Socrates: The Father of Western Philosophy
Socrates, the most famous philosopher of all time, had one of the most subtle and complicated minds we have on record. His death was a dark moment in Athenian and human history, but his thinking and teachings have survived, a beacon of light for almost 2,500 years. Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and many other great thinkers through the ages didn’t manage to give a definitive analysis of Socrates’ ideas, and we don’t offer to do it in this article. But here is an opportunity for those who would like an introduction to Socrates to get a generous taste of the life and thought of this illustrious man and renowned philosopher.
Socrates was born in 470 BC and died in 399 BC in Athens. He came from a poor and humble family. His father was a sculptor and his mother a midwife. Socrates initially followed his father’s profession, as was common at that time, but eventually he quit, dedicating himself fully to philosophy.
Information about the education of Socrates has not survived the ages, so we can only speculate. Some scholars have surmised that he may have been self-taught, basing his education on his own observations of the world and its people.
Most of what we know of Socrates comes from the writing of Plato, who tells us that Socrates was an honest and decent man, and a citizen loyal to the laws of his state. He never failed to perform his religious and political duties such as voting, and he participated in the political life of ancient Athens, which he dearly loved.
Statue of Socrates in front of the Academy of Athens ( CC by SA 4.0 / C Messier )
Socrates the Soldier
A lesser-known fact is that Socrates was also a soldier. He fought bravely in three campaigns of The Peloponnesian War, where he showed outstanding courage and selflessness, and remarkable endurance for the hardships he experienced during and after the battle.
In the Symposium, a philosophical text by Plato , a young man named Alcibiades praises Socrates’ courage and his power to ignore cold and fear. Alcibiades says Socrates saved his life in battle and then declined to be honored for it. In the Apology, which is Plato’s report of the speech Socrates made in his own defence, Socrates compares the act of retreating from philosophy to a soldier’s retreat from the enemy when it seems likely that he will be killed in battle.
Socrates and Alcibiades by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg ( public domain )
There was a legal case in Athens that is famous for illustrating Socrates’ moral qualities. After one naval battle, when violent waves and weather made it almost impossible to turn back, the victorious generals abandoned their dead (who went unburied and without the honors they deserved) and abandoned surviving sailors in foundering ships as well. Instead, the generals pursued the fleeing Spartan navy. Socrates was a member of the boule, the Athenian council of citizens. Determined to stand on principle rather than be swayed by popular opinion, in the face of threats of excommunication or death, he held out alone against a trial he considered unconstitutional. He blocked the vote until his turn as a member of the council came to an end, after which those of the generals who had not fled were condemned to death.
Socrates and the Thirty Tyrants
After the end of The Peloponnesian War and the dissolution of democracy, Athens was governed by the Thirty Tyrants. Socrates was one of their hardest critics and often came in conflict with them, and especially with his one-time friend and former student Crito of Alopece.
The Thirty Tyrants responded to people they considered a threat to their tyranny by confiscating property and condemning rebellious citizens to death. Socrates often collided with the Thirty Tyrants and refused to accept their authority, a position which played a key role in his being sentenced to death.
Socrates is one of the world’s most enigmatic but most admired people. Just like Jesus, this great philosopher didn’t leave behind a single written word. All we know about his philosophical quests and teachings comes to us through other greats of that era – Aristotle, Xenophon, and of course Plato, whose accounts are considered the most credible and accurate of all.
‘Xanthippe pours water over Socrates’ by Luca Giordano ( public domain )
Socrates’ unfair death shocked Athenian society during the time that the young Plato was developing as a thinker and philosopher himself, and spurred him to record the life and teachings of his great teacher. One of his works is The Apology , which is Plato's version of Socrates’ self-defense against the accusations the Athenian authorities had leveled against him. Almost all of what we know about Socrates’ philosophies comes from his loyal student, who was also one of the greatest philosophers in history as well. According to Plato, the starting and ending point of Socratic thinking was his motto “I know that I know nothing.”