Socrates is considered by many to be the founding father of Western philosophy—as well as one of the most enigmatic figures of ancient history. He wrote nothing himself, so all knowledge of the Greek philosopher has been handed down through the writings of his contemporaries and his students, primarily his star pupil, Plato.
Scholars still grapple with “the Socratic problem”: how to distinguish the historical Socrates from the individual portrayed and interpreted by various authors through the ages. But as any law student will attest, his interrogative “Socratic method” of teaching is as alive and well today as it was when the great thinker questioned everything and everyone in Athens in the fifth century B.C.
Socrates first distinguished himself as a hoplite, or heavily armed infantryman, in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. He earned admiration for his ability to endure physical discomfort and for his fearlessness, particularly in saving the life of Alcibiades, a respected Athenian general.
Upon returning from the war to Athens, Socrates quickly gained a reputation as a philosopher, which translates as “a lover of wisdom.” He subscribed to the axiom, attributed to him, that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and he set about examining all aspects of life in Athens.
In one tale, the Oracle at Delphi supposedly stated that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens. Socrates himself believed it took a wise man to admit his ignorance. Only through the process of continual questioning could a person arrive at understanding and discover truth.
He was reportedly quite a sight, defiantly swaggering through the streets, grilling whomever he encountered about how one could lead a life of integrity. As during battle, he completely disregarded his physical appearance. He would often go out in the day barefoot and unwashed, wearing his bedclothes, his hair long and disheveled.
An array of foes
Socrates attracted many followers among the youth, the powerful, and the wealthy of Athens. But he had detractors as well. He engaged in a war of words with the Sophists, a group of itinerant instructors who, for a fee, taught rich, young Athenian men the rhetorical skills needed in the political arena. Socrates excoriated the Sophists for their pay-to-play philosophy. Their mutual enmity became the subject of Aristophanes’ satirical play The Clouds. The famous playwright lampooned not only Socrates’ appearance—for he was quite an unattractive individual—but also his persona, portraying him as a person who literally had his head in the clouds.
Things soon came crashing down to earth for the philosopher. Political fortunes had changed dramatically in Athens. Socrates became suspect, not only for the actions of some of his associates but because his concepts of individualism seemed too revolutionary in the politically fraught times. In 399 B.C., magistrates charged him with impiety and corrupting the city’s youth.
Rather than fleeing or renouncing his beliefs, Socrates accepted the death sentence he was given. He spent his final days visiting with friends before drinking a cup of poisonous hemlock. As chronicled by Plato, “He appeared happy both in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear.” Socrates had been as bold and inspirational in his death as in his life; both would be well examined in the millennia to come.
This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.