1.1 The Life of Socrates


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • Socrates’ upbringing and how it influenced his understanding of wisdom.
  • How he led a simple life in the pursuit of wisdom.
  • How he entered Athenian politics late in his life.

Socrates lived in Athens during a time of unprecedented wealth and leisure, a window of relative peace for the Greek city-state. The last war, against the Persians, had ended in 454 BCE, and the Peloponnesian war between rival Greek City-States would not begin until 430 BCE. It was a time of tremendous creativity, political action, artistic flourishing, and philosophical exploration. Athenian citizens publicly discussed the nature of politics, what constitutes beauty, what we mean by piety, and how we can lead a good life. Those who liked such conversations were known as philosophers, lovers of wisdom.

A bust of Socrates in Trinity College Library
Socrates (470-399 BCE)

As Marshall reminds us,

Socrates did not write anything himself. We know of his views primarily through Plato’s dialogues where Socrates is the primary character. Socrates is also known through the plays of Aristophanes and the historical writings of Xenophon. In many of Plato’s dialogues, it is difficult to determine when Socrates’ views are being represented and when the character of Socrates is used as a mouthpiece for Plato’s views. (Marshall, op. cit.)

Socrates’ father, Sophronicus was a sculptor, and his mother, Phaenarete was a midwife. Socrates’ education was typical of young Athenians of his day and included gymnastics, grammar, music, and arts. He seems to have initially wanted to be a sculptor like his father and later would famously compare his work as a philosopher to his father’s craft. For ancient Greeks, the sculptor did not create the statue. Instead, he found a piece of stone that contained already the statue and merely chipped away the parts that were not essential to the statue. So too Socrates claimed he perceived in his students their innate wisdom and that his job was simply to chip away, by asking questions, those bits that were not wise in them.

Similarly, in the dialogue Theaetus, he compares his craft as a philosopher to that of his mother.

My art of midwifery is in general like theirs [real midwives]; the only difference is that my patients are men, not women, and my concern is not with the body but with the soul that is in travail of birth. And the highest point of my art is the power to prove by every test whether the offspring of a young man’s thought is a false phantom or instinct with life and truth. I am so far like the midwife that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom, and the common reproach is true, that, though I question others, I can myself bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me. The reason is this. Heaven …constrains me to serve as a midwife but has debarred me from giving birth. So, of myself I have no sort of wisdom, nor has any discovery ever been born to me as the child of my soul. Those who frequent my company at first appear, some of them, quite unintelligent, but, as we go further with our discussions, all who are favored by heaven make progress at a rate that seems surprising to others as well as to themselves, although it is clear that they have never learned anything from me. The many admirable truths they bring to birth have been discovered by themselves from within. But the delivery is heaven’s work and mine (Jowett, Plato: Theaetetus, 150 BCE).

We can see in these metaphors for the philosopher Socrates’ firm belief that we are born with an inner wisdom that it is the philosopher’s task to bring out of us.

What we know with some degree of confidence about his life is sporadic.

Socrates was well-known in Athens. He was eccentric, poor, ugly, brave, stoic, and temperate. He was a distinguished veteran who fought bravely on Athens’ behalf and was apparently indifferent to the discomforts of war. Socrates claimed to hear a divine inner voice he called his daimon and he was prone to go into catatonic states of concentration   (Marshall, op. cit.).

According to S.G. Goodrich:

In the early part of his life, he [worked] at his trade, so far as to earn a decent subsistence. Receiving a small property at his father’s death, when he was about thirty years of age, he devoted himself entirely to philosophical pursuits. His habits were simple and economical; his dress was coarse, and he seldom wore shoes. By his frugality, he was thus able to live without labor, and yet without being dependent upon others.

With regard to his public life, it appears that he served his country faithfully as a soldier, according to the duty of every Athenian citizen. He took part in three campaigns, displaying the greatest hardihood and valor. He endured, without complaining, hunger and thirst, heat and cold. In a skirmish with the enemy, his pupil, Alcibiades, fell wounded in the midst of the enemy. Socrates rescued him and carried him off, for which the civic crown was awarded as the prize of valor. This reward, however, he transferred to Alcibiades. In another campaign he saved the life of his pupil, Xenophon, whom he carried from the field on his shoulders, fighting his way as he went.

