Socrates of Athens, who flourished in the last half of the 5th century BC, was the first of the great trio of ancient Greeks--Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle--who laid the philosophical foundations of Western culture. As Cicero said, Socrates "brought down philosophy from heaven to earth"--i.e., from the nature speculation of the Ionian and Italian cosmologists to analyses of the character and conduct of human life, which he assessed in terms of an original theory of the soul. Living during the chaos of the Peloponnesian War, with its erosion of moral values, Socrates felt called to shore up the ethical dimensions of life by the admonition to "know thyself" and by the effort to explore the connotations of moral and humanistic terms. 

Socrates was born in or about 470 BC, 10 years after the Battle of Salamis. His father, Sophroniscus, was a friend of the family of Aristides the Just, founder of the Delian League, from which the empire arose. The tale that his father was a sculptor rests on Plato's reference to the mythical sculptor Daedalus as the ancestor, or work-lineage, of Socrates. Although the philosopher's mother, Phaenarete, acted as a "midwife," this fact implies nothing about her social status. 
The memoir writer Ion of Chios mentioned meeting Socrates at Samos in the company of the philosopher Archelaus, a pupil of Anaxagoras (Athens' first philosopher), presumably during the military operations of 441-439. The connection between the two men is also asserted by the musicologist Aristoxenus, whereas the tradition of commentaries based on Theophrastus, Aristotle's successor, calls Socrates the "disciple" of Archelaus. 

Plato and Aeschines the Socratic, both writers of Socratic dialogues, agree with the military historian Xenophon in depicting him as intimate with the leading figures of the Periclean circle (Aspasia, Alcibiades, Axiochus, Callias), dominant in Athens at the time. Xenophon concurs with Plato in saying that he was well versed in both geometry and astronomy, and this representation of Socrates agrees with the narrative of Plato's Phaedo as well as the burlesque The Clouds, which was written by the playwright Aristophanes. (see also Index: Pericles) 

Socrates must already have been a conspicuous figure at Athens when Aristophanes and Ameipsias both made him the subject of their comedies in 423, and, because they made a special point of his neediness, he had probably suffered recent losses. (The marked poverty of his old age is said in Plato's Apology to have been caused by his preoccupation with his mission to mankind.) 

Socrates was married, apparently late in life, to Xanthippe, by whom he left three sons, one an infant. Xenophon speaks of her high temper; there is no evidence, however, that she was a "shrew"; the sons, according to Aristotle, proved insignificant. 

Socrates' record for endurance was distinguished. He served as a hoplite, perhaps at Samos (440), and at several stations during the Peloponnesian War. (At Potidaea he saved the life of Alcibiades.) In politics he took no part, knowing, as he told his judges, that office would mean compromise with his principles. Once at least, in 406-405, he was a member of the Boule, or legislative council, of 500; and, at the trial of the victors of Arginusae, he resisted--at first with the support of his colleagues, afterward alone--the unconstitutional condemnation of the generals by a collective verdict. He showed the same courage in 404, when the oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens, wishing to implicate honourable men in their proceedings, instructed him and four others to arrest Leon, one of their victims. Socrates disobeyed, and he says in Plato's Apology that this might have cost him his life but for the counterrevolution of the next year. 

In 399 Socrates was indicted for "impiety." The author of the proceedings was the influential Anytus, one of the two chiefs of the democrats restored by the counterrevolution of 403; but the nominal prosecutor was the obscure and insignificant Meletus. There were two counts in the accusation, "corruption of the young" and "neglect of the gods whom the city worships and the practice of religious novelties." Socrates, who treated the charge with contempt and made a "defense" that amounts to avowal and justification, was convicted, probably by 280 votes against 220. The prosecutors had asked for the penalty of death; it now rested with the accused to make a counterproposition. Though a smaller, but substantial, penalty would have been accepted, Socrates took the high line that he really merited the treatment of an eminent benefactor: maintenance at the public table. He consented only for form's sake to suggest the small fine of one mina, raised at the entreaty of his friends to 30. 

