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7 Facts About Socrates, the Enigmatic Greek Street Philosopher

This famous painting, "The Death of Socrates" by Jacques-Louis David shows Socrates surrounded by his followers preparing to drink the cup of hemlock. VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

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One of the giants of Western philosophy, Socrates (470 to 399 B.C.E.) is also one of history's most enigmatic figures. He left behind no published writings, so all we have are secondhand accounts written by his students and contemporaries, most famously the dialogues of Plato.

While scholars agree that Socrates changed philosophy forever, they argue furiously over who he was and what he really believed. We spoke with Debra Nails, professor emerita of philosophy at Michigan State University, to learn how the Socratic method turned education on its head, and why Socrates' infamous trial and execution remains the "founding myth" of academic philosophy. Here are some facts to help you get to know Socrates.

1. Socrates Stuck Out

By all accounts, Socrates cut a strange figure in Athens. A brilliant intellect, he chose not to pursue money, power or fame, but to live in abject poverty as a troublemaking street philosopher. And if you believe the descriptions of his appearance by his student Plato and the comic playwright Aristophanes, Socrates was one ugly dude.

First, Socrates was dirty and disheveled, wandering the streets in his unwashed bedclothes, his hair long and greasy. Nails says that Socrates' unattractive appearance was probably as offensive to his critics as his confrontational questioning style.

Xantippe Dousing Socrates
The painting "Xantippe Dousing Socrates," by Reyer van Blommendael portrays an incident when his wife was so enraged with Socrates, she emptied a chamber pot on his head. Of his wife, Socrates said, "I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else."
Wikimedia Commons

"The Greeks were devoted to beauty, and beauty meant proportion in their architecture and statues," says Nails. "And then there's Socrates with the mouth of a frog or maybe a donkey, and these eyes that bulge and don't track. He didn't fit the Greek ideal and I'm sure that bothered them."

Despite his looks, Socrates was married to a much-younger woman, Xanthippe, who was often portrayed as nagging and shrewish. But since he spent all his time philosophizing rather than earning a living, there was perhaps much to complain about. The couple had two sons together.

2. He Wasn't a 'Teacher'

Even though Plato is sometimes referred to as his "star pupil," Socrates flatly rejected the title of "teacher," or at least in the way that the Greeks understood the role of a teacher.

"During Socrates' time, teaching meant transmitting information and the receiver receiving it," says Nails. "When he says he's not a teacher, Socrates is saying that he doesn't have information to transmit and that's why he's asking questions. The important thing is for each person to be involved in the intellectual labor required to come to conclusions."

Socrates reserved some of his most cutting remarks for the sophists, paid philosophers who imparted their wisdom and knowledge to the rich and powerful of Athens.

3. The Socratic Method Was Genius at Work

Instead of writing dry philosophical treatises or lecturing students on the nature of knowledge, Socrates preferred a far more entertaining way of getting to the bottom of thorny questions. He'd hang around all day in the Agora, the bustling outdoor marketplace of Athens, and ask people questions.

No one was immune from Socrates' playful interrogations — young, old, male, female, politician or prostitute — and crowds of young Athenians would gather to watch Socrates use his stinging wit and unbreakable logic to force his victims into intellectual corners. The more pompous and pretentious the victim, the better.

It's known today as the Socratic method, but Nails says that Socrates wouldn't have recognized what passes for the Socratic method in places like law schools, where professors pepper students with questions until they arrive at a predetermined answer.

Socrates never claimed that he had the answer to whatever question was being posed — from the nature of knowledge to the meaning of life. For him, the Socratic method was an exercise in breaking down false assumptions and exposing ignorance so that the individual being questioned — not Socrates — could arrive at something true.

"The real Socratic method requires individuals to dig down to the reason why they're saying what they're saying," says Nails. "And when they uncover those reasons, they often find there are inconsistencies they need to think through."

While some people who got roped into Socratic shakedowns walked away furious, others were transformed. After a young poet named Aristocles witnessed Socrates' marketplace spectacle, he went home and burned all his plays and poems. That kid would become the philosopher known as Plato.

4. We Don't Know Much About the 'Real' Socrates

The historical Socrates, like the historical Jesus, is impossible to know. Neither men wrote the texts for which they're best known, but figure as main characters in the writings of others. In the case of Socrates, these second-hand sources aren't in agreement over how Socrates lived and what kind of philosophy he employed to understand the world around him.

The impossibility of knowing the real Socrates is called the "Socratic problem" and it complicates any easy reading of the three main historical sources on Socrates. The playwright Aristophanes, for example, features a character called Socrates in his comedy "Clouds," but the character is more of a caricature of all intellectuals — disheveled, impious and intent on warping the minds of the youth — than an unbiased portrait of the man. 

