Socrates, a classical Greek philosopher is best known for the creation of two things; Socratic irony, and the Socratic Method (also known as elenchus). From a teacher student point of view, Socrates is more specifically known for his philosophical type of pedagogy; the teacher asks the student questions to elicit the best possible answer and any other knowledgeable insights. We, in the Western society have associated him with two other famous men, Plato and Aristotle of whom all three have influenced our philosophical views.
The Life of Socrates
Most of what is known about Socrates has been taken from different sources:
1. Dialogues of Plato and Xenophon (both students of Socrates)
2. The Plays of Aristophanes.
Socrates father was Sophroniscus and his mother was Phaenarete; she being a midwife and his father’s occupation unknown. According to Plato Socrates was an unattractive man being very short in stature. Even with this, he married a woman by the name of Xanthippe who was much younger than himself. They had three sons together, Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. Many of Plato’s dialogues refer to Socrates as a military service man. It is said that he served in the Athenian army under three different parties; Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium.
Aristophanes’ plays also have given slight insight to who this man Socrates might have been. Although this portrayal should not be taken at face value, many have done such and have agreed that this is how many people saw Socrates. In Aristophanes’ play “The Clouds”, Socrates is a clown who teaches his students how to bamboozle their way out of debt. Most of Aristophanes’ works were parodies however, so the reality of this portrayal may be somewhat disillusioned.
No one knows quite for sure how, or if Socrates earned a professional living. It is clear that he had many followers and students, but professionally we do not know exactly what he did. According to Timon of Phlius and other sources, Socrates took over his father’s stonemasonry profession. He might have crafted the statues which stood near the Acropolis until the second century AD. There is also evidence that Socrates never pursued any profession at all. In a symposium Socrates once stated that “he devotes himself only to what he regards as the most important art or occupation; discussing philosophy.” Some say he was paid to be a teacher, and others say he denied taking payment for anything.
The Socratic Method
Socrates most important contribution to the Western philosophy was in his dialectic method of inquiry. This we know today as the “Socratic Method.” The Socratic Method was described by Plato in a series of dialogues. In attempt to solving a problem, it would be broken in a series of questions, and the answers would come gradually as you answer the many questions. The “Socratic Method’s” influence is most widely felt in the use of the Scientific Method, where thinking and finding a hypothesis is the first step. The development and practice of the Socratic Method has perhaps given him the honor of becoming the “father of political philosophy” and a major figurehead in Western philosophy. His philosophies are designed so that one is forced to examine their own beliefs and values.
There is much controversy as the whether or not Socrates’ actions were justified at the time of his death. It was no secret that in Socrates’ pursuit of virtue and adherence to truth, he clashed with many of Athenian politics and society. In his efforts to improve Athenien’s sense of Justice, he may have ultimately been the source of his own execution. There is evidence from two of his students Xenophon and Plato, that Socrates had an opportunity to escape his death as followers were able to bribe the prison guards. However, he chose not to for several reasons:
1. He did not want anyone believing he was afraid of death as no philosopher is ever afraid to die.
2. He understood that his philosophies would be no better accepted in another country has he would continue questioning all he met.
3. Having understood that he had agreed to live under the city’s laws, he knew there was great possibility of being accused and judged guilty of crimes. By fleeing, this would have been an act contrary to Socratic principle.
At his trial he was found guilty and sentenced to death by poison. He turned down the pleas of Crito in attempt to escape and drank the poison that took him to his death. Just before he died he said, “Crito, owe a cock to Asclepius. Please don’t forget to pay the debt.” This has been interpreted as meaning that death is the cure, and freedom of the soul from the body. Socrates certainly left his mark upon history then, and history now.