Socrates

Socrates

[sok-ruh-teez]
Socrates, 469-399 B.C., Greek philosopher of Athens. Famous for his view of philosophy as a pursuit proper and necessary to all intelligent men, he is one of the great examples of a man who lived by his principles even though they ultimately cost him his life. Knowledge of the man and his teachings comes indirectly from certain dialogues of his disciple Plato and from the Memorabilia of Xenophon. In spite of conflicting interpretations of his teachings, the accounts of these two writers are largely supplementary.

Life

Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor. It is said that in early life he practiced his father's art. In middle life he married Xanthippe, who is legendary as a shrew, although the stories have little basis in ascertainable fact. It is not certain who were Socrates's teachers in philosophy, but he seems to have been acquainted with the doctrines of Parmenides, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, and the atomists. He was widely known for his intellectual powers even before he was 40, when, according to Plato's report of Socrates's speech in the Apology, the oracle at Delphi pronounced him the wisest man in Greece. In that speech Socrates maintained that he was puzzled by this acclaim until he discovered that, while others professed knowledge without realizing their ignorance, he at least was aware of his own ignorance.

Socrates became convinced that his calling was to search for wisdom about right conduct by which he might guide the intellectual and moral improvement of the Athenians. Neglecting his own affairs, he spent his time discussing virtue, justice, and piety wherever his fellow citizens congregated. Some felt that he also neglected public duty, for he never sought public office, although he was famous for his courage in the military campaigns in which he served. In his self-appointed task as gadfly to the Athenians, Socrates made numerous enemies.

Aristophanes burlesqued Socrates in his play The Clouds and attributed to him some of the faults of the Sophists (professional teachers of rhetoric). Although Socrates in fact baited the Sophists, his other critics seem to have held a view similar to that of Aristophanes. In 399 B.C. he was brought to trial for corrupting youth and for religious heresies. Obscure political issues surrounded the trial, but it seems that Socrates was tried also for being the friend and teacher of Alcibiades and Critias, both of whom had betrayed Athens. The trial and death of Socrates, who was given poison hemlock to drink, are described with great dramatic power in the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo of Plato.

Philosophy

Socrates's contributions to philosophy were a new method of approaching knowledge, a conception of the soul as the seat both of normal waking consciousness and of moral character, and a sense of the universe as purposively mind-ordered. His method, called dialectic, consisted in examining statements by pursuing their implications, on the assumption that if a statement were true it could not lead to false consequences. The method may have been suggested by Zeno of Elea, but Socrates refined it and applied it to ethical problems.

His doctrine of the soul led him to the belief that all virtues converge into one, which is the good, or knowledge of one's true self and purposes through the course of a lifetime. Knowledge in turn depends on the nature or essence of things as they really are, for the underlying forms of things are more real than their experienced exemplifications. This conception leads to a teleological view of the world that all the forms participate in and lead to the highest form, the form of the good. Plato later elaborated this doctrine as central to his own philosophy. Socrates's view is often described as holding virtue and knowledge to be identical, so that no man knowingly does wrong. Since virtue is identical with knowledge, it can be taught, but not as a professional specialty as the Sophists had pretended to teach it. However, Socrates himself gave no final answer to how virtue can be learned.

Bibliography

See N. Gulley, The Philosophy of Socrates (1968); G. X. Santas, Socrates (1982); L. E. Navia, Socrates: The Man and His Philosophy (1989); T. C. Brickhouse and N. D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (1989).

Socrates, herm with a restored nose probably copied from the Greek original by Lysippus, c. elipsis

(born circa 470, Athens—died 399 BC, Athens) Greek philosopher whose way of life, character, and thought exerted a profound influence on ancient and modern philosophy. Because he wrote nothing, information about his personality and doctrine is derived chiefly from depictions of his conversations and other information in the dialogues of Plato, in the Memorabilia of Xenophon, and in various writings of Aristotle. He fought bravely in the Peloponnesian War and later served in the Athenian boule (assembly). Socrates considered it his religious duty to call his fellow citizens to the examined life by engaging them in philosophical conversation. His contribution to these exchanges typically consisted of a series of probing questions that cumulatively revealed his interlocutor's complete ignorance of the subject under discussion; such cross-examination used as a pedagogical technique has been called the “Socratic method.” Though Socrates characteristically professed his own ignorance regarding many of the (mainly ethical) subjects he investigated (e.g., the nature of piety), he did hold certain convictions with confidence, including that: (1) human wisdom begins with the recognition of one's own ignorance; (2) the unexamined life is not worth living; (3) ethical virtue is the only thing that matters; and (4) a good person can never be harmed, because whatever misfortune he may suffer, his virtue will remain intact. His students and admirers included, in addition to Plato, Alcibiades, who betrayed Athens in the Peloponnesian War, and Critias (circa 480–403 BC), who was one of the Thirty Tyrants imposed on Athens after its defeat by Sparta. Because he was connected with these two men, but also because his habit of exposing the ignorance of his fellow citizens had made him widely hated and feared, Socrates was tried on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth and condemned to death by poisoning (the poison probably being hemlock) in 399 BC; he submitted to the sentence willingly. Plato's Apology purports to be the speech that Socrates gave in his own defense. As depicted in the Apology, Socrates' trial and death raise vital questions about the nature of democracy, the value of free speech, and the potential conflict between moral and religious obligation and the laws of the state.

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(born Jan. 20, 1906, Smyrna, Tur.—died March 15, 1975, Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, France) Greek shipping magnate and international businessman. The son of a tobacco dealer, he started a tobacco-importing business in Buenos Aires, Arg. He was made consul general after negotiating a trade agreement for the Greek government. A millionaire by age 25, he bought his first freight ships in 1932. In the 1940s and '50s his fleet grew until it was larger than the navies of many countries. He acquired business interests in Monte Carlo, and from 1957 to 1974 he owned and operated Olympic Airways, the Greek national airline. He conducted a long affair with Maria Callas, and in 1968 married Jacqueline Kennedy (see Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis).

Learn more about Onassis, Aristotle (Socrates) with a free trial on Britannica.com.

(born Jan. 20, 1906, Smyrna, Tur.—died March 15, 1975, Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, France) Greek shipping magnate and international businessman. The son of a tobacco dealer, he started a tobacco-importing business in Buenos Aires, Arg. He was made consul general after negotiating a trade agreement for the Greek government. A millionaire by age 25, he bought his first freight ships in 1932. In the 1940s and '50s his fleet grew until it was larger than the navies of many countries. He acquired business interests in Monte Carlo, and from 1957 to 1974 he owned and operated Olympic Airways, the Greek national airline. He conducted a long affair with Maria Callas, and in 1968 married Jacqueline Kennedy (see Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis).

Learn more about Onassis, Aristotle (Socrates) with a free trial on Britannica.com.

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