As an avid philosopher and historian, I’m often frustrated by what’s known as the Socratic problem. The whole thing really centers on the fact that one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy never wrote anything down. However, in Ancient Greece people such as Xenophon and Aristippus did mention Socrates in their writings. The thing is that this could reveal more about their feelings toward him than who he actually was or any number of other things. There’s really no way to know for sure. To further complicate the problem, Plato not only wrote about the life of Socrates, he also used him as a fictional character in some of his work. As a result of this and so much more, it can be rather difficult for scholars to reconstruct a genuine philosophical or historical understanding of a man that lived twenty-five centuries ago. The existing sources are variable at best and contradictory at worst. Such is the Socratic problem. However, here’s a solution.
Socrates was born in the year 469 BCE in Alopece, which was essentially a suburb of Athens. The city-state was still a bit war-torn from previous attacks by the Persians. So, there were buildings that were charred and crumbling off in the distance from where he lived. However, about a decade before Socrates was born the Golden Age of Athens began and the community began to rebuild. As a result of this, Socrates grew up in an affluent society of elitist aristocrats, where there was one slave for every two free citizens. Athenian culture was sexist, racist, ageist, and more. An aristocratic man was viewed as being more important than a slave woman, but Socrates knew that this was unfair and he wasn’t afraid to tell people how he felt. To make matters worse, he was maturing right alongside a new kind of social experiment. Democracy was so novel at the time that for a while the Athenians were just randomly selecting members of society to be government officials for a day at a time. The amateur governance was an embarrassment to Socrates. He thought that it was absurd to just let anyone be a judge for a day, especially if they didn’t even know right from wrong.
This all infuriated Socrates, so when he was a teenager he hung out on the bad side of town, in an edgy district, at the site of what was then a six-hundred-year-old cemetery. There he could find prostitutes and traveling salesmen and anyone else forming the black market of the Athenian underground. He could also listen to the radical alternative Mediterranean thinkers who had already been questioning the cosmos and doubting the gods for several generations. This influenced the way Socrates looked at the world. He began to wonder about what things are made of, how we can perceive them, and what it all means. Philosophy, just like democracy, was only really just beginning to emerge. These were major paradigm shifts in the history of humanity, and they were happening right in front of his eyes. In many instances, he was even making them happen himself.
Although he did occasionally indulge in earthly delights, like wine and sex, Socrates was far more worried about trying to live a good life than fitting in or seeking creature comforts. Socrates was really only concerned with human affairs and the condition of the soul, rather than speculating on how and why the stars seem to move or anything of the sort. So, he turned his attention towards the inner world of his own mind, wanting to know who he really was and what he should be doing with his life. More than anything else, Socrates was trying to understand how we are supposed to behave. In line with this, he believed that the immortal soul was far more important than the mortal body. Socrates thought that when we are good we add to our souls and when we are bad we take something away from them or harm them in some way. So, to him knowing right from wrong was the most important thing in the world. It was all part of a particularly divine ancient zeitgeist.
This was a time of great mystics like Confucius and the Buddha in the East as well as Socrates in the West. Most people don’t think of Socrates as being spiritual, but this simply wasn’t true. Just because he didn’t give burnt offerings to the local gods that doesn’t mean he didn’t believe in anything. The truth is that he had a daimonion, which is a kind of guiding spirit. This gave him a direct link to the realm of the supernatural, which was seen as forbidden sorcery to the Athenians, whereas modern psychologists dismiss it as command hallucinations. In spite of their thoughts on the matter, the daimonion would communicate to him during trance states. In this way, Socrates was actually a kind of religious figure, so academia is a cult that formed around the religion that is philosophy. Pythagoras the mathematician and Socrates the philosopher aren’t often thought of as prophets like Zarathustra and Muhammad, but the reality is that they all were. Plato wasn’t merely an apprentice of Socrates, he was also his disciple. They would meet with others in secret at the house of Simon the Shoemaker, right outside the Agora where the adult male Athenians would congregate. The fact is that Socrates started a very unorthodox spiritual tradition that has since devolved into something much different, mainly through the reduction of thought and division of labor.
