that’s the question
He is one of the
world’s best known names, yet we know very little about
him. And though some have labelled him the father of Western philosophy,
it may be that he was not that father at all. Socrates …
Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)
Many are familiar with the name, but do we know the man? He is
considered to be the father of democracy and a pivotal character
of Western civilisation, but it may equally be that he was largely
an invention by Plato. Practically everything that we give Socrates
credit for, comes to us via Plato. Greek literature usually featured
a dialogue (a question and answer session), which is known to
have been a literary device, to aide comprehension with the reader.
Plato wrote dialogues, which often cast Socrates in the role of
the wise man who initiated his direct audience and the reader
in whatever subject that he tackled. Did these dialogues reflect
actual conversations from Socrates, or did Plato merely use Socrates
as a literary device to put over his own thinking? If Plato did
indeed do just that, then Socrates is one of the biggest myths
of the Greek world – and we should give even more reverence
to the genius of Plato.
was the historical Socrates? Most of what is now known about Socrates
is derived from information that recurs across various contemporary
sources, specifically the dialogues written by Plato, who is seen
as one of Socrates’ students, though he is known to have
studied elsewhere too (including Egypt). Apart from Plato, there
are the works of Xenophon, one of his contemporaries, and writings
by Aristophanes and Aristotle. Anything Socrates wrote himself
– if he ever did – has not survived. It is very little
source material, further complicated by the fact that Aristophanes’
account of Socrates, though contemporaneous, is in fact a satirical
attack on philosophers and does not purport to be a factual account
of events in the life of Socrates.
As to his private life: it seems that Socrates’ father was
the sculptor Sophroniscus and his mother Phaenarete, a midwife.
Socrates himself married Xanthippe, who bore him three sons: Lamprocles,
Sophroniscus and Menexenus. Traditionally, Xanthippe is thought
to have been an ill-tempered scold, a reputation she acquired
mainly due to her characterization by Xenophon.
It is unclear how Socrates earned a living. According to Xenophon’s
Symposium, Socrates was totally preoccupied with discussing philosophy.
Although he inherited money following his father’s death,
it is unlikely that it was sufficient to keep him and his family
for long. Both Xenophon and Aristophanes portray Socrates as accepting
payment for teaching and running a sophist school with Chaerephon.
Still, in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates explicitly denies
accepting payment for teaching. An alternative possibility is
that Socrates relied on the generosity of wealthy and powerful
friends, such as Crito.
was not just your typical philosopher, sitting somewhere in or
near the Greek Forum, talking. It is commonly accepted that Socrates
served in the Athenian army during the Peloponnesian War (431-404
BC), the famous war between Athens and the Peloponnesian League,
led by Sparta. Plato’s Symposium indicates that he was even
decorated for bravery.
Though he was willing to give his life in battle for Athens, its
citizens soon demanded he was executed for corrupting the city’s
youths. In his philosophical discussions, Socrates was said to
have questioned the gods, a charge he denied.
According to Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ life as the
“gadfly” of Athens began when his friend Chaerephon
asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates;
the response was negative. Not wishing to take this at face value
(he was a philosopher after all), Socrates interpreted this as
a riddle and actually set out to find men that were wiser than
him. He questioned the men of Athens about their knowledge of
good, beauty and virtue, but found that they knew nothing. Still,
he himself felt that he knew very little, thus coming to the conclusion
that he was wise only in so far as that he knew nothing.
Saying everyone was stupid and had a thwarted self-ego and being
something of an uncontrollable agent obviously was a recipe for
disaster. Some prominent Athenians turned against him, accused
him, and as they had the power, the court had to hear the charges.
Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking a
cup of hemlock. He turned down the pleas of his disciples to attempt
an escape from prison, which had apparently been planned and only
required Socrates’ willingness to escape. He did not want
to. Socrates stated that he would have to flee from Athens. Having
knowingly agreed to live under the city’s laws, he subjected
himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens
and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would cause him
to break his “contract” with the state, and by so
doing, he felt he was harming it, which was something that went
against his principles. As such, he preferred to drink the hemlock.
According to Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates died in the company
of his friends and had a calm death, enduring his sentence with
shows Socrates as a man of bravery and high morals, a man who
tried to act as a mirror to anyone he met and who obviously caused
embarrassment amongst those Athenians who didn’t like what
they saw in the mirror. This mirroring technique is also visible
in the Dialogues, where he answered a question with a question,
thus turning the question back onto the questioner. This psychological
technique of mirroring is now known as the Socratic Method or
“method of elenchos”, which Socrates applied to the
examination of key moral concepts such as Good versus Evil, Justice
and other concepts that far too many thought – and think
– they understand.
