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date: 15 January 2021


, Athenian public figure, 469–399 bce
  • Alexander Nehamas

Athenian public figure and central participant in the intellectual debates so common in the city in the middle and late 5th cent. His influence has been enormous, although he himself wrote nothing.

Socrates' philosophy and personality reached a broad ancient audience mainly through the dialogues a number of his associates wrote with him as protagonist. These were numerous and popular enough for Aristotle to classify them in the Poetics as a species of fiction in their own right. But apart from the works of Plato (1), only a few fragments survive of the dialogues of Antisthenes, Aeschines (2) of Sphettus, and Phaedon of Elis, and nothing of the dialogues of Aristippus (1), Cebes of Thebes, and many others. In addition to Plato, most of our own information about Socrates comes from Aristophanes (1) and Xenophon (1), both of whom also knew him personally, and from Aristotle, who did not.

Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus and Phaenarete, of the deme of Alopece. Though Plato and Xenophon depict him as a poor man, he must at some time have owned sufficient property to qualify for service as a hoplite in the battles of Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium, through which he acquired a reputation for courage. He was married to Xanthippe and was the father of three sons.

As a citizen, Socrates seems to have avoided active participation in politics. He was, however, one of the Presidents (see prytaneis) of the assembly (ekklēsia) when the generals at the sea-battle at Arginusae were put on trial for abandoning the bodies of the Athenian dead there. Socrates (who was foreman of the prytaneis on the crucial day, Xen.Mem. 1. 1. 18, 4. 4. 2, Pl.Grg. 473e, but see Dodds' n.; cp. Xen. Hell. 1. 7, 15, Pl. Ap. 32b) alone voted against the illegal motion to try the generals as a single group, and they were executed. After the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, he openly ignored an order by the Thirty Tyrants to arrest an innocent citizen (Pl. Ap. 32c–d).

Socrates' circle included a number of figures who turned against democracy in Athens, including Critias, Charmides, and Alcibiades. (See oligarchy; four hundred, the; democracy, athenian.) This may well have been the underlying reason why he himself was tried and put to death by drinking hemlock in 399 bce. He was charged with impiety, specifically with introducing new gods and corrupting young men (see atheism). This charge may have masked the political motives of his accusers, since the amnesty of 403 bce prohibited prosecution for most offences committed before that date.

Socrates' execution prompted Plato and Xenophon to create portraits intended to refute the formal charge under which he was tried and to counter his popular image, which may have been inspired by Aristophanes' Clouds. Aristophanes had depicted Socrates engaged in natural philosophy and willing to teach his students how ‘to make the weaker argument stronger’—a commonplace charge against the sophists. Both Plato and Xenophon were intent on distinguishing Socrates as radically as possible from other members of the sophistic movement, with whom he may actually have had some affinities. But their strategies differ. In both authors, Socrates devotes himself, like the sophists, to dialectical argument and the drawing of distinctions. In both, he refuses, unlike the sophists, to receive payment. In Xenophon, however, he uses argument to support, in contrast to the sophists, a traditional and conventional understanding of the virtues. In Plato, on the other hand, it is a serious question whether he holds any views of his own, and his main difference from the sophists is that, unlike them, he never presents himself as a teacher of any subject.

Plato's and Xenophon's portraits, inconsistent as they are with Aristophanes', are also inconsistent with each other. This is the root of ‘the Socratic problem’, the question whether we can ever capture the personality and philosophy of the historical Socrates or whether we must limit ourselves to the interpretation of one or another of his literary representations. For various reasons, in the mid-19th cent. Plato replaced Xenophon as the most reliable witness for the historical Socrates, even though it is accepted that our knowledge of the latter can be at best a matter of speculation. And, though recent attempts to rehabilitate Xenophon are not lacking, most contemporary scholars turn to Plato for information on Socrates' ideas and character.

That character is cool, distant, reticent and ironic, in contrast to Xenophon's more conventional, straightforward, almost avuncular figure. Plato's Socrates refrains from expounding complicated positive views of his own, preferring instead to question those who claim to have such views themselves. In Plato's early or ‘Socratic’ dialogues his questions mainly concern the nature and teachability of aretē (‘virtue’, ‘excellence’, or perhaps ‘success’) and what produces it, both in one's person and in one's activities, and its species—courage, wisdom, piety, self-control, and justice. By means of the procedure of question and answer which came to be known as the elenchus (see dialectic), Socrates refutes all those who claim to know what aretē is by showing their views to be internally inconsistent.

The Platonic Socrates is utterly serious about aretē and the nature of the good and happy life. His commitment to do what is, by his best lights, the right thing to do in all cases is unwavering. This commitment ultimately cost him his life: according to Plato's Apology, he antagonized his jury by insisting that his life had been as good as any human being's and that far from having committed any wrongs he had brought the greatest benefits to Athens.

