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.
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:
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.
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.
Mode of life:
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 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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