The Historical Socrates

Socrates (470-399 BCE) is the best known figure in all of philosophy, but he wrote nothing and little is known in much detail about what he thought.

As he is traditionally understood, Socrates claimed supreme importance for a practice he called φιλοσοφία and that translates as the "love of wisdom." In his devotion to the love of wisdom, Socrates neglected many of the affairs that normally figure in people's lives. Moreover, late in his life, in an event that made him known to posterity, he faced a death sentence from the city of Athens rather than abandon his love of wisdom. Socrates was tried and executed in 399 BCE. "The affidavit in the case [against Socrates], which is still preserved, says Favorinus [= a philosopher who flourished during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE)], in the Metron [= the temple of Cybele at Athens, which was the depository of the state-archives], ran as follows: 'This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death'" (Diogenes Laertius (3rd century CE), Lives of the Philosophers II.40).

statue of Socrates

Devotion in the Face of Death

This devotion to the love of wisdom in the face of death is not easy to understand. Part of the problem is that the love of wisdom itself is not easy to understand. Socrates himself wrote nothing, and what his contemporaries wrote about him provides a very incomplete picture.

Plato (427-347 BCE) is the most important source for understanding Socrates. In the Apology of Socrates (Ἀπολογία Σωκράτους), which purports to be a record of historical figure's trial for impiety and corruption of the youth, the character Socrates says that as long as he lives he will continue to pursue wisdom, even though this pursuit has made him unpopular and now is about to cost him his life. His words are some of the most famous in philosophy:

"While I have breath I shall not give up the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφία) or to exhort you, charging any of you I happen to meet in my accustomed manner: 'You are the best of men, being an Athenian, citizen of a city honored for wisdom and power beyond all others. Are you not ashamed to care for money, and reputation, and public honor, while having no thought or concern for wisdom and truth and the best state of your soul (ψυχῆς)?' If some one of you disputes this, and says he does care, I shall not immediately dismiss him and go away but shall question, examine, test him, and if he does not seem to me to possess virtue (ἀρετήν), and yet says he does, I shall rebuke him for counting of more importance things which by comparison are worthless" (Apology 29d-30a).

Plato, the Character Socrates, and the Historical Socrates

Plato did not produce treatises of the kind produced by contemporary philosophers who write journal articles for other specialists in the field. Plato's works take the form of dialogues. (These dialogues are traditionally divided into early, middle, and late dialogues.) In many of these dialogues, Plato features a character named 'Socrates.' This character engages in conversations about various matters, and the dialogues in which he has these conversations (especially the dialogues from the traditionally early period of Plato's dialogues) are the primary evidence for what the historical Socrates thought.

An immediate consequence of the distinction between Socrates the historical figure and Socrates the character is that to know what the historical figure thought, it is necessary to read backwards from what Plato has the character say. In working backwards in this way from what the character says, it is important to keep in mind that (on the assessment model) Plato's dialogues are not first and foremost imitations of historical conversations, despite the fact that many of the characters have the names of historical figures. Plato does not say why he writes his dialogues, and does not himself express views as a character in any of his dialogues, but it is natural to think that Plato writes to understand the historical Socrates and his devotion to the love of wisdom.

Given this assumption about why Plato writes, it is possible to form the outline of a picture of the historical Socrates. An important part of this picture emerges from the passage in the Apology in which the character describes what he has been doing and intends to continue doing. On the basis of what Plato has the character Socrates say, it is natural to think the historical Socrates thought that

• the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία) involves asking and trying to answer certain questions
• the point of asking and answering these questions is to ensure that the "soul" (ψυχή) has "virtue" (ἀρετή)

The passage from the Apology suggests that Socrates was concerned with the question of what a human being should care about most. The answer might seem to be money and that sort of thing, but the character quickly rejects this answer. Money can be good or bad, depending on what one does with it. So it would seem that more important than money is knowing what to do with it. The same presumably is true of the other things he mentions. What one should care about more is having a certain competency in living. The understanding that constitutes this competency, it seems, is what Socrates has in mind when he castigates the Athenians for not giving enough attention to "wisdom and truth and the best state of your soul." A person needs to have a certain competency to make the right decisions in life. Socrates describes this competency in terms of the "soul" (ψυχή) and "virtue" (ἀρετή), and the suggestion is that the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία) is the way to acquire this competency.

(We consider what Socrates thought about the "soul" (ψυχή) in the next lecture, but it is important to see now that his interest in what one should care about most is connected to his interest in how human beings function. Socrates understands this in terms of the "soul" and thinks that the state of the soul determines the decisions one makes and thus is connected to the goodness of one's life.)

An important problem in the history of ancient philosophy is to supply the details missing from this general picture of what the historical Socrates thought. These details are difficult to establish with certainty, since Socrates wrote nothing, but it is possible to begin to see how Plato tried to understand the Socrates he remembered. In the early dialogues, Plato shows Socrates and his interlocutor engaged in asking and answering questions in what has come to be known as the "search for definitions." (Although it is traditional to describe Socrates in these dialogues as "searching for a definition," this description can be misleading. Socrates is not interested in the meanings of words. He is asking about matters related to "wisdom and truth and the best state of [the] soul.")

The Search for Definitions

The Euthyphro is an early dialogue in which Socrates searches for a definition.

The Euthyphro is one of the tetralogy of dialogues that purport to show important events in the life of the historical Socrates. It takes place before his trial. It is followed by the Apology, which shows Socrates at his trial. The Apology is followed by the Crito, which shows Socrates in jail awaiting execution. The Crito is followed by the Phaedo, which shows Socrates on the day of his execution. Because the Euthyphro is first in this tetralogy, it is natural to take it to be a picture of the historical figure at work in the love of wisdom.

(The Phaedo is a middle dialogue. The other dialogues in the tetralology are early dialogues.)

In the Euthyphro, Socrates chances to meet Euthyphro at a building in which official business is conducted. Socrates is there to acknowledge the suit against him (that he will answer in the Apology). Euthyphro is there to register a suit against his father. Socrates is surprised, given the details of Euthyphro's case. Socrates says to Euthyphro that he himself must be "far advanced in wisdom." Euthyphro acknowledges the point and suggests that he is an expert on matters of piety. Socrates does not let this boast pass untested. He asks Euthyphro what piety is. Socrates seems to think that this must be what Euthyphro grasps that allows him to have knowledge about matters with respect to which others would easily go wrong. Euthyphro is confident that he does have "exact knowledge" and so can say what piety is, but he is unable to defend any of his answers in the questioning with Socrates that ensues. This is typical in these dialogues. They end in "perplexity" (ἀπορία).

This "search for a definition" in the Euthyphro is presumably an instance of the sort of questioning Plato has the character Socrates mentions in the passage from the Apology, but just how questioning of this sort is supposed to improve the soul is not immediately clear. The character does not explain his "questioning" much beyond the brief remarks in the Apology, but it seems reasonable to conjecture that Socrates, as Plato understands him, has a view about the best life for a human being and about the expertise for living this life. The suggestion is that Socrates thought that


  • the good life for a human being is a life in which the soul has virtue
  • the soul has virtue just in case it has a certain wisdom
  • this wisdom is knowledge about "ethical" (ἠθικός) matters

(The noun ἦθος means "custom" or "manner." ἠθικός is the corresponding adjective.)

(Cicero (106-43 BCE), in an often quoted passage, says that "Socrates ... was the first to call philosophy (philosophiam) down from the heavens and set her in the cities of men and bring her also into their homes and compel her to ask questions about life and morality (moribus) and things good and bad..." (Tusculan Disputations V.4.10). Cf. Academica I.4.15. "Socrates was the first person who summoned philosophy away from mysteries veiled in concealment by nature herself, upon which all philosophers before him had been engaged, and led it to the subject of ordinary life, in order to investigate the virtues and vices, and good and evil generally, and to realize that heavenly matters are either remote from our knowledge or else, however fully known, have nothing to do with the good life.")

Questioning, Examining, and Testing

It is easy to get the impression that Socrates' interlocutors are confused about ethical matters. Whereas the expert does not get confused easily, Socrates over and over again forces his interlocutors into contradiction. Socrates asks questions. The interlocutor gives answers. Socrates asks more questions. The interlocutor gives more answers. Socrates asks whether some these answers contradict their previous answers. The interlocutor admits the point, withdraws the answer, and tries again. Socrates ask more questions, and the discussion ends in perplexity.

Given that there is an expertise about ethical matters, it is natural to wonder how one acquires it. Socrates forces his interlocutors to contradict themselves. His pointed questioning helps them eliminate their inconsistency and hence somehow eliminates their false beliefs. The suggestion seems to be that in the absence of this confusion produced by false beliefs, the interlocutor would have the competency he claimed or otherwise might be thought to possess at the outset of the conversation. In this way, the suggestion in the early dialogues seems to be that



This shows Socrates to be part of the enlightenment tradition that appeared in the Presocratic Period with the inquirers into nature. Ordinarily expertise in living well is thought to be a matter of long, and often hard experience, in the sorts of situations human beings typically encounter as they live out their lives. (Old people, not young people, are thought to be wise. Young people learn from the old. Further, they take on the ways of the community that have been passed down from previous generations.) Socrates, however, as Plato portrays him, champions "reason" over "experience." (In the Protagoras, Plato has the famous Sophist Protagoras advocate an opposing conception of virtue. We consider the Sophistical movement and this non-Socratic approach to the good life in a subsequent lecture.) The suggestion in these dialogues is that it is possible to acquire wisdom in ethical matters by asking and trying to answer certain questions.

