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The Life and Times of the Ancient Greek Philosopher Socrates

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

Socrates

Socrates

Golden Age of Athens

Much of what the Western world has today in the fields of government, art, philosophy, drama, literature, and medicine had its origins in the “Golden Age” of Athens. This period began when the badly outnumbered Greeks defeated the Persian army in 480 BCE, and the era drew to a close with the lengthy war between the two rival Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. The military victory over the Persians, of which the Athenians were key, set the stage for the city of Athens to be ruled by the common people through a form of democratic government. The idea of democratic rule was a new concept, for in the past the land had been ruled by oligarchs and tyrants.

Much of the grandeur associated with ancient Athens at her height of glory can be attributed to the leadership of Pericles. He was a promoter of the arts and literature, and principally through his leadership, Athens became known as the center for culture and education in the ancient Greek world. One of the developments that came out of the “Age of Pericles,” as it also called, was that of drama and the theater. An outdoor amphitheater was constructed with finely tuned acoustics to the point that it was said that a whisper on stage could be heard in the back row by the spectators. On this stage, Greek dramas written by great playwrights such as Sophocles would play out with professional actors for the enjoyment of the Athenians. Artistic expression was not limited to the theater; in the written word, Herodotus, regarded as the father of history, wrote several books on the Persian Wars and ancient Egypt that are still consulted today. Out of the Golden Age came a philosopher named Socrates who put philosophy on the path toward the understanding of morals, logic, and ethics. Socrates devoted his life to combating the idea that justice should be equated with the power to work one’s will over others. His thoughts have impacted every generation of scholars for over two millennia and will probably do so for generations to come.

 Artist’s rendition of what ancient Athens looked like during the Golden Age of Athens. Painting by Leo von Klenze, 1846.

Artist’s rendition of what ancient Athens looked like during the Golden Age of Athens. Painting by Leo von Klenze, 1846.

Socrates the Man

One of the key individuals in the development of Western thought and philosophy, Socrates was born near the city of Athens about 469 BCE. His father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason, and his mother, Phaenarete, a midwife. It is believed that his family was working class because when Socrates was in the military as a heavy infantryman (hoplite), soldiers for this type of service came from free citizens–propertied farmers and artisans–who were able to afford the bronze armor suit and weapons. Upon the death of his parents, Socrates inherited their house and a modest sum of money.

Throughout his life Socrates was indifferent to the accumulation of wealth. He was known to have dressed shabbily, never wore shoes, seldom bathed, and in his own words sported a stomach “somewhat too large to be convenient.” Later in his life he married Xanthippe, who bore him three sons; one was still an infant when he died. Socrates was described as a homely looking man, short and stout, with a flat nose, bulging eyes, a large mouth, and a rough beard.

Socrates normally spent his days roaming the streets of Athens and other public areas, conversing with a wide variety of people. Within the walled area of Athens there lived about 75,000 people, about half of whom were free citizens with rights, and the remainder were foreigners or slaves who had virtually no rights. To Socrates, one’s station in life didn’t matter as he conversed with the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, and just about anyone who would engage with him in conversation. He used his question-and-answer mode of conversation to probe the minds of those he encountered. The philosopher employed what has come to be known as the “Socratic method,” as Socrates never directly instructed his conversational partners; instead, he led them to draw conclusions in response to his probing questions. Socrates often left his conversational partners in a state of puzzlement and agitation because he forced them to realize their ignorance on a subject they professed to understand. His life’s work consisted of examination of people’s lives, his and others, because as he was known to say, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”

Sources of Biographical Information About Socrates

Since Socrates left no known writings about himself or his life, we must rely on the words of others who knew him. Socrates’ student, Plato, provides the most information about his mentor. Four of Plato’s dialogues–the Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo–describe much about the life, philosophy, trial, and death of Socrates. Plato’s dialogues, so called because they present Socrates and others in lengthy conversation about philosophy, portray him as a relentless questioner of his fellow citizens. It is impossible to tell from Plato’s writings just how much of the portrait of his beloved mentor is embellishment or historical fact. The second source on the life of Socrates comes from the solider-historian Xenophon, who refers to the philosopher in his work Memorabilia. Both men were about 45 years younger than Socrates and only had firsthand knowledge of his life during the last decade or so of his life. The third source on Socrates is from the playwright Aristophanes, who claims to have known him in his early days. In Aristophanes’ play Clouds, produced in 423 BCE, the playwright lampoons the young Socrates. However, a comedic play about a person is a very questionable source of biographical information. Aristophanes produced two more plays, the Birds and the Frogs, which complained of Socrates’ deleterious effect on the youth of the city of Athens.

The Peloponnesian War

During roughly the last half of Socrates’ life Greece was embroiled in the bitter Peloponnesian Wars. The series of wars were fought between the two leading city-states in Greece, Athens and Sparta. Each of the two city-states headed alliances that included nearly all of the Grecian world. The Delian League, led by Athens, was a group of city-states that included most of the island and coastal states of the northern and eastern shores of the Aegean Sea. Sparta led the Peloponnesian League, made up of an alliance of independent states that encompassed central Greece and the Peloponnese, as well as the sea power of the city of Corinth. The Athenians, under their leader Pericles, broke a long-standing truce between the two powers and war ensued in 431 BCE. After decades of fighting that ebbed and flowed, the Spartan alliance was the ultimate victor. After the fighting stopped in 404 BCE, Athens was devastated, thus greatly crippling what had been a region of great military, political, and cultural prominence. The Spartans turned out to be ineffective in governing the Grecian empire, as Aristotle later explained, “the Spartans prevailed in war but were destroyed by empire, for they did not know how to use the leisure they had won.” The end of the Peloponnesian War was a turning point in Greek history as the fall of Athens effectively marked the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Athens.

Map of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE.

Map of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE.

Military Career

Socrates served in the Athenian army during the Peloponnesian War as a foot soldier (hoplite) and was posted to Potidaea to put down a revolt. Socrates fought bravely and distinguished himself by saving the life of the wounded general Alcibiades. Socrates spent nearly three years on this deployment and did not return to Athens until May of 429 BCE. He was drawn back into active military service once again at Battle of Delium in 424 BCE in what turned out to be a defeat for the Athenians. Though the Athenians lost the battle, Socrates’ heroic fighting was praised by his commander Laches, and later by Alcibiades. Socrates was known to have participated in one more battle at Amphipolis, which as a disaster for the Athenians. During the rigors of the military campaigns, he showed an amazing capacity to endure the hardships imposed in war time. In Plato’s Symposium, the author relates a story of Socrates’ tenacity in battle. “When we were cut off from our supplies and compelled to go without food, he was superior to everybody. Yet, when we feasted, he alone had any real powers of enjoyment; through unwilling to drink he could, if compelled, beat us all at that–yet no man had ever seen Socrates drunk. His fortitude in enduring cold was also remarkable.” It was said he never wore shoes, even during winter snow!

Greek hoplite or foot-soldier during the fifth century BCE.

Greek hoplite or foot-soldier during the fifth century BCE.

Council of Five Hundred

As well as not seeking wealth, Socrates never sought public office, but he did believe that a good citizen should not refuse to serve in a public office. During his later years, in 406 BCE, he served as a member of the Council of Five Hundred, a group of jurors for civil court. Each day that the courts were in session, a lottery system was used to select 500 jurors to hear the case before the court. Each juror was paid a small stipend for their time. In a case involving the prosecution of military generals for misconduct his ethics were put to a test. The victorious commanders of the Athenian fleet at a naval battle off the islands of Arginusae were tried for failing to rescue Athenian sailors from a sinking ship. The generals claimed that rescue was impossible due to the stormy seas. Socrates went against the other councilors and didn’t agree to an unconstitutional resolution that called for all the generals to be condemned collectively. Plato gave an account of Socrates’ words in the Apology, “I was the only one of the [presiding officers] who opposed doing anything contrary to the laws, and although the orators were ready to impeach and arrest me, and though you urged them with shouts to do so, I thought I must run the risk to the end with law and justice on my side, rather than join with you when your wishes were unjust, through fear of imprisonment or death.”

The Thirty Tyrants and the Athenian Revolt

Once the Athenians were defeated in 404 BCE, the Spartan admiral Lysander established a council of thirty oligarchs to restore Athens’ government to its “ancestral constitution.” The Thirty Tyrants, as the Athenians called them, had no interest in establishing a rule of law; rather, they slaughtered their enemies and confiscated their land. The citizens of Athens were outraged by the despotic treatment dealt them by the Tyrants and pleaded with Lysander to install a Spartan governor and a Spartan garrison for their protection. By the end of 404 BCE, thousands of Athenians had fled the city seeking refuge. The harsh treatment of the Thirty caused an uprising among the citizens of Athens, forcing the Thirty to ask Lysander to save them from the angry mobs. The issue became an internal power struggle among the kings of Sparta and Lysander resulting in the restoration of the Athenian democracy. In an unexpected twist of Peloponnesian League internal conflicts, Athenian democracy was restored.

Socrates showed courage once again while serving on the Council of Five Hundred by refusing to carry out the order of the Thirty Tyrants to arrest a wealthy foreigner on trumped-up charges. The tactics of the Thirty were to arrest wealthy resident aliens, liquidate their estates, and abscond with the proceeds. Socrates told the judges in Plato’s Apology: “The Thirty sent for me with four others to come to the rotunda and ordered us to bring Leon the Salaminian…to be put to death.” Socrates considered the order illegal and refused to execute the orders of the Thirty, a decision that could have cost him his life, but he was saved from death as the Thirty Tyrants were overthrown in 403 BCE.

