“You are the noblest, the gentlest and the best man who has ever come here,” said the jailer to Socrates. The jailer had guarded Socrates for a month following his trial. A jury of 501 men found Socrates guilty of corrupting youth by teaching them to question everything and to think for themselves. The jury sentenced Socrates to death. At the appointed time, the jailer brought a poisonous hemlock drink to Socrates.
“May the journey from here to yonder be fortunate,” said Socrates, drinking the poison cheerfully. Socrates walked around his cell until his legs felt heavy. Then he lay down on his back and died.
Socrates was born in Athens, Greece in 469 B.C. Socrates’ father Sophroniscus was a sculptor, and his mother Phaenarete was a midwife. Sophroniscus trained Socrates in stone masonry, but Socrates preferred thinking and talking to chiseling stone. If he approached the stones the same way he approached ideas, he would have chipped away until nothing remained but a pile of dust and gravel.
Socrates wanted to be the best person he could be. Every day he said to himself, “I am growing in goodness, and I am making better friends.” Socrates’ search for goodness led him to the Oracle at Delphi. The Delphic Oracle was a temple built in honor of the Greek god Apollo. Inscribed on the temple were the words, “Know Thyself.”
Socrates thought about how to know himself. He decided that a person knowing himself is like an eye seeing itself. Even though eyes are for seeing, an eye cannot see itself. It can only see a reflection of itself in a mirror. Even though a person can examine himself, he cannot understand himself without comparing his thoughts to the thoughts of others.
When two people compare ideas, they must first decide if they agree or disagree. When they disagree, they can apply reason to decide which ideas are true. Socrates compared this process of reasoning to the work that his mother did as a midwife. Phaenarete delivered babies. Socrates delivered the ideas of others into the light of day like an intellectual midwife.
Socrates wondered about everything. He especially wondered about wisdom, morality, temperance, courage, and justice. Socrates said, “For this is an experience which is characteristic of a philosopher, this wondering: this is where philosophy begins and nowhere else.”
Socrates was a philosopher. The word philosophy combines two Greek words: philos meaning love, and sofia meaning wisdom. Philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom.” The more Socrates examined his own thoughts, the more he realized he really knew nothing. His friend Chaerephon traveled to Delphi to ask the priestess at the Oracle whether anyone was wiser than Socrates. The Oracle proclaimed Socrates the wisest man of all.
The Greeks all accepted that the Oracle could not tell a lie. Instead, the Oracle frequently disguised its truth in a riddle. Socrates set out to solve the mystery of how he could be the wisest man of all when he knew nothing for certain. He began questioning every wise person he could find. To his amazement, he found none who understood virtue any better than he did.
Socrates decided that in one small way, maybe he was the wisest after all. At least he knew that he did not know.
Socrates liked to ponder goodness and asked a deceptively simple question: Do the gods approve of something because it is good, or is something good because the gods approve of it? This question applies to any authority. Try asking yourself that question substituting “parents,” “school,” “religion” or “government” for “the gods.” Socrates accepted the authority of those who governed Athens, but he did not agree that a law was good just because the government had the power to make and enforce it.
Socrates did not record any of his ideas in writing. By using dialogue, Socrates claimed no knowledge. He said, “One thing which I have in common with the ordinary midwives is that I myself am barren of wisdom. I am always asking questions of other people but never express my own views about anything because there is no wisdom in me.” Socrates asked other people what they thought, and then reasoned with them to show how their thoughts and beliefs were inconsistent.
No completely accurate historical account of Socrates’ ideas and life exists. Two of Socrates disciples, Plato and Xenophon, wrote about Socrates’ dialogues. Plato’s writings form the foundation of western philosophy. Xenophon was a military general, not a philosopher. Both Plato and Xenophon combined their own ideas into the dialogues attributed to Socrates.
A comic playwright named Aristophanes also wrote about Socrates. His play, entitled “Clouds” made fun of Socrates’ endless examination of thoughts and ideas. Aristophanes portrayed Socrates as an air-headed fool who worshipped clouds because they can take on any form but have no substance. In the play, the chorus sang the following verse:
So philosophize and cogitate,
Intellectualize and ruminate.
Twist your thoughts, your mind must bend,
Through mental blocks and each dead end.
Let ideas jump and concepts fly,
Don’t let sweet sleep close your eyes.
The play opened in 423 B.C., but it still affected Socrates’ reputation even at the time of his execution in 399 B.C.
When the political leaders of Athens accused Socrates of corrupting the youth, Socrates gave a speech saying he committed no crime. Plato’s account, called Apology, comes from the Greek word apologia, which means defense speech. Socrates did not apologize for anything.
At the time of his trial, Socrates was seventy years old. In his twenties, he worked with his father as a stone mason. In his thirties, he fought bravely as a soldier for Athens. Around age fifty, Socrates married Xanthippe. Two of their three sons were still children at the time of Socrates’ trial. He had lived a full life and did not fear death.
The leaders of Athens wanted Socrates to stop questioning everything, but Socrates refused. He said, “It is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates could not abandon his calling as a philosopher any more than he would have abandoned his post as a soldier.
Socrates closest friends wanted him to escape from prison and flee Athens. They argued that he should live for the sake of his children. Socrates responded, “Do not value either your children or your life or anything more than goodness.” Children, friends, and life itself are all part of goodness, but Socrates could not value any combination of the parts more than the whole.
The ideals that Socrates embodied have made him the champion of teachers, lawyers, and philosophers for thousands of years. He believed that “whatever one must go through on the way to an honorable goal is itself honorable.” Socrates made no apologies for who he was and lived his life without regrets.
Laurie Gray earned her B.A. from Goshen College in 1986 and her J.D. from Indiana University School of Law in 1993. A former high school teacher, experienced trial attorney and child advocate, Laurie currently works as an author, public speaker and consultant through her company Socratic Parenting, LLC. Laurie’s debut novel Summer Sanctuary (Luminis Books/2010) won a Moonbeam Gold Medal for excellence in young adult literature. For more information on Laurie’s writing projects, please visit www.SocraticParenting.com.