The Father of Western Philosophy
For more than two millennia, the name Socrates has been synonymous with philosophy, intellectual inquiry, and the pursuit of truth. Despite living in ancient Greece, his legacy has continued to influence and inspire generations of thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Nietzsche and beyond. From his timeless philosophy to his iconic method of questioning, Socrates remains one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in human history.
Socrates was born in Athens, Greece, around 470 B.C. We don’t have many records of his life, but what we know comes from the writings of Plato, Xenophon, and the plays of Aristophanes.
Socrates’ parents were Sophroniscus, an Athenian stonemason and sculptor, and Phaenarete, a midwife. Growing up in a family without noble status, Socrates likely received a modest education and began learning his father’s craft at a young age. He worked as a mason for many years before eventually dedicating his life to philosophy.
Socrates Bust. The Vatican Museums, Rome.
Photo by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA).
According to Plato, Socrates served in the armored infantry—known as the hoplite—with a shield, long spear, and face mask. He was known for his courage and fearlessness, traits that he carried throughout his life. Socrates fought in three battles during the Peloponnesian War and even saved the life of a well-known Athenian general named Alcibiades.
According to the sources, Socrates was far from a handsome figure. In fact, he was considered to be profoundly ugly. He sported long, unruly hair in the Spartan style and made a habit of going barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and exuding an air of arrogance. He wasn’t one for changing clothes, either. Instead, he simply wore whatever he had on from the night before.
But it wasn’t just Socrates’ unconventional appearance that made him stand out, but also his relentless pursuit of knowledge. He engaged in deep conversations with anyone willing to listen, regardless of their background, examining their lives as well as his own. As he declared at his trial:
“The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”
Socrates tackled the most fundamental questions about human existence, including “What is piety?”, “What is courage?”, “What is love?” and “What is happiness?”. He probed and challenged those who claimed to have the answers until he found inconsistencies or paradoxes that revealed their ignorance. This approach to questioning is known as the Socratic Method and forms the foundation of his philosophy.
The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1800).
Plato’s Apology tells how the Delphic Oracle proclaimed Socrates the wisest person on earth. Skeptical, Socrates questioned people thought to be wise, hoping to disprove the Oracle’s claim. Surprisingly, he found that those he encountered knew very little, and their declarations of wisdom were empty. Socrates concluded he was the wisest man because he recognized his own ignorance. As he famously declared:
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
In fifth-century Athens, success was measured by fame, wealth, honors, and political power. But Socrates rejected these societal norms. He neither labored to earn a living nor engaged in politics. Instead, he embraced poverty and devoted himself to questioning and examining the lives of others. Although he inspired the youth of Athens, Socrates was quick to deny any claim of being a teacher and refused to accept money for it.
He quickly gained a following of young men who abandoned their previous aspirations to pursue philosophy. Notable figures among them founded their own schools of thought, such as Antisthenes of Athens (Cynic school), Aristippus of Cyrene (Cyrenaic school), and Xenophon (influenced Zeno of Citium, founder of the Stoic school). Plato, perhaps the most famous of his followers, would go on to become one of the most influential philosophers of all time.
In 399 B.C., Socrates found himself in a tough spot. He was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and of heresy, and he had to defend himself in court. But instead of just denying the charges against him, Socrates boldly declared that he was a “gadfly,” someone who questioned and challenged the status quo. In other words, he saw himself as a valuable member of society who was not afraid to speak his mind.
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787).
Despite his best efforts, Socrates was convicted by the jury with a vote of 280 to 221. Yet, as a citizen of Athens, he was entitled to propose an alternative punishment rather than the one suggested by the prosecution. In a bold move, Socrates proposed that he be granted recognition and compensation by the city for his significant contributions in educating and enlightening the people.
Sadly, his proposal was not well-received, and the jury sentenced him to death by drinking a poisonous potion made from hemlock. Socrates had a chance to escape, but he refused. He was not afraid of death and felt that he would be no better off in exile. He was a loyal citizen of Athens, willing to abide by its laws even if they condemned him to death.
In his final days, Socrates spent time with his friends before drinking the poison. As Plato chronicled, “He appeared happy both in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear.” Socrates remained bold and inspirational even in his death, and his life and legacy would be well examined for millennia to come.
“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.” —Socrates
“By all means marry; if you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.” —Socrates
“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” —Socrates
“Be nicer than necessary to everyone you meet. Everyone is fighting some kind of battle.” —Socrates
“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” —Socrates
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