Biography of Socrates (469-399 B.C.)
Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher who became very influential in the development of Greek philosophy and, thus, Western philosophy in general. The most extensive knowledge we have of him comes from Plato's many dialogues, but there is a little information about him in the historian Xenophon's Memorabilia, Apology and Symposium, and in Aristophanes' The Clouds and The Wasps. Socrates is best known for the dictum that only the examined life is worth living.
We have no works written by Socrates and it’s unclear whether he ever wrote anything down himself. We do, however, have dialogues written by Plato which are supposed to be philosophical conversations between Socrates and others. The early dialogues (Charmides, Lysis, and Euthyphro) are believed to be genuine; during the middle period (Republic) Plato began to mix in his own views. By the Laws, the ideas attributed to Socrates aren’t genuine.
There has been some question about whether Socrates really existed or was only ever a creation of Plato. Just about everyone agrees that the Socrates in the later dialogues is a creation, but what about the earlier ones? The differences between the two figures is one reason to think that a real Socrates existed, There are also a few references made by other authors. If Socrates didn’t exist, however, that wouldn’t affect the ideas attributed to him.
“The unexamined life is not worth living for man.”
“Well I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”
Socrates didn’t specialize in any one field like metaphysics or political philosophy in the manner that modern philosophers do. Socrates explored a wide range of philosophical questions, but he generally focused on issues of most immediate need to humans like how to be virtuous or live a good life. If there is any one topic that occupied Socrates most, it would be ethics.
Socrates was well known for engaging people in public deputations over things like the nature of virtue. He would ask people to explain a concept, point out flaws that would force them to alter their answer, and continue like this until the person either came up with a solid explanation or admit that they really don’t understand the concept.
Socrates was charged with impiety and corrupting the youth, found guilty by a margin of 30 votes out of the 501 jurors, and sentenced to death. Socrates was an opponent of democracy in Athens and was closely connected with the Thirty Tyrants installed by Sparta after Athens lost the recent war. He was ordered to drink hemlock, a poison, and refused to let his friends bribe the guards so he could escape because he believed strongly in the principle of law — even bad laws.
Socrates’ influence among his contemporaries was a result of his interest in engaging people in discussions about all manner of important issues - often making them feel uncomfortable by showing that what they believed or thought they knew was not as justified as they had assumed. Although in the early dialogues he never came to any firm conclusions about what constituted true piety or friendship, he did reach a conclusion about a relationship between knowledge and action.
According to Socrates, no one errs intentionally. This means that whenever we do something wrong - including something morally wrong - it is out of ignorance rather than evil. In his ethical perspective he added another crucial idea known as eudaemonism, according to which the good life is the happy life.
Socrates’ later influence was guaranteed by one of his students, Plato, who recorded many of Socrates’ dialogues with others. Socrates attracted many young men because of the quality of learning available, and many of them were members of Athens’ elite families. Eventually, his influence over the young was found by many in power to be too dangerous because he encouraged them to question tradition and authority.