Surprisingly few things are known for certain about Socrates. He was a well-known Athenian citizen of moderate means who taught philosophy, but not for money. He was tried and executed by the state in 399 B.C at about the age of 70. Beyond that our main sources are his students, Plato and Xenophon, but they each give a very different impression of the man. Xenophon claims Socrates to be eminently pious, having only a positive influence on the people he met. This does not explain the hostility aimed at Socrates. Xenophon was apparently not a very intelligent individual, which perhaps undermines him as a source on Socrates, as he may often not have understood his teacher. Plato’s weakness as a source is for almost the opposite reason. Russell describes Plato as “an imaginative writer of great genius and charm”. Even Plato does not pretend that the dialogues he writes really occurred exactly as he recorded them. It is hard to judge whether he is even depicting the real Socrates in his work, or rather a character inspired by Socrates, who is really a mouthpiece for his own views.
The Trial of Socrates
Nevertheless, the dialogue considered most historically accurate is Socrates’ defence at his trial. He was prosecuted for not worshiping the Gods, and for corrupting the young with his irreligious teachings. Socrates’ prosecutors say he claims the wisdom of the Gods, but Socrates responds that he is not wise. He tells a story that the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed that there was no one wiser than Socrates, and that he had attempted to prove the Oracle wrong. He speaks to eminent people in society who he supposes to be wise but finds that they are not (and tells them so). What the Oracle means is that all men are equally wise, because no man is wise. From this story one can start to see how easily he made enemies. According to Plato’s telling, Socrates goes on to debate with his accusers, and exposes contradictions in their arguments. For example, at one stage his accusers claim he is an atheist, while also introducing new divinities to the young people of Athens.
He finishes by claiming that he has been commanded by God to live the life of a philosopher, so to renounce that life (as his prosecutors ask) would be to disobey God. More than that, if the state side with the prosecution and find him guilty, the state will have disobeyed God. He is not pleading then for his own sake, but for the sake of the judges and the people of Athens. It appears that the judges found this line of reasoning infuriating. From this Socrates appears to be utterly self-assured, high-minded and indifferent to worldly success, with no fear of death. Plato paints a picture of a man who has achieved mastery of the mind over the body. He can withstand great physical hardship without complaint, never feels lust even under temptation, and can out-drink anyone without appearing drunk. Like the Stoics, the Platonic Socrates believes that the greatest good is ‘virtue’, and that no man sins knowingly. Therefore, the pursuit of knowledge is the key to the perfect life (this is contrary to Christian ethics, where a ‘pure heart’ is the essential, and this can be found in the learned and ignorant alike).
Socrates is depicted by Plato as reasoning using the dialectic method, where knowledge is elicited through a series of questions and answers. This method is suitable where sufficient knowledge exists to arrive at the right outcome, but we need clarity of analysis to make the best use of logic. Ethical questions such as ‘what is justice’ fit this category, as well as cases where the logic rather than facts of an argument are being debated. Matters of empirical science are not suited to this method. It is hard to imagine arriving at germ theory through a series of questions and answers. If we think of philosophy of being more about ethics and logical enquiry rather than scientific discovery, it is because of the significant influence of Plato on subsequent thinkers.