Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. He is considered one of the founders of Western philosophy, although he left no writings himself. He became known for his students’ reports, especially those of Plato and Xenophon, and his contemporary, Aristophanes’ plays.
The Socratic Problem.
The “Socratic problem” is the difficulty of ascertaining who the historical Socrates was and the extent to which the various literary representations accurately reflect his views. After all, Socrates himself left no writings, so that historians who want to form an idea of his life and philosophy have to rely on reports from his contemporaries.
These are mainly three primary sources: Aristophanes with vicious criticism of Socrates’ philosophy, Xenophon and Plato, especially in his dialogues Apology and Symposium. In Plato’s description of Socrates, no sharp line is drawn between “the historical Socrates” and “the Platonic Socrates,” who assumes the role of spokesman for Plato’s philosophy. Thus the “real” Socrates remains hidden, and we only have interpretations of his views and idealizations of his life.
Plato is often regarded as the most important source of information about Socrates’ life and philosophy. At the same time, however, many scholars believe that Plato, a literary artist as he was, revered “Socrates” too much and exaggerated his image to the extent that he would have done or said things far beyond what is plausible for the historical Socrates.
Therefore, as a historian, Xenophon is often seen as a more reliable source for the historical Socrates. When interpreting passages in Plato’s works, there is constant debate about whether Plato describes the historical Socrates or his fictional projection there. Like Martin Cohen puts it, Plato, the idealist, offers “an idol, a master figure, for philosophy. A saint, a prophet of the” Sun God, “a teacher condemned for his heretical teachings.”
Plato was about 28 years old when Socrates was convicted. Like other youths of his social class, he often contacted Socrates and knew him very well. He was Socrates’s main student. Historians agree that the names of persons, places, and dates in his dialogues often correspond to archaeological and literary research. So it seems plausible that when he lets Socrates act as the protagonist, the situations and dialogues described fit in fairly well with reality, even though the dialogues themselves are dramatized and edited.
However, it does not follow that what Plato writes about Socrates is a faithful representation of his ideas or that it is not possible for him to use the figure of Socrates to shape and articulate his own philosophical concepts. Plato was not present in many episodes in Socrates’ life. He was not like at his trial, and the knowledge he had about Socrates’ childhood had to be second-hand as well.
Through his rendering in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates has become known for his contribution to the field of ethics. This Platonic Socrates also lends its name to the concepts of Socratic irony and Socratic method elenchus. The Socratic method remains a widely used tool in a wide range of discussions. It is a form of education in which a series of questions are asked to get answers and encourage a fundamental understanding of the problem.
It is also Plato’s Socrates who made an important and lasting contribution to epistemology and logic. The influences of his ideas and approach remain strong in providing a foundation for the Western philosophy that came after him.
Basis of his teaching method
The slogan “know thyself,” seemed to be his leitmotif in the approach to knowledge of reality. How can anyone know anything if he doesn’t know himself?
Who knows? And what is the value of such baseless knowledge? Above all, he seemed to be looking for that ultimate knowledge of the deepest self, without which nothing really knows anything. And if one knows that, then one knows at least who knows nothing, and from there, real knowledge can be extracted.
According to Socrates, this acquiring of knowledge had to be done like a midwife helping a woman give birth, intervening with alternating encouragement to continue or to stop, and helping push and massage sideways. He called this conversation technique the midwife technique. The “learner” or the seeker of truth had to apply this technique to discover that truth, the real knowledge, within himself. Because only in oneself does one have real knowledge. Everything else is hearsay and seen as counterfeit knowledge. According to him, knowledge had to be completely authentic.
His technique seemed to the other as if they had jumped from one thing to another, but Socrates was only trying to test the solidity of the knowledge already acquired, and everything loose had to be abandoned. To many, he came across as arrogant and pedantic with his eternal questions, which were only intended to allow the other to come to himself eventually. This was often not appreciated, especially by the larger established egos of society.
Communication as a method
Socrates focused on communication. He was always found somewhere on the agora surrounded by a group of devoted listeners, with some suspicious or even eavesdroppers in between. He constantly tested his ideas in so-called ‘dialectical’ or Socratic conversations with all kinds of people. As it were, he squeezed their knowledge out of them, to then examine it for its truth and sustainability content and, if necessary, reject it.
This rejection was called aporia, from the Greek a- and poros, which mean respectively “without” and “passage.” He also compared his method to a hornet trying to keep a slow horse awake, which inevitably resulted in enemies. After all, not everyone could appreciate this method of research. Subjects for these dialogues were usually such virtues as justice, self-control, piety, bravery, and wisdom.
