When did Socrates die?

When did Socrates die?


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Question 1: The death of Socrates is usually said to have happened in 399 BC, but I've sometimes seen a question mark after the date. Is there actually a possible uncertainty about the exact year? What sources is the date based on? Xenophon? Plato? What is the chain that connects this to the modern calendar?

Question 2: It sounds like his death happened early in the month of Skirophorion, so maybe June or July. Is this about as accurate as we can be, June/July? As far as I can tell, the Attic calendar had vaguely defined months, and there may be no way of matching a particular month in a particular year to the Gregorian calendar.

The clearest discussion I've found is in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

In the month of Thargelion [May-June 399 Apology] a month or two after Meletus's initial summons, Socrates's trial occurred. On the day before, the Athenians had launched a ship to Delos, dedicated to Apollo and commemorating Theseus's legendary victory over the Minotaur (Phaedo 58a-b). [… ] Although the duration of the annual voyage varied with conditions, Xenophon says it took thirty-one days in 399 (Memorabilia 4.8.2); if so, Socrates lived thirty days beyond his trial, into the month of Skirophorion.

Would the ship have been launched on the 6th or 7th of Thargelion, which were the days of the Thargelia purification ritual?


According to this page, it was Friday, February 15 399BC.

You are right. If we want to know the exact date of some event we can use astronomical events for sure. They probably know that Socrates died X days before the Vernal Equinox, for example.

This is when Wolfram Alpha can help us.

First, I want to know how many days we have until the Vernal Equinox in Greece:

http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=Difference+between+2016%2F02%2F15+and+vernal+equinox+in+Greece

Right: 34 days (and few minutes)

Now I want to know when the same day was in 399BC

http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=34+days+before+the+vernal+equinox+of+399+BC+in+Greece

Perfect: it was Friday, February* 15, 399 BC (extrapolated Gregorian calendar)

  • If you see August, it's because you are in the South Hemisphere. I don't know why WA is using your location instead of Greece.

It even give us the exact time difference from now: 2414 years*****

http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=difference+between+February+15+399BC+and+now

*EDIT: just in case, the above was from 1 year ago, the time difference would be2415 years 9 months 27.58 daysat the time of writing this answer


All the sources I have found have said 399 BC, when he was killed by a hemlock drink, which he preferred for his death after he was trialed for what he was teaching.


The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (French: La Mort de Socrate) is an oil on canvas painted by French painter Jacques-Louis David in 1787. The painting focuses on a classical subject like many of his works from that decade, in this case the story of the execution of Socrates as told by Plato in his Phaedo. [1] [2] In this story, Socrates has been convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens and introducing strange gods, and has been sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock. Socrates uses his death as a final lesson for his pupils rather than fleeing when the opportunity arises, and faces it calmly. [1] The Phaedo depicts the death of Socrates and is also Plato's fourth and last dialogue to detail the philosopher's final days, which is also detailed in Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito.

The Death of Socrates
ArtistJacques-Louis David
Year1787 ( 1787 )
MediumOil on canvas
MovementNeoclassicism
Dimensions129.5 cm × 196.2 cm (51.0 in × 77.2 in)
LocationMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the painting, an old man in a white robe sits upright on a bed, one hand extended over a cup, the other gesturing in the air. He is surrounded by other men of varying ages, most showing emotional distress, unlike the old man, who remains calm. The young man handing him the cup looks the other way, with his face in his free hand. Another young man clutches the thigh of the old man. An elderly man sits at the end of the bed, slumped over and looking in his lap. To the left, other men are seen through an arch set in the background wall.


The Last Words of Socrates at the Place where he Died

§0. In H24H 24§45, I quote and analyze the passage in Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a where Socrates dies. His last words, as transmitted by Plato, are directed at all those who have followed Socrates—and who have had the unforgettable experience of engaging in dialogue with him. Calling out to one of those followers, Crito, who was a native son of the same neighborhood where Socrates was born, he says to his comrade: don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios. I will quote the whole passage in a minute. But first, we need to ask: who is this Asklepios? As I explain in H24H 20§§29–33, he was a hero whose father was the god Apollo himself, and, like his divine father, Asklepios had special powers of healing. More than that, Asklepios also had the power of bringing the dead back to life. That is why he was killed by the immortals, since mortals must stay mortal. But Asklepios, even after death, retained his power to bring the dead back to life.

