Socrates

Socrates was an Athenian Philosopher, credited with being one of the founders of western philosophy.

What we know of him now is through the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon and the playwright Aristophanes.

The Socratic Problem: Socrates was not known to write anything down, so all we know of him is from secondary sources. Because of this, what we read may not be historically correct. There is no way of knowing the real Socrates. The only statement generally believed by all at the time is that he had a brilliant intellect.

He was born around 470BC in Alopeke, a suburb of Athens. His father Sophroniscus was a sculpter or stonemason and his mother Phaenarete was a midwife. It is believed that at a young age Socrates himself worked as a stonemason.

Socrates was to marry Xanthrippe who bore him three sons Lamprocles, Menexenus and Sophroniscus. It is uncertain when he married, but the literature that remains states that he married a much younger woman; therefore it is believed he married late in life.

It was a requirement to serve in the military and Socrates served as a hoplite in the Peloponnesian war, at the battles of Amphipolis, Delium and Potidaea. Much of Plato’s work refers to Socrates military service.

Socrates would regularly attend meetings of the Athenian Assembly (Ecclesia) but did not partake in politics. He spent much of his time in Athens questioning the people, whether prominent Athenians, merchants or the general classes.

Some people chose to ignore him and walk away, but others tried to answer his philosophical questions. From this he gained many young followers including Plato.

Socrates devoted himself to discussing philosophy. Many believed he charged for his teachings but he always vehemently denied this.

It was to be an uncertain time in Athens. There was much transition from Athenian hegemony (political and military dominance over other city-states) to democracy. Athenian citizens had doubts about democracy and Socrates as a critic of it, fuelled these doubts.

According to Plato, when Socrates questioned prominent Athenians, each man thought that he knew a great deal and was wise, when in fact he knew very little and was not wise at all. Socrates stated; as he knew he was not wise, this made him the wisest of all since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance.

Many prominent Athenians he had questioned were made to look foolish; these then turned against, and made accusations about him.

Socrates was sent to trial in 399BC and found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth and of impiety (lack of proper respect for something held sacred), although the truth maybe that he was sent to trial as he was against democracy.

He was sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock (flowering plant). His friend Crito of Alopece, tried to get him to escape but he refused. His friend then criticised Socrates for abandoning his wife and children.

Socrates accepted his sentence and drank the poison. It was not to be a quick death. He was to walk around as the poison took affect and finally, he was to lay down on a bed and die.

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