At the age of sixty-five, he became a member of the council of Five Hundred, at Athens. He rose also to the dignity of the president of that body; by virtue of which office, he for one day managed the popular assemblies and kept the key to the citadel and treasury. Ten naval officers had been accused of misconduct, because, after the battle of Arginusae, they had omitted the sacred duty of burying the slain, in consequence of a violent storm. Their enemies, finding the people disposed to acquit them procured by intrigue, the [deferment] of several assemblies. A new assembly was held on the day when Socrates was president; and the citizens, instigated by bad men, violently demanded that sentence of death should be pronounced on all the accused at once, contrary to law. But the menaces of violence were unable to bend the inflexible justice of Socrates, and he was able afterward to declare, on his own trial, that ten innocent men had been saved by his influence.

When Socrates formed the resolution of devoting himself to the pursuit of divine and human knowledge, the Sophists, a set of arrogant philosophers, were perverting the heads and corrupting the hearts of the Grecian youth. He, therefore, put himself in opposition to these false guides and went about endeavoring to instruct everybody in a wiser and better philosophy than that which prevailed. He was, in fact, an instructor of the people; and, believing himself an ambassador of God, he was occupied from the dawn of day in seeking persons whom he might teach either what is important to mankind in general, or to the private circumstances of individuals. He went to the public assemblies and the most crowded streets, or entered the workshops of mechanics and artists, and conversed with the people on religious duties, on their social and political relations; on all subjects, indeed, relating to morals, and even on agriculture, war, and the arts. He endeavored to remove prevailing prejudices and errors, and to substitute right principles; to awaken their better genius in the minds of his hearers; to encourage and console them; to enlighten and improve mankind and make them really happy.

It is [clear] that such a course must have [come] with great difficulties. But the serenity of Socrates was undisturbed; he was always perfectly cheerful in appearance and conversation. In the marketplace and at home, among people and in the society of those [whose] love of truth and virtue connected more closely with him, he was always the same. It cannot be doubted that a happy physical and mental temperament contributed to producing this equanimity. But it was, likewise, a fruit of self-discipline and the philosophy he taught. He treated his body as a servant, and inured it to every privation so that moderation was to him an easy virtue; and he retained in old age his youthful vigor, physical and mental. He was kind as a husband and a father. Though his wife, Xantippe, was a noted shrew, he viewed her as an excellent instrument of discipline and treated her with patience and forbearance…

He was constantly attended by a circle of disciples, who caught from him the spirit of free inquiry and were inspired by his zeal for the highest good, for religion, truth, and virtue. The succeeding schools of philosophy in Greece are therefore justly traced back to him, and he is to be regarded as the master who gave philosophical investigation among the Greeks its highest direction. Among his most distinguished disciples were Alcibiades, Crito, Xenophon, Antisthenes, Aristippus, Phædon, Æschines, Cebes, Euclid, and Plato. From the detached accounts given us by Xenophon and Plato, it appears that he instructed them in politics, rhetoric, logic, ethics, arithmetic, and geometry, though not in a systematic manner. He read with them the principal poets and pointed out their beauties; he labored to enlighten and correct their opinions on all practical subjects, and to excite them to the study of whatever is most important to men.

To make his instructions attractive, they were delivered, not in long lectures, but in free conversations, rendered interesting by questions and answers, … and thus exercised an irresistible power over their minds. He obliged them to think for themselves, and if there was any [aptitude] in a man, it could not fail to be excited by his conversation. This method of question and answer is called the Socratic method. The fragments of his conversations, preserved by Xenophon, often leave us unsatisfied; Plato alone has transmitted to us the genuine spirit of this method, and he was therefore viewed by the ancients as the only fountain of the Socratic philosophy, —a fact which has been too much disregarded by modern writers. (S.G. Goodrich, Famous Men of Ancient Times, Project Gutenberg)

Before we look at the events that led to his trial and execution, let’s look briefly at his philosophical method.


Works Cited

Harel, Bar. “Statue of Socrates.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 17 July 2015, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of_Socrates.jpg. Accessed 29 Mar. 2022.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book