§1. So, what does Socrates mean when he asks his followers, in his dying words, not to forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios?

§2. On 16 March 2015, the group participating in the 2015 Harvard Spring Break travel study program visited the site where Socrates died—and where he said what he said about sacrificing a rooster to Asklepios. On the surface, this site is nothing much to write home about. All we can see at the site is the foundation stones of the State Prison where Socrates was held prisoner and where he was forced to drink the hemlock in the year 399 BCE. But I feel deeply that, just by visiting the site, our group managed to connect with a sublime experience. We were making contact with a place linked forever with the very last words of one of the greatest thinkers in world history.

Foundations of the Athenian State Prison where Socrates died. Photo by H. Lambert.

Vials that were found by archaeologists at the site of the State Prison of Athens. These vials, now housed in the Agora Museum, are believed to have been the containers for the hemlock that was used to execute prisoners of the state. Photo by H. Lambert.

§3. I now quote my own translation of Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a, which situates these last words of Socrates:

“Go,” said he [= Socrates], “and do as I say.” Crito, when he heard this, signaled with a nod to the boy servant who was standing nearby, and the servant went in, remaining for some time, and then came out with the man who was going to administer the poison [pharmakon]. He was carrying a cup that contained it, ground into the drink. When Socrates saw the man he said: “You, my good man, since you are experienced in these matters, should tell me what needs to be done.” The man answered: “You need to drink it, that’s all. Then walk around until you feel a heaviness |117b in your legs. Then lie down. This way, the poison will do its thing.” While the man was saying this, he handed the cup to Socrates. And Socrates took it in a cheerful way, not flinching or getting pale or grimacing. Then looking at the man from beneath his brows, like a bull—that was the way he used to look at people—he said: “What do you say about my pouring a libation out of this cup to someone? Is it allowed or not?” The man answered: “What we grind is measured out, Socrates, as the right dose for drinking.” “I understand,” he said, |117c “but surely it is allowed and even proper to pray to the gods so that my transfer of dwelling [met-oikēsis] from this world [enthende] to that world [ekeîse] should be fortunate. So, that is what I too am now praying for. Let it be this way.” And, while he was saying this, he took the cup to his lips and, quite readily and cheerfully, he drank down the whole dose. Up to this point, most of us had been able to control fairly well our urge to let our tears flow but now when we saw him drinking the poison, and then saw him finish the drink, we could no longer hold back, and, in my case, quite against my own will, my own tears were now pouring out in a flood. So, I covered my face and had a good cry. You see, I was not crying for him, |117d but at the thought of my own bad fortune in having lost such a comrade [hetairos]. Crito, even before me, found himself unable to hold back his tears: so he got up and moved away. And Apollodorus, who had been weeping all along, now started to cry in a loud voice, expressing his frustration. So, he made everyone else break down and cry—except for Socrates himself. And he said: “What are you all doing? I am so surprised at you. I had sent away the women mainly because I did not want them |117e to lose control in this way. You see, I have heard that a man should come to his end [teleutân] in a way that calls for measured speaking [euphēmeîn]. So, you must have composure [hēsukhiā], and you must endure.” When we heard that, we were ashamed, and held back our tears. He meanwhile was walking around until, as he said, his legs began to get heavy, and then he lay on his back—that is what the man had told him to do. Then that same man who had given him the poison [pharmakon] took hold of him, now and then checking on his feet and legs and after a while he pressed his foot hard and asked him if he could feel it and he said that he couldn’t and then he pressed his shins, |118a and so on, moving further up, thus demonstrating for us that he was cold and stiff. Then he [= Socrates] took hold of his own feet and legs, saying that when the poison reaches his heart, then he will be gone. He was beginning to get cold around the abdomen. Then he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said— this was the last thing he uttered— “Crito, I owe the sacrifice of a rooster to Asklepios will you pay that debt and not neglect to do so?” “I will make it so,” said Crito, “and, tell me, is there anything else?” When Crito asked this question, no answer came back anymore from Socrates. In a short while, he stirred. Then the man uncovered his face. His eyes were set in a dead stare. Seeing this, Crito closed his mouth and his eyes. Such was the end [teleutē], Echecrates, of our comrade [hetairos]. And we may say about him that he was in his time the best [aristos] of all men we ever encountered—and the most intelligent [phronimos] and most just [dikaios].

