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The Life and Legacy of Socrates

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Mujahid Khan

Socrates, a unique figure in ancient Greek philosophy, left an indelible mark on Classical antiquity and Western philosophy. Despite his lack of written works, Socrates was vividly portrayed in conversations by a select group of admirers, with Plato and Xenophon being the most prominent. His profound insight, unwavering integrity, self-mastery, and unmatched debating skills set him apart.

Socrates, a figure of both acclaim and controversy in his native Athens, was often the target of ridicule in plays by comic dramatists. However, his resilience was truly tested when he was brought to trial at the age of 70 on a charge of impiety and sentenced to death by poisoning. This trial, along with the powerful speech he delivered in response to the accusations, stands as a pivotal moment in Western thought and culture, leaving an enduring legacy for generations to come.

Following Socrates’ untimely demise, his circle of devoted admirers undertook a noble mission to preserve his memory. They penned works that captured him in his most characteristic activity—conversation. These works, including Plato and Xenophon’s accounts, Apology of Socrates, as well as Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Symposium, provide invaluable glimpses into Socrates’ thoughts and way of life, a testament to their unwavering respect and admiration for him.

Xenophon’s works, such as Memorabilia, provide a fuller portrait of Socrates and attempt to refute the charges made against him at his trial. Despite some passages seeming to be influenced by Plato’s dialogues, their evidentiary value remains significant. Symposium, a depiction of Socrates in conversation with his friends, and Oeconomicus, a Socratic conversation concerning household organization, also offer valuable re-creations of Socrates’ thought and way of life.

Plato, often considered a philosopher of exceptional originality and depth, is typically seen as a more valuable source of information about Socrates compared to Xenophon. Some scholars believe that Plato’s philosophical skills allowed him to understand Socrates more deeply and that his portrayal of Socrates in his dialogues offers valuable insights. On the contrary, others argue that Plato’s originality and vision as a philosopher led him to use Socratic discourses not just to reproduce conversations, but also to advocate his own ideas, potentially making him less trustworthy as a source of information about the historical Socrates. However, it’s widely acknowledged that Plato is not only a profound philosopher but also a remarkable literary artist, skillfully shaping his dialogues to present compelling conversations.

Throughout Plato’s dialogues, Socrates takes on varying roles, sometimes as the central figure guiding the conversation and other times playing a minor role or not appearing at all. Some scholars believe that when Socrates is the central interlocutor, Plato intended to convey the philosophy of Socrates, whereas in dialogues where Socrates has a smaller role, Plato presents his own ideas. However, this hypothesis faces objections, and most scholars do not consider it a serious possibility. Plato assigning himself a passive role as a mere recorder of Socratic philosophy in multiple works seems unlikely. Furthermore, the depiction of Socrates across different dialogues is not always coherent, as Socrates sometimes asserts his lack of satisfactory answers to philosophical questions, while in other dialogues, he provides systematic answers.

As a result, scholars generally do not view works like “Republic,” “Phaedo,” “Phaedrus,” and “Philebus” as historically accurate accounts of Socrates’ thought, even though they contain a speaker named Socrates advocating certain philosophical positions. Instead, these dialogues are seen as Plato’s own development of ideas inspired by Socrates, utilizing Socratic methods of inquiry. The dialogues that closely align with what Plato heard from Socrates are those in which Socrates searches, without apparent success, for answers to questions about ethical virtues and practical topics, such as “Laches,” “Euthyphro,” and “Charmides.”

The Socratic method, widely used as an educational strategy involving cross-examination, follows a specific pattern as depicted in Plato’s re-creations of Socratic conversations. It involves Socrates portraying himself as an ignorant inquirer, using a series of questions to reveal the interlocutor’s lack of adequate answers to fundamental questions. Ultimately, the method serves to demonstrate the interlocutor’s poor grasp of the concepts under discussion. Socrates’ own ethical convictions display confidence, as he asserts the importance of recognizing one’s own ignorance, the value of ethical virtue, and the insignificance of physical harm to a good human being.