The claim to be a public benefactor incensed the court, and death was voted by an increased majority, a result with which Socrates declared himself well content. As a rule at Athens, the condemned man "drank the hemlock" within 24 hours, but, in the case of Socrates, the fact that no execution could take place during the absence of the sacred ship sent yearly to Delos caused an unexpected delay of a month, during which Socrates remained in prison, receiving his friends daily and conversing with them in his usual manner. An escape was planned by his friend Crito, but Socrates refused to hear of it, on the grounds that the verdict, though contrary to fact, was that of a legitimate court and must therefore be obeyed. The story of his last day, with his drinking of the hemlock, has been perfectly told in the Phaedo of Plato, who, though not himself an eyewitness, was in close touch with many of those who were present. 

Main sources of information:
Socrates wrote nothing; therefore, information about his personality and doctrine has to be sought chiefly in the dialogues of Plato and in the Memorabilia of Xenophon. As both men were nearly 45 years younger than Socrates, they could speak from firsthand knowledge about only the last 10 to 12 years of his life. 
Xenophon, whose relations with Socrates seem not to have been close, has even been suspected of drawing from Plato. His admitted deficiencies in imagination and capacity for thinking do not make him the more faithful exponent of a philosophical genius. Moreover, Xenophon's apologetic purpose calls for some discounting. His most valuable statements are those that appear to be most at variance with his main thesis, viz., that the prosecutors of Socrates were mistaken even from their own point of view. 

Plato's more vivid picture has been suspected on the grounds that he used Socrates as a "mouthpiece" for speculations of his own: the theory of "Ideas" or doctrine of "Forms" is thus held to have been originated by Plato. There are serious reasons for denying this assumption, though they have not yet convinced many scholars; in any case, to employ it, without investigation, to discredit Plato's testimony begs the question. 

In some important respects, Plato's testimony is confirmed by the extant writings of Aeschines Socraticus. The Clouds of Aristophanes yields valuable information about Socrates in his middle 40s, though allowance must be made for the work's character as a burlesque. It should be compared carefully with the autobiographical statements put into the mouth of Socrates in the Phaedo, which, though not "contemporary evidence," are clearly meant to express Plato's bona fide belief about his master's intellectual history. Whichever way the evidence is interpreted, however, a Platonic view of Socrates is available in the Dialogues that is valuable in its own right; hence the following discussion will draw heavily upon the Dialogues as the primary source for the portrait of Socrates. 

Personal characteristics:
Though Socrates was a good fighting man, his outward appearance was grotesque. Stout and not tall, with prominent eyes, snub nose, broad nostrils, and wide mouth, he seemed a very Silenus. But, as his friends knew, he was "all glorious within," "the most upright man of that day" (Plato, The Seventh Letter [324e]). His self-control and powers of endurance were exemplary; "he had so schooled himself to moderation that his scanty means satisfied all his wants." 
But Socrates was no self-tormenting ascetic: he "knew both how to want and how to abound" and could be the soul of the merriment at a gay party. He had no sympathy with the slatternliness of his friend Antisthenes nor with the godly dirtiness often affected by the followers of Pythagoras (the philosopher of number). There was nothing of the complacent self-righteousness of the Pharisee nor of the angry bitterness of the satirist in his attitude toward the follies or even the crimes of his fellowmen. It was his deep and lifelong conviction that the improvement not only of himself but also of his countrymen was a task laid upon him "by God," not to be executed with a scowling face and an upbraiding voice. Like St. Francis Xavier, he understood that to win men's souls one must be "good company." Conscious of his own infirmities, he felt a profound sympathy for the intemperate. 

Socrates was a true patriot who felt that he could best prove his devotion to Athens by setting his face resolutely against the attractions of specious and popular, but deadly, false theories of public and private morality. When the city brought him to trial and threatened him with death, his sense of civic duty forbade him to escape into exile either before or after the trial. It was his very patriotism that made him an unsparing critic of the Athenian "democracy" and so led to his being condemned to death. 

