The philosophers talked about in the previous article, Thales, Anaximander , Leucippus, and Democritus, are all called pre-Socratic philosophers.  Just the fact that there is a designation “Pre- Socratic” emphasizes the importance at which Socrates’ ideas are placed. Up until Socrates Philosophy focused on the cosmos; the world and everything around it.   Socrates shifted the central focus of philosophy from cosmology to ethics and morality. [1]

It would be great if we could just refer to Socrates’ writings to tell you what his ideas are, but Socrates did not write.  Yet it is a tribute to him that we know what we do about him because of the references of later writers such as his disciple, Plato.

We do know that Socrates was not a striking figure.  He is described as a poor little man who walked around in a shabby loincloth with a piece of cloth wrapped around his body.  “He was short and chubby, had a snubbed nose with wide, flaring nostrils and seemed almost to waddle like a duck he walked.   Yet his ignoble physical features were deceiving to say the least.  Socrates intellect was keen and penetrating, and his personality was witty, compelling, and so brutally honest that some people found him disturbing.”  [2]

Socrates walked around Athens looking for citizens to engage in conversation.  The way he talked to them was to ask them a series of penetrating questions.  Socrates was brutally challenging, relentlessly interrogating until the person began to see that truth of the matter.  Socrates questioned everything, from what one said and did to the authority and actions of the government.  Socrates was totally focused on the realization of what was true and just, and kept questioning until that person began to see it.  His method became known as the Socratic Method.

Plato had this to say about Socrates:

“Anyone who has an intellectual affinity to Socrates and enters into conversation with him is liable to be drawn into an argument; and what ever subject he may start, he will be continually carried round and round by him, until at last he finds that he has to give an account both of his present and past life; and when he is once entangled, Socrates will not let him go until he has completely and thoroughly sifted him.”[3]

It must also be said that although Socrates was tough he was loved.  He had a tremendous impact on many, and students sought him out.  He had numerous dedicated followers, including Plato.

Socrates questioning of government affairs led to arrest and charges.  The charges were that he was corrupting the youth[3], but it is generally accepted that these charges were manufactured by corrupt politicians.  The real concern of the politicians was that they wanted to restore the ancient polytheistic faith.[4]  Just like the Christians, many years later, were persecuted by the Romans for not believing in many gods, Socrates was prosecuted because he believed in one God.[4]   Socrates saw that the virtue of these men, following the many gods,  was lacking.  Socrates sought to build a system of morality that was independent of the numerous religions competing in the culture,  a system based on intelligence and wisdom.

Part of Socrates’ problem were the leaders who had personal experience with the fruit of Socrates’ teaching. Anytus was a Democratic leader whose son became a pupil of Socrates, had turned away from the gods of his father, and laughed in his father’s face.[5]

When confronted, Socrates died rather than compromise his philosophical belief on pursuing what is true and just.  Socrates’ friends had bribed the officials involved in this case, but Socrates refused to walk away under those conditions.  Because Socrates stood on his principles to the last he became a martyr for the cause of philosophy as a pursuit of what is truly wise and just.  There is a famous painting by Jacques-Louis David  portraying Socrates saying goodbye to his friends before drinking hemlock.

Some quotes by Socrates:

”The unexamined life is not worth living.”’ (Apology, 38. In Greek, ho de anexetastos bios ou biôtos anthorôpôi.)

”The soul is most like that which is divine, immortal, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, and ever self-consistent and invariable, whereas body is most like that which is human, mortal, multiform, unintelligible, dissoluble, and never self-consistent.” (Phaedo)[6]

In Socrates we make the transition from the natural world to the spiritual for Socrates sought to promote philosophy as a tool for morality in competition with the many teachings of the gods of his culture.

[1] The New World Encyclopedia, article found at

[2] Ancient philosophers, Don Nardo, Lucent books, Farmington Hills, Michigan, 2002, p. 41

[3] ibid, p. 42

[4] The story of philosophy, Will Durant, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster New York, 1961, p. 8

[5] ibid., p. 11

[6 The New World Encyclopedia, article found at

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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