Aristotle, another significant source of information about the historical Socrates, further supports the distinction between the philosophies of Socrates and Plato. Based on Aristotle’s writings, it is evident that Socrates focused on ethical matters, sought definitions of virtues, and asked questions without providing answers due to his lack of knowledge. This portrayal aligns with the information presented in Plato’s dialogues and is strengthened by Aristotle’s account, lending credibility to this understanding of Socrates.

Despite the limited available information about Socrates’ life and personality, a vivid picture of him emerges from some of the works of Plato. While not born into wealth or privilege, Socrates served as a hoplite in the Athenian army and fought bravely in several battles. He did not regularly attend the Athenian Assembly meetings but fulfilled his duties as a citizen, including military service and, at times, membership in the Council of Five Hundred.

Socrates was physically unattractive by conventional standards, with a snub nose and bulging eyes. His personality was closely connected to his philosophical outlook, characterized by a remarkable command over his emotions, indifference to physical hardships, and an unwavering commitment to the doctrine that reason should control human life. He claimed to have no fear of death, believing that, once sufficient thought is given to a matter, emotions will align with intellectual clarity.

Socrates considered virtue as a form of knowledge and insisted that achieving rational control over emotions was indicative of what human beings at their best can achieve. He challenged the conventional idea that one can possess one virtue without possessing them all and believed that the virtues form a kind of unity.

One prominent feature of Socrates’ personality was his eirôneia, which was seen as dissembling in ancient Greek terms. This aspect led to accusations of insincerity and deception against him. His portrayal as an “ironist” by Plato showed how conversations with him could lead to frustrating impasses and cause resentment among his interlocutors. Socrates’ use of eirôneia also raised suspicion and added to the distrust of his audiences.

Even in his defense at court against serious charges, Socrates’ use of eirôneia was evident, leading to difficulties in understanding his true intentions and contributing to the accusations made against him.

The legacy of Socrates is characterized by the diverse and profound impact he had on ancient Greek and Roman thought. His teachings inspired various schools of philosophical thinking and ethical systems that emerged from his followers and their interpretations of his ideas. For instance, Aristippus of Cyrene, heavily influenced by Socrates, advocated that pleasure is the highest good, a position endorsed by Socrates in some of Plato’s dialogues, but critiqued in others. Similarly, Antisthenes emphasized the Socratic doctrine that a good man cannot be harmed, leading to the development of Cynicism—a philosophical movement that promoted indifference to material possessions and conventional societal values. Additionally, Socrates’ influence extended to Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium, and Skepticism, which became prevalent in Plato’s Academy, with its leaders utilizing the Socratic method to advocate a suspension of all convictions.

Although Socrates left behind no written works, his legacy endured through the interpretations and adaptations of his philosophy. However, not every major philosopher in antiquity viewed Socrates as a moral exemplar. Aristotle, for instance, while approving of Socrates’ search for definitions, criticized his overintellectualized conception of the human psyche. Furthermore, the followers of Epicurus, philosophical rivals of the Stoics and Academics, held a dismissive attitude towards Socrates.

Throughout history, Socrates’ influence experienced fluctuating periods of prominence and decline. During the medieval period, especially with the ascendancy of Christianity, Socrates’ impact diminished significantly. However, as Greek texts resurfaced during the Renaissance, sparking renewed interest in Socratic thought, his personality and philosophy began to play an essential role in European philosophy. The comparisons between Socrates and Christ became a common motif, and authors varied in their interpretations of the similarities and differences between the two figures. In the 19th century, Socrates was regarded as a seminal figure in the evolution of European thought, with thinkers such as G.W.F. Hegel and Søren Kierkegaard interpreting his significance in their own ways. Additionally, Socrates’ conflict with Athenian democracy and his execution continued to shape the thought of 20th-century political philosophers, indicating his enduring influence on Western intellectual history.

Moreover, Socrates’ influence extended beyond the realm of philosophy, inspiring reflection and integrity. His legacy continues to challenge complacency and serve as a model of ethical conduct and moral integrity for individuals from various walks of life.

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