Portrait of Socrates


Garth Kemerling's insightful discussion of Socrates contains many links to concepts and people.

Who Was Socrates?
Michael S. Russo provides a clear commentary to Socrates' life and ideas.

The Apology
The mind altering depiction of the trial of Socrates. really, this work changed the world and if you read it well it will change you too.

The Apology: Study Questions
To think about and look for when reading the original text.

The Delphic Oracle
Socrates make important references to the oracle. learn about this remarkable aspect of history from Scientific American magazine.

Dr. J's Illustrated Apology
A detailed analysis of the trial of Socrates.

Socrates and The Apology
Lecture notes by Janice Siegel


Socrates III

Socratic Philosophy: Another lasting innovation that Socrates brought to the intellectual tradition is the notion that the proper subject-matter philosophy is the human being. Prior to him, thinkers were concerned with issues such as what the universe was made of, what made the planets move, what pleases the gods, and so on. Socrates declared that the major concern of all philosophy should be questions about human nature and human reality. All of his major questions -- about justice, love, truth, courage, beauty, knowledge, piety, etc. -- are matters connected to the human condition.

Among the other Socratic ideas were the following:

bulletThe proper subject-matter of philosophy is the human being.

bulletNo one does evil intentionally.

bulletVirtue (goodness) is a kind of knowledge.

bulletWhat a person has knowledge of, they can give an account of (explanation or definition in words).

bulletDeath is not an evil.

These are interpretations, not quotes. The second statement on the list; "No one does evil intentionally" remains a common belief for many people. You may have heard someone say; "Evil is ignorance." The basic idea here is that humans always seek to do what they percieve to be the good. Even if an action is obviously a horrible evil to everyone else, the person who commits the act is seeking to attain some good that they percieve in it. This does not excuse anyone of the wrong committed. Rather it is a recognition that ignorance and confused perception can be the source of great evil. On Socrates' view, to know the good is to do the good. Of course he also demonstrated in his own time that even the most respected citizens did not really know what good is. Times have not changed much in that regard. We are all capable of causing evil and injustice, particularly if we refuse to study, reflect on important matters right before us. A modern Socrates might well ask any of us;

What is war?
What is terrorism?
What is freedom?
What is justice?
What is peace?

Many people are confident they know the answers. Times have not changed much in that regard.

Socrates was executed by poisoning in 399 BC at the age of 71. He died gracefully in the company of friends. Plato's dialogue Phaedo depicts the last hours of Socrates in his jail cell, discussing the nature of life and death with friends, and waiting for the executioner to prepare the hemlock potion he was to drink. Plato was there.

Socrates had several chances to prevent or escape his death, but refused them all on the basis of principle. In Plato's Apology, he explains why he refused to compromise at all even though his life was in the balance;

"Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong - acting the part of a good man or of a bad...."

"Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good, for one of two things: - either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man, I will not say a private man, but even the great king, will not find many such days or nights, when compared with the others. Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this?"

"Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know this of a truth - that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has my own approaching end happened by mere chance. But I see clearly that to die and be released was better for me; and therefore the oracle gave no sign. For which reason also, I am not angry with my accusers, or my condemns; they have done me no harm, although neither of them meant to do me any good; and for this I may gently blame them."

Socrates remains the paradigm of an individual with courage and character. He is an ideal for philosophers that is difficult to match. An well-educated person must have read at least one of the major works in which Socrates is a character. I recommend the Apology (hint: comments about it are next!).

Next - read about the tial of Socrates; The Apology.


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