Unless you studied classics in college, your primary exposure to the Greek philosopher Socrates may have been Socratic method, a technique that uses probing questions to ultimately lead to a critical analysis of a topic. It is an effective classroom engagement tool and is still used by many college professors today.
But while The Socratic Method was probably Socrates’ most lasting contribution to society, there is much more to learn about this legendary figure: He is considered by many to be the founder of Western philosophy itself—and the most exemplary of all Greek philosophers.
The origin of Socrates
Since Socrates never wrote anything himself, what we know about him is filtered through philosophical texts of several followers and contemporaries, such as the historian Xenophon and the philosopher Plato.
However, we do know that he lived from 470 to 399 BC. His father, Sophroniscus, was a well-liked stonemason and his mother, Fenarete, was a midwife. When his father dies, Socrates becomes his mother’s guardian. That’s because in ancient Athens, women weren’t allowed to live alone, says Debra Nails, a professor of philosophy at Michigan State University. His mother later remarried and had a son, Patroclus, whom Socrates calls his half-brother.
Socrates married Xanthippe, an Athenian, by whom he had three sons: Lamprocles, Menexenes, and Sophroniscus. He was also a successful soldier who “served with distinction” during the Peloponnesian War, a decades-long conflict between Athens and Sparta. He was also known for his strange behavior, such as walking barefoot with his regiment in the freezing cold or staying up all night in deep thought. Xanthippe’s dowry was probably paid for the support of the family, for although Socrates was probably a stonemason by trade, there is no evidence that he ever did the work. “He was not a man who made a living, he mostly took gifts from rich Athenians and his wife,” Nails says.
Socrates was also known for his unattractiveness, with “fleshy lips” flat nose and wide eyes on his face. Still, his charisma attracted the wealthiest and most prominent young members of society. He was surrounded by young men and always asked them pointed questions. “He was known for talking, which he did a lot,” Nails says.
Water fly in the market
Socrates was a controversial figure in his time because his values were in opposition to the culture in which he lived at the time. Like today, Nails says, society pushed the idea of hard work to acquire wealth and fame, neither of which mattered to the famous philosopher. “Socrates didn’t value ambition or the desire for wealth, he only valued doing the right thing and learning because he thought the more education you had, the more likely you were to do the right thing,” Nails says.
He also valued the contributions of women at a time when they weren’t allowed to get an education and were mostly considered property, Nails says. In ancient Athens, women had virtually no rights of their own, and to even talk about them for anything other than childbearing and dowry infuriated the more prominent members of society.
According to Scott LaBarge, associate professor of Greek philosophy at Santa Clara University, Socrates was also known for questioning traditional Greek religion. He was particularly skeptical of the idea that Greek gods such as Zeus, for example, would engage in immoral acts such as raping women or murdering family members as depicted in Greek mythology. “When [Socrates] spoke of the gods, he spoke of them in reverent and sanctified tones, expecting them to be a moral example,” says LaBarge.
Plato also describes Socrates as “casting doubt” on the idea of prayer or sacrifice to the gods. “He thought the gods cared more about the morality of behavior than whether or not we roasted sheep for them,” says Labarge.
The Death of Socrates
Eventually the tide turned against Socrates. His fellow Athenians, led by a future politician named Meletus, accused him of impiety and corrupting the youth. LaBarge says it is unlikely that Meletus was trying to kill Socrates. “It’s quite possible that he just wanted to be kicked out, but he didn’t realize what kind of man this Socrates was,” he says.
After all, Socrates defense speech it seems to have been written to anger his audience so they can accuse him of death. He was 70 years old, his health was gone, and running away was something he would never have considered. Drinking a glass of poison hemlock might seem like a good way to go. “Some thought he was committing suicide by jurors,” LaBarge says.
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787 (Credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)
We’ll never know for sure, but what we do know is that the impact he left on the world far exceeded the seven decades he lived: the speech Socrates gave at his own trial, which allegedly , that is told in Plato’s book Apology of Socrates, remains one of the most important documents in all of Western thought and culture.