The New Student's Reference Work/Socrates
Socrates (sŏk′ rȧ-tēz), a Greek philosopher, was probably born in 469 B. C., near Athens. His father was a sculptor, and he is said to have been trained in the same art, and a statue of the Graces at the entrance to the Acropolis was thought to be his work. He served in the army in three campaigns, where his bravery and endurance were praised by his friends. In 406 B. C. he was a member of the senate of 500, and refused, at risk to himself, to put an illegal question to vote. He was short and odd-looking, with a flat nose, thick lips and prominent eyes. He practiced plain living and trained himself to be indifferent to heat and cold, going barefoot and wearing the same clothing the year round. Xantippe, his wife, has been pictured as a scold, and he professed that he married her as a means of discipline. But a reformer is not always the most pleasant companion and the habits of Socrates must have been at least somewhat trying to an orderly woman.
In middle life he devoted himself to the career that has made his name forever famous. He established no school and did not call himself a teacher, but frequented the public walks, the gymnasia for bodily training, the schools and the market places, talking with any one that addressed him, in the hearing of the bystanders. He had, strictly, no disciples, though some persons made a habit of being present at his conversations. As Socrates left no writings, it is from Xenophon and Plato, two of these friends and listeners, that we have the accounts of his teachings, though in Plato’s writings it is difficult to tell what part of the reported conversations are the words of Socrates and what part Plato himself put into his mouth. Socrates believed that he had a special religious mission, having learned from the Delphic oracle that there was no wiser man than himself and interpreting it to mean that the highest wisdom was to be conscious of ignorance and that it was his duty, by questioning all men, to make them wise by teaching them their ignorance. The subjects of his conversations were human nature, human duties, human relations and human happiness, as being the most practical and necessary to man. Cicero said: “Socrates called down philosophy from the heavens to earth and introduced it into the cities and houses of men.” In 399 B. C. an indictment was laid against Socrates “for not worshiping the gods whom the city worships and for introducing new divinities of his own; next, for corrupting the youth.” Plato’s Apology gives the substance of his defense, a vindication of his whole life, but not given in a way to conciliate the jury of over 500 Athenian citizens. The vote of condemnation was carried by a small majority, though the sentence of death by poisoning was passed by 80 more votes, provoked probably by his apparent indifference to their judgment. The execution of the sentence was delayed 30 days. Socrates, refusing to escape as his friends urged him to do, spent his last day in discoursing on the immortality of the soul. In the evening he drank the hemlock, and, still talking to his friends, calmly watched the poison doing its appointed work. “Such was the end,” says Phædo, “of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, justest and best of all the men I have ever known.” Consult Zeller’s History of Greek Philosophy. See Philosophy, Plato and Xenophon.