Socrates is thus became the father of philosophy, but perhaps
he should also be seen as the father of psychoanalysis. In fact,
Socrates often compared his approach to that of a midwife, a mediating
role, a role very similar to that of psychoanalysis. He may have
been inspired to choose this analogy because his mother was a
The Socratic Method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination,
in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and
eliminating those which lead to contradictions. It was designed
to examine a person’s own beliefs and the validity of such
beliefs. Socrates once said that “I know you won’t
believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question
oneself and others.” It is, alas, something that didn’t
go down well back then… and hasn’t really been in
vogue at any time of human history.
is this questioning technique that seems to be specific to Socrates,
and not Plato – and thus the father of philosophy does not
seem to be Plato’s invention after all. But was Socrates
a “hollow philosopher”, who merely confronted people
with more questions, and nothing else, or was he actually well-versed
in philosophy and did he have ideas of his own?
Socrates seems to have had two teachers: Prodicus, a grammarian,
and Diotima, a priestess from Mantinea who taught him about love.
He was also familiar with other contemporary thinkers such as
Parmenides and Anaxagoras. So he was definitely not uneducated.
Still, there are those who claim that Socrates had no particular
set of beliefs and sought only to examine; as such, the theories
written down in The Republic are considered to be the opinions
of Plato. Then there are, of course, those that argue that he
did have his own theories and beliefs, but there is much controversy
over what these might have been. Thus, for a man who liked to
question, there is a huge question mark over his own oeuvre.
and Aristotle, in The School of Athens, by Raphael
us explore some of the core beliefs of our man. Socrates offered
refreshing insights into the nature of Good and Evil. This classic
stand-off seems to be with us from the Garden of Eden via Osiris
versus Seth, to East versus West, and other examples in recent
history. Today, many Christians believe that Evil actually exists
as an “entity” and that both people and nations can
fall victim to it. Socrates felt that evil was more the consequence
of ignorance, that those who did wrong knew not better. This is
a very parental approach, suggesting that we are all, in origin,
good, but that temptations and evil acts that are committed against
us lead us to do evil things too. In the Bible, the serpent in
the Garden of Evil can be interpreted as tempting Adam and Eve,
rather than being truly evil. If anything, that serpent seems
to be quite like Socrates, asking why certain things in the garden
are off-limits to Adam and Eve – and the answer actually
leads to self-realisation too! But for Socrates, it is highly
ironic – if not sadistic – that for a man who felt
that Good and Evil were very powerful subjects and that he was
the last to judge, he was actually judged and found guilty –
Many people cling to the idea that they need to live “Good”
and “Wise” and live within a solid framework (defined
by social and religious boundaries) that keeps their worldview
intact. Socrates constantly wanted to question this framework,
break it down, so that people could live without self-imposed
constraints and social if not false notions of Good and Evil.
In a classic war, in which he fought, both sides believe they
are Good and Right and the other side is Evil and Wrong. Within
the Good vs. Evil framework, one side obviously had to be wrong
and normally – then as now – the victor accepts that
he was Right and Good, having defeated Evil. Socrates could not
accept this; he did not see black versus white, but shades of
grey. He tried to question whether one side really did believe
they had God on their side, by asking a series of questions: How
did they know God was on their side? Why couldn’t God be
on the Other’s side? What proof was there that God had said
as such? Even if he appeared as a voice in a burning bush, stating
he would always support his people, are we sure this voice was
truly God? Could it not be another entity impersonating God? No?
How are we to know? Etc.
People who question the validity of war are, then and now, unpopular.
In Socrates’ time, the city’s fate was intimately
linked with the city’s patron saint. And it was believed
that Socrates’ endless questioning of the gods was dangerous,
as it might result in Athena withdrawing her full support from
the fate of the city. As Athens was already going through turbulent
times, the patrons of the city decided to show to the goddess
their total and unquestioning commitment to her, and found Socrates
guilty of questioning the goddess and her relationship with the
also believed that the best way for people to live was to focus
on self-development, rather than the pursuit of material wealth.