So I come back to my question about the meaning of the last words of Socrates, when he says, in his dying words: don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios. As I begin to formulate an answer, I must repeat something that I have already highlighted. It is the fact that the hero Asklepios was believed to have special powers of healing—even the power of bringing the dead back to life. As I point out in H24H 24§46, some interpret the final instruction of Socrates to mean simply that death is a cure for life. I disagree. After sacrificing a rooster at day’s end, sacrificers will sleep the sleep of incubation and then, the morning after the sacrifice, they will wake up to hear other roosters crowing. So, the words of Socrates here are referring to rituals of overnight incubation in the hero cults of Asklepios.

§4. On 18 March 2015, the group participating in the 2015 Harvard Spring Break travel study program visited a site where such rituals of overnight incubation actually took place: the site was Epidaurus. This small city was famous for its hero cult of Asklepios. The space that was sacred to Asklepios, as our group had a chance to witness, is enormous, and the enormity is a sure sign of the intense veneration received by Asklepios as the hero who, even though he is dead, has the superhuman power to rescue you from death. The mystical logic of worshipping the dead Asklepios is that he died for humanity: he died because he had the power to bring humans back to life.

§5. So, Asklepios is the model for keeping the voice of the rooster alive. And, for Socrates, Asklepios can become the model for keeping the word alive.

§6. In H24H 24§47, I follow through on analyzing this idea of keeping the word from dying, of keeping the word alive. That living word, I argue, is dialogue. We can see it when Socrates says that the only thing worth crying about is the death of the word. I am about to quote another passage from Plato’s Phaedo, and again I will use my own translation. But before I quote the passage, here is the context: well before Socrates is forced to drink the hemlock, his followers are already mourning his impending death, and Socrates reacts to their sadness by telling them that the only thing that would be worth mourning is not his death but the death of the conversation he started with them. Calling out to one of his followers, Phaedo, Socrates tells him (Plato, Phaedo 89b):

“Tomorrow, Phaedo, you will perhaps be cutting off these beautiful locks of yours [as a sign of mourning]?” “Yes, Socrates,” I [= Phaedo] replied, “I guess I will.” He shot back: “No you will not, if you listen to me.” “So, what will I do?” I [= Phaedo] said. He replied: “Not tomorrow but today I will cut off my own hair and you too will cut off these locks of yours—if our argument [logos] comes to an end [teleutân] for us and we cannot bring it back to life again [ana-biōsasthai].

What matters for Socrates, as I argue in H24H 24§48, is the resurrection of the ‘argument’ or logos, which means literally ‘word’, even if death may be the necessary pharmakon or ‘poison’ for leaving the everyday life and for entering the everlasting cycle of resurrecting the word.

§7. In the 2015 book Masterpieces of Metonymy (MoM), published both online and in print, I study in Part One a traditional custom that prevailed in Plato’s Academy at Athens for centuries after the death of Socrates. Their custom was to celebrate the birthday of Socrates on the sixth day of the month Thargelion, which by their reckoning coincided with his death day. And they celebrated by engaging in Socratic dialogue, which for them was the logos that was resurrected every time people engage in Socratic dialogue. I go on to say in MoM 1§§146–147:

For Plato and for Plato’s Socrates, the word logos refers to the living ‘word’ of dialogue in the context of philosophical argumentation. When Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (89b) tells his followers who are mourning his impending death that they should worry not about his death but about the death of the logos—if this logos cannot be resurrected or ‘brought back to life’ (ana-biōsasthai)—he is speaking of the dialogic argumentation supporting the idea that the psūkhē or ‘soul’ is immortal. In this context, the logos itself is the ‘argument’.

For Plato’s Socrates, it is less important that his psūkhē or ‘soul’ must be immortal, and it is vitally more important that the logos itself must remain immortal—or, at least, that the logos must be brought back to life. And that is because the logos itself, as I say, is the ‘argument’ that comes to life in dialogic argumentation.