Socrates teaches Aecibiades
This 1821 illustration shows Socrates (R) teaching Alcibiades, a prized pupil who later became an Athenian statesman.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Aristophanes and Socrates were contemporaries, but the men didn't see eye to eye. Aristophanes blamed the sophists and natural philosophers for poisoning the minds of Athenian youth, and his caricature of Socrates in "Clouds" became so well-known that it hounded the philosopher his entire life. By the time of his trial, Socrates blamed Aristophanes' plays for poisoning the jurors' minds against him.

A second source is Xenophon, a soldier-historian who, like Plato, was 45 years younger than Socrates. Xenophon has a solid reputation as a reliable historian of Athens, but he was a practical man with practical concerns. So, his quotations of Socrates have to do with mundane topics like estate management and moneymaking and may reflect Xenophon's views more than those of Socrates himself.

Plato's dialogues are the richest and best-known sources on Socrates, because Socrates is the main character in nearly all of the texts. Plato wrote the dialogues like plays, dramatizations of encounters that Socrates may or may not have had with real Athenians, some known to history. In the dialogues, the character of Socrates is an ingenious and often humorous interrogator, quick to confess his own ignorance while coaxing and teasing his fellow conversants toward philosophical revelations about morality and nature.

But are the dialogues historically accurate? Plato was 25 when Socrates was tried and executed. While Plato was undoubtedly inspired by Socrates, it's impossible to untangle which philosophies came from Socrates and which were Plato's alone. Further complicating the Socratic Problem is that ancient writers like Plato didn't distinguish between biography, drama, history and fiction.

5. Socrates is Best-Known as a Moral Philosopher

It's not easy to boil down Socrates' philosophies to a single statement, but if there's a key tenet that shows up again and again in the dialogues, it's this: it's never right to do wrong.

"Do no wrong, not even in return for an injury done to you," explains Nails. "Not even under threat of death, or to save your family. It is never right to do wrong. That's huge as a moral principle."

The best-known quote from Socrates comes during his trial, when he addresses supporters who ask him why he doesn't just go into exile and keep quiet in order to save his life. "The unexamined life," Socrates replies, "is not worth living."

The Socratic method was part of a system of self-examination that Socrates believed lead to virtue. And the only way to improve was to question everything until you arrived at greater wisdom and therefore greater virtue.

6. Socrates Heeded an Internal 'Voice'

Socrates was a fierce defender of reason and rationality, but he didn't fully dismiss the supernatural. For one thing, Socrates believed he was called by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi to safeguard the souls of all Athenians, making his confrontational conversations in the Agora part of his divine work.

But Socrates also believed he heard a daimonion or internal voice that stopped him from doing certain things. It was similar to a conscience, but it wasn't limited to chiming in on moral choices.

"You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me," says Socrates in Plato's "Apology." "This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything..."

Was Socrates schizophrenic? Nails doesn't think so. She points to scholars who say that there was nothing psychological or supernatural going on, but that Socrates would sometimes become intensely focused on a particular topic and slip into his own mind.

"That's when he would stand for hours and not move," says Nails. "That's when he would stop suddenly on the street and not continue along with his friends."

Whether supernatural or not, one of the reasons Socrates cites for going along with the trial in Athens is that his internal voice didn't tell him not to go. So he knew that the outcome, good or bad, would be for his ultimate benefit.

7. Socrates Died as He Lived, Uncompromising

The mood is Athens was bleak after suffering defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars, and Athenians were looking for something or someone to blame. Some thought that the gods were angry at Athens for the impiety of its philosophers and sophists. And so, 70-year-old Socrates, a well-known philosopher with a passionate young following, was charged with two counts: irreverence toward the Athenian gods, and corruption of Athenian youth. (It didn't help that two of his students had briefly overthrown the city's government.)

As mentioned earlier, Socrates could have avoided the trial altogether by leaving Athens and going into exile. But that wasn't his style, says Nails. Instead, Socrates practiced "civil disobedience" in its original meaning.

"This is not resistance. This is not revolution. This is civil disobedience," says Nails. "I do what I believe I must do and if there are consequences, I must accept them."

Socrates said as much in the "Apology," written as a record of his final defense during the trial and sentencing:

"For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed. But if anyone says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth. Wherefore, O men of Athens, I say to you ... either acquit me or not; but whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times."

Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to die by drinking a poisonous concoction containing hemlock, the Athenian method of execution. Before leaving, he gave final counsel to his supporters with a hint of his trademark irony.

"The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows."

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