It’s hard to overstate the impact that Socrates has had on Western philosophy and civilization– in fact; he is viewed by many to be the founding figure of Western philosophy. His influence was so immense that he is thought to have significantly shaped the intellectual and cultural development of the world to the extent that all of history would be profoundly different without him. Given this, you might be surprised to find that there are many people out there asking the question: “was Socrates a real person?”
That’s right. Across the internet, you’ll find theories that Socrates never truly existed as a historical figure and instead was simply an invention of Plato. While it is true that no writings of Socrates exist to this day, modern scholars largely agree that Socrates did, in fact, exist. At the same time, there is a lot of debate about the character, thoughts, beliefs, and experiences of Socrates, which is known as the Socratic problem.
You will, at times, come across sentiments online and elsewhere that Socrates was not a real person. Instead, he was simply a fictional character that was created by Plato.
One of the most cited pieces of evidence that Socrates was not a real person is the fact that we don’t have any of his writings. Much of what we know about the man himself comes from the writing of Plato. At the same time, it is widely thought that many, if not all, of Plato’s dialogues, simply use the voice of Socrates as a device for Plato’s own ideas rather than representing verbatim accounts of conversations between Socrates and Plato.
So, did Socrates exist? Or is he just the invention of Plato as a literary and philosophical device?
If we look at the answer to this question from the perspective of modern scholars, the answer is a resounding yes. Socrates was a real man. Not only did he exist, but he was well-known during his lifetime.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Descriptions of Socrates aren’t just found in the work of Plato– there are three primary independent descriptions of the life and character of the man himself that still survive today. Each of these descriptions was written by authors who lived during the same time as Socrates– they aren’t simply recountings of myth after the fact.
Two of Socrates’ students– Plato and Xenophon– wrote nearly a hundred dialogues that depict the philosophical conversations of Socrates as well as information about his life.
Another man who personally knew Socrates– Aristophanes– satirized the great philosopher in three plays that still survive. These plays, all of which were well-known while he was alive– The Frogs, The Clouds, and The Birds, were performed at the yearly festivals that occurred in Athens at the time.
Beyond the sources of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes, there are more surviving references to the existence of Socrates. These appear in comic plays by the likes of Theopompus, Emeipsias, and Eupolis, as well as in the work of an anonymous playwright.
Additionally, there are also references to Socrates in the speeches of Aeschines and Isocrates, two orators from Athens.
While Socrates was well known during his life, his execution in 399 BC made him even more famous. After he was killed, he perhaps had the most fame out of anyone in Greece at the time.
During this time, there were numerous dialogues that portrayed Socrates in circulation. The notion that all of these texts would be discussing an imaginary character seems pretty unreasonable, particularly when not one of these authors bothered to mention that they were discussing a fictional man.
While it is generally agreed that Socrates was a real man, it is also rather popularly held that Plato did use Socrates to express his own ideas to some extent. His dialogues are commonly divided into early, middle, and late periods, and scholars seem to agree that the early period dialogues are more accurate depictions of the actual words of Socrates. The middle and late periods, however, are thought to, at times, represent Plato using Socrates as a device to express his own ideas.
“In every person there is a sun. Just let them shine.”
As an example, the ideas of the tripartite division of the soul and the Theory of Forms are widely believed to be ideas of Plato rather than Socrates. The ancient biography Diogenes Laertius, in fact, wrote that Socrates himself was surprised by the words that Plato was putting into his mouth:
They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!” For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.
Some scholars believe that the dialogues of Xenophon are more true to the real Socrates. In his works, he never mentions the Theory of Forms, for example, which many believe wasn’t actually one of Socrates’ ideas but rather one of Plato's.
Aristotle also mentions Socrates a few times in his writings. When Socrates was executed, Aristotle was only fifteen and not yet living in Athens. This means that he wouldn’t have met the man in person, but he definitely would have met many people who did when he moved to Athens a few years later.
In his writings, Aristotle writes that it was Plato who came up with the idea of the Theory of Forms.