Here is the way I would sum up, then, what Socrates means as he speaks his last words. When the sun goes down and you check in for sacred incubation at the precinct of Asklepios, you sacrifice a rooster to this hero who, even in death, has the power to bring you back to life. As you drift off to sleep at the place of incubation, the voice of that rooster is no longer heard. He is dead, and you are asleep. But then, as the sun comes up, you wake up to the voice of a new rooster signaling that morning is here, and this voice will be for you a sign that says: the word that died has come back to life again. Asklepios has once again shown his sacred power. The word is resurrected. The conversation may now continue.


An array of foes

Socrates attracted many followers among the youth, the powerful, and the wealthy of Athens. But he had detractors as well. He engaged in a war of words with the Sophists, a group of itinerant instructors who, for a fee, taught rich, young Athenian men the rhetorical skills needed in the political arena. Socrates excoriated the Sophists for their pay-to-play philosophy. Their mutual enmity became the subject of Aristophanes’ satirical play The Clouds. The famous playwright lampooned not only Socrates’ appearance—for he was quite an unattractive individual—but also his persona, portraying him as a person who literally had his head in the clouds.

Things soon came crashing down to earth for the philosopher. Political fortunes had changed dramatically in Athens. Socrates became suspect, not only for the actions of some of his associates but because his concepts of individualism seemed too revolutionary in the politically fraught times. In 399 B.C., magistrates charged him with impiety and corrupting the city’s youth.

Rather than fleeing or renouncing his beliefs, Socrates accepted the death sentence he was given. He spent his final days visiting with friends before drinking a cup of poisonous hemlock. As chronicled by Plato, “He appeared happy both in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear.” Socrates had been as bold and inspirational in his death as in his life both would be well examined in the millennia to come.


Politics, Religion, and Philosophy

As we explore the fields of politics, religion, and philosophy, perhaps the most appropriate starting point is the Allegory of the Cave written in Book VII of Plato’s The Republic. In it, Plato speaks to the persistence of human ignorance and the effects that it can have in inhibiting us from seeing things as they truly are. For those of you who haven’t read The Republic or aren’t familiar with the Allegory of the Cave, there’s a great TED-Ed video that you can watch which summarizes it nicely. But before we get to the allegory, let me present a little history of Plato’s Republic.

Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher and student of Socrates. Socrates was not a very well-liked man in his day. At one point in his life, the Oracle at Delphi pronounced Socrates to be the wisest of Greeks. This was paradoxical for Socrates because he believed to know nothing (“One thing only I know and that is that I know nothing.”). So Socrates went around asking prominent Athenians about what they knew (or rather thought they knew). What he found was that those who claimed to know the most, knew the least. Unlike them, Socrates did not claim to know what he didn’t know. This, of course, made the Athenians look foolish and also confirmed that Socrates was the wisest of Greeks. There are 2 things that are true about Athenian politicians that are still true today:

Socrates was put on trial for the charges of “corrupting Athenian youth” and “impiety.” He was found guilty and was sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock-based liquid. He is believed to have died around the year 399 BCE.

Plato, who was around 25 years old at the time of Socrates death, did not take it very well. His friend and mentor was put to death by his own government for the crime of asking questions. It’s not known if The Republic was written as a result of this event or if Plato was writing the dialogue anyway, but either way, The Republic was Plato’s political treatise that explored the definition of justice, universal themes, and different forms of governance. The Republic is divided into 10 books and each book explores a different theme. We’ll discuss some of the other themes in future blog posts, but I’d like to begin with the Allegory of the Cave.

In Book VII, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave where prisoners have been living in a cave their entire lives. They are chained up in such a way that they can only face the back of the cave with the lighted entrance behind them. Every once in a while shadows would be cast onto the back wall of the cave for the prisoners to see. The prisoners believed that these shadows weren’t just representations of beings, but the beings themselves. Then one day, one of the prisoners is freed and he goes out into the world outside of the cave. He is immediately (but temporarily) blinded by the bright light of the sun and of the fires that would cast the shadows into the cave. When people try to explain to him that the objects around him are real and the shadows are just reflections, he didn’t believe them. The shadows were what he knew and they seemed clearer and more real to him than the 3-dimensional objects casting them. But slowly he begins to learn the truth. Eventually he begins to see the actual beings more clearly. Eventually, he even manages to look at the sun and learns that the sun does 3 things:

  1. It gives us the seasons
  2. It gives us light
  3. It is the cause of the shadows that he had grown up believing were real

Eventually, the man returns to the cave, but finds himself blinded and unable to see the shadows. The other prisoners ridicule him for being blind and when he tries to explain to them that the shadows are not real but are just 2-dimensional representations of a 3-dimensional object, they react violently and kill him.

