This leads to what we call The Socratic Problem. We don’t know in truth who Socrates was or what his views were–we only have what has been interpreted through his students. For a while it was thought that Socrates was just a character made up by Plato to use as a mouthpiece for his ideas. We now know by historical accounts that this is not the case and that he was a real person.

Life

Socrates is shrouded, of course, by the lack of evidence we have, but there are some things that can be brought to light. According to Plato, he had served in the military for a under the Athenian army but not much is known about this.

We also have no good idea of how Socrates earned a living. According to Aristophanes in The Clouds he is depicted as making money off of teaching at a sophist school. On the other hand, Plato displays Socrates as denying any sort of pay for teaching. In The Apology this view is made clear by his impoverished life.

The Socratic Method

The Socratic Method was developed by Socrates and is still in use today. Socrates took a problem and broke it down into simpler questions. In relation to good and justice, Socrates would take these simpler questions and route out any contradictions to further analyze the real underlying issue. This method helped further develop branches of philosophy such as Ethics and Political Philosophy.

Virtues and Teachings

Teaching was a very important thing to Socrates. At the beginning of the era of writing, Socrates denied the entire thought of it. He was a master of oral speech, sometimes speaking to anyone that would listen. He could draw a crowd with his discussions and hold the attention of many onlookers.

Socrates was not, by any means, a materialistic person. As explained earlier, he wasn’t a very rich man. Socrates taught that people should focus their lives on self-development and gaining knowledge. An ideal life to Socrates was one that was an ongoing search for the good. This ideal would follow him into death.

Trial and Death

Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth in Athens. Basically, Socrates got the point where, in his daily discussions with people, he would come across prominent Athenians and in a way humiliate them in public. By asking questions that would make these high ranking Athenians look foolish, they would turn against him and accuse him of radical things out of anger because of his ways of questioning.

Socrates was sentenced to death, but the two who tell the story (Plato and Xenophon) explain that he had a chance to escape. Socrates wouldn’t leave and faced his punishment for several reasons: he thought that his teaching would fare no better in any other city than Athens; he agreed to live under the state’s laws and fleeing would only go against the state’s reputation; and he also thought that running would induce a fear of death, something he felt no philosopher should have.

An interesting thing about Socrates and his trial is, according to Xenophon, that he purposely gave a defiant defense to the jury. When Socrates was asked what he would want for his own punishment, he comically explained that he would like pay from the government and free dinner for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless, he was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning and died for his beliefs.

Conclusion

We can never be certain about who Socrates was. There is no historical evidence that suggests enough information to uncover the real man who we consider the father of western philosophy. Though, through Plato and other students of his, we can get a pretty good idea of what he stood for and how he lived. A true martyr for the sake of knowledge, Socrates died in the name of truth and wisdom. The Socratic Problem will always exist unless we find more evidence but being that Socrates was a backlash to the era of writing, we may never find any more evidence than we already have.

Until next time.. keep on thinking, my friends.

Posted in Philosophy.

4 Comments

  1. You mentioned that two people, Plato and Xenophon, transcribed various parts of Socrates life. Why is that Plato is the one whom we hear about most, rather than Xenophon? Were their accounts in some way different from one another?

  2. Good question

    Plato is more often regarded simply because he was the most well noted student of Socrates. He is responsible for writing the most amount of information on Socrates that we have. Plato also wrote the popular book The Republic, which is largly about Socrates and his ideas.
    Xenophon on the other hand was a historical writer, who was an admirer of Socrates. He has written things about him and his accounts are said to be purely historical while it’s argued that plato used Socrates more and more as a represenative in his later books to explain his own ideals.

    This of course is all part of the socratic problem and there is no way of knowing who is correct. We only regard Plato higher because he was a direct student of his who wrote a large bit of information on Socrates.

    I suppose the only difference is how and what they wrote for. Plato was a philosopher who was writing as a student of Socrates, and Xenophon was a historian writing down events as they happened through his eyes.

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