Where there was division, he felt people should try to concentrate
on friendships and a sense of true community (“common ground”),
for Socrates felt that this was the best way for people to grow
together as a populace. For Socrates, Evil was nothing more than
an outcome of Ignorance and an unwillingness to learn about the
other side. This, of course, fit in line with his own belief that
he was merely wise because he knew that he knew nothing, whereas
most people believed they could actually distinguish Good from
Many philosophers have a view of an ideal world; that of Socrates
very much coincided with the Miss Universe’s popular vision
of “World Peace”. Whereas most Misses Universe leave
the implementation of world peace blank, Socrates did not. He
felt that a philosopher was the only type of person suitable to
govern others. According to Plato, Socrates was in no way subtle
about his particular beliefs on government and openly objected
to the “democracy” that ran Athens during his adult
life. It was, of course, another ingredient in the recipe that
led him down a path that forced him to drink a poisonous cocktail.
Plato had obviously placed the bar very high: he objected to any
form of government that did not conform to his ideal of a perfect
republic led by philosophers. Philosophers often fail to realise
that their high ideals are too high for the masses, or feel that
they need to speak about their high ideals in the hope that people
can aspire to them, even though meeting them will be nigh impossible.
But in reality, their ideals sit so visibly above everything else
that they are easily shot down by those who feel threatened by
them… and that is what happened to Socrates.
placed Socrates on a plinth and since, we have rather unquestioningly
left him on it and worshipped him. But Socrates had flaws. His
biggest weakness was that he spoke of how philosophers were the
only ones to govern, but at the same time he failed to engage
himself in government, permanently sitting on the fence. He constantly
refused to enter into politics, however many of his friend told
him to. He often stated that he could not look into other matters
or tell people how to live when he did not yet understand it himself.
It was a useless stand-off: those who were supposed to lead, felt
incapable of doing so! He did fulfil his duty to serve as prytanie,
a 24/7 type of court that could be assembled ad hoc to pass judgement.
But when the trial of a group of generals who had presided over
a disastrous naval campaign was judged, he maintained an uncompromising
attitude, refusing to proceed in a manner not supported by the
law, despite intense pressure. It shows his integrity, but also
an unwillingness to comprise or strive for a solution –
key ingredients that anyone should have in politics.
As such, Socrates is a psychoanalyst who could perfectly diagnose,
advice, but was ill-equipped to operate in the real world. Worse,
he seems to have forgotten to apply the messages he preached onto
himself. For a man who acted like a mirror, there was no-one who
acted as a mirror for him… after all, he was the wisest
of all man! And indeed not wise enough to occasionally turn the
mirror on himself…
more so than Plato or other Greek philosophers, is seen as a “modern
man” placed in a world that did not understand him; he is
considered to be closer to our age than that of the ancient Greeks.
The Socratic Method is one of the most logical approaches known
and thus popular in our “rational age”. But Socrates
was not the agnostic some have made him into. In fact, it seems
that Socrates was very much a religious man, who believed that
his live was guided by his daemon, what we today would call a
“guardian angel”. Socrates stated that he only heard
this voice when he was about to make a mistake. It just said “no”
and it was this voice that prevented Socrates from entering into
politics. Today, we would call this our inner voice and some type
of externalisation of our subconscious or our own thinking processes.
But for Socrates, it was not that; his description of the phenomenon
as being “daemonic” shows that he considered the origins
of this voice to be independent of his own thoughts.
Trying to make Socrates into the Father of All Logic is unfortunately
something that too many historians and philosophers have desperately
wanted to do. The daimonic voice is therefore seldom discussed,
with too much emphasis pushed onto the Socratic Method. In Plato’s
dialogues, it is explained that the soul, before its incarnation
in the body, was in the realm of Ideas. There, it saw the things
the way they truly were, rather than the pale shadows or copies
that we experience on earth. By a process of questioning, the
soul can be brought to remember the ideas in their pure form,
thus bringing wisdom. These concepts were typical for the Greeks
and are known to have been those of Plato – so why do we
think they are not Socrates’, when Plato suggests they are?
Questioning is precisely what Socrates did. He practiced precisely
the approach that was meant to liberate the soul and provide insight
into a reality that was larger than our own.
It seems that historians should hold a mirror to themselves too,
to see whether they have perhaps not projected their own thinking
onto Socrates and made him – and by extension themselves
– a martyr for their cause. Then again, perhaps I should
do the same in my own willingness to accept that Socrates indeed
believed in this philosophy of the soul. “Mirror, mirror,
on the wall…”