Socrates possessed an unusually keen appreciation of the comic in human nature and conduct that protected him at once against sentimentality and against cynicism. His opponents in Plato call this his "irony" and treat it as an irritating affectation. "Intellectually the acutest man of his age, he represents himself in all companies as the dullest person present. Morally the purest, he affects to be the slave of passion" (W.H. Thompson). No doubt, in part, this irony was "calculated"; it "disarmed ridicule by anticipating it." But its true source is the spontaneous sense of fun that makes its possessor the enemy of all pretentiousness, moral or intellectual. And it is certain that, though the purity of Socrates is beyond question, he really had an ardent and amorous temperament. 

Religious beliefs:
Socrates was clearly a man of deep piety with the temperament of a mystic. He regarded mythology, with its foolish or immoral tales about gods, as a mere invention of the poets. But he found it easy to combine his own strong belief in God as ruler of the world with the view that, in practice, one could worship God in the way prescribed by "the usage of the city." God's existence is shown, he held, not only by the providential order of nature and the universality of the belief in him but also by warnings and revelations given in dreams, signs, and oracles. The soul of man partakes of the Divine; and, as Plato argued in the Phaedo, Socrates believed in the soul's immortality. Aristophanes makes Socrates combine the parts of "infidel" physicist and hierophant of a mysterious private faith and, in The Birds, presents him as presiding at a fraudulent séance. He was regular, says Xenophon, in prayer and sacrifice, though he held that, because only the gods know what is good for a man, his prayer should simply be "give me what is good." It is clear from Plato that Socrates was quite familiar with Pythagorean and Orphic religious ideas--with the doctrine of the divine origin and destiny of the soul, for example--though he regarded the ordinary Orphic mystery monger with healthy contempt. (see also Index: mysticism) 
The evidence that Socrates had a markedly "mystical" temperament is abundant. Plato tells of his curious "rapts," in one of which he stood spellbound for 24 hours in the trenches. The accounts of the philosopher's "divine sign" tell the same story. This, according to Plato, was a "voice" often heard by Socrates from childhood. It forbade him to do things but never gave positive encouragement. According to Plato, it merely gave prognostications of good or bad luck, and the occasions of its occurrence were often "very trivial." Thus, it was neither an intuitive conscience nor a symptom of mental disorder but an interior psychic audition. 

Mode of life:
Socrates seemed to spend all his time in the streets, the marketplace, and, more particularly, the gymnasia. He cared little for the country. Though he frequented by choice the society of young men of promise, he also talked freely to politicians, poets, and artisans about their various callings, their notions of right and wrong, the familiar matters of interest to them. The object of all this dialogue was to test the famous oracle of Apollo at Delphi, which had pronounced him the wisest of men. This pronouncement was made before Socrates had become conscious of his mission to his fellowmen: even at that early date, it is implied, he had the highest of reputations in circles interested in wisdom. (This early date is attested by the fact that the Eleatics from Megara and the young pupils of the Pythagoreans from Thebes and Phlious who were attached to Socrates must have formed their connection with him before the Peloponnesian War.) 
Socrates set himself to convict "the god" of falsehood. But finding that those who thought themselves wise were unable to give any coherent account of their wisdom, Socrates had to admit that he was wiser than others, just because he alone was aware of his own ignorance. This account is plainly tinged with the usual "irony." Socrates took the Delphic oracle seriously enough to probe into its real import. He believed himself charged with a mission from God to make his fellowmen aware of their ignorance and of the supreme importance of knowledge of what is for the soul's good. This is proved by his declaration that he was more than ready to face instant death rather than to neglect his commission. 

The poverty in which this mission had involved him and the austerity of the rule of life that it entailed were notorious. Summer and winter, Socrates' coat was the same; he had neither shoes nor shirt. "A slave who was made to live so," the Sophist Antiphon said, "would run away." This self-imposed life of hardships was the price of his spiritual independence. 

His message, however, was variously received. Some of those whose false pretensions were exposed by his trenchant criticizing regarded him with ill will; many thought him an officious busybody. Among the younger men, many merely thought it good sport to see their elders silenced. Others, such as Alcibiades and Critias, deliberately attached themselves to him for a time "for private ends," believing that to learn the secret of so acute a reasoner would be the best preparation for success in the law courts, the council, and the assembly. Others sincerely hoped by associating with him to become good men and true, capable of doing their duty by house and household, by relations and friends, by city and fellow citizens. Finally, there was an inner circle that entered more deeply into Socrates' principles and transmitted them to the next generation. But these were not "disciples" united by a common doctrine. The bond of union was a common reverence for a great man's intellect and character. It was, in the main, this group--many from states that had been enemies of Athens in the recent war--that collected around Socrates on the day of his death. 