The Indictment of Socrates

Though Athens now had a form of democratic government, the city was in pitiful shape: A third of the citizens had fled and agriculture and trade were in shambles, which left many hungry and impoverished. To avoid further bloodshed between the citizens over the bitter war, Athenians declared an amnesty–the first recorded amnesty in world history—between the groups who were loyal to the old statesmen of Athens and those who were sympathetic to the Spartan overlords. The amnesty prevented the two groups from persecuting each other, at least not openly. Socrates, now about age 70, felt the hatred between the different groups within the city. His years of wandering the streets of Athens and buttonholing the rich and powerful men with his clever questions had angered many. Though the amnesty had made it illegal to indict citizens suspected of being sympathetic to the Thirty Tyrants, devious means of retribution were at work to suppress those deemed dissidents by the controlling democrats. The powerful democratic leaders brought charges of “impiety” against the aged philosopher; more specially, the charges were for the “practice of religious novelties” and “corruption of the youth.” The charges against Socrates had both a moral and religious component. Religiously, he was accused of not believing in the gods of the city-state and introducing new divinities. Morally his accusers claimed he had led the young men of Athens away from Athenian standards and ideas.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

— Socrates

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The Trial of Socrates

The instigation of the prosecution of Socrates came from the second most important statesman in Athens, Anytus. He employed Meletus, a second-rate poet, to act as lead prosecutor. The Athenian courts of law had no lawyers or judges; instead, all citizens over age 30 could serve as jurors. Each day, as trials only lasted one day, those who wanted to serve as a juror for the day put their name into a lottery, and if they were selected, they were assigned to a court. Depending on the severity of the crime, the number of jurors ranged from 201 to 501. Typically, the jurors took their seats, the charges were read, the citizen bringing the charge presented his case and called witnesses, the defendant spoke and called his witnesses, then the jurors decided by a simple majority the guilt or innocence of the defendant. It was up to the two speakers, the prosecutor and the defendant, to cite relevant laws, and there was no cross examination of witnesses. The courts could be noisy places as the jurors regularly interrupted the proceedings with laughter, booing, and abusive language. For those found guilty, some minor crimes carried fixed penalties; for more serious crimes, the prosecutor and the defendant both proposed penalties, and the jury decided the defendant’s punishment.

According to Plato in his dialogue the Apology, Socrates gave a sophisticated speech explaining his personal philosophy and chastising the Athenian legal system for relying on superficial forms of knowledge. Furthermore, he challenged the jurors to stop caring so much about their material possessions and start making their true selves–their souls–as excellent as possible. After both sides had presented their arguments, the jurors cast their votes and out of some 500 jurors, Socrates was a few dozen short of acquittal. Once the guilty verdict was rendered, the prosecutor asked for the death penalty. Instead of proposing a fine or exile, which was the norm, Socrates mocked the jurors and proposed that his punishment should be free dinners for life as a reward for forcing the citizens to consider how they lived their lives. He explained the situation as such: “What do I deserve to suffer because during my life I neglected the things most men care for—making money, managing their property, public offices, and political clubs? I considered myself too good for such things, in which I should have been useless to you and to myself, and, instead, set myself to confer the greatest of benefactions by attempting to persuade each of you not to care for his belongings before he cares for himself–for his becoming as good and wise as possible–nor for any of the city’s belongings before he cares for the city…” During the second vote for the penalty, Socrates received fewer votes and thus was sentenced to death.

Painting “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques Louis David 1787.

Painting “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques Louis David 1787.

Final Days

Normally a death sentence would have been carried out within 24 hours; however, there was a delay of a month for Socrates’ execution due to a religious observance. During that time, as described in Plato’s Phaedo, he discussed his theories with friends who came to visit him in prison. When his appointed time came to die, he took the poison cup of hemlock from the jailor and drank it without objection, dying in the year 399 BCE. Plato wrote of his friend and mentor, “Such was the end of our friend; of whom I may truly say, that of all men of his time who I have known he was the wisest and the best.” Years after Socrates’ death Xenophon summed up the feeling of the philosopher’s admirers in his work Memorabilia, “All those who knew what sort of person Socrates was and who aim at excellence in their lives continue even now to long for him most of all because he was the most helpful of all in learning about excellence.”

References

  • Johnson, Paul. Socrates: A Man for Our Times. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.
  • Nails, Debra, “Socrates," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/socrates/>. Accessed February 19, 2021.
  • Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
  • Morris, Ian and Barry B. Powell. The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society. Second Edition. Prentice Hall, 2010.
  • Stone, I.F. The Trial of Socrates. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988.
  • The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition. New York: Encyclopedia Americana Inc., 1968.
  • The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1994.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Doug West

Comments

Doug West (author) from Missouri on March 16, 2021:

emge:

Glad you liked the article. What would we call a guy like Socrates today if we met him on the street and he started asking hard questions (don't forget he seldom bathed or washed his clothes)? I am afraid the answer to that question probably wouldn't be pretty.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on March 15, 2021:

Nice article. Read a lot about Socrates while in school.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on March 11, 2021:

Doug, very informative article about a wise old man. A man who wore no shoes and lived with morals and honor. I'm glad he had his friend Plato . Such history surrounds Athens. Thanks for your article.

Doug West (author) from Missouri on March 10, 2021:

Louise:

Thanks for the comment. Socrates was a rather strange character that had a big impact on Western culture.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on March 10, 2021:

That was so interesting to read. I love history and really did enjoy reading about Socrates. Thanks!

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