There were a number of other followers of Socrates that were prolific writers and preeminent teachers, including Euclid of Megara, Phaedo of Elis, Aristippus of Cyrene, and Antisthenes. Though we, unfortunately, don’t have any of their writings anymore, the fact that such Socratic Schools existed does serve as circumstantial evidence for the notion that Socrates was a real person.
An important thing to understand about our ability to grasp the story of history is that only about 1% of classical literature still survives to this day. This means that we often find references to lost works in ancient texts that do still exist. In the writings of Christian and pagan authors in the centuries that followed Socrates’ death, we find many references to Socrates. Many of these writers are referencing Greek literature that didn’t survive to the present day.
Though some people claim that there isn’t any official record of the existence of Socrates, we find in the writing of Diogenes Laertius a potential fragment of an official document:
The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metron, 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.”
Though this was written many centuries after Socrates died, it does appear to be referencing a document related to the trials of Socrates.
Most scholars agree that Socrates was a real man. What they don’t necessarily agree upon, however, are the details of his life and the true content of his teachings.
The problem is that many of the sources that do exist contain details of his life, beliefs, and words that contradict one another when looked at in aggregate. This makes it very difficult for scholars to reconstruct a historical and philosophical image of Socrates.
This attempt to create a realistic picture of who Socrates was, what he believed, and what he said is known as “the Socratic problem” or “the Socratic question.”
Some scholars believe that this question is simply unsolvable. Because there are many different conflicting accounts of the man, some conclude that it cannot be known precisely who Socrates was and what he believed.
Writers and thinkers have been trying to address this problem for hundreds of years. The Socratic problem received an influx of interest in 1768 thanks to G. E. Lessing and later in the 1818 work of Friedrich Schleiermacher entitled “The Worth of Socrates as a Philosopher.”
Though we may never know for certain exactly what Socrates’ life was like and which ideas were his and which were simply attributed to him, we can rest assured that scholars largely agree that he was a real man that lived and taught in Athens.
Now that we’ve cleared up that Socrates was, in all likelihood, a real person, let’s take a look at what we do know about Socrates.
Born in 470 or 469 BC, Socrates was the son of a stoneworker and a midwife as an Athenian citizen. Living in a suburb (known as a deme) of Athens known as Alopece, Socrates inherited part of his father’s estate as was customary during the time. This means that he was able to secure a life for himself that wasn’t primarily centered around financial concerns.
Socrates learned to read and write as was typical under the laws and customs of Athens. In addition, he took lessons in fields like music, poetry, and gymnastics.
It’s known that Socrates was married two times, though it’s not clear which wife was his first and which was his second. When he was in his fifties, he was married to Xanthippe, and at another point in his life, he was married to the daughter of an Athenian statesman named Aristides. During his marriage to Xanthippe, the couple had three sons.
According to Plato, Socrates engaged in three military campaigns and fulfilled his military duty during the Peloponnesian War.
Though there are conflicting accounts of Socrates’ character and beliefs, one thing that seems to be agreed upon is that Socrates was notoriously ugly. He had a large belly, a flat, turned-up nose, and eyes that seemed to bulge from his head. He was known to neglect personal hygiene and reject material pleasures, meaning that he walked around barefoot with only the one ragged coat he owned.
This, however, didn’t stop the Athenian public (and particularly the youth of Athens) from becoming very interested in Socrates. He was ultimately put on trial for corruption of the young and impiety in 399 BC and was sentenced to death during a trial that only lasted one day.
During the trial, Socrates defended himself. Hundreds of jurors voted and found him guilty by a majority vote.
The jurors disagreed with Socrates’ idea of a fit punishment (a fine of all he had– one mina of silver, or being the recipient of free food and housing by the state in return for the services he’d offered the city) and instead ordered the death penalty.
There were three official charges that Socrates was found guilty of:
It’s worth understanding that the climate in Athens was highly politically tense. That being said, there is a lot of disagreement between scholars about what precisely motivated the Athenians to convict Socrates. Some argue that it was for religious reasons, others say it was political reasons, while others still argue that it was a synthesis of religious and political motivations.
