Books by Socrates
Books about Socrates

Biography: Socrates

Socrates was born in Athens to Sophroniscus, an artisan-sculptor, and to Phenarete, a mid-wife. We know nothing about his youth. As someone has remarked, "You would think the Master was born an old man, with no childhood." His wife was the notorious shrew, Xanthippe. Socrates remarked that if he could master Xanthippe he could easily adapt himself to the rest of the world. But Socrates might well have paid more attention to the material needs of their three sons.

A report of the Delphic Oracle proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest man in the world. Believing that this could not be true, Socrates was impelled on a life of constantly questioning people in order to find someone who was truly wise. As he interrogated citizens in the streets and gymnasiums of Athens, he attracted to himself a coterie of well-born young men. Unfortunately some of these disciples, such as Alcibiades and Critias, turned out to be such scoundrels that this factor played a role in his condemnation.(12)

Rather than teaching a set of doctrines, Socrates tried to get men to think for themselves. The philosophers who preceded him had focused on the nature of the universe, but Socrates turned his attention to man and man's behavior. Aristotle and Cicero credited him with founding ethics. His main teaching, as best we can determine from his interpreters, was that all values can be reduced to a single virtue, knowledge. Virtue, then, can be taught. Evil is blindness: No one does evil on purpose. He who knows the good will do it.

Socrates was brought to trial in 399 B.C. on charges of "atheism" and corrupting Athenian youth. This arraignment had at least two immediate causes: a political reaction which occurred in Athens after a lengthy war with Sparta and the lampoons of the comic writer Aristophanes. Though Socrates eloquently defended himself (the defense is recorded in Plato's Apology), the jury voted 281 to 220 to put him to death.

Socrates could easily have fled from Athens after the trial, but he chose to remain. He said he did not fear dying because it would bring either annihilation or a welcome opportunity to fellowship with those already dead. At the appointed time Socrates calmly drank the poisonous hemlock. According to the Phaedo, his last words were: "I owe a cock to Asclepius [the god of healing]; do not forget to pay it."



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