The Life of Socrates in Overview - "Examined Lives" by James Miller

By Stephen Alexander Beach 
(1771 Words)

Socrates' Backstory and Mission
The mid fifth century BC was a time of the golden or classical age of Athens. They had won several victories over other empires earlier in the century, and thus has reaped the wealth from having control of the region. They instituted a democracy in which its male citizens could participate, as well as attracted many well-to-do people from the region. 1 This was the Athens that Socrates was born into in 469 BC. He was born to middle class family; a father who was a stonemason and a mother who was a midwife. While not having extraordinary external appearances, Socrates was blessed with a type of spirit who would talk to him and guide him to make good choices. This, though, set Socrates as something of a heterodox individual at a period of time in the world that valued communal cooperation above all. "From the time he was a child, he felt isolated and different - an individual in a collective that prized its sense of community, vividly expressed in its web of customary rituals and traditional religious beliefs, and crowned by a set of political institutions that embodied the novel ideal of democracy, a new form of collective self-rule." 

Socrates also served as a foot soldier for Athens in 432 BC. 2 In 420 he married his wife, Xanthippe, and there is some evidence that he frequented circles connected with Pericles in support of Athenian democracy versus a more aristocratic form of government. But besides being a soldier, he did not follow in his father's footsteps and instead pursued a strange calling, a calling to live a good life and to seek wisdom where it could be found. 3 Socrates may have been inspired in this calling by the Delphic inscription to "know thyself," implying a interior journey of discovery. 4 For sure, though, Socrates' work was inspired by a prophecy from the Delphic Oracle. His friend Chaerephon had sought out the prophetess of Apollo and received the prophecy that Socrates was a the wisest man. This confused Socrates and set in him a desire to prove it wrong by seeking out true wisdom from others. He withdrew from any public duty and solely focused on this mission, one in which he realized that he was wise because he admitted that he knew nothing, while others didn't know anything either, but thought they did. 5

Socrates also tried to embody in his search a rejection of worldly distractions and goods which believed took away from the work and freedom of the mind and soul. He would be lost in thought often and at others times bother people with questions seeking to see if they knew anything of value. 6 "A primary obstacle to true wisdom was false confidence. And so Socrates now set out to destroy such confidence, not by writing books (he evidently wrote nothing) and not be establishing a formal school (for he did no such thing), but rather through his unrelenting interrogation of himself and others, no matter their rank or status." Doing this, though, did not make him a popular figure with those in power, and often he would be mocked or even beaten. Young inquisitive men, though, and his followers loved to see him challenge those in power. 7 

As far as Socrates' appearance, there were statues of him built shortly after his death. They depict him "... as a balding older man with a big belly, bug eyes, and thick, protuberant lips. ... 'A foreigner who knew about faces once passed through Athens and told Socrates to his face that he was a monstrum ... and Socrates merely answered, 'You know me, sir!''." 8 

Alcibiades, Socrates' Failed Disciple
Later, during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, Socrates served again as a soldier, but things were not going so well for Athens. More unrest was starting to form at home. And yet, Socrates grew in popularity, having wealthy and upper class followers seeking him out, as well as the youth and every day man. 9 Of these wealthy men who sought out Socrates' help, most notably were: Athenian generals Nicias and Laches, Charmides and Critias who would become Pro-Spartan oligarchs in Athens, and Alcibiades, a gifted young man who served in many roles in the political life of the period. 

Alcibiades was handsome, talented, and set out for greatness from the beginning, being taken care of by Pericles himself. Being set for a political career he also became a disciple of Socrates, who tried to help him pursue a path of virtue instead of selfish ambition. (There was also a very strange homosexual attraction between them, though Socrates remained chaste.) 10 Nevertheless, Socrates tries to get the boy to pursue the goods of the soul, not fame, fortune and power ... to somewhat little avail though. 11 While following Socrates' path for awhile, he eventually becomes the inverse of what Socrates had tried to get him to be. 12 "... Alcibiades, by breaking free of Socrates and his influence, becomes the perfect anti-philosopher - a paragon unprincipled viciousness: cruel, deceitful, prepared to say whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear and to feign whatever character he reckons will win popular approval. 'He could change more abruptly than a chameleon.'" 