His last day was spent with his friends and followers in prison. They had come up with a plan to break him out so that he could be spared drinking the poison hemlock. However, he refused.
The next morning, Socrates ingested poison hemlock in accordance with his sentence. Though the man himself was gone, his ideas and legacy have lived on to this day.
What were the dangerous ideas that Socrates was supposedly using to corrupt the minds of the Athenian youth? Let’s take a look at some of his most important philosophical concepts.
The Socratic method is one of the fundamental ideas put forward through the character of Plato’s Socrates. You might also hear the Socratic method referred to as the method of refutation.
“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”
Here’s how the method typically unfolds:
The conclusion of the Socratic method typically found that the expert didn’t actually know the definition of the term to start with. If he chose to create a new definition, then the questioning would begin again.
“True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”
The aim here is to get ever closer to the truth. As the process goes on, the person who supposedly knows a lot about the topic continuously reveals their ignorance. Since they often began the process with an opinion that was commonly held by the masses, the process put a spotlight of doubt on mainstream opinions.
The only way we can gain the knowledge we need to answer the question “how should I live my life?” is by examining our own self.
Socrates believed we could discover our true nature if we turned our attention inward and looked for self-knowledge. Our concept of ourselves shouldn’t be identified with our social status, our possessions, our reputation, or our own body.
Instead, our true self is our soul.
“Are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul?”
It’s worth noting that contemporary religious connotations surrounding the word ‘soul’ might not really apply to what Socrates was discussing when he talked about the soul. Scholars don’t have complete certainty about the precise definition of the soul in Socrates’ terms. Frederick Copelston, the famous historian of philosophy, argued that Socrates was referring to “the thinking and willing subject” when using the word soul to describe our true selves.
The quality of our life is determined by the state of our inner being– the state of our soul, according to Socrates. For this reason, we must devote a lot of time, energy, and attention to the care of our souls.
“The years wrinkle our skin, but lack of enthusiasm wrinkles our soul.”
“Envy is the ulcer of the soul.”
“All men's souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine.”
“I have not sought during my life to amass wealth and to adorn my body, but I have sought to adorn my soul with the jewels of wisdom, patience, and above all with a love of liberty.”
“There are two kinds of disease of the soul, vice and ignorance.”
“The body cannot be cured without regard for the soul.”
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
Once a person has realized the importance of their soul or inner self, the journey on the path to self-knowledge continues. The next step, in the eyes of Socrates, was to determine knowledge of what is good and what is evil.
With this knowledge, an individual can get rid of the evil in their soul and cultivate the good.
He held that someone who commits an evil act is ignorant of the reality that virtue is the only good. They are misguided in their understanding of what the greatest goods in life are– they assume they are power, wealth, and pleasure.
Injuring one’s own soul by not acting virtuously is absolutely the worst evil that an individual could be faced with. For this reason, Socrates believed that committing an injustice is worse than suffering one.
“So I spoke the truth when I said that neither I nor you nor any other man would rather do injustice than suffer it: for it is worse.”
“Nothing is to be preferred before justice.”
“And I say let a man be of good cheer about his soul. When the soul has been arrayed in her own proper jewels - temperance and justice, and courage, and nobility and truth - she is ready to go on her journey when the hour comes.”
If you’ve ever heard any quotes from Socrates, there’s a good chance it’s this one:
“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.”
The reality is, though, that this isn’t a direct quote that Socrates is recorded to have ever said. In the work of Plato, the following ideas are attributed to Socrates:
There is also a famous story about the Oracle of Delphi and Socrates. The Oracle of Delphi, also known as Pythia, was the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. In ancient Greece, this was the ultimate place to go for guidance.
“Awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.”
This oracle would fall into a trance and offer predictions about vital matters such as agriculture and war. According to a number of ancient authorities, including Plutarch, the trance state was induced by gaseous emissions. In a fascinating and relatively recent turn of events, a number of studies and surveys (1, 2, 3) found that gases do rise from fissures in the bedrock that could have induced a trance-like state.