Notice the similarities between the man in the cave and Socrates? Socrates, deemed to be the wisest of all Greeks, tried to share his knowledge (or lack of knowledge) with the Athenians and they reacted violently, killing him. But the Allegory of the Cave has been studied and appreciated for much more than just an analogy for the death of Socrates. It’s a reflection of how people can become so beholden to their own beliefs while living in blissful ignorance. It can be used to describe a person’s belief in god or lack of a belief in god. It can be used as a starting point for questioning whether our own 3-dimensional reality is just a projection of something greater – as if we ourselves are the prisoners in some sort of cave just looking at shadows. It has been used as the influence for films like The Matrix, Dark City, and Room and books like Edwin A. Abbot’s Flatland. In The Republic, Plato uses the allegory as a means to illustrate the people are too stubborn and ignorant to be capable of self-rule. You don’t need to look any further than the American political climate for proof of that. We can discuss Plato’s theory of the idealized social structure ruled by Philosopher-Kings in another blog post.

So what can we learn from the Allegory of the Cave? The obvious answer is that we should be open-minded when it comes to hearing ideas that are different from our own. The wise answer is to remember that the only thing we truly know is nothing. But perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the Allegory of the Cave is the difference between a person and people. To quote Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” And on a personal note, I’d just like to say how happy I am that I can quote a late-90s sci-fi movie in a discussion on philosophy and the nature of humanity.


Socrates of Greece

Greek philosopher Socrates is considered one of the greatest philosophers in all of history. He lived from 470 BC to 399 BC (which is where he appears on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History.)

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Ancient Greece was an important culture to the mindset of modern western societies. In ancient times, the Greeks developed systems of law, government, and philosophy that still influence the world today. Government processes such as democracy were introduced to the world through the ancient Greeks, and so were philosophical thoughts and processes. Greece produced some of the best philosophers the world has ever seen, and Socrates is one of the greatest.

He was born in the city-state of Athens around 470 B.C., and he wasn’t born into wealth or privilege. Historical records aren’t clear about Socrates, but they claim that he was given some form of education since he was literate and an excellent orator. When Socrates was a young adult man he worked as a stone cutter and he also was a military veteran. Socrates apparently fought in the Peloponnesian War and lived through the ordeal. Once his military service was over, he married a woman named Xanthippe. This marriage must have occurred when Socrates was a middle-aged man because records indicate that Xanthippe was much younger than Socrates. She was not only younger than the old philosopher, but she was also a fiery spirited woman who could be shrewd and cunning. She bore him three children and their names were Lamprocles, Sophonicrus, and Menexenus.

Socrates young wife represented an aspect of his life that would bring about his demise. His wit, humor, social skills and ability to speak well had captivated the youth of his day. Though he was a much older man, he managed to gain the acceptance, admiration and respect of the younger generation. When he was being tried for his death, his accusers claimed that he corrupted the youth of society with his speech.

Socrates had become known throughout Athenian society for his productions as well as his oratory skills. He created many satirical plays that were well received in the theater. Socrates was also a senator in Athens and he was very popular with his peers as well as with the public. He had served for many years before he left this position to develop his philosophical ideology.

Socrates never tried to create a new way of thinking or a new set of ideology or principles about life. Instead, he had developed the ability to break everything down to its basic core to expose it for what it really was. Socrates questioned things to their core and his ability to reduce ideas, traditions and patterns of thoughts to their core forced many people to rethink their beliefs, morality and how they view the world. Socrates claimed that knowledge is true to all but the belief is only limited to an individual.

This particular view was dangerous to the mindset of the ruling class of ancient Athens. What Socrates proposed through his philosophy method was that the systems and traditions that were in place in ancient Athens was not valid or that they could be easily dismissed with some given thought. Most people accept their government, laws and way of life without question. Socrates was actually causing many people to reconsider their view of ancient Athenian society or at the very least they seriously began to question these systems.


