Born in Athens, Greece, in the fifth century BC, Socrates distinguished himself as a soldier in one of Athens’s many wars, and afterward became a curious figure in Athenian society. He would converse with whomever he could find, especially the young men of the city. Unlike the Sophists —paid teachers who traveled the country teaching young men rhetoric and other political skills—Socrates did not receive payment, and more important, he claimed to have nothing to teach! Socrates said he had no actual knowledge and that if he was wiser than others, it was only because he was aware of his own ignorance.
Most of what we know about Socrates comes from his greatest student, Plato (c.427–347 BC). Many scholars believe that Plato’s earlier dialogues are the most accurate representation of the historical Socrates and the way he treated philosophy. In these dialogues, Socrates typically confronts a fellow Athenian who claims to know something—for instance, the nature of justice. Socrates then proceeds to prove his neighbor does not know what he claims at all. In 399 BC, Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings. At his trial—recorded by Plato in the dialogue Apology—Socrates made his famous claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. He pleaded his innocence, but was convicted. Socrates was put to death by being forced to drink hemlock, a poison. His last hours, spent discussing philosophy with his friends and admirers, are movingly documented in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo.
- The Socratic Method, still used by professors in many law schools, is based on Socrates’ style of aggressively questioning his students.
- Many of Socrates’ contemporaries remarked on how ugly he was.
- The comic poet Aristophanes (448–380 BC) pokes fun at Socrates in his play The Clouds.