Nonetheless, as he grew older, having survived combat and a plague, Socrates would often wander the streets of Athens, dirty and barefoot, looking for a good place to think or someone to debate with. He had come to strongly believe in the supremacy and authority of knowledge, and as part of that, he felt that it was his duty to dispel ignorance wherever it could be found. He didn’t eat or sleep regularly, because he would get caught up in deep thought for hours on end as the day passed him by. He would lose all sense of time and place as he contemplated the human condition and the nature of existence. Socrates became an absolutely brilliant epistemologist and ethicist who radically changed the way people think to this very day. In many ways, he was the one who brought rationalism to the world. His contributions to humanity are quite possibly some of the most important of all. Just some of the things that he is credited with having said are amazing enough on their own.
An unexamined life is not worth living.
True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.
There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.
I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.
The thing was that although Socrates was vehemently opposed to ignorance, he didn’t mind playing the fool. He actually developed a highly effective pose of ignorance in order to entice others into making statements that could then be challenged. This is a philosophical technique now known as Socratic irony. When used properly it can serve as an effective antidote to things like fanaticism and dogmatism. That is to say, it forces people to question their personal beliefs. This was a very dangerous thing to do among devout polytheists who had been worshiping the same deities for many generations. His methods went up against long-held tradition, leading to widespread civil unrest. So, in his seventies, Socrates became an enemy of the very same city-state which he had fought for as a soldier in his thirties.
The inflammatory courage that Socrates had to examine everything within and around him was the best and worst thing that ever happened in his life. In many ways, the search for truth is what killed Socrates. His life was brought to an end at the beginning of the 4th century BCE. The Gadfly of Athens went on trial and was found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth and of not believing in the official pantheon of the city-state. The problem was that the people were not well informed about Socrates. Athenians all pictured the parody of him that they knew from the play The Clouds, from the famous playwright Aristophanes. This also swayed their opinions of Socrates during the trial. Regardless, as punishment for the purportedly heinous crimes that Socrates had committed, he was sentenced to death. Then, in thinking that committing an injustice is far more damaging to the soul than suffering an injustice, at the age of seventy, Socrates became a martyr after willingly drinking a lethal concoction that contained hemlock.
According to Plato, who wasn’t even actually there when it happened, the last words of Socrates were:
Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.
Presumably, if this is true, it was meant to be ironic, given that Asclepius was the god of healing. Socrates was likely commenting on the fact that he was given poison to shorten his lifespan when he should have been given medicine to lengthen it, having felt that he deserved accommodation not condemnation from his fellow Athenians. In having asked Crito to make an offering to such a deity, Socrates was rather esoterically taking one last stab at them and their beliefs, as well as what they were doing to him for his. The bold and daring Father of Philosophy spent his life questioning and often mocking everything, all the way up until his last breath in 399 BCE. What a strangely fitting end to a life so very well lived.
Subsequently, the life and death of Socrates inspired Plato and then later Aristotle to open the very first schools in the world. The Academy and the Lyceum were places where formal studies truly began. As a result, now there are schools and universities across the planet, with texts tracing all the way back two and a half millennia. The thing is that Socrates actually wanted people to just talk to each other, not to write things down for one another. He was also upset by the fact that the written word can never change but the spoken word can. Of course, in reality, we need both an oral and a written tradition. There is just so much to know that there really has to be an in-depth dialectic exchange of ideas in addition to meticulously kept records of theories and discoveries. That’s the only way it can work.
The point is that although there were some really great thinkers who came before him, Socrates was first in the development of Western thought, before Plato or anyone else. More importantly, it’s all part of an ongoing attempt to properly understand and appropriately interact with the world around us. As the last in the line of his old oral tradition, Socrates gave way to Plato who became the first in the line of the new written academic tradition. Plato then made use of both spoken and written words to teach Aristotle, who went on to have pupils of his own. In so doing the three of them essentially became the founders of Western thought. Thus, the Gadfly of Athens was actually the Godfather of Philosophy.