In any case, someone asked the Oracle of Delphi who the wisest man was in Athens, and she answered, “Socrates.” She also found that “know thyself” is an expression that contains the sum of human wisdom, which has led some to believe that her claim that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens meant that he knew himself better than anyone else.
When Socrates learned that the Oracle had named him the wisest man in Athens, he set off to try and prove the Oracle wrong and find someone wiser than himself. After questioning almost everyone he could find, he finally realized (as the story goes, anyway,) that perhaps he was the wisest man precisely because he was prepared to admit his own ignorance. Everyone else, he discovered, was all too willing to pretend to know things that they actually didn’t know.
“To find yourself, think for yourself.”
“Most people, including ourselves, live in a world of relative ignorance. We are even comfortable with that ignorance, because it is all we know. When we first start facing truth, the process may be frightening, and many people run back to their old lives. But if you continue to seek truth, you will eventually be able to handle it better. In fact, you want more! It's true that many people around you now may think you are weird or even a danger to society, but you don't care. Once you've tasted the truth, you won't ever want to go back to being ignorant.”
“Admitting one's ignorance is the first step in acquiring knowledge.”
“There is but one evil, ignorance.”
Virtues are a form of knowledge, and all virtues are essentially one, according to Socrates. People aren’t good because they lack knowledge– in fact, there is a famous dictum that comes from this theory: “no one errs willingly.”
The motivation for all human action, according to Socrates, is eudaimonia. This Greek word literally translates to the c condition or state of “good spirit,” but you’ll also find it translated to mean “welfare” or “happiness.”
Depending on who you ask, what Socrates thought about the relationship between virtue, knowledge, and eudaimonia varies quite a bit. Some said that he believed eudaimonia and virtue were identical. Others say that virtue is a means to eudaimonia from Socrates’ perspective.
“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
“Contentment is natural wealth.”
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
After Socrates died, his impact was truly immense in the world of philosophy. Almost all philosophical schools and currents that followed explicitly traced their roots back to Socrates (with the exception of the Pyrrhonists and the Epicureans,) including:
The Stoics, in particular, relied heavily on the ideas of Socrates. In order to avoid inconsistencies, they used the Socratic method as a valuable tool. They focused on using wisdom and virtue in order to live a smooth life and assigned a crucial role to virtue in attaining happiness, which certainly reflects the thoughts of Socrates.
The Islamic Middle East was also deeply influenced by Socratic thought during medieval times, and many Socratic doctrines were changed in order to better align with the ideas of Islam. Though there was only a small amount of commentary on Socrates during medieval times in the Christian world, he became a prominent figure once again during the Italian Renaissance.
Since his life and death, Socrates has become one of the most famous figures in all of world history and influenced countless other great minds, including Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Zeno of Citium, and other Stoic thinkers.
Ralph Waldo Emerson used Socrates as an example of the fact that great minds are always misunderstood in the following quote:
“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
In his autobiography, Ben Franklin noted his intention to "imitate Jesus and Socrates" in his effort to be humble.
“Falling down is not a failure. Failure comes when you stay where you have fallen.”
“If you want to be wrong then follow the masses.”
“When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.”
“I don't care what people say about me. I do care about my mistakes.”
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
It certainly does appear that Socrates was a living, breathing man that lived roughly between 469 BC and 399 BC. The claim by many that the entire history of western philosophy and thought would have been different if Socrates didn’t exist seems to be quite true indeed.
For people who like to know precisely what is true and what isn’t, it might be frustrating to realize that we can’t get a perfectly scientific view of who Socrates was and what ideas were his (and which, conversely, are put in his mouth by Plato in his dialogues.)
However, we have to realize that, considering only 1% of ancient texts survive to this day, we are lucky to have as much information about the man as we do. He is such a larger-than-life figure in his position in western philosophy that one must learn to accept the fact that the line between myth and reality is going to be a bit blurry.
Looking to access more ancient wisdom? Check out our Stoic Quotes blog.
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