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Socrates

Socrates was a Greek philosopher that lived between 469 and 399 BC. There are no written records of Socrates' work. What we know about Socrates comes from what others wrote about him. Socrates did not write any books because he believed in the superiority of argument over writing. However, through his students who later turned into his peers, we have some works related to him. Aristophanes and Xenophon wrote about him. However, we receive the most information from the works of Plato. Socrates was the chief character in many of his most famous dialogues. Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, Euclid, Alcibiades, and many others were people who were inspired by Socrates. Socrates' students wrote that he believed that evil is ignorance, and that virtue could be taught. According to this philosophy, all values are related to knowledge. Below you can find some known quotes, sayings, and stories featuring this legend :)

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An outline biography


Socrates was born in Athens around 470 B.C. He was the son of poor parents. His father was a sculptor and his mother was a midwife. Socrates was a stone cutter by trade. As well as learning this trade he also received a more formal education in geometry and astronomy. He had a hunger for knowledge that was credible and that could not be undermined by contrary facts. According to an account in Plato's "The Phaedo" Socrates started out with much enthusiasm for the sciences but eventually came to regard his teachers as merely imparting "received knowledge" that they could not themselves prove - he decided to seek true knowledge of "causes" and of "the good" elsewhere and was prepared to rely on his own intuitions as a guide in his search. He was a hoplite in the Athenian military. He showed much personal courage as a soldier in the Athenian army in the Peloponnesian War. He had a naturally mystically inclined personality and was occasionally found to be somewhat rapt in ecstacies and trances even whilst on military service.

After he retired from the army he devoted his time to what he called "divine command". Throughout his life he claimed to hear voices which he interpreted as signs from the gods. He spent much of his time and energy in the pursuit of wisdom. Socrates married Xanthippe late in his life, possibly as his second wife, some sources suggest that this lady was a tad shrewish. Socrates is held to have been way less serious about earning a living than in continuing his "mission" as a moral educator so Xanthippe, as the mother of a family, may have had grounds for impatience.

He became prominent in Athenian life because of the range and quality of his mind and his ideas! Athenians who came to know him held that whatever about his appearance he was "all glorious within" - he was on speaking terms with many of those who were at the centre of Athenian affairs. The Athens of the day was morally and ethically dislocated due to the sufferings and struggles associated with the ongoing Peloponessian Wars with Sparta.

A friend, in consultation with the Oracle at Delphi, asked was any man wiser than Socrates. The Oracle replied that there were not! Upon being told of this answer Socrates maintained that this implied that he, alone, had this claim to wisdom - that he fully recognised his own ignorance. From that time Socrates sought out people who had a reputation for wisdom and, in every case, was able to reveal that their reputations were not justified. Socrates regarded this behaviour as a service to God and decided that he should continue to make efforts to improve people by persuading and reminding them of their own ignorance.

What we now call the "Socratic method" of philosophical inquiry involved questioning people on the positions they asserted and working them through further questions into seemingly inevitable contradictions, thus proving to them that their original assertion had fatal inconsistencies. Socrates refers to this "Socratic method" as elenchus. The Socratic method gave rise to dialectic, the idea that truth needs to be approached by modifying one's position through questionings and exposures to contrary ideas. Whilst Socrates was polite and considerate, in the ways in which he brought people to face their own ignorance and at the same time encouraged them to join with him in a sincere search for truth, many of these interviews were conducted in public in market-place or Gymnasium. The youth of Athens came to regard it as a form of entertainment to see those of pretentious reputation humbled. Some people used the Socratic method to similarly bring others to face their own ignorance but may have been less polite and more personal in their approach. Those so discomfited often blamed those they held responsible for misleading youth rather than themselves for entertaining unjustifiable pretensions. Socrates came to feel that he had a "Divine mission" to improve the moral education of the Athenians and tended to neglect his business in order to spend time in moral philosophising and in informal educational discussions with Athenian youths. Prior to the times "philosophy" had been primarily directed towards the natural sciences. Socrates is held to be largely responsible for opening up moral, ethical, and political questions of virtue and justice as being of primary interest to philosphers.

He went about this by engaging in conversation with all sorts of men and women. They would discuss a wide range of subjects such as love, politics, war, friendship, poetry, religion, science, government and moral issues. It appears that Socrates spent much of his adult life in the agora (or the marketplace) conversing mainly about ethical and moral issues. Socrates rejected the popular conceptions of the Greek gods and their relation to human beings. He believed that a divine providence had to do with the creation of the world. Furthermore, he thought that the purpose toward which this divine providence was directed was the achievement of the good life by human beings. He believed that man was more than just a physical organism; he felt that man's body was a dwelling place of the soul and what happened to the soul was more important than what happened to the body. He made this statement that expresses his moral philosophy: "Virtue is knowledge." He believed that the chief cause of the evil that men do was ignorance concerning the good life. He believed that through the proper development of the mind in its pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness that the goal and purpose of human life can be achieved. He regarded popular opinion as ignorant. He was very critical of the democratic form of government. He felt that people who are called upon to govern the state ought to possess both intellectual and moral qualifications. Socrates did not seek to involve himself in the political life of Athens as he felt that there would inevitably be compromises of principle that he was not prepared to make.

In 399 B.C. Socrates was accused of "impiety", of "neglect of the Gods whom the city worships and the practise of religious novelties" and of the "corruption of the young".These accusations may have been to some extent political as Athens had recently been restored to democracy and several prominent opponents of democratic forms of governance had close links with Socrates. Socrates had a tendency to point out the shortcomings of certain officials who were, according to him, unprepared for their duties. He usually received harsh resentment from the officials he had offended. This was the case when Socrates pointed out the shortcomings in Meletus, a member of the governing council. In 399 B.C, Meletus and his fellow aristocrats, Anytus and Lycan, launched accusations at him. They accused him of being a menace to society. They said that he was corrupting the minds of the young and that he rejected the gods of Athens. Meletus also accused Socrates of being an atheist and said that his teachings would eventually bring about the collapse of public morality.

At the trial, Socrates defended himself and his manner of living and presented sufficient evidence to show that the accusations brought against him were without adequate foundations. However, when the jury voted, the majority voted against him.The leaders of Athens did not want a critic like Socrates in their city. They threatened to bring him to trial for neglecting the gods and for corrupting the youth of Athens by encouraging them to consider new ideas. The leaders expected the seventy year old Socrates to leave Athens before his arrest, but he remained in Athens, stood trial, and was found guilty. A friend tried to plan an escape from prison, but Socrates refused to participate. He believed that he must obey the law, even if his disagreed with it. His last day was spent with friends and admirers. At the end of the day, Socrates calmly drank from a cup of poison hemlock, the customary practice of execution at that time.

According to Plato Socrates' last words were:

"The hour of departure has arrived,
          and we go our ways 
      - I to die, and you to live -
     Which is better God only knows." 



Part of his defense


"So now, Athenian men, more than on my own behalf must I defend myself, as some may think, but on your behalf, so that you may not make a mistake concerning the gift of god by condemning me.

For if you kill me, you will not easily find another such person at all, even if to say in a ludicrous way, attached on the city by the god, like on a large and well-bred horse, by its size and laziness both needing arousing by some gadfly; in this way the god seems to have fastened me on the city, some such one who arousing and persuading and reproaching each one of you I do not stop the whole day settling down all over.

Thus such another will not easily come to you, men, but if you believe me, you will spare me; but perhaps you might possibly be offended, like the sleeping who are awakened, striking me, believing Anytus, you might easily kill, then the rest of your lives you might continue sleeping, unless the god caring for you should send you another."

