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Socrates Essay, Research Paper

Socrates: A Great Philosopher

Kimberly Whitaker

Honors Survey of World History: HONR 1151

Dr. Veula J. Rhodes, Instructor

Albany State University

November 22, 1999


Thesis: Exploring Socrates and his philosophies give the seeker a new understanding of the life and society in which Socrates lived. With this new understanding, one can compare or contrast other views of the period. In doing this, the researcher is provided with a map of ideas and philosophies throughout history. This map can be used to enhance our present understanding of past cultures.


II.The early life of Socrates

III.Problem of Socrates

IV.Philosophical ideas and techniques

A.Universal definitions

B.Inductive arguments

C.Socratic method

V.The trial and death of Socrates


Socrates insight added to the wealth of Ancient Greece. He studied human nature like no other philosopher. For these reasons, he and his philosophies should be remembered.

Socrates is considered amongst the greatest philosophers in history. His life was short, yet meaningful, and productive. His teachings have survived through the dialogues, memoirs, and plays of other Greek writers (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and Aristophanes). These writings are studied to paint a clearer picture of Socrates. His most famous method of observation, the Socratic dialogue or dialect, was unique. He explored human nature through tedious examination and studied people in a way never done before.

Socrates was born around 470 B.C.E. in the Greek city-state of Athens. His parents were Sophroniscus and Phaenarete. His wife was named Xanthippe; together they had three sons. According to one source, Xanthippe was considered ?ill-tempered? and difficult to live with. Even though he didn?t come from a poor family, it is known that he was very poor. This was due to that fact that Socrates did not accept money from his observers like other philosophers of his day (esp., the Sophists). His dress was simple and his eating and drinking reflected his moderate attitude.

Since Socrates kept no written records of his teachings, information from other Greek scholars are used to regenerate his philosophies and teachings. This problem is commonly referred to as the ?Socratic problem.? There are four scholars who captured Socrates? life and teachings in their works: 1) the writings (Memorabilia and Symposium) of the Greek historian and pupil of Socrates, Xenophon, 2) dialogues by the philosopher, Plato (also pupil a of Socrates), 3) Clouds, a comedy by Aristophanes, and 4) the writings of Plato?s pupil, Aristotle.

Although there is much debate over who provided the most accurate representation of Socrates, the testimonies of each scholar are widely accepted. However, it must be noted that Plato was a philosopher who often injected his own theories and thoughts into the dialogues he recorded. Also, some of the writers present opposing views of Socrates. For instance, for comical effect, Aristophanes paints Socrates as ?a bumbling, foolish man who supports fantastic theories? in Clouds. This view contrasted the Aristotelian and Platonic Socrates that displayed Socrates as an ?intellectualist or rationalist.?

Since there are four different Socrates, which Socrates is believable? One author answers that question saying, ?There is no way to achieve an indisputable answer. But where we find common features in the various portraits, there is a substantial probability that we may have reached the historical Socrates.?

Socrates taught to any who listened. He taught by questioning his listeners. Then, he used the implications of their answers to contradict their logic in an effort to alter their views. This is the Socratic method and will be discussed in detail later. One of Socrates? most famous ideas was the universal definition. He believed that even though animals and things are constructed differently, the characteristics that make the similar and how they vary remain constant. For example, there are several species of dogs. Nevertheless, there are constants that distinguish a dog from a cat or animal. This idea of universal definitions could be applied to the concepts of justice, piety, virtue, wisdom, etc. Socrates also believed that if each concept is captured in one universal definition then ?the definition affords a sure rock ethical on which men could stand amidst the sea of the Sophists relativistic doctrines.? For instance, the definition of justice varied from place to place. By applying the idea of universal definition, the actions of the individual and the State could be judged by whether each embody the universal definition of justice.

Socrates used inductive arguments (reasoning) to seek universal definitions. He believed that one has to first find the common characteristics that relate a particular thing. To find this common character, Socrates went from the general idea to a particular, common one that encompassed all forms of the idea or thing that was being discussed. This logic is similar to the shape of a pyramid. The apex is similar to the general idea of a concept or theory. As the one moved down the faces of the pyramid, the pyramid grows larger. After reaching the base, the common characters are attained.

In order to arrive at the universal definition, Socrates used the dialectic conversation that later became known as the Socratic method. Men would begin a conversation knowing that each had their own explanation of a particular idea, thing, etc. Each of the men professed to have an adequate, accurate meaning. Yet, as the conversation continued, each found their definitions to be inconsistent. By the end of the conversation, they had progressed from a broad definition to the universal meaning.

