Profile of Socrates

An Ancient Philosopher and Sage

Socrates, Greece, Athens
Hiroshi Higuchi / Getty Images

The Greek philosopher Socrates was born c. 470/469 B.C., in Athens, and died in 399 B.C. To put this in the context of the other great men of his time, the sculptor Pheidias died c. 430; Sophocles and Euripides died c. 406; Pericles died in 429; Thucydides died c. 399; and the architect Ictinus completed the Parthenon in c. 438.

Athens was producing the extraordinary art and monuments for which she would be remembered. Beauty, including personal, was vital. It was linked with being good. However, Socrates was ugly, according to all accounts, a fact that made him a good target for Aristophanes in his comedies.

Who Was Socrates?

Socrates was a great Greek philosopher, possibly the wisest sage of all time. He is famous for contributing to philosophy:

  • Pithy sayings
  • The Socratic method of discussion or dialogue
  • "Socratic irony"

A discussion of Greek democracy often focuses on a sadder aspect of his life: his state-mandated execution.

Family

Although we have many details about his death, we know little about the life of Socrates. Plato provides us the names of some of his family members: Socrates' father was Sophroniscus (thought to have been a stonemason), his mother was Phaenarete, and his wife, Xanthippe (a proverbial shrew). Socrates had 3 sons, Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. The oldest, Lamprocles, was about 15 at the time his father died.

Death

The Council of 500 [see Athenian Officials in the Time of Pericles] condemned Socrates to death for impiety for not believing in the gods of the city and for introducing new gods. He was offered an alternative to death, paying a fine, but refused it. Socrates fulfilled his sentence by drinking a cup of poison hemlock in front of friends.

Socrates as Citizen of Athens

Socrates is remembered chiefly as a philosopher and the teacher of Plato, but he was also a citizen of Athens, and served the military as a hoplite during the Peloponnesian War, at Potidaea (432–429), where he saved Alcibiades' life in a skirmish, Delium (424), where he remained calm while most around him were in a panic, and Amphipolis (422). Socrates also participated in the Athenian democratic political organ, the Council of the 500.

As a Sophist

The 5th century B.C. sophists, a name based on the Greek word for wisdom, are familiar to us mostly from the writings of Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon, who opposed them. Sophists taught valuable skills, especially rhetoric, for a price. Although Plato shows Socrates opposing the sophists, and not charging for his instruction, Aristophanes, in his comedy Clouds, portrays Socrates as a greedy master of the sophists' craft. Although Plato is considered the most reliable source on Socrates and he says Socrates was not a sophist, opinions differ on whether Socrates was essentially different from the (other) sophists.

Contemporary Sources

Socrates is not known to have written anything. He is best known for the dialogues of Plato, but before Plato painted his memorable portrait in his dialogues, Socrates was an object of ridicule, described as a sophist, by Aristophanes. In addition to writing about his life and teaching, Plato and Xenophon wrote about Socrates' defense at his trial, in separate works both called Apology.

The Socratic Method

Socrates is known for the Socratic method (elenchus), Socratic irony, and the pursuit of knowledge. Socrates is famous for saying that he knows nothing and that the unexamined life is not worth living. The Socratic method involves asking a series of questions until a contradiction emerges invalidating the initial assumption. Socratic irony is the position that the inquisitor takes that he knows nothing while leading the questioning.