(Note that from a logical point of view, consistency does not imply truth. A set of propositions is consistent just in case their joint truth is possible.)

Virtue and the Traditional Virtues

The Laches provides an example the Athenian interest in having a good life and living well. It also provides an example of Socrates' approach to this matter in terms of definitions.

Lysimachus and Melesias seek advice in the education of their sons. They are ashamed that they have not done as well in life as their famous fathers, Aristides and Thucydides. So they seek advice about the proper education for their sons. They want their sons to have good lives. This of course would seem to be what every good parent should want for their children. Lysimachus and Melesias want this, but their problem is that they do not know how to proceed. Socrates turns the discussion to the Athenian generals Laches and Nicias for advice.

(Aristides was an Athenian general remembered for his role in the Persian Wars (499-449 BCE). Herodotus (5th century BCE) wrote that he was the "best and most honorable man in Athens" (Histories VII.79). Thucydides was also an Athenian general. He represented the conservative and aristocratic Athens against Pericles who supported the Athenian democracy.)

("I happened to meet a man who has spent more on sophists than all the rest, Callias, the son of Hipponicus. So I asked him—for he has two sons—if your sons were colts or calves, we should be able to hire an overseer who would make them good in the virtue proper to them, and he would be a horse-trainer or a husbandman. But since they are human beings, whom have you in mind to get as overseer? Who has knowledge of that kind of virtue (ἀρετῆς), that of a man and a citizen? I assume you have looked into the matter, as you have two sons. Is there anyone or not" (Apology 20a-b)?)

(Callias was one of the richest men in Athens. His family leased slaves to the state to mine silver at Larium. This silver built the fleet that allowed the Athenians to win the second Persian War.)

Socrates asks Laches whether Lysimachus and Melesias are "are inviting us to a consultation as to the way in which virtue (ἀρετὴ) may be joined to their sons' souls, and so make them better." In the ensuing investigation of the virtue the children need to live good lives, Socrates does something that one might not initially expect. He does not investigate this virtue directly. Instead, he takes up the question of whether they have knowledge of courage, the virtue that Laches and Nicias--the other Athenian general in the conversation--should understand.

  "And you know, Laches, at this moment our two friends are inviting us to a consultation as to the way in which virtue (ἀρετὴ) may be joined to their sons' souls, and so make them better?
  Yes, indeed.
  Then our first requisite is to know what virtue is? For surely, if we had no idea at all what virtue actually is, we could not possibly consult with anyone as to how he might best acquire it?
  I certainly think not, Socrates.
  Then we say, Laches, that we know what it is.
  I suppose we must.
  And of that which we know, I presume, we can also say what it is.
  To be sure.
  Let us not, therefore, my good friend, inquire forthwith about the whole of virtue, since that may well be too much for us; but let us first see if we are sufficiently provided with knowledge about some part of it. In all likelihood this will make our inquiry easier.
  Yes, let us do as you propose, Socrates.
Then which of the parts of virtue shall we choose? Clearly, I think, that which the art of fighting in armor is supposed to promote; and that, of course, is generally supposed to be courage, is it not?
  Yes, it generally is, to be sure.
  Then let our first endeavor be, Laches, to say what courage (ἀνδρεία) is. After that we can proceed to inquire in what way our young men may obtain it, in so far as it is to be obtained by means of pursuits and studies. Come, try and tell me, as I suggest, what is courage" (Laches 190b-e).

Socrates in this way seems to assume that the virtue the soul needs is somehow comprised of courage and other traditional virtues. As for why this assumption is true, he gives no explanation. Nor do his interlocutors ask for one. Not until the discussion of justice in the Republic does Plato has Socrates defend this assumption.


Thinking about the Historical Socrates

Plato was convinced that Socrates glimpsed fundamentally important about the human condition. This, it seems, is why he writes about Socrates. Plato wants to understand and articulate the view Socrates outlined but did not succeed in making very clear. This project drives Plato in the early dialogues and culminates initially in the middle dialogues with the Republic.

In this way, Socrates stands near the beginning of what has now turned out to be a long and extremely influential philosophical tradition. Plato and most of the ancient philosophers who came after Plato (Aristotle, the Academic Skeptics, and the Stoics) all in their own ways try to understand Socrates. He is the central figure behind most of the ancient Greek philosophical tradition.





Perseus Digital Library:
Plato's, Apology, Euthyphro, Laches
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀγαθός, agathos, "good,"
ἀρετή, aretē, "virtue,"
ἠθικός, ēthikos, "ethical,"
ἦθος, ēthos, "custom,"
ἔλεγχος, elenchos, "refutation,"
φιλοσοφία, philosophia, "love of wisdom,"
φιλόσοφος, philosophos, "lover of wisdom,"
σοφία, sophia, "wisdom,"
φρόνησις, phronēsis, "sensibleness,"
ψυχή, psychē, "soul"