Although Socrates was one of the greatest philosophers of Ancient Greece, we have no written works by him. We only know about his life through the writings of his students and contemporaries.
SOCRATES’S EARLY LIFE
Socrates was born in the city of Athens in the 5th century bc, the son of a sculptor and a midwife. He took up his father’s trade before becoming a soldier. Athens at this time was at war with the city of Sparta, and it was normal for Athenian men to do military service. When he returned from military service he gave up sculpture as soon as he could, and took up philosophy.
Some well-off young men studied with teachers called sophists, who would teach them skills such as rhetoric (how to give speeches) and logical reasoning. Socrates, though, was different from the sophists. He would try to draw ordinary people into philosophical conversations about ideas like truth, or goodness. Soon he became famous, and people came to learn from him, though he refused to accept any payment.
THE SOCRATIC METHOD
Socrates encouraged his students to develop their ideas through dialogues (conversations). This style of teaching is known today as the Socratic method. A number of these dialogues were written down by some of his students, such as Plato and Xenophon. We can see from these dialogues that Socrates was trying to teach his students to question every idea.
WHAT DID SOCRATES BELIEVE?
Most of the ideas discussed by Socrates and his students were about the right way to live. Socrates suggested that all people should have knowledge as their aim, and that evil could only come from ignorance. He was outspoken about what he saw as unjust politics. In addition, he questioned religion, saying that he was guided more by his inner voice, or conscience, than by the Greek gods.
CONTROVERSY AND ARREST
His views made Socrates unpopular with the people of Athens. Many believed that he was spreading dangerous ideas. In 399 bc he was arrested. The Athenian court charged him with corrupting the young and neglecting the gods, and finally sentenced him to death. Plato’s Phaedo is a moving work that describes Socrates’ last day. Although his friends urged him to escape, Socrates accepted his fate calmly, and drank the poisonous hemlock given to him.
Socrates inspired great loyalty in his students. Many of them, such as Plato, continued to use his ideas and methods to form their own schools of philosophy. Although we can never be sure how accurately his students described Socrates, it is clear that his influence helped to shape Western thinking.