The Life of Socrates

Socrates was born 469BC and died 399BC. He lived through a turbulent time in Athenian history and is credited with making an enormous contribution to the development of philosophical ideas. He never wrote his ideas down as works of literature to be studied. Instead he seems to have influenced his followers through dialogue and discussion which has later been written down by his students. His most famous student was Plato and he offers a contemporary biased view of his teacher.

Socrates’ mother was a well known midwife in Athens. This was one of the few paid jobs a woman could do outside her home and good midwives were well respected. Having such a prominent mother may have given Socrates a less conventional outlook on life compared to his peers. He married a much younger woman known as Xanthippe who was probably from a high status family. It might seem remarkable that he married a very young bride, however in 5th century BC Athens the normal marriage age for a man was about 30 years and a girl 12 years old. No written sources allude to his employment, however if Xanthippe was from a good family she would have brought a good dowry into the marriage which may have enabled Socrates to free himself from the need to work. They had three sons and may have had daughter, however in ancient times daughters were not always noted by written sources. He later did military service and it believed that the statesman Alcibiades fought alongside him and also became his lover. Thus far, Socrates lived in the normal way.

He became involved in politics, which was a duty all freeborn Athenian men were expected to do. He showed that he was a person who stood by his principles when he refused to condemn to death eight Athenian generals who had abandoned their comrades while fighting the Spartans in the naval battle of Arginusae 404BC. The Athenians had been successful, however some of their ships were damaged and a number of men wounded. The eight generals were responsible for bringing these men home to safety, however a storm prevented them from carrying out their rescue mission and they left the men to their deaths. Socrates did not believe that these men should be put to death, seeing such punishment as an absolute last resort rather than something that should happen to please the mob. He did not make himself popular when making these sorts of decisions. Athens briefly came under the control of thirty tyrants. Socrates managed to stay true to his morals and not do as the tyrants had ordered him and other prominent Athens to do.

Socrates is famous for asking the Delphic oracle if he was the wisest person in Athens. The answer from the oracle was that he was the wisest. He was sceptical of this answer and set about testing it (believing that he could prove it wrong). He asked different Athenians for their opinion of their own wisdom. They all believed that they were very knowledgeable and wise. He realised that this common satisfaction at one’s own wisdom prevented a person from the quest to know more and question what happens around them. He was acutely aware of his own lack of wisdom, which was something the people around him did not realise about themselves. He concluded that for this reason the Delphic oracle was indeed right and he was the wisest person in Athens. He also in a very unconventional manner openly praised two women as highly influential as his teachers. The first was Diotima, a priestess from Mantinea who taught him about eros (erotic love). The second was Aspasia, the mistress and later wife of the great statesman Pericles. He said that she taught him rhetoric. This was exceptionally unusual in a time that generally did not see any purpose in educating women beyond a basic level if at all.

Socrates also strongly supported the ascetic lifestyle. He was known to parade around the agora (marketplace) of Athens naked, having realised that clothes were possessions. For a long time the only thing he had with him was his drinking cup. When someone pointed out that this was a possession he threw it away. The ascetic lifestyle was the ultimate philosophical idea – to leave worldly things behind to develop true wisdom. He believed that he was a messenger to mankind from the gods which may explain his ascetism. Such a lifestyle became increasingly popular further east in Jerusalem, with many ascetics living without possession in the dessert as an ultimate expression of divine inspiration. The most famous of these ascetics would be Jesus.

Socrates made many enemies in Athens due to his unusual views and lifestyle, which included an admiration of the Spartan lifestyle (Athens had been fighting Sparta for thirty years). Finally charges were put together accusing him of corrupting the youth of Athens. He was seen as a heretic and someone who disturbed the nomos (good laws/good order) of society. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

The Athenians did not expect Socrates to accept this punishment, but instead though he would see the punishment as a clear sign that he was not welcome and leave. His prison was not locked and a boat was moored nearby ready to take him away into exile. Socrates stayed true to what he believed in, which was the Athenian state and the laws of the people. Good laws were integral to a functioning society and for society to work well everyone had to obey these laws, even if they were not always to an individual’s liking. The day came for execution and Socrates accepted this without argument and drunk the hemlock poison given to him. The poison worked slowly, numbing his legs and working up towards his heart. He died according to his principles in 399BC.

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