Remembering Socrates: His Days and Times



Of all the famed names of ancient Greece, that of Socrates is surely the most extensively known. His reputation does not derive from his writings, for he left none. Most of our understanding of him comes from dialogues written by Plato, who was deeply influenced by him and developed his own ideas in such a way that it is impossible to see exactly where Socrates’ thought ends and Plato’s begins. Nevertheless, certain key ideas and a particular approach and method are attributable to Socrates, even though they are presented through Plato’s writings. His chief philosophical method was that of elenchus: an eliciting and questioning of beliefs in order to establish truths and reveal inconsistencies.

Socrates was an Athenian, living in Athens when that city was at the stature of its glory under the rule of Pericles. He was taught the cosmological philosophy of the time and occupied in many public debates, chiefly with a group called the Sophists, who were purveyors of practical wisdom, teachers of oratory and arguers of any issue the Athenian citizens might wish to air. Socrates became well-known for his questioning of these teachers and for his confounding of their sometimes glib arguments. His deep and enduring interest was in human and ethical matters and it was to these that he dedicated himself after the Oracle at Delphi, in response to questioning from Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates, decreed that no man living was wiser than Socrates. Thereafter he sought, in Plato’s words in the Apology to persuade every man…that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the State before he looks to the interests of the State; and that this should be the order that he observes.

Life and Nature

Socrates was a native Athenian, son of Sophroniscus and Phaenarete, of the dame Alopeke. He was born in 470 or 469BC., for the records of his trial and execution ut them in the spring of 399, and Plato gives his age as seventy at the time. His father is said to have been a stone mason or sculptor and references in Plato to Daedalus as his ancestor do something to confirm this. As doctors traced their descent to Asclepius as eponymous ancestor sculptors would naturally trace their line back to Daedalus. The justification for the mythical genealogy is that it was regular Greek practice for a craft to be handed on from father to son.

The Peloponnesian War involved him in much active service, and he earned high praise for his courage and coolness, especially in adversity, and his power of endurance.

The death of Socrates no doubt gave the immediate impetus for the spate of Socratic literature that began to burgeon in the fourth century BCE. Xenophon tells us specifically that he wrote his Apology for the purpose of vindicating Socrates and countering the ignominy of his conviction. Plato narrates the summons (Theaetetus), indictment (Euthyphro), trial (Apology), imprisonment (Crito) and execution (Phaedo) of Socrates in five dialogues, all set in the spring and summer of 399 BCE, the year of Socrates’ execution.1 Through these works, we can get a clear idea of the legal process initiated against Socrates, the charges brought against him, the defence he made against the charges and the manner of his death. Not only does this narrative unfold over the course of five dialogues, but these dialogues span a wide range of Plato’s writing career, from shorter Socratic dialogues to larger works that encompass metaphysics and epistemology. Whatever else we may say about the death of Socrates, it was clearly an event that never entirely left the consciousness of Plato. Socrates’ personal, social and moral integrity was of the highest, and it cost him his life. In 406 BC, when he was a member of the Committee of the Senate, he courageously refused to be party to a demand those eight commanders who were to be impeached for negligence of duty should be tried together. It would have been contrary to Athenian law to try them thus. Two years later he refused to conspire with a usurping group, known as The Thirty, to act against prominent citizens. The Thirty then fell from power but in 400 BC Socrates was brought to trial by the restored democratic regime. He was accused of not worshipping the gods of the state, of introducing unfamiliar religious practices, and of corrupting the young. The penalty for these offences was death.

Socrates’ Dialectic in Xenophon’s Memorabilia

The history of the interpretations of Xenophon’s Socratic writings, from the great appreciation typical of the early nineteenth century to the complete depreciation of the following decades, and to the new stream of studies written in defence of Xenophon’s work by reputable scholars like Erbse, Cooper, Dorion, Morrison, Gray, and others. Here Xenophon attacks the idea that Socrates concentrated only on the refutations of other people’s theories and had nothing to teach his disciples. It is a familiar picture, which emerges also from the dialogues belonging to the Wrst stage of Plato’s evolution. Xenophon does not like this picture, and in the rest of the Memorabilia tries to show that Socrates had many positive bits of advice to give to his friends unfortunately, the examples he gives us of those pieces of advice are not very satisfactory from a philosophical point of view, and the modern reader tends to think that some of them are commonplace and rather dull.