7 Facts About Socrates, the Enigmatic Greek Street Philosopher

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.

"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.

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:

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."

Socrates had some high-profile fans including Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and Benjamin Franklin, whose personal recipe for humility was "Imitate Jesus and Socrates."


Active service

Socrates’ first proper engagement was at Potidaea in 432 BC – a city-state threatening to break away from Athens. Already aged 37, Socrates played a role in the initial battle, and also in the subsequent siege of the city. The campaign kept him away from Athens for almost three years, and it was on the way home, as part of a victorious army, that Socrates distinguished himself.

The Athenian army was ambushed near Spartolos and suffered serious losses. Socrates, though, saved the life and armour of Alcibiades, a man who went on to become one of Athens’ leading strategists and politicians.

Five years after his return from Potidaea, with the first phase of the Peloponnesian Wars at its height, Socrates fought at the Battle of Delium. The battle, in 424 BC, provides the first recorded incident of fratricide – or what might now be called ‘friendly fire’ casualties – when confused hoplites began fighting each other, unable to distinguish fellow Athenians from their enemies, the Boeotians.

After some early successes, the Athenians were routed. Socrates, though, seems to have maintained some order in his retreat. Plato wrote ‘when you behave in war as he did, then (the enemy) do not even touch you instead they pursue those who turn in headlong flight’.

The Athenian general Laches was even more generous: ‘If all the Athenians had fought as bravely as Socrates, the Boeotians would have erected no (victory) statues.’

Socrates’ last military service was at Amphipolis. Approaching 48 by then, his role in the battle is unclear. Spartan victory at Amphipolis soon led to an armistice with Athens, and the first phase of the war was over.


Socrates Quotes that are full of wisdom

25. “Remember that there is nothing stable in human affairs therefore avoid undue elation in prosperity, or undue depression in adversity.” – Socrates
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26. “Remember what is unbecoming to do is also unbecoming to speak of.” – Socrates

27. “The shortest and surest way to live with honour in the world, is to be in reality what we would appear to be and if we observe, we shall find, that all human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by the practice of them.” – Socrates

28. “Think not those faithful who praise all thy words and actions but those who kindly reprove thy faults.” – Socrates

29. “Thou shouldst eat to live not live to eat.” – Socrates

30. “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.” – Socrates

31. “Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.” – Socrates

Have you see these Karl Marx quotes that inspire critical thinking and questioning of society?


His thought

There was a strong religious side to Socrates's character and thought which constantly revealed itself in spite of his criticism of Greek myths. His words and actions in the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Symposium reveal a deep respect for Athenian religious customs and a sincere regard for divinity (gods). Indeed, it was a divine voice which Socrates claimed to hear within himself on important occasions in his life. It was not a voice which gave him positive instructions, but instead warned him when he was about to go off course. He recounts, in his defense before the Athenian court, the story of his friend Chaerephon, who was told by the Delphic Oracle (a person regarded as wise counsel) that Socrates was the wisest of men. That statement puzzled Socrates, he says, for no one was more aware of the extent of his own ignorance than he himself, but he determined to see the truth of the god's words. After questioning those who had a reputation for wisdom and who considered themselves, wise, he concluded that he was wiser than they because he could recognize his ignorance while they, who were equally ignorant, thought themselves wise.

Socrates was famous for his method of argumentation (a system or process used for arguing or debate) and his works often made as many enemies as admirers within Athens. An example comes from the Apology. Meletus had accused Socrates of corrupting the youth, or ruining the youth's morality. Socrates begins by asking if Meletus considers the improvement of youth important. He replies that he does, whereupon Socrates asks who is capable of improving the young. The laws, says Meletus, and Socrates asks him to name a person who knows the laws. Meletus responds that the judges there present know the laws, whereupon Socrates asks if all who are present are able to instruct and improve youth or whether only a few can. Meletus replies that all of them are capable of such a task, which forces Meletus to confess that other groups of Athenians, such as the Senate and the Assembly, and indeed all Athenians are capable of instructing and improving the youth. All except Socrates, that is. Socrates then starts a similar set of questions regarding the instruction and improvement of horses and other animals. Is it true that all men are capable of training horses, or only those men with special qualifications and experience? Meletus, realizing the absurdity of his position, does not answer, but Socrates answers for him and says that if he does not care enough about the youth of Athens to have given adequate thought to who might instruct and improve them, he has no right to accuse Socrates of corrupting them.

