Unless you were a classics major in college, your main exposure to the Greek philosopher Socrates may have been the Socratic Method, a technique that uses probing questions to eventually lead to the critical analysis of a given topic. It’s an effective tool for engaging a classroom, and it’s still used by many college professors today.
But while the Socratic Method was likely Socrates’ most enduring contribution to society, there’s much more to learn about this legendary figure: For many, he's viewed as the founder of Western philosophy itself — and the most exemplary of all the Greek philosophers.
The Origin of Socrates
Since Socrates never wrote anything himself, what we know about him is filtered through the philosophical texts of a few followers and contemporaries, like the historian Xenophon and the philosopher Plato.
Still, we do know that he lived from 470 to 399 B.C. His father, Sophroniscus, was a well-liked stone cutter and his mother, Phaenarete was a midwife. When his father died, Socrates became his mother’s guardian. That's because in ancient Athens, women were not allowed to live alone, says Debra Nails, a philosophy professor at Michigan State University. Later, his mother remarried and had a son, Patrocles, who Socrates called his half brother.
Socrates went on to marry Xanthippe, an Athenian women with which he had three sons: Lamprocles, Menexenus and Sophroniscus. He was also a successful soldier that “served with distinction” during the Peloponnesian War, a decades long conflict between Athens and Sparta. Beyond that, he was known for his quirky behavior, like walking barefoot with his regiment in the freezing cold or staying up all night in deep thought. Xanthippe’s dowry likely paid to support the family because though Socrates was likely a stone cutter by trade, there’s no record of him ever doing the job. “He was not a person who worked for a living, he primarily took gifts from wealthy Athenians and his wife,” says Nails.
Socrates was also famously unattractive, with “fleshy lips” a flat nose and eyes that were spread wide on his face. Still, his charisma attracted the wealthiest and most prominent young members of society. He was surrounded by young men and was always asking them pointed questions. “He was well known for talking, which he did often,” says Nails.
The Gadfly at the Marketplace
Socrates was a controversial figure in his day because his values were in opposition to the culture that he lived in at the time. Similar to today, says Nails, society pushed the idea of working hard to acquire wealth and fame, none of which were important to the famous philosopher. “Socrates didn’t value ambition or desire wealth, he only valued doing the right thing and learning because he thought that the more education you had the more likely you were to do the right thing,” says Nails.
He also valued the contributions of women at a time when they weren’t allowed to be educated and were mostly thought of as property, says Nails. In ancient Athens, women had virtually no rights of their own and to even speak of them for anything besides childbearing and dowries enraged the more prominent members of society.
According to Scott LaBarge, an associate professor of Greek philosophy at Santa Clara University, Socrates was also known for questioning traditional Greek religion. He was especially skeptical of the idea that Greek gods like Zeus, for example, would participate in immoral acts like raping women or killing family members, as was portrayed in Greek mythology. “When [Socrates] spoke of the gods he spoke of them in respectful hallowed tones, expecting them to be moral exemplars,” says LaBarge.
Plato also describes Socrates as “casting doubt” on the idea of praying or sacrificing to the gods. “He thought the gods cared more about the morality of behavior rather than whether we were roasting sheep for them or not,” says LaBarge.
The Death of Socrates
In the end, the tide turned against Socrates. His fellow Athenians, led by an up-and-coming politician named Meletus, charged him with impiety and corrupting the youth. LaBarge says that it’s unlikely that Meletus was trying to have Socrates put to death. “It’s quite possible that he just wanted him exiled but he didn’t realize what type of person that Socrates was,” he says.
In the end, Socrates’ defense speech seemed to have been written to anger his audience so that they might charge him with death. He was 70 years old, his health was fading and running away was something he would never have considered. Drinking a cup of poison hemlock might have seemed like a good way to go. “Some thought that he was committing suicide by jury,” says LaBarge.
We’ll never know for sure, but what we do know is that the impact on the world he left behind far exceeded the seven decades that he was alive: The speech that Socrates gave at his own trial, purportedly recounted in Plato's Apology of Socrates, remains one of the most important documents in all of Western thought and culture.