Anyway, Xenophon’s Memorabilia are the main testimony for a non-refutative dialectic in Socrates, a dialectic which has the aim of arriving at positive determinations, and definitions of the moral good and of human virtue. In the only passage in which an attitude of ‘Socratic ignorance’ is attributed to Socrates this is put into the mouth of an opponent of Socrates, the sophist Hippias. It is clear that Xenophon does not subscribe to this image and thinks that a more positive description of Socrates’ philosophy is needed in order to defend him from his detractors and to show that he was a useful companion and a good citizen.

Socrates’ shift of philosophical attention away from physics was an influential one that set philosophical thought in new directions. In Plato’s Phaedo, when Socrates is talking to Cebes, he relates that while studying the physical sciences he came across a passage in the writings of Anaxagoras, a fifth-century Ionian, which said that Mind was the cause of all things. It delighted him, he said, that Mind or intelligence should be regarded as primary, since he was sure that Mind would arrange all things for the best and for the common good. So he quickly read all Anaxagoras’ books, hoping to learn what was good and bad. But he continues: How high were my hopes, and how quickly were they lost to me! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher altogether forsaking mind and making no appeal to any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water and many other eccentricities.

Socratic Intellectualism (Xenophon and Plato)

In many ways, Plato is the opposite of Xenophon. But, as we shall see, that does not mean that he is less credible. Though some of Plato’s texts have a clearly apologetic character (Apology, Crito), most of his Socratic dialogues are not apologetic. Nor did Plato intend to accurately report the teaching of Socrates. What Plato intends in the first place is to present philosophical questions and possible answers to these questions. In most cases, he sets the figure of Socrates on stage to argue for positions Plato seems to sympathize with. Does that mean that he uses Socrates as a mouthpiece to express his own philosophy? Here again things are more complicated. If we compare the many master–student relations we find in the history of philosophy, the following schema seems to be prevalent: the student adopts his master’s positions and arguments in his early works at least he believes he does so and departs from these only later, when he finds his own stance.

Aristotle wrote that ‘two things may properly be ascribed to Socrates: inductive reasoning and definition by universals’. Zenophon, in his Memoirs of Socrates, lists some of the terms for which definitions were sought: ‘What was pious, what impious; what honourable, what base; what just, what unjust; what wisdom, what folly; what courage, what cowardice; what a state or political community;’ and so on.3 In the Platonic dialogue Laches, Socrates asks: ‘What is Courage?’ He deals with the ensuing discussion in his characteristic elenctic style. The young man, Laches, to whom the question is addressed, replies by saying that ‘courage is not running away in battle’. Socrates then points out that it is not a particular example of courage that is being asked for but the identification of some quality or property, common to all courageous acts, which entitles them to be called courageous. This kind of tactic is typical of the Socratic search for definitions. If in the course of a discussion a common property was discovered, then the definition was attempted, though not always successfully. However, Socrates always seemed to assume that definitions were possible and that, properly construed, they provided knowledge. His assumption is consistent with the view developed later by Plato that the perfect Forms of all things existed independently of their imperfect physical examples and could be known by the exercise of intellect and reason. It is not nowadays assumed that definitions of the kind Socrates sought are possible for everything.

Socrates and Hedonism

The Protagoras is a puzzling dialogue in many respects, but none more puzzling than the apparent endorsement of hedonism by Socrates in the final refutation of Protagoras. Since Aristotle clearly takes some of the views expressed by Socrates in this dialogue to be the views of the historical Socrates (notably the denial of akrasia), some scholars have been tempted to see the identification of pleasure as the good as in fact a view defended by the historical character Socrates, and not just by Socrates in the dialogue. But most of us find it difficult to believe that the Socrates we know from the Apology and the Crito  the Socrates who claimed that the only consideration for a good man is whether a proposed action is or is not just could ever have identified the good with the pleasant. And other dialogues, from the Gorgias to the Philebus, make clear that hedonism was not Plato’s view. So what is Socrates doing in the Protagoras when he makes use of the identity between pleasure and the good as a premise in an elaborate argument designed to prove that courage is inseparable from wisdom? Many interpreters point out that the hedonist premise is presented in the context of a dialogue with the many and that when it is accepted by Protagoras he is speaking in the name of the many. So hedonism here can be seen not as Socrates’ own view but rather as a vulgar view acceptable to a mass audience, and Socrates’ goal is to show that both Protagoras and the other sophists are ready to accept such a view.