Socrates seems to have been convinced that wisdom and virtue were ultimately the same—that if one knows what the good is, one will always do it. His argument was that the good, or aretē, either leads to or is itself part of the happy life. Since everyone wants to be happy above everything else, no one who knows what the good is will not choose to do it. This ‘intellectualist’ approach to ethics implies that there is no such thing as ‘weakness of the will’. It is impossible to know the better and choose the worse: the only reason people choose a worse course of action is that they are ignorant of what is better. This is one of the ‘Socratic paradoxes’, which contradict everyday experience but have proved surprisingly intransigent to analysis and refutation.

Plato's Socrates consistently denied that he had the knowledge of aretē that he considered necessary for the good and happy life. He sometimes referred to this knowledge as ‘divine’, in opposition to the ‘human’ knowledge he himself possessed and which consisted in his awareness of his own ignorance. This, he claimed, made him wiser than others, who were both ignorant of aretē and ignorant of their very ignorance. In the Apology, he claimed that this was the meaning of the Delphic oracle saying that no one in Athens was wiser that he was.

Socrates often, in both Plato and Xenophon, referred to a ‘divine sign’, a daimonion, which prevented him from taking certain courses of action—he attributes his reluctance to participate in active politics to this sign's intervention. His religious views, even though they sometimes overlapped with those of tradition (he acknowledged the authority of Apollo, for example, when he received the Delphic oracle), must have been quite novel, since he appears to have thought that the gods could never cause evil or misery to each other or to human beings. He also seems, as we see in Plato's Euthyphro, to claim that the gods' approval or disapproval does not render actions right or wrong. On the contrary, rightness and wrongness are established independently, and the gods, knowing what these are, both engage in the former and shun the latter and approve of human beings for acting likewise.

Socrates' moral seriousness is counterbalanced by a worldly personality who enjoys good food and company—goods which he is also willing to forgo without complaint if they are not available or if they conflict with the much more important pursuit of aretē. He had an uncanny ability, as we see in both Plato and Xenophon, not to do anything wrong, and his relation to positive philosophical views was fundamentally ambiguous. These features, along with the vividness with which Plato portrays his complex personality, are doubtless responsible for the fact that so many ancient philosophical schools, from the Academic Sceptics and the Cyrenaics to the Stoics (see stoicism) and the Cynics, considered him as the person most closely approximating their respective ideal.

With the renewed study of Greek texts in the Renaissance, Socrates became an influence on modern philosophy as well. He provides the first model of a philosopher primarily devoted to the pursuit of ethical issues. His pursuit is systematic, and his emphasis on the necessity of knowing the definitions of the virtues if we are to decide securely what does and what does not fall under them provided an impetus for the development of logic. In addition, he still constitutes the paradigmatic figure in whom philosophy, even in its most abstract manifestations, is never severed from the concerns of life. He lived and—most importantly—he died in accordance with his philosophical principles. Plato's lively portrait makes it believable that such a life is possible. But since his principles are not always clear and we cannot be certain whether he himself knew exactly what they were, Socrates continues to constitute a mystery with which anyone interested in philosophy or in the writings of the Greeks must contend.


Primary ancient sources
  • Aristophanes, Nubes.
  • Plato.
  • Xenophon, Memorabilia.
  • Xenophon, Apologia Socratis.
  • Xenophon, Symposium.
  • Xenophon, Oeconomicus.

Aeschines of Sphettus: H. Dittmar, Aischines von Sphettos, Studien zur Literaturgeschichte der Sokratiker; Untersuchungen und Fragmente, (1912).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Antisthenes and others: G. Giannantoni (ed.), Socratis et Socraticorum reliquiae (1990).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

  • Aristotle, Metamorphoses.
  • Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea.
  • Aristotle, Mag. Mor.
Modern authors
  • G. Grote, Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates (1875).
  • E. Zeller, Sokrates und die Sokratiker (1889).
  • A. E. Taylor, Varia Socratica (1911).
  • H. Maier, Sokrates (1913).
  • W. D. Ross, Aristotle's Metaphysics, introd. 2 (1924).
  • G. C. Field, Plato and his Contemporaries (1920).
  • O. Gigon, Sokrates (1947).
  • A.-H. Chroust, Socrates: Man or Myth (1947).
  • R. Robinson, Plato's Earlier Dialectic2 (1953).
  • W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy 3 (1969).
  • T. H. Irwin, Plato's Moral Theory (1977).
  • G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (1991).
  • G. Vlastos, Socratic Studies (1994).
  • Parker, Athenian Religion: A History 199 ff.
  • S. Ahbel-Rappe and R. Kamtekar (eds.), A Companion to Socrates (2005).
  • R. Waterfield, Why Socrates Died (2009).