The accusation and its causes:
The explanation of the attack made on Socrates is simple. He had been on terms of close friendship with the two men whose memories were most obnoxious to the democrats: Critias, the fiercest spirit among the extremists of the "terror" of 404; and Alcibiades, whose self-will had done so much to bring about the downfall of the Athenian empire. The charge of "educating Alcibiades" was made prominent in the pamphlet written a few years after the trial by the Sophist Polycrates, in justification of the verdict. More than half a century later, the orator Aeschines reminds his audience that Socrates had been put to death because he was believed to have educated Critias. In point of fact, it was absurd to make Socrates responsible for the ambitions of Alcibiades, and, as he reminded his judges, he had disobeyed an illegal order from Critias and his colleagues at the risk of his life. But it is natural that he should have had to suffer for the crimes of both men, the more so because he had been an unsparing critic of democracy and of the famous democratic leaders and, furthermore, had not, like the advanced democrats, withdrawn from Athens during the "terror." 
Socrates was, in fact, suspected of using his great abilities and gifts to pervert his younger associates from loyalty to the principles of democracy, and the convinced democrats who had recovered the city in 403 were unwilling, as J. Burnet has said, "to leave their work at the mercy of reaction." The motives of Anytus, an upright, unintelligent democrat, are thus quite explicable: from his point of view, Socrates would be at the best a moderate oligarch, and democrats who remembered the career of the statesman Theramenes, who had tried to mix oligarchy and democracy, could not be expected to make a fine distinction between the moderate oligarch and the traitor. 

The real grounds for the attack could not be disclosed in the indictment because of the amnesty that had terminated the struggle, of which Anytus himself had been a main promoter. Hence, the charge took the form of a vague accusation of "corruption of the young." Probably for the same reasons, Anytus was ashamed to appear as the principal in the matter and put forward the obscure Meletus, who might venture on "indiscretions" more openly. If this was the same Meletus who prosecuted Andocides on the same charge of "impiety," he must have been a half-witted fanatic--and this may explain why the charge of irreligion was added. Xenophon suggests that the allusion was to the "divine sign," but this cannot be correct. Meletus said nothing about the "sign" at the prosecution, and Socrates is speaking with his "usual irony" when he pretends to guess that the mention of "religious novelties" in the indictment referred to the "sign." In the Apology, Socrates says that the prosecution is, no doubt, relying on memories of Aristophanes' The Clouds, where he had been made to talk "atheism" as part of the burlesque on men of science. 

But there must have been more behind the charge. It seems likely that the prosecution of Andocides revived the old scandal of the "profanation of the mysteries" that had thrown Athens into a ferment on the eve, in 415, of the Sicilian expedition. The two chief victims, Alcibiades and his uncle Axiochus, had both been among the intimates of Socrates, and there is reason to think that others of his friends were affected. If this is what lay behind the charge, it can be understood why its real meaning seems never to have been explained: for in view of the terms of the amnesty, the matters in question were not within the competence of the court. 

Socrates himself treats the whole matter with contempt. His defense consists in narrating the facts of his past life, which had proved that he was equally ready to defy the populace and the Thirty in the cause of right and law, and in insisting on the reality of his mission from God and his determination to discharge it, even at the cost of life. The prosecutors had no desire for blood. They counted on a voluntary withdrawal of the accused from the jurisdiction before trial; the death penalty was proposed to make such a withdrawal certain. Socrates himself forced the issue by refusing at any stage to do anything involving the least shade of compromise. The prosecution had raised the question whether he was a traitor or, as he held himself to be, an envoy from God; Socrates was determined that the judges should give a direct verdict on the issue without evasion. This is not only what makes him a martyr but also what forbids us to call Anytus a murderer. 

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