Atheism’ and ‘Impiety’ In Athens

Perhaps the twenty-first century will serve to remind the reader of the extent to which issues of class, nationalism and religious fundamentalism can all become inextricably intertwined. Granted, fourth-century BCE Athens was very far from a theocracy and, for us, it may be difficult to imagine a state-sanctioned charge of atheism drawing the death penalty in a polytheistic society where there were no codified religious doctrines or canonical scriptures; where traditions about the gods were transmitted through what everyone agreed was the work of human poets, Homer and Hesiod; and where matters of orthopraxis, but not orthodoxy, would have determined one’s conformity to the state-sponsored religion. What kind of evidence for Socrates’ atheism would those acting on behalf of the state have been able to present at the trial? Meletus seems to turn Socrates into a reductive physicist: ‘(Meletus speaking) Gentlemen of the jury, he says that the sun is stone and the moon earth’ (Ap. 26d33). Socrates says that here Meletus is confusing him with Anaxagoras, an Ionian philosopher whose books one could buy for a drachma at the local shop.

In the Platonic dialogues, Socrates treads a dangerous line between association with the Sophists by frequenting their lectures, reading their books and appearing in public with them, and simultaneously distinguishing his own profession, philosophy, from theirs, Sophistry. Indeed, it could be said that one of Plato’s projects in writing the dialogues that feature Socrates in conversation with a number of Sophists (Protagoras, Hippias Major, Gorgias) was to make the case that Socrates was the very antithesis of a Sophist and that philosophy differed in every respect from its counterpart, rhetoric. In the same way, Plato seems to make Socrates at the very least familiar with the Ionian physicists; from this, we should not make the same mistake as Aristophanes: Socrates was no scientist. Instead, what was controversial in Socrates’ religious thinking was his belief in a deity that created, acted and governed for the best; this deity could never, therefore, be the cause of detriment or harm, even to one’s enemies.

The death of Socrates inspired literary imitations and artistic representations especially in the French Enlightenment, as littérateurs belonging to the age of philosophes celebrated Socrates in the battle against censorship, even as the subject of Socrates’ death became enormously popular in painting. Diderot (d. 1784), the beleaguered encyclopedist, translated Plato’s Apology into French while imprisoned for his atheistic pamphlet, Lettre sur les aveugles. Voltaire invoked the name of Socrates in a letter to Diderot concerning the case of a young ‘blasphemer’ (Jean-François de la Barre) who was mutilated and beheaded and then burned on a funeral pyre along with a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique. He wrote ‘one simply has to write to Socrates [i.e. Diderot] when the Meletuses and Anytuses are soaked in blood and are lighting fires at the stake’ (Goulbourne 2007, 229–30).


Socrates’ consistent aim was to learn how to live virtuously. He argued that each one of us seeks our own good but that we can be mistaken about or ignorant of what constitutes that good. However, since we do seek only our good, then once we infallibly know that good, we cannot do evil: all wrongdoing is therefore error, knowledge is virtue, and no one knowingly does evil. The premises and ramifications of this argument have furnished material for ethical debate ever since it was first given formulation in the dialogues of Plato. Now it is time to turn to a more detailed investigation of the relative merits of the competing portraits of Socrates, with the caveat that we may not succeed in distinguishing thereby the ‘real’ Socrates who lurks among a number of imposters, although we shall understand the enormous interest generated by the figure of Socrates in the fourth century BCE.


  1. Benson, H.H. (ed.), Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  2. Guthrie, W.K.C., History of Greek Philosophy, 6 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962–81; paperback edition, vols IV and V, 1986, vol. III, part 2, and vols IV and V
  3. Taylor, C.C.W., Hare, R.M., and Barnes, J., The Greek Philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Oxford and New York: University Press, 2001.
  4. Alon, I. Socrates Arabus. Jerusalem: Hebrew University. A study of Socrates in Arabic Literature,1995.
  5. Brickhouse, T. and Smith, N., Plato’s Socrates. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A good resource for general issues surrounding the trial and execution of Socrates, 1994.
  6