Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
—Martin Luther King (2000: 67-68)
There once was a philosopher named Socrates. Socrates is one of the most famous names in philosophy: other philosophers often think of him as a hero and a role model. Socrates is so famous that we now call all of the philosophers born before him (including a few who outlived him) Presocratic philosophers. Even more than that, he is so famous that he was the one philosopher chosen by Bill and Ted on their original time-traveling adventure.
1. A little bit of ancient history
Socrates lived through some pretty good times and some pretty bad times in Athens. Before he was born, the Greek world was twice invaded by the Persian Empire (first in 492-490 BCE, then in 480-479 BCE), but managed to fight off the attackers both times. Afterwards, Athens entered a golden age of about fifty years during which it became the cultural center of the Greek world and, thanks to its superb navy, a military power to rival Sparta. Two separate leagues formed around Athens and Sparta, and tensions and suspicions increased until the two came to blows in the long but spotty Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), in which Socrates reportedly handled himself admirably as an Athenian hoplite. Sparta ultimately defeated Athens and installed in it a puppet regime of thirty tyrants aptly known as the Thirty Tyrants, but Athens overthrew the Thirty Tyrants a year later and restored democracy.
2. The sophists
During the Athenian golden age, philosophers shifted their primary focus from metaphysics to ethics and politics. A class of men called the sophists arose, each best thought of as a combination of philosopher, orator, and lawyer. The sophists generally were skeptical about humanity’s ability to uncover truth, and some were skeptical even of the bare existence of truth, so instead of pursuing truth they focused on developing the art of persuasion through rhetoric. Moreover, they hired themselves out to teach this art, so that if a client had to go to court and address the jurors—an assembly of five-hundred of his fellow Athenian citizens, who would decide the case and the sentence—the client would be able to win over the jurors with fine command of words and concepts.
Socrates would have none of this.
3. Socratic ignorance
Socrates was a trouble-maker. So the story goes, one of his students asked the oracle at Delphi who the wisest person in Athens was, and the oracle said it was Socrates. When he heard about this, Socrates was dumbfounded because there were so many great people in Athens, such as the sophists, who obviously knew far more than he did. To prove the oracle wrong, Socrates went around Athens and struck up conversations with these people; however, simply by asking them question after question about their views (usually about how to define some important concept like justice), pressing them to explain their views ever more thoroughly, he invariably would end up catching them either in a contradiction or in an obvious falsehood. Ideally, his conversational partners would then discard their errors and thus have a chance at eventually discovering actual truths; in practice, however, they tended instead to cling stubbornly to their beliefs. After many such discussions that ended this way, Socrates finally concluded that he himself actually was the wisest person in Athens, but only because he alone was aware of his own lack of knowledge: the Sophists were less wise because on top of sharing Socrates’s ignorance, they didn’t even realize that they shared it.
Right away, we can see a couple of reasons why so many philosophers look up to Socrates: philosophers like people who are careful and analytic, people who ask a lot of good questions, and people who are humble enough to admit the limits of their knowledge but interested enough to make a real effort to push those limits back. Socrates was all of those things in one package.
4. Socratic ethics
Did Socrates have any positive views, or did he honestly think, as Bill and Ted’s textbook would have it, that the only true wisdom consists in knowing that we know nothing? He actually did think he had figured a few things out, mostly to do with ethics.
First, Socrates thought that when you do bad things, you always hurt yourself far more than you benefit yourself. Doing bad things always damages your soul, and your soul is what you truly are. Doing bad things may make you feel good or get you money and power, but those are just benefits to your mind and your body: who cares about those things if they cost you your soul? Socrates isn’t tying any of this to consequences in an afterlife: to Socrates, even if a wicked person gets everything he wants, lives with no regrets, and forever escapes punishment, that person is much worse off simply by being wicked, than a virtuous person who lives a short, miserable, painful life. Have you ever looked at a completely corrupt person who has everything he wants, and said to yourself, “Not for the world would I want to change places with him?” Then you get what Socrates was saying.
Socrates also thought that since doing bad things hurts you so much, there is no way you would ever choose to do something bad unless you just didn’t know any better. Socrates thought that immorality comes entirely from ignorance. The Greeks called the possibility of acting contrary to what you know to be right akrasia, which means something like “weakness of the will.” Socrates thought the whole notion of akrasia was crazy: it just can’t happen. Some people think this is silly: of course people constantly do things that they know to be wrong. But others aren’t so sure: when people act, even when they act contrary to what they usually think is right, they seem always to think at least in the heat of the moment that something makes that particular time the exception to the rule.
5. The trial and death of Socrates
Since Socrates was a trouble-maker, it is perhaps no surprise that someone eventually tried to use the law to shut him up. Socrates surely made some powerful enemies by making fools of them with his Socratic questioning. And human nature being what it is, it is probably no surprise that the charges leveled against him were denial of the gods and corruption of the youth of Athens: even today, it’s easy to incite mobs against certain people or ideas by portraying them as a threat to one’s religion or to one’s children.
However, all this alone may not explain why anyone wanted to bring Socrates to trial on bogus charges. Some Athenians seem to have suspected Socrates of no good because of the dubious credentials of two of his students: one of them, the general Alcibiades, switched sides several times during the Peloponnesian War, did significant damage to Athens when he was sided with Sparta, and lost a late, critical battle when he was sided with Athens; the other student, Critias, became one of the Thirty Tyrants. Even though Socrates fought bravely for Athens during the Peloponnesian War and once stood up to the Thirty Tyrants at the risk of his own life, many Athenians still seem to have associated him with Sparta.
Whatever the exact cause, Socrates was tried and convicted. When the time came for sentencing, Socrates, who still thought his philosophizing was great for Athens, made the jurors angry by suggesting that his sentence should be free meals for life. They decided to go with the prosecutor’s suggestion instead: death.
Socrates had a chance to escape this fate and flee into exile (one of his students had bribed the guard at the prison where he was being held), but he chose to remain and drink the poisonous hemlock drink that was his method of his execution. Socrates offered his tearful students several reasons for his decision, but the key one has to do with the ethical principles described above. Socrates believed that to violate the law, even when the law itself was unjust, would be to harm the state that had nurtured him since childhood. Believing it wrong to do this, he realized that his remaining years of life would not be worth the inherent cost of becoming a bad person. Thus, he chose death over freedom.
King, ML. (2000). Why We Can’t Wait. New York: Penguin. (Original work published in 1963.)
Lawhead, WF. (2015) The Voyage of Discovery: Fourth Edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage.