Socrates was born in Athens, and we know him as the Father of Western Philosophy, yet he left no writings of his own. This leaves historians with a dilemma, as two of his pupils wrote a great deal about him, Plato and Xenophon, but their accounts differed.
In “Socrates” from his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell says:
“There are many men concerning whom it is certain that very little is known, and other men concerning whom it is certain that a great deal is known; but in the case of Socrates, the uncertainty is as to whether we know very little or a great deal.”
One of Socrates’ most famous sayings is: “The only thing I know is I know nothing.”
Socrates Introduces Practical Philosophy to the World
A special aspect of Socrates’ philosophy was his breaking away from traditional philosophy; for example, speculations about the cosmos and how we and our world came to be. On the contrary, his philosophy was essentially practical, it was about how to live well, how to be good and how to administer justice.
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In other words–ethics and morality began to make their mark in Western thinking.
So how can we know what to believe?
Xenophon–a Little Short on Brains!
According to Russell, Xenophon was a military man, conventional in outlook and, allegedly, not very bright in his thinking. He was angry that someone accused Socrates of both impiety and of corrupting Athenian youth.
On the contrary, Socrates, he said, was pious and a good influence. “This defence,” says Russell, “goes too far, since it leaves the hostility to Socrates unexplained.” Why should the authorities put him to death if he was, as Xenophon claimed, “dull and commonplace?”
Unfortunately, some people believed that Xenophon’s account must be true because he was too lacking in wit to make up a story. Russell, however, points out that this argument is invalid because accuracy also depends on the education and ability of the speaker, “because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand.”
Plato–Invention or Fact?
Reading Plato’s account of his teacher poses a different difficulty. Russell says it is impossible to judge “how far Plato means to portray the historical Socrates, and how far he intends the person called ‘Socrates’ in his dialogues to be merely the mouthpiece of his own opinions.”
Further, Plato was a writer and philosopher of great genius and imagination. The dialogues would never have taken place exactly as he records them, even though the speech sounds natural and the characterisation realistic. How much Socrates’ character owes to Plato’s invention is impossible to judge, but–if he had wanted to embellish that character, it was within his power to do so.
The Apology–Delivered by Socrates and Remembered by Plato
The great Plato himself produced the dialogue attributed to Socrates, known as “The Apology.”
Bertrand Russell explains:
“This professes to be the speech that Socrates made in his own defence at his trial – not, of course, a stenographic report, but what remained in Plato’s memory some years after the event, put together and elaborated with literary art. Plato was present at the trial, and it certainly seems fairly clear that what is set down is the sort of thing that Plato remembered Socrates as saying, and that the intention is, broadly speaking, historical.”
Socrates Endures Accusations From a Politican, a Poet and a Rhetorician
The prosecutors were an unlikely trio. Anytus was a politician, Meletus was an unknown tragic poet and Lykon, a rhetorician, but not a famous one. The three men accused Socrates of failing to worship the Athenian State gods, but instead substituting his own, different gods and passing his beliefs onto the youths and thereby corrupting them.
They worded the charge against him as follows:
“Socrates is an evil-doer and a curious person, searching into things under the earth and above the heaven and making the worse appear the better cause, and teaching all this to others.”
How to Lose Friends and Influence Nobody
We can imagine Socrates standing on trial. By all accounts, he was an ugly man according to the standard of his time.
Russell says, “[H]e had a snub nose and a considerable paunch; he was ‘uglier than all the Silenuses in the Satyric drama’ (quoted from Xenophon, “Symposium.”) He was always dressed in shabby old clothes and went barefoot everywhere.”
In spite of his lack of sartorial elegance, Socrates was a certain kind of man; a high-minded, spiritual man, guided by a divine spirit, paying no attention to the trappings of wealth and power, dismissive of carnal pleasure or sexual love. At his trial, he managed to alienate even those who believed him not guilty.
Socrates Answers His Accusers
Socrates begins by complaining about the convincing nature of his accusers’ claims, and especially their assertions that he was an “artful speaker.” These are the words, as Plato remembered them, that Socrates pronounced in response to the three men who, he says, tell lies about him.
“Their lack of concern that their claim will immediately be proved false, as I display my total lack of artfulness as a speaker, seemed to me more shameful than anything else–unless, of course, ‘artful speaker’ is what these people call someone who tells the truth.”
Socrates points out that it was nothing new to hear false accusations made against him: “…that there’s a Socrates around who’s an expert – one who dabbles in theories about the heavenly bodies, who’s already searched out everything beneath the earth and who makes the weaker argument the stronger.”
He complains about the anonymity of the accusers who slander him with such malice. He claims he possesses “a certain amount of wisdom,” and he questions the nature of this wisdom. He relates that someone asked the Oracle of Delphi if there were any wiser than Socrates, and replied that there were not. A god cannot lie, thought Socrates. He challenged a politician, then a poet, than an orator to see if they were wiser than he, and found that they were not.
He concludes that only God is wise and that men know little or nothing.
“The result of my inquiry, then, men of Athens, has been that I have become an object of hatred for many people, and hatred of a particularly intractable and intolerable kind, which has brought about numerous slanders against me, and given me the reputation of being wise, for on every occasion the onlookers suppose that if I refute someone else, I must myself be an expert in whatever the discussion is about.”
Meletus Accuses Socrates of Corrupting the Young and Denying God
Socrates challenges Meletus’ charge against him for allegedly corrupting the young by first enquiring who improved the young. Meletus replies that the judges improve the young, and Socrates takes him through a series of steps until he admits that every single man of Athens has helped to improve the young – except Socrates. Socrates says that it is better to live among good men than bad men, so he could not be accused of corrupting them intentionally. If he was corrupting them unintentionally, then he would be deserving of instruction, not punishment.
Besides, claims Socrates, there are many of his former pupils, and fathers and brothers of his pupils, and none have stood up to accuse him.
Meletus makes a serious error in accusing Socrates of being an atheist, since the indictment has already accused him of denying the gods of the State, but of introducing a few extra divinities of his own. Therefore, Meletus’ claim contradicts the indictment.
Socrates now turns on those who voted against him, making a prophecy that they would be punished far more harshly than he will be punished even though he is being put to death.
“There’s no way that those of us who think dying is a bad thing can be right, and I’ve had a powerful indication of that… that there is nothing bad that can happen to a good man whether in life or after he has died, nor are his affairs neglected by the gods.”
He concludes that only the gods alone knew whether those who condemned him, or he himself, were going to “a better thing.”
In the end, his belief that bad things could not happen to a person of integrity sustained him through his ordeal, and, as the authorities ordered, he took his own life by drinking hemlock.
Socrates’ Lasting Legacy
His ethics survived and have influenced philosophers to the present day. In “Socrates” in History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell says:
“Whenever what is being debated is logical rather than factual, discussion is a good method of eliciting truth. Suppose someone maintains, for example, that democracy is good, but persons holding certain opinions should not be allowed to vote, we may convict him of inconsistency, and convince him that at least one of his two assertions must be erroneous… Any logically coherent body of doctrine is sure to be in part painful and contrary to current prejudices. The dialectic method–or more generally, the habit of unfettered discussion–tends to promote logical consistency, and is in this way useful.”
Russell adds, however, that the Socratic method is unsuitable when the object is to reveal new facts.