The only thing one can surely know of Socrates is that he was a Greek philosopher and his teachings helped shape the Western philosophy despite being considered a “heretic” during his lifetime. Questions like who Socrates really was and what were his teachings may never be answered, for he didn’t any writings. All the information that exists of Socrates is indirect, primarily from the writings of Plato and also from Xenophon and Aristophanes.
Socrates never was like any other Athenian of his time. Towards the late fifth century BC, it was a common practice for men to prefer fame, wealth and involvement in politics. They regularly participated in the Governing Assembly and in the City courts. Socrates, on the other hand, neither labored to earn a living, nor did he participate in the voluntary activities of the State. He embraced poverty despite having a wife and three sons to feed. Despite many of the young people kept company with him and imitated him, he never claimed to be a teacher and never accepted money for what he did. He helped others realize on their own what the truth is—a new approach to education. He often led his conversation partners into realizing their own ignorance, a state sometimes superseded by genuine intellectual curiosity.
Socrates did himself no favour by speaking highly of women, talking of “men and women”, “priests and priestesses”, and naming foreign women as his teachers (Socrates claimed to have learned rhetoric from Aspasia of Miletus, the lover of Pericles and to have learned erotics from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea). It was not uncommon for the teachers during his time to have sexual relations with their female students, but Socrates, despite having found some of his students attractive, never made any sort of advances and set himself to improve their and all Athenians’ souls, a mission he said he was assigned by an oracle of the Apollo at Delphi, a preposterous claim as per his fellow citizens.
Socrates was usually found in busy marketplaces where he would converse with all types of people, anyone who he could persuade to join him in his question-and-answer probe of serious matters. His lifework consisted of examining the lives of people, his own and others, which he carried out single-mindedly asking them what mattered to them the most. He did this regardless of whether his listeners wanted to be questioned or resisted him. Socrates said he knew nothing yet kept the upper hand in all of his discussions, which came to be called the Socrates irony. He never aligned himself with the oligarchs or the democrats, with friends and enemies on either side.
Socrates claimed to be loyal to Athens, yet his pursuit of virtue and truth made him clash often with the politics and society of the city. He praised Athens’ arch rivals Sparta often directly or indirectly in his dialogues. His position as a social and moral critic often offended the city. Instead of upholding status quo and accepting the development of immorality in his region, Socrates worked hard to undermine the concept of “Might make Right” which was common to Greece during his days. Plato refers to Socrates as the “gadfly” of the state (as the gadfly stings the horse into action, so Socrates stung Athens), insofar as he irritated the establishment with considerations of justice and the pursuit of goodness. Unfortunately, his effort to improve the justice system, as per claims, was the final straw that led to his execution.
According to Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ life as the “gadfly” of Athens began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates; the Oracle responded that none was wiser. Socrates believed that what the Oracle had said was a paradox, because he believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever. He tested the claim of the Oracle by asking certain people who claimed to be wise several questions in order to refute the Oracle’s judgment. However, having questioned them, Socrates realized that while they all claimed to be wise, they knew very little and weren’t wise at all. Socrates accepted that the Oracle’s words were true since he was wiser than the rest because only he was aware of his ignorance. Socrates’ paradoxical wisdom made the prominent Athenians he publicly questioned look foolish, turning them against him and leading to accusations of wrongdoing. Socrates defended his role as a gadfly until the end: at his trial, when Socrates was asked to propose his own punishment, he suggests a wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of his life instead, to finance the time he spends as Athens’ benefactor. He was, nevertheless, found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock.
Socrates’ death is described at the end of Plato’s Phaedo. Socrates turned down the pleas of Crito, a follower of Socrates, to attempt an escape from prison after his supporters had bribed the prison guards. Socrates refused, saying that by doing so he would have broken the city’s laws, something that his philosophy didn’t permit him to do. Also, he believed that he was better dead than alive and that it was the right time for him to die. After having drunk the poison, he was instructed to walk around until his legs felt numb. When he lay down, the man who administered the poison pinched his foot. Socrates could no longer feel his legs. The numbness slowly crept up his body until it reached his heart. Shortly before his death, Socrates speaks his last words to Crito: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” Asclepius was the Greek god for curing illness, and it is likely Socrates’ last words meant that death is the cure—and freedom, of the soul from the body.
Every different age brought with it a different way of understanding, and hence even the interpretations of the writings of the likes of Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes have evolved over the centuries. As Cornellia Di Vogel, one of the many to have written their interpretations of Socrates, says, “The ‘real’ Socrates we have not: what we have is a set of interpretations each of which represents a ‘theoretically possible’ Socrates.” Because of the way he changed philosophy forever, his life being considered a model for a philosophical life, his trial and death, Socrates has always been given admiration and following usually reserved for the founders of religious sects, like Jesus or Buddha, which is rather strange considering he always wanted people to live their lives how they wanted to, and for someone convicted and executed on the charge of irreverence toward the gods. He was undoubtedly impressive with a gift of speech like few others, and people were so moved by him that many wrote of him. It’s truly sad that no direct writings of his exists, for their value would have been priceless.