Constantly, Socrates insisted on his own ignorance. By doing this, he hoped other men would become conscious of their own ignorance and strive for truth and knowledge. He claimed that he was unlike other men because he acknowledged and accepted his ignorance; other men did not confess their ignorance so openly.

Around the year 399 B.C.E., Socrates was brought to trial. There are several explanations why Socrates was really brought to trial. Some hold that because Socrates did not participant in illegal, ill moral acts of the Thirty Tyrants he quickly made enemies who sought his demise. Other sources held that Socrates was alleged to have educated two men who later rebelled against the Athenian democracy. Since there were no transcripts or court records left, the accounts from onlookers are used to piece together the proceedings of the trial. The indicted was recorded as follows :

?Meletus, son of Miletus, of the deme of Pitthus, indicts Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, of the deme of Alopecae, on his oath, to the following effect. Socrates is guilty (i) of not worshipping the gods whom the State worships, but introducing new and unfamiliar religious practices; (ii) and, further, of corrupting the young. The prosecutor demands the death penalty.?

The first charge was never explained. Huffman believes that there is validity to the first charge. Because Socrates would not accept stories of the gods acting wickedly, the first charge could be legal. The second charge was based on the assumption that Socrates had instilled contempt into the young of Athenian democracy. Most thought that Socrates would go into voluntary exile, but he decided to say and defend himself.

On the first vote, Socrates? jury of 500 men voted 280 for conviction and 220 for acquittal.i Socrates wasn?t shocked by the guilty conviction. He expected and even wanted conviction. He was, though, astounded at the number who voted for acquittal. The jury could exercise several penalties for their second vote (e.g., imprisonment, fines, commit to silence, and/or banishment). Socrates knew this. In Xenophon?s account of the trial, Socrates appears calm and prepared for death. Socrates says, ?If I perceive my own decay and take to complaining, how could I any longer take pleaser in life?? In effect, Socrates is saying if he did not complain about living, why should he complain about death. When asked to consider not to studying philosophy, Socrates remarks, ?The unexamined life is not worth living.?

The jury voted, 360 to 140, for the death penalty. Notice that there were more for the death penalty than there who voted for conviction. Why was this so? Because of Socrates? fearless bearing during the trial, the sympathy of the jury was lost. The courts of Socrates? time were use to hearing long oratorical speeches. Socrates tried twice to write a speech but failed. In some instances, these speeches freed the guilty and in others condemned the truly innocent. Finally, Socrates did not want to win over the jury; his tone was offensively arrogant throughout the entire trial.

After the verdict was announced (Socrates was sentenced to drank poison hemlock), Socrates remarked that his actions did not merit the extreme penalty of death. He goes on to list the crimes that, according to Athenian law, merited death. Unfortunately, Socrates? deduction was too late. If he had stressed this observation before the penalty phase begun, he probably would have received a milder sentence.

While awaiting execution, his followers offered him the opportunity to escape; he did not take the offer. He knew that if he escaped he would be going against all he had taught and believed and ??he felt morally obligated to follow the court?s decision, even if it was unjust.? Ultimately, Socrates chose to uphold his obligations even though the trade-off would be death.

His final day is narrated by Plato in the Phaedo. In this account, Socrates used his final hours to converse with his friends, Cebes and Simmias, about the immortality of the soul. In his dying remarks, he asks of Crito (one of Socrates pupils) that a debt be paid, ?Crito, we own a cock to Aesculapius; pay it, therefore, and do not neglect it.? After the poison reached his heart, he convulsed and Crito closed his mouth and eyes. Plato concludes, saying, ?this?was the end of our friend, a man we should say, who was the best of all his time we have known, and moreover, the most wise and just.? Socrates was 70.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome, Vol. 1 Westminster:

Newman Press, 1946.

Huffman, Carl A. ?Socrates,? in The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia Chicago:

World Book, Inc., 1998. 1-2.

Kemerling, Garth. ?Socrates: Philosophical Life,?

[http//people.Delphi.com/gkemerling/hy/2d.html], 1-14.

Marvin, Chris. ?Philosophers: Socrates,?

[http://www.trincoll.edu/~phil/philo/phils/Socrates.html] 1-2.

Saunders, J. L. ?Socrates,? in The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: Field

Enterprises Educational Corporation, 1975.

Stone, I. F. The Trial of Socrates. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988.


i.The Athenian jury votes twice in a criminal trial. The first vote is for conviction or acquittal. If found guilty the second vote is for the penalty.

ii. Due to varying interpretations of ancient texts, the final votes are not really

known. These are the commonly accepted figures.

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