Socrates, (469?–399 B.C.), a Greek philosopher. Socrates believed in virtue—that there was a right way for men to act. He spent his life seeking knowledge of what is right, as determined by means of dialogue (conversation between two or more persons), which he engaged in for the purpose of arriving at a truth. His ideas and methods had a lasting influence on Western philosophy—especially his concern with moral behavior, his use of logic in his questioning, and his examination of a subject until what appeared to be a universal truth was discovered.
According to tradition Socrates was the son of a stonecutter, and as a young man decided to spend his life seeking wisdom. Professing to be completely ignorant himself, he began conversing with leading Athenians, asking questions that invariably led his respondent into contradictions and confusion. The respondents were furious at being humiliated in this manner, and Socrates made an enemy of many a person of power and influence in Athens.
However, he won the admiration of many young men, who became his pupils. Socrates did not open a school or take fees for teaching, but lived in poverty, in contrast to the Sophists, who were paid teachers. In the public mind Socrates was identified as an eccentric Sophist and was presumed to hold in contempt the traditional religious beliefs, as the Sophists did, although in fact he was very pious.
Socrates was a conscientious citizen and did military duty in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.), which Athens finally lost to Sparta and its allies. He believed that power should be held only by those who possessed wisdom, and it was plain to all that he questioned the competence of Athens' political leaders after the death of the great statesman Pericles in 429.
When Athens lost the war, its citizens sought someone to blame. Socrates had been the teacher of both Alcibiades, a general who had turned traitor, and Critias, a self-serving political leader who had had hundreds of Athenians put to death. It seemed obvious that Socrates had been a bad influence. The old philosopher was charged with impiety and the corruption of youth and was brought to trial before a tribunal of 501 citizens. He was condemned to die by drinking hemlock poison. He refused to make a serious plea for leniency, an act that probably would have saved his life. Surrounded by his friends, Socrates drank the poison and met death with serenity.
Socrates' trial, imprisonment, and death are described in detail, although it can not be known with what accuracy, in Plato's Apology, Crito , and Phaedo .
Socrates wrote nothing, and is known only through the works of others. The historian-soldier Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates, wrote his recollections of him. The playwright Aristophanes in The Clouds ridiculed Socrates. Most information, however, comes from the philosopher Plato, also a pupil, whose writings are in the form of dialogues in which Socrates asks questions. Scholars realize that, since Plato adopted this form for expressing his own ideas, it is impossible to know which ideas were actually those of Socrates.
Plato and Xenophon agree that Socrates used dialectic—the Socratic method , as it has come to be known. The method consisted of asking a pupil about a particular circumstance and by skillful questioning to lead him to a general definition of a virtue. Socrates believed that if a person knew what was good, he would do good. In contrast to the Sophists, who taught by example and especially valued the power of words, Socrates taught by induction, using the power of words to establish meaning only. Although Aristotle, a pupil of Plato, is considered the founder of logic, it actually began with Socrates.
Socrates' pretense of being ignorant is known as Socratic irony . It reflected his belief that an individual must recognize his own ignorance in order to free his mind for the knowledge that will emerge through the use of logic.
Plato, profoundly affected by Socrates' teaching, passed on his own interpretation of it to Aristotle. Other followers of Socrates who developed their own interpretations included Antisthenes, who founded the Cynic school of philosophers, and Aristippus, the founder of the Hedonist, or Cyrenaic, school. These philosophies, in turn, influenced Stoicism and Epicureanism.