Eventually Alcibiades comes into power in Athens and commands the military. 13 He moves toward a tyrannical rule, and in his ambition tried to invade Sicily. He was recalled by other Athenian leaders to stand trial for some war crimes, when Alcibiades defected to the Spartan side. The Spartans were going to kill him as well though, and so he fled to Persia. Eventually he makes his way back to Athens and is cleared of charges, but looked on with suspicion. Later, again, he has to flee for his life back to Persia where he eventually dies. 14

The Thirty Tyrants and Socrates' Death
After Athens had eventually lost the war with Sparta, Athens came to be ruled by an oligarchy of 30 men for a few years time. These were pro-Spartan Athenians, like Critias and Charmides, who then purged Athens of its democratic supporters. Socrates managed to survive these years, most likely due to his friendship with the two above. When the Tyrants were overthrown in a civil war democracy was eventually restored. During this time a resurging of zeal for the old Athens returned, something which placed Socrates still at the fringes given that he had caused so much of a stir previously in the city. Some indicted Socrates, claiming that he had undermined the gods of Athens and corrupted the youth with false ideas. They wanted to put him to death for his crimes. 15 

Socrates defends himself by recounting his calling from Apollo to investigate these things in the search for wisdom. And so he was being pious by following the god's call. Likewise, he could he corrupt the youth if he lived a life of exemplary virtue, especially when compared with his accusers. Socrates, though, was found guilty by the jurors, who voted to condemn him to death. Socrates, on the other hand, claimed that his "punishment" should be to be honored and housed by the city for free. 16 And so Socrates was taken to jail. He could have escaped, but to show his continued virtue, he remains faithful and obedient to the state and accepts his punishment to the full. He showed his complete belief in the survival of the soul, being at total peace when drinking his poison. 

Plato and the Idealizing of Socrates
After his death his band of followers kept his traditions and spirit alive, imitating him in the way they lived. Likewise, Plato took to writing everything down, from which we get most of the information about Socrates' life. Plato presented two major ways of thinking about Socrates. First, as being a paragon of logical reasoning and clear thinking. 17 Second, as showing that philosophy is about living a way of life, and that Socrates' lived a perfectly virtuous life. 18 There are other ancient authors who depict Socrates with some differences, but Plato's account is the most dominant and fleshed out. 19 

"The Socrates of Plato's Apology is a philosophos in the purest possible sense: lacking wisdom, he is a seeker, in quest of self-knowledge. Once he has learned of Apollo's answer to Chaerephon's question, he feels compelled to assay its meaning. He is bumbled by the recognition that he lacks knowledge about 'the greatest things' - how to live well, how to be happy, what death holds in store. Truly ignorant, he has no specific propositions to present. Yet because he knows that he does not know, he paradoxically is - just as Apollo had proclaimed - the wisest of Athenians. And even though he has no systematic doctrines to communicate, no dogmas to teach, he has lived a good life, conducted by relentlessly examining himself and others. Skeptical of the convictions commonly held by his fellow citizens, he will steer clear of public affairs. Instead, within a circle of like-minded friends, he will endeavor 'to care for himself' properly. And skeptical though he may be about this own understanding of the greatest things, he will consistently refuse to do anything that he has found reason to regard as unjust or wrong - even if he is tempted to avenge the unjust act of another, as custom would dictate." 20

"...The Socrates of Plato's Apology has integrity in all these senses. He is physically sound and morally unblemished, and he is consistently able to harmonize his actions with the beliefs he provisionally holds after rationally examining them. On trial, he represents himself not just as a model of moral perfection but also as a paragon of rational unity. ... only Socrates demanded of his followers that they jettison traditional certainties and strive towards a rational unity of word and deed. To achieve such a goal implicitly requires that one gain an accurate understanding of oneself; that one self-consciously uphold a set of beliefs about the best way to live that is consistent and reasonable, and also that one's conduct comport with these beliefs." 21

Socrates ultimately dies for his beliefs and way of life, consummating in action what he lived and preached during his life. 22

1 - Miller, James. Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche. (New York. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011). 19 
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