Thus the Socratic method of argumentation begins with commonplace questions which lead the opponent to believe that the questioner is simple, but ends in a complete reversal. Thus his chief contributions lie not in the construction of an elaborate system but in clearing away the false common beliefs and in leading men to an awareness of their own ignorance, from which position they may begin to discover the truth. It was his unique combination of dialectical (having to do with using logic and reasoning in an argument or discussion) skill and magnetic attractiveness to the youth of Athens which gave his opponents their opportunity to bring him to trial in 399 B.C.E.


Plato’s Apology: Socrates was one of the greatest people in human history

One way to read Plato’s apology is to see it as the record of a truly great man and his untimely death. From the very beginning we see Socrates as a man who speaks plainly in contrast with the eloquence of his accusers. He claims that the older accusations are the more serious ones, because those accusations were made when members of the court were young. Socrates gives the origin story of all of these false accusations. He tells us about how a friend had gone to the Oracle at Delphi, and that the God had said that there was no one wiser in Socrates. This puzzled Socrates, because he knew that he was ignorant. Trying to figure out what the God had meant, Socrates went to prove to himself that other men were wiser than he was. But what happened was that he soon realized that other people only pretended to be wise, but they weren’t really wise. Socrates concluded that at least he knew that he didn’t know anything and that made him at least wiser than these people.

Over time Socrates came to see this experience as a sort of calling from God. His job was to examine people and see if they were really being truthful or not. Over time he attracted some followers, but his efforts made him very unpopular. But Socrates was devoted to what he saw as his mission. Socrates says this: “someone will say: and are you not ashamed, Socrates, of the course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: there you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he’s doing right or wrong-acting the part of a good man or of a bad.” Socrates here is a man of courage who chooses to act according to his principles even if it threatens his life.

Socrates goes on to say, “men of Athens, I honor and love you but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner and convincing him, saying oh my friend why do you who are citizens of the great and mighty and why city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which are never regard or heed to?” Here again Socrates describes his God-given calling as encouraging people to value wisdom and truth over material goods, false honor, and vain reputation. He later on says that he acts like a gadfly to keep people from complacency. Even after Socrates is condemned, he maintains that he must obey the divine command and that “the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

Over time, Socrates last words proved to be true, in the sense that we look down upon the cowards who put him to death and we honor him for his courage and bravery.

Shawn Tucker

4 Comments

Socrates is basically saying, “I don’t care what you decide anymore. God will look out for me no matter what conclusion you come to.” Socrates never doubts his connection to God although the Athenians do. It’s a leap of faith for Socrates, but not a leap he is really worried about. He looks forward to the decision of the court either way. If he stays on earth, he can continue carrying out god’s message to him, or if he is sentenced to death, he can connect with lost souls.

“Plato’s Apology” portrays Socrates as an honorable man that lived a virtuous life. Socrates is described as courageous when facing death and thinks it is worth living an examined life. In dealing with his death sentence, he continues to display his value of virtue by remaining brave and not crying or begging for forgiveness as may do in a similar situation. Through these acts, Socrates carries out the principles he had discussed throughout his trial and teaches all good things will come to virtuous men even after death.

I feel as though it’s his own grand finale of life to go out in the way that he did. He had proven himself in the court, to his friends, and his life and had now been sentenced to something that was a good ending point to his journey in this world. Comparing it to either a great’s nice rest that never ends or an opportunity to finally get to hang out with some really rad people he wished to always meet. I feel like it was only icing on the cake that the men who prosecuted him would forever be looked down as the men who put to death a prophet of God.

My favorite part of Plato’s Apology is when he is with the poets and comes to the conclusion that while they are wise about poetry, they are not wise in other areas. The conclusion that different people are able to do certain things better than others shows that he does not view himself as above others for his thinking. The theories of these philosophers has lasted so long because they still translate well today. Socrates’ courage shows in this court case because he knows that it is no longer up to him, but he does not fight against it.