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Who Was Socrates?

Much of what we know of as western philosophy today is influenced or rather created by a man we know very little of, both in terms of who he was, his life, and his beliefs and philosophies. 

Socrates, born in 470 BC, was a Greek philosopher of Greek. Socrates himself didn't author any texts or books. The only medium we know of him today is through other people's work, such as Plato and Xenophon. Therefore, raising conflicting ideas and documentation of who Socrates really was and his beliefs, a situation known as the Socratic problem. 

Early Life

Being the son of Sophroniscus, a stoneworker, and Phaenarete, a midwife, Socrates was born in a relatively financially stable family. He was born in the Athenian deme of Alopece, a suburb of the city of Athens, therefore, making him an Athenian citizen. 

Like most wealthy Athenians, he learned reading and writing, along with additional skills, including gymnastics, music, and poetry. He even served in the military during the Peloponnesian War and was considered great at it. 

He was married twice in his lifetime. Although it’s not clear which wife came first, Socrates married Xanthippe in his fifties. There was an age difference of almost forty years between the two. And he even had three sons with Xanthippe. His second wife was the daughter of Aristides, an Athenian statesman. 

Appearance

Socrates was not the most attractive man in Athens. In fact, the people who have written about it consistently referred to him as ugly. He had a flat turned-up nose, exposing his big nostrils, bulging eyes, and a pot belly. 

However, he didn’t seem to care about his appearance much. More so, he also neglected his personal comfort and hygiene. He rarely bathed, if ever, didn’t wear any footwear and walked barefoot, and only wore a dirty rugged coat at all times. It seemed as if he was indifferent to his appearance and all material possessions.

Character

Unlike many other philosophers of his time, Socrates didn’t practice total abstention from eating, drinking and sex. It was pretty common back then for older men to be sexually attracted to youth, especially younger men. Socrates was no different. However, unlike others, he resisted his urges and refrained from seeking sex from his young disciples, even declining many of their sexual advances. Instead, as Plato describes, he was more inclined towards educating their soul. 

In terms of his political leanings, he chose not to take sides and criticized both democrats and the oligarchs. 

Philosophy

Socrates didn’t teach any particular philosophy. Rather he claimed that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing, acknowledging his awareness of his own ignorance.

Elenchus, also known as the Socrates method, is one of the defining characteristics of Socrates represented by Plato. In this method, Socrates would start a discussion with an expert on the subject of their expertise. Generally, this took place in the company of an audience consisting of young men and boys. He would usually start the discussion by asking the definition of the subject, following which he asks a series of questions, eventually proving that the expert’s conclusions contradict his initial definition. 

Socrates used this method to point out the inconsistencies and contradictions in people’s beliefs and arguments, including his own. 

Despite his awareness of his own ignorance, Socrates seemed to have his biases and strong opinions in various arguments. Some believe Socrates was simply being ironic since he was pretty good at that, while others believe that it’s just him being inconsistent with his arguments. 

Death

In 399 BC, Socrates was put on trial for multiple accusations and charges, including corrupting youth, worshipping false gods and not worshipping the state religion. 

Socrates fought his own trial and attempted to defend himself. In his defence, Socrates asks the “men of Athens” not to judge him by any other standards but by his own. The trial only lasted a day before the majority of the jurors found him guilty and ordered the death penalty on him. 

Before he was poisoned with hemlock as his death penalty, his disciples offered him a route to escape, which he refused to take.

The entire dialogue of speech that took place during the trial is one of the most important moments in the history of Greek and western philosophy. The Apology of Socrates, written by Plato, contains the entire speech reconstructed in text. 

Despite being such a crucial figure in the history of western philosophy, the actual philosophy of Socrates, his beliefs and many other facts detailing his life are still debated to this day.

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