Socrates was born in 469 BC, and his life followed the arc of Athens in that glorious and tragic era. He was 22 when the Parthenon was begun. The actual details of his life are rather sketchy. He seems to have come from a working-class family, and like most young men of the time, he served in the military, taking part in several campaigns. There are accounts that state he fought bravely, and gained notoriety among his comrades for being able to put up with the cold and lack of food that sometimes were part of the soldier’s life.
He never wrote anything himself, and seemed to hold writing in rather low esteem, as we can tell from this passage, ironically written by his pupil Plato, in a dialogue entitled the Phaedrus.
Socrates: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.
Phaedrus. That again is most true.
Socrates: Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power–a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?
Phaedrus. Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?
Socrates: I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.
Phaedrus. You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which a written word is properly no more than an image?
Socrates: Yes, of course that is what I mean. (1)
He probably would have felt the same way about podcasts. We see here an early indication of the distinction he makes between something real, that is with a soul, and something that is a mere image of that reality.
There is no account of when and why he started practicing philosophy, but in the dialog called the Symposium, Plato has Socrates say that he learned about love and beauty from a priestess from Mantineia named Diotima. He quotes her as telling him, “But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty—the divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollution of mortality, and all the colors and vanities of human life, thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty divine and simple, and bringing into being and educating true creations of virtue and not idols only? Do you not see that in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities…..” (2)
The kind of philosophy Socrates is shown to espouse is not then a body of theoretical knowledge or rhetorical devices such as those practiced by the Sophists, but rather an expression of a self-existent source of all beauty and virtue. He felt it was possible for humans to come to knowledge of this source through the practice of asking questions with the aim of finding the truth about a certain subject. Plato called this practice “dialectic,” a “talking through,” and it allowed Socrates to claim that he knew nothing and to deflate those who claimed they did know something. In a number of dialogs, he is shown engaging with and annoying the professional Sophists who claimed to teach wisdom for a price.
As described by Plato, Socrates usually spent his days in the Agora, the marketplace, in dialog with anyone who wanted to talk–and often those who did not. It is not known how he made a living at this, even though he was married and had three sons. But in addition to Plato, he did have a number of devoted students who no doubt found ways to support him and his family short of outright payment for services.
The Athens into which Plato was born in 428, however, was a very different place. Shortly after his birth, the city was ravaged by a plague that killed a huge number of people, perhaps a third of the population, including Pericles, just at the time Athens entered into a new phase of war with Sparta and the Peloponnesian League. In 416 Athens armed a huge fleet with the intent of conquering Sicily, but the adventure ended in disaster a couple of years later with the entire force dead or sold into slavery. Athens fought on, but in 404 was forced to surrender to Sparta. The Golden Age of boundless ambition had ended in defeat.
In an act of extreme humiliation, the democracy was overthrown by the Spartans and a tyranny installed. Although the democracy was reestablished shortly after, Athens’ sense of invincibility had been shattered, and religious and political conservatism grew stronger. In this environment, in 399 BC, Socrates was brought up on charges of “introducing new gods, and of corrupting the young.” As we’ve seen, the Greeks worshiped many gods and sought through sacrifices and offerings to bend the fickle gods’ will in their favor. Socrates, while using the language of these gods, essentially taught the existence of one supreme Being, the unchanging Form of the Good, and in that respect he was guilty as charged. But it is to their shame that the Greeks reverted to the false comfort of their traditional gods, and condemned Socrates to death.
As described in the dialog called the Phaedo, Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul and had no fear of death. He drank the prescribed hemlock rather than escape prison, and believed, in fact, that he was escaping the prison of the body. He tells his followers who have gathered in his cell, “In this present life, I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible concern or interest in the body, and are not saturated with the bodily nature, but remain pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us. And then the foolishness of the body will be cleared away and we shall be pure and hold converse with other pure souls, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere; and this is surely the light of truth.” (3) The analogy of the truth as light is one we will encounter again and again in Plato and his heirs.
Plato grew up as Athens was in its decline. He came from an aristocratic family, and was given the appropriate name Aristocles—Plato is a nickname. One account has it that he planned to be a tragic playwright, but upon meeting Socrates about 407 BC, he pitched that idea to devote himself to philosophy. The story perhaps helps us to understand the dialog format chosen by Plato for most of his works—they are almost always in the form of people in conversation; perhaps his attempt to reconcile Socrates’ distrust of writing with his own desire to make Socrates’ teachings last. Except for a few ill-fated trips abroad, Plato lived in Athens for all of his life; did not marry, and left no children.
He did, however, found a school–the Academy–to carry on the teachings of Socrates, which lasted until the 6th century AD and was guided by the principle “Know Thyself.” It was unique among the several philosophical schools of the time in that it also accepted women as students.
Plato wrote extensively, on a wide variety of philosophical subjects, but he also seems to have believed as did Socrates, that the written word has its limitations, and that true philosophy can only be communicated through face-to-face study and conversation. In his work called the Seventh Letter, he writes, “For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.” (4)
Unlike many philosophers of the period, a large body of Plato’s works has survived, and has been endlessly debated and analyzed. It is not the purpose of this series to enter into that discussion. Rather we will center on what is perhaps his most enduring contribution to philosophy: what he called “the ideal of the Good,” the Ἀγάθων (Agathon). He speaks of it in several works, but most thoroughly and beautifully in one of his longest works, written about 380 BC: The Republic.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain. Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission. Special thanks to Richard G. Geldard.
1, 2, 3, 4 There are many editions of all Plato’s works, and a good online source for all, in translation by Benjamin Jowett, is The Classics Archive.