By reasoned research into everyone’s knowledge of applications, Socrates searched for universally applicable truths and principles for human actions and omissions, essences. He was convinced that it was possible to find virtue through insight and knowledge and believed that everyone could learn virtue as a matter of the intellect. This thinking is also called it called ethical intellectualism. According to Socrates, a person who had true knowledge of good would not be able to do evil.
Socrates applied the inductive method of reasoning. He worked from collecting details to the whole or tried to arrive at a generally valid truth by testing many individual insights.
His starting point was “I know I know nothing”; in doing so, he attacked the sophists’ methods, the itinerant teacher-experts of those days, but also recognized that he too did not have the definitive answer to the ethical, epistemological question.
However, he recorded a negative result: he staked sharper what one was a virtue. He himself consistently lived according to the principles he had found.
Moral integrity as a starting point
The following are two examples of this moral integrity. At one point (404 BC), there was a period of terror in Athens. This cabal tried to compromise Socrates by ordering him to arrest a certain Leon who lived in Salamis. However, the thirty could not exercise jurisdiction by law. Leon would subsequently be put to death. Socrates refused.
He himself only survived because, not long after, a new democracy replaced the thirty. Two years later, under the newly established democracy, he happened to be chairman of the people’s congress just after Athensfought a naval battle at the Arginusae.
There, 25 ships were lost, but the enemy lost about 75. The Athenian people were furious and wanted to lynch those involved immediately. Still, they wanted to give the appearance of legitimacy using a roll-call vote in the assembly without an accompanying process. Threats left Socrates alone, but he continued to refuse to agree to the procedure. By the way, he was outvoted, and the executions took place anyway. His students thought this was strange, but there was nothing they could do about it.
The Trial of Socrates and His Death by the Poison Cup
In 399 BC. Socrates was indicted:
“Meletus: Socrates commits injustice by not worshiping the gods the city reveres and by introducing new divine beings; furthermore, he commits injustice because of his bad influence on the youth. The penalty demanded: death.” (Plato, The Apology)
His critical attitude towards the Athenian form of democracy and the frequent breakdown of established views of the elite were compassionate given the recent periods of oligarchist rule, accompanied by much injustice (also committed by former pupils of Socrates, including Critias and Charmides) and the new threat thereof.
Also, Socrates was suspected of collaborating with those in power during this foreign rule (after the Peloponnesian War, when Sparta defeated Athens).
However, general amnesty had been granted for crimes committed before 403, which formally related only to crimes within the past four years. It is not clear under which law/article of law referred to in the indictment was made punishable.
During the trial, Socrates defended himself by entering into a dialogue with the jury of prosecutors according to his consistently used dialectical method. Nearly all jurors were hostile to him at the start of the trial.
However, he cornered them to such an extent that they had no choice at the end of that dialogue but to acknowledge the inaccuracy of the charge. Socrates was so convincing that he almost managed to get the majority of the jurors to rule in his favor. The difference between the number of judges pro and contra punishment was so small that the judges allowed Socrates to plead for his sentence.
Instead of trying to persuade the last of the doubters, however, Socrates took a completely different approach: that of ridicule. He first suggested a reward instead of punishment and laughed at judges and jurors. He then suggested a small fine as an alternative, followed by a large fine. The whole state of affairs so incensed the jury against him that he eventually received the death penalty. This was done by compulsory drinking of a cup containing an extract of spotted hemlock — a plant with a slow-acting deadly poison.
The possibility of escaping from Athens and thus avoiding the death sentence’s execution let Socrates pass by. He felt that after years of subscribing to the Athenian laws as a citizen of Athens, it would be wrong to now withdraw from a judgment based on those laws, no matter how unjust this judgment was.
Socrates chose to take the poison among his disciples and friends, with whom he could talk for a while. The day the verdict was to be executed, he discussed all kinds of philosophical issues. Socrates believed in the immortality of the soul. According to him, nothing bad could happen to a good person, neither during life nor after death.
His last words related to the traditional custom of sacrificing a rooster in the temple of Asklepios, the god of Medicine and son of Apollo, in gratitude for healing, to implore healing, or for the soul of the soul at approaching death. Just before his death, he spoke these last words to his friend Crito: “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asklepios; pay him, don’t forget.”
Plato’s description of the trial against Socrates in the Apology and his death in the Phaedo is among the best-known works in philosophy.