A philosopher of ancient Athens, Socrates (469–399 BCE) believed strongly in living by one’s philosophy, and that the pursuit of one’s own beliefs is necessary for all intelligent men. He was a teacher to Plato, who describes the teachings of Socrates in his dialogues, as well as the events of his teacher’s life.
Because Socrates did not write anything, it is mainly through Plato that we know about him. Mentions and appearances in the works of the philosophers Aristotle and Xenophon, as well as the comic playwright Aristophanes, also shed some light on his personality, thoughts and teachings. Becuase of conflicting information in these pieces, it is difficult to develop an accurate account of Socrates’ life, which has become known as the Socratic Problem.
Socrates is known to have a wife much younger than he was, named Xanthippe. Xanthippe is known to be a particularly strong-willed womman. In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates explains that he chose Xanthippe specifically because of this, saying “I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else.”
Socrates also had three sons: Lamprocles, Menexenus and Sophroniscus. He was close friends with Crito, who also appears in Plato’s dialogues.
In Plato, Socrates is generally considered to be very wise. His wisdom comes largely from the fact that he is aware of his own ignorance, and where it lies, whereas those who argue with him in the dialogues generally demonstrate their own ignorance and appear as fools.
Socrates’ beliefs led him to critisize some of the ways of the Athenians in his teachings. In 399 BCE, he was accused and tried of the corruption of youth and for religious heresies.
Socrates was ultimately sentenced to death, and was killed when he drank a brew made from hemlock, a poisonous herb.
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787
Xenophon’s account of Socrates’ death suggests that Socrates purposefully offered a weak defense for himself, and further irritated the Athenian establishment, because he believed his time had come, and that “he would be better off dead”. In Plato and Xenophon alike, Socrates is seen to willingly accept his punishment on philosophical grounds, believing that to fight or flee in the face of his punishment would be against his own teachings.
Name: Σωκρατης (Socrates)
Born: 469 BCE
Died: 399 BCE