Writings, or lack thereof
The biggest challenge when studying Socrates is the fact that, unlike virtually every thinker to come after him, we wrote nothing down. He was constantly engaging in conversation to deepen knowledge and understanding. So, for Socrates, capturing and idea in writing would freeze that idea and not reflect any further development of it.
The desire not to forever capture something is hardly unique to Socrates. It is actually common among actors. Many actors who perform more often on stage than screen dislike the idea of movie and TV acting because it captures one performance of a script forever. Whereas a stage performance is gone as soon as it happens and then happens again tomorrow.
Fortunately for us, Socrates had dedicated students who kept detailed records of their teacher’s thoughts and ideas. We understand Socrates through the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon. Now, each adds his own perspective and flavor, so it’s difficult to get a clear idea of the real essence of Socrates without reading everything and finding commonalities.
Socrates sought the knowledge that existed in others. Using what we now call the Socratic Method, he asked question after question until he helped a person come to a level of understanding.
Socrates did not exactly embrace or fully honor the Greek gods and polytheistic belief system prominent in Athens. He encouraged people to think critically and question everything (including religion) seeking logical proof and answers. Without delving too deeply into religious philosophical theories, it is illogical for a religion to be based on multiple gods as religion seeks a greatest conceivable being (GCB) or god who created everything. So, believing in many gods begs the question of who created them. It is at least one step removed from any logical proof for the existence of a GCB.
That said, consider the words of Socrates during his trial (according to Plato’s version of The Apology):
“And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others, but the truth is … that God only is wise.
“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.”
He uses “God” in the singular, not the plural, subtly asserting a preference for a monotheistic belief system.
Later Life, Trial, and Death
Using the Socratic Method, Socrates engaged with young people encouraging them think independently and question then-modern belief with critical and logical thought. As one who questioned the status quo and encouraged others to do the same, Socrates was not well liked by the Athenian government. Eventually he was put on trial for corrupting youth and teaching blasphemy.
We learn about the trial of Socrates through accounts of his defense. Two accounts, both titled The Apology of Socrates, were written by students Plato and Xenophon. Reading both, we learn much about the philosopher’s defense of his teachings, his willingness to face trial instead of accepting an option of exile, and his understanding that the trial would end in his conviction and eventual execution.
After his conviction, Socrates waited in prison for his death sentence to be carried out. Hemlock poison would be method of his execution. During his short stay on Athenian death row, Socrates got a visit from his friend Crito. In a dialog of the same name, Crito attempts to convince his friend to escape from prison and flee Athens. During the dialog written by Plato, Socrates offers many arguments as to why he will and must see his sentence through.
socrates the man
Many, when first studying Socrates, see him as a man who was not humble. I have always thought the opposite. While I find it interesting, I am not surprised many of my students hold this opinion. One of the reasons people have come to see Socrates as arrogant and egocentric is that we know of him through the writings of Plato. Plato was an elitist (in my opinion), so when we read his version of The Apology, for example, we get a Platonic elitist flavor added to the words of Socrates.
Conversely, consider Xenophon’s account of The Apology. The historian paints a more levelheaded, even-keeled Socrates. This is, no doubt, the writer’s own flavor added to his work. This is part of the challenge of studying Socrates. We have no first-hand accounts.
As an example of Socrates’ possible humility, though, consider these words he spoke near the end of Plato’s Apology:
“And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others, but the truth is … that God only is wise.”