Socrates’ reputation as the first of the three most important philosophers of Ancient Greece precedes him, and for good reason. Despite being profoundly influential, it’s difficult to compare him to the philosophers who studied before and after him. But looking at Socrates in conjunction with his historical context makes it easier to understand the significance of his contributions to philosophy.
The Life and Death of Socrates
Socrates was born in approximately 469 B.C. when Athens was in its Golden Age. Under the rule of Pericles, democracy flourished, and Athenian culture was rich with political participation and social exchange. His philosophical journey began after a friend told him that the Oracle of Delphi declared he was the wisest man in Athens. To put this to the test, he began approaching Athenian citizens and engaging them in conversations about the meaning of certain values and how they operate. He would often initiate these conversations by assuming a position of helpless ignorance and shed his guise by questioning and refuting the responses he heard; this is known as Socratic irony. Socrates’ form of philosophy was different from the Presocratics’ in both substance and method, as they would mostly discuss the nature of reality and were not nearly as accessible to the public.
Life in Athens
Socrates established a strong presence in Athens by engaging with other citizens this way. It was impossible to deny how unique he was, but it wasn’t impossible to dislike him. In Aristophanes’ play The Clouds, Socrates and his followers are depicted as careless and clueless intellectual frauds. Socrates took no offense to this depiction, and it’s unlikely Aristophanes wrote the play out of hate, but it still had influence over public opinion towards Socrates during his trial. After being accused of corrupting the youth and disavowing the Athenian gods, he was sentenced to death by a jury of his peers. While it was obvious to those close to Socrates that he had the rhetorical prowess to sway public opinion and beg for mercy, he instead argued his innocence against these accusations, and showed no resistance to his own execution.
Life after Death: Socrates as told by Plato
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Most of the documentation of Socrates is found in the works of Plato. Plato was a student of Socrates, and while his wealthier upbringing allowed him to study philosophy before they met, his bond with Socrates had prominent influence over his work. Plato wrote dialogues that featured Socrates discussing philosophical problems with others and questioning their convictions. One of these dialogues, Apology, is a retelling of the trial of Socrates. The similarity to the only other account of this trial from Xenophon affirms the accuracy of this depiction of Socrates, but Plato’s reverence for his mentor comes through in nearly all his dialogues.
One of the issues with these dialogues is that it’s difficult to tell which ideas originated from Socrates and which ones are Plato’s. Part of Plato’s reasoning for doing this is that Socrates’ reputation as a confident and engaging figure made his mentor’s likeness better than his own for an attractive presentation of philosophy. More importantly, Plato genuinely understood his philosophical work to be an advancement upon what Socrates had established.
Socrates never wrote anything down, making his philosophy inextricably linked to his life; he figured that his purpose was to live a flourishing life, and that the only way to achieve this was by obtaining the knowledge of what is truly good in the world. He certainly stuck out to Plato as the ideal philosopher, but Plato would do what his teacher did not by using these ideas to construct a philosophy that can stand separate from its founder.
Plato built the ethical and epistemological imperative of Socrates into Platonism: a systematic lens of comprehension that prioritizes pure ideas as the only object of thought, and thus the only real things. The aggregation of Socrates’ case-by-case investigations into concepts like beauty, justice, and friendship allows Plato to envision a logical connection between all these ideas—all that is real—which represents the entire universe. Despite the potential to offer a sweeping worldview, Plato prioritized essence and pure ideas over particulars and the material world. Investigating these parts of experience wasn’t seen serious inquiry, since it was merely ancillary to understanding the realm of ideas.
Besides the names mentioned so far—Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes—there are no other surviving written accounts of Socrates from people who personally knew him. However, Aristotle does mention Socrates in his writing insofar as Socrates’ philosophy is relevant to his own pursuits. Socrates’ emphasis on learning how to best live life helps Aristotle shape his theory of virtue, and unlike Plato, Aristotle’s method of philosophy takes after Socrates’ habit of starting from particulars and material objects to move towards pure concepts.
The term “Socratic” doesn’t really indicate any rigid or prominent themes when describing other philosophies, but it is an appropriate for describing philosophies that take inspiration from him. Besides Plato, other students of Socrates went on to establish their own schools of philosophy which we can call Socratic; Antisthenes and Aristippus went on to develop Cynicism and Cyrenaicism respectively. These ideas, and the writings of Plato and Aristotle provided a base from which the Hellenistic philosophies of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism to develop from the third century B.C. onward.