Life and Legacy of Socrates
The Four Words on the Mace in the Scottish Parliament:
Wisdom - Justice - Compassion - Integrity
"Think critically; act humanely" Education for a Better World
Socrates - Last Days and Legacy
It is to Aristophanes, Xenophon and Plato that we must turn for information about the life and teachings of Socrates. Perhaps the following conclusions are the nearest we can arrive at without speculation.
Socrates was born in Athens c. 470 BCE and died there in prison c. 399 BCE at the age of 71. In his youth, Socrates was a student of Archelaus. His father was probably a sculptor by the name of Sophroniscus. His mother was a midwife. Socrates used the term "midwife" as a metaphor to identify his method of asking critical questions, engaging in discussion and helping others to deliver the baby of new ideas, thereby rejecting old opinions in order to arrive nearer to truth. Although he questioned everything, his main interest was ethics and especially: What is virtue? And how do we apply it to the search for a better world, a better state and a better life for her citizens?
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He served courageously as a hoplite, a heavy infantryman, at Delium and Amphipolisin in the Peloponnesian Wars. He considered a life in politics and spent some time working as a stonemason, but his father left him a sufficient inheritance to allow him with frugality to become an unpaid teacher. He had an early interest in the scientific theories of Anaxagoras who taught that there are an infinite number of different kinds of elementary particles (atoms) and it is the action of Mind upon these that produces the objects that we see. But Socrates came to regard the physical world to be deceptive because he believed that the senses of the body created difficulty for the thinking of the mind. The philosophers who came before him were mainly interested in metaphysics, particularly questions about the physical world around us. Socrates was not interested in what is (metaphysically or morally) but in what ought to be in justice and virtue, applying a moral critique which he believed was offered by the search for wisdom.
In appearance, Socrates was short and stout, with a flat nose, a rough beard, and protruding eyes which, according to Aristophanes, he rolled as he strutted about like a waterfowl. He was known for his robustness of body, self-discipline, simple lifestyle, perceptive intellect, and commitment to the search for truth and justice. Believing that the virtuous life was the best path to happiness and that virtue depended upon wisdom, Socrates sought to help others in the search for knowledge because he placed their well-being above his own and because he believed that a better world depended upon people of wisdom. He sought knowledge but believed that the road to its attainment was difficult. He believed that his work (which he sought to understand through critical questioning and dialogue) was given to him as a divine mission and, hence, was his duty. His total lack of interest in material possessions was evidenced by his always being seen barefoot and wearing an old cloak the whole year round. His habit of going barefoot even in winter showed his powers of endurance. To him, the aspiration for virtue was the highest aim anyone could have.
Socrates was a foe of the sophists, the professional teachers who claimed to have all the answers and who believed that "might makes right". The sophists were teachers of debate and rhetoric who took money for their teaching and in return gave accepted popular opinions and claimed to have all knowledge. Socrates believed that one should not accept someone's opinions but put everything to the test of critical reasoning. His tactic: Its so wonderful to be with so wise a man as you as I am so ignorant and can claim no knowledge. There are one or two questions, however, that I would like to ask you: Then by asking probing questions he would expose their teachings as misleading, unhelpful or even dangerous, irrationally held popular opinions. To him answers had no value to one who was asking the wrong questions, or no questions at all. But he had many loyal friends and followers who were devoted to him as he was to them and to his family. He married Xanthipp late in life and his third son was born shortly before he died.
After Athens lost the 27-year Peloponnesian War with Sparta for the conquest of Greece, the old democracy was replaced by one controlled by tyrannical Neo-conservatives and religious Fundamentalists. These political leaders of Athens felt threatened by the popularity of Socrates, his unorthodox views (at a time of political instability), and by the notoriety of some of his friends. (Critias and Alcibiades were extremists who contributed to the impending downfall of the Neo-conservative and Fundamentalist government of Athens). Refusing to compromise his principles or to disobey the law, at the age of 71 Socrates was brought to the Athenian court for prosecution by Anytus, a leading Athenian statesman who chose Meletus, a poet, to present the case. Socrates was charged with being an evil doer wrongfully teaching false doctrines to young people, being greedy by taking exorbitant sums of money for his teaching, and being an atheist by denying belief in the Greek gods. Although sentenced to death, according to Athenian procedure he could have appealed and probably would have received a lesser sentence. But he refused to appeal (on the principle of upholding the verdict of the court and the laws of the land) and drank the prescribed hemlock.
Socrates left no writings of his own, but his best known disciple, Plato, wrote at least 24 Dialogues giving accounts of the discussions his mentor held in Athens but also incorporating his own beliefs. Through Plato, Socrates influenced Aristotle (a student of Plato) and subsequent philosophers. Aristotle regarded Platos account of the life and teaching of Socrates to be essentially true and the Dialogues as offering a faithful account. Today there is a tendency to differentiate between the "Socrates of history" and the "Socrates of Plato". However, the only Socrates that can be detailed is the Socrates of Plato. It is questionable whether Plato who knew his beloved teacher well would have needed to falsify the record of his life, or would have wanted to abuse it by presenting it as something he knew was not true and to do this in the name of philosophy.
It is difficult to make a clear distinction between the teachings of Socrates and Plato because Plato at times may have included his own conclusions in his Dialogues as a tribute to his teacher who had so inspired and guided him. But this should not concern us because it is the critical method of Socrates - to question everything, to avoid sophistry and to seek justice and the good life through the search for wisdom - that is on offer.
Appropriately, we will examine the teachings of Socrates in the way he would want them taught: through dialogue, particularly through three of Platos dialogues, Apology, Crito and Phaedo, as we identify with Socrates in the last days of his life and with his method of teaching.
In short, we will use the Socratic method, a discovery method, to examine the wisdom of Socrates and to draw our own conclusions. To what extent was Socrates the father of the Scottish Radical Enlightenment? What is his relevance for us and for our world today? Is there an urgent need for every nation to know itself (including to see itself as others see it) as well as every person to know "himself" with the unexamined life not worth living? Is there an urgent need for dialogue to replace confrontation between all the nations and between all the people of all the nations? What contribution should the UN make towards this? What contribution should we make?
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