Did Socrates really exist?

Socrates of Athens (460—399 b.c.e.) was both a real historical person and the main character in Plato's dialogues. In both modes, he perfected the methods of the Sophist's in rhetoric, argument, and dialogue, but as a character in Plato's later dialogues he appears mainly as a mouthpiece for Plato's abstract philosophy.

While there is some controversy about how much concerning Socrates, the philosopher, was invented by Plato, there is stable agreement about certain facts of his life. All agree that Socrates lived the principles he taught, the most famous being, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates' father, Sophroniscus, was a stonecutter from Alopeke; and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. Socrates himself was fond of referring to his philosophical manner of discourse as a form of midwifery. In Plato's Meno, he uses this role to extract mathematical truths from a slave boy as proof of the presence of innate ideas in the soul, which are first acquired in a divine realm before birth.

Sophroniscus was friends with Athenian general and statesman Aristides the Just (530—468 b.c.e.), which helped Socrates become connected throughout his life with the leadership class of Athens. He served ably and courageously as a hoplite (infantry

A statue of Socrates is located at the Academy of Athens in Greece (iStock).

A statue of Socrates is located at the Academy of Athens in Greece (iStock).

man) in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.c.E.). When he became absorbed in philosophical activities, however, he became poor. Socrates' wife, Xantippe, was depicted as a shrew in later writings about him, but he cared for his young sons, and asked his friends to provide for their (Socratic) education after his death.

Socrates was condemned to death for "not believing in the gods the state believes in, and introducing different new divine powers; and also for corrupting the young," according to the indictments related in Plato's Apology and Xenophon's Apology. He died peacefully by his own hand, drinking a cup of hemlock in preference to the escape arranged by his friends, which would have resulted in a life of exile. He refused exile because it was dishonorable and because he had voluntarily lived in Athens and accepted its laws throughout his life. To desert his city so as to avoid death would be disloyal in his mind. Socrates said he did not fear death, because he knew nothing about it. If there were no afterlife, dying would be like falling asleep, and if there were an afterlife it would enable a higher stage of discourse—it would be heaven. Another interpretation is that Socrates did not have much to lose by dying—he was already an old man.

What are the Socratic paradoxes?

Socrates provided resolutions to claims that appeared to contradict common sense. Here are two examples.

Paradox 1: No one desires evil but many have evil goals or are bad themselves. This is because those who pursue evil do not know that it is evil. That is, the source of evil is ignorance.

Paradox 2: It is better to be the victim of injustice than the perpetrator. This is because being just is a primary virtue and a quality of all of the other virtues. Attaining virtue is the main purpose of life, as well as a path to happiness. Happiness as the result of being just is thus an inner matter that is independent of external circumstances.

What is Socratic irony?

In both real life and Plato's dialogues, Socrates liked to draw his audience into debate by presenting himself as knowing nothing. The oracle at Delphi had said that there was no man wiser than Socrates, although Socrates himself always said that he knew nothing. (The fact that he knew he knew nothing is said to have set him apart from everyone else.)

Socrates would begin a dialogue by flattering his interlocutors about their intelligence or virtue. If they were willing to converse with him a process of careful questioning followed. From such "interrogation" it would emerge that the person he was talking to knew very little about the subject in which he was supposed to be an expert. In saying at the outset that he himself knew nothing, Socrates had nothing to lose, whereas his interlocutors would either be personally humiliated or unmasked as hypocrites or charlatans.

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