THE SOUL (DIALOGUES OF PLATO, PHAEDO)


...the very light of the mind in her clearness penetrates into the very light of truth in each; he has got rid, as far as he can, of eyes and ears and of the whole body, which he conceives of only as a disturbing element, hindering the soul from the acquisition of knowledge when in company with her - is not this the sort of man who, if ever man did, is likely to attain the knowledge of existence?

There is admirable truth in that, Socrates, replied Simmias. And when they consider all this must not true philosophers make a reflection of which they will speak to one another in such words as these: We have found , they will say, a path of speculation which seems to bring us and the argument to the conclusion that while we are in the body, and while the soul is mingled with this mass of evil, our desire will not be satisfied, and our desire is of the truth. For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and also is liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after truth: and by filling us so full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and every sort of folly, prevents our ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. For whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? For wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and in consequence of all these things the time which ought to be given to philosophy is lost. Moreover, if there is time and an inclination toward philosophy, yet the body introduces a turmoil and confusion and fear into the course of speculation, and hinders us from seeing the truth: and all experience shows that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body, and the soul in herself must behold all things in themselves: I suppose that we shall attain that which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers, and that is wisdom, not while we live, but after death, as the argument shows; for if while in company with the body the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things seems to follow - either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death. For then, and not till then, the soul will be in herself alone and without the body.

In this present life, I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible concern or interest in the body, and are not saturated with the bodily nature, but remain pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us. And then the foolishness of the body will be cleared away and we shall be pure and hold converse with other pure souls, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere; and this is surely the light of truth. For no impure thing is allowed to approach the pure. There are the sort of words, Simmias, which the true lovers of wisdom cannot help saying to one another, and thinking. You will agree with me in that?

Certainly, Socrates. But if this is true, O my friend, then there is great hope that, going whither I go, I shall there be satisfied with that which has been the chief concern of you and me in our past lives. And now that the hour of departure is appointed to me, this is the hope with which I depart, and not I only, but every man who believes that he has his mind purified.

Certainly, replied Simmias. And what is purification but the separation of the soul from the body, as I was saying before; the habit of the soul gathering and collecting herself into herself, out of all the courses of the body; the dwelling in her own place alone, as in another life, so also in this, as far as she can; the release of the soul from the chains of the body? And what is that which is termed death, but this very separation and release of the soul from the body? To be sure, he said. And the true philosophers, and they only, study and are eager to release the soul. Is not the separation and release of the soul from the body their especial study? And as I was saying at first, there would be a ridiculous contradiction in men studying to live as nearly as they can in a state of death, and yet repining when death comes.

Certainly. Then, Simmias, as the true philosophers are ever studying death, to them, of all men, death is the least terrible. Look at the matter in this way: how inconsistent of them to have been always enemies of the body, and wanting to have the soul alone, and when this is granted to them, to be trembling and repining; instead of rejoicing at their departing to that place where, when they arrive, they hope to gain that which in life they loved (and this was wisdom), and at the same time to be rid of the company of their enemy. Many a man has been willing to go to the world below in the hope of seeing there an earthly love, or wife, or so, and conversing with them. And will he who is a true lover of wisdom, and is persuaded in like manner that only in the world below he can worthily enjoy her, still repine at death? Will he not depart with joy? Surely he will, my friend, if he be a true philosopher. For he will have a firm conviction that there only, and nowhere else, he can find wisdom in her purity. And if this be true, he would be very absurd, as I was saying, if he were to fear death.

He would, indeed, replied Simmias. And when you see a man who is repining at the approach of death, is not his reluctance a sufficient proof that he is not a lover of wisdom, but a lover of the body, and probably at the same time a lover of either money or power, or both? That is very true, he replied. There is a virtue, Simmias, which is named courage. Is not that a special attribute of the philosopher?

Certainly. Again, there is temperance. Is not the calm, and control, and disdain of the passions which even the many call temperance, a quality belonging only to those who despise the body and live in philosophy?

That is not to be denied...


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