Picture of Socrates
(c. 469-399 BC)

Socrates was born in Athens in 469 BC. He was also sentenced to death and executed in Athens in 399 BC. His father, Sophroniscus, was a sculptor and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. Socrates himself was also a sculptor by profession but he never worked at it much. He was relatively poor although he did manage to marry and raise a family. In 431 BC, when war broke out between Athens and Sparta, Socrates served in the Athenian army as a hoplite and gained a reputation for bravery in battle.

There is a popular story that Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates’, asked the Oracle at Delphi if there was any one wiser than Socrates. Uncharacteristically, the Oracle gave a very unambiguous answer; "no." When Socrates was told of this he is reported as saying that he possessed no special wisdom and went about trying to understand what he thought must have been a very clever riddle given by the Oracle. To better understand what the Oracle had said, Socrates began to talk with the citizens of Athens such as doctors, craftsmen, scholars, sophists, and just about anyone else who would speak with him. While talking to these individuals he began to see that, while they were all clearly wise in their own fields, they believed that made them wise in all things. After learning this, Socrates had to admit that he did indeed possess a certain kind of wisdom that allowed him to see that he did not know everything.

Because he felt he had no special wisdom or knowledge of his own, Socrates did not write any works (all that is written about him was done so later by Plato and Xenophon) or charge for his services. He held open discussions with any citizen who was willing to converse with him. Their topics included love, politics, war, friendship, poetry, religion, science and government but all centered around a central theme of "how should a man live his life?" In these discussions Socrates would employ what is now known as the Socratic Method (in his honor). Instead of lecturing his students, he would invite them to consider the question with him. The goal was not for Socrates to teach his students what he thought of the various subjects but rather to teach them to think critically about the subjects for themselves. Very often this involved asking one of his followers for the meaning of some concept such as piety, morality, or something similar. Socrates and the other students then subjected that definition to analysis and criticism. Sometimes these exercises were used simply to find an agreed-upon meaning for some term. Most often, however, these discussions were used to show that the common definition or understanding of the term was inconsistent or unacceptable.

At the core of his philosophy, Socrates believed that no one did wrong willingly and that those who do wrong do it out of ignorance of what was the right thing to do. He offered the maxim "Virtue = Knowledge." Socrates had established a sort of moral scale by which to measure the inherent good of things. At the bottom of this scale was external good; money, possessions and material wealth. Near the middle of the scale was the good of the body; health, strength, and the like. At the top of the scale was the good of the soul; wisdom and moral integrity. Accepting this scale to be true leads to the idea that it is better to suffer an injustice, even if it results in the loss of your possessions or even your life, than to commit an injustice. By refusing to commit injustice you retain your moral integrity. If the virtue of a man is his soul’s possession of the knowledge of what is good or bad then, indeed, knowledge equals virtue.

Socrates was, by his own admission, not a sophist. Like the sophists he desired a better understanding of human nature and advocated education for the young who would some day lead the city. Unlike the sophists, however, Socrates claimed to hold no special wisdom of his own. He never charged for his services. He believed that self-education or self-discovery was the only true way to learn and never wrote any papers or books of his own. He believed that he was duty-bound to share his philosophy to all who would listen even if it meant his death which, as we will see, it eventually did.

In 399 BC Socrates was brought to trial in the city of Athens. In the Apology, Plato records Socrates’ trial. He was charged with not believing in the gods of the city and with corrupting the youth. As was the custom of the day, when the jury found him guilty, Socrates and his accusers proposed what they thought to be a fair sentence in light of his "crime." Socrates’ accusers demanded the death penalty. Socrates countered saying that free meals for life at the public’s expense would be a just reward for his efforts. Undoubtedly Socrates knew that the jury would accept the prosecutor’s proposal. Socrates makes it very clear that, even if he is ordered to do so by the court, he will never cease to practice philosophy and to share it with others. Socrates is ultimately sentenced to death.
At the time of his sentencing there happened to be a religious festival going on. Since no executions were allowed during such festivals Socrates had to wait until the festival was over for his sentence to be carried out. While he was waiting he was approached by his friend and student Crito who tried to convince Socrates to flee Athens and escape his sentence. Their conversation is recorded by Plato in his work entitled Crito. Socrates answers Crito’s argument with three points of his own: it is never right to willingly do harm to oneself or to another, it is wrong to break your agreements and that the city is like a parent or teacher to all its citizens and that it should be respected and obeyed. Socrates believes that by fleeing the city he would be showing that the laws of the city are meaningless and can be obeyed or ignored as one chooses. Once the laws lose their meaning anarchy follows. Socrates does not wish to see the city of Athens harmed or destroyed in such a way. He also believes that by living in the city for so long and accepting its benefits he has entered into a kind of an agreement with the city and thus is bound to follow its rules and decisions. Finally, Socrates feels that the city, in its role of parent or teacher to its citizens, must be honored and obeyed just as a parent or teacher would be obeyed. Ultimately, Socrates convinces Crito that staying is the right thing for him to do and by doing so he retains his moral integrity. As discussed above Socrates believes that moral integrity is more precious than life itself. Ultimately, Socrates dies the next day after drinking hemlock.
Socrates’ contribution to philosophy is immeasurable. His practice of philosophy is a turning point in the history of the subject. He marks the turning point away from philosophy as a study of the natural world to philosophy as the study of human nature. To this day Socrates is used as a dividing line when discussing the history of philosophy. The terms "socratic" and "presocratic" are used to distinguish events in philosophy’s timeline the same way BC and AD are used, relative to the birth of Christ, as a dividing line in the history of the world.