Philosopher of the Month: Socrates

This March, the OUP Philosophy team honors Socrates (470-399 BC) as their Philosopher of the Month. As elusive as he is a groundbreaking figure in the history of philosophy, this Athenian thinker is perhaps best known as the mentor of Plato and the developer of the Socratic method. Although Socrates wrote nothing himself and thus remains to some degree mysterious, sources including Plato, Xenophon, and a comedy by Aristophanes in which Socrates is a central character, inform our modern understanding of his life and work.

Socrates was born in Athens, where he spent most of his life. His parents were Sophroniscus, a stonemason, and Phaenarete, a midwife. With his wife, Xanthippe, Socrates had three sons. While little is known of the first half of his life, Socrates grew to become a recognizable public figure, appearing in several popular plays and poems as an eccentric character with a loquacious persona who is often seen walking barefoot. Socrates was known to have served with distinction as a heavy infantryman in the Peloponnesian War, and Plato reports that he was present at the siege of Potidaea on the Aegean coast. Noted for his endurance, Socrates reportedly stood for 24 hours in motionless contemplation. In 400 or 399 BC, Socrates was arrested in Athens and charged with corrupting the youth, not recognizing the gods of the city, and introducing new divinities. With no record of the trial, it is impossible to infer on what grounds the accusations were made, and to what conduct on the part of Socrates they refer. After a trial produced a guilty verdict, Socrates was sentenced to death by suicide.

Because Socrates left no written record of his philosophy behind, it is challenging to ascertain which doctrines, if any, he actually held—a question which has been the source of scholarly deliberation for centuries. What is known of his actual beliefs comes to us through representations (the historical accuracy of which is a matter of debate) of the character of Socrates in the works of Plato and Xenophon. Both represent Socrates as having an interest in inductive reasoning and general definitions, and both attribute to him the idea that virtue is knowledge or wisdom. According to Plato, Socrates denies possession of either, but does in some dialogues offer moral insight.

Scholar Peter Adamson, in his podcast series, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, devotes an entire episode on separating Socratic fact from fiction with his colleague, Rapahel Woolf.

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Absent the influence of Socrates, it is possible that Plato would have become a statesman rather than a philosopher—inconceivably altering the landscape of western philosophy. Successive generations of thinkers have shaped their own unique portrayals of him, from the asceticism of the Cynics, to the Enlightenment’s image of Socrates the rationalistic martyr. And so, in the spirit of the Socratic method, we invite you to answer: who was Socrates? Let us know in the comments below, or on Twitter using the hashtag #philsopherotm.

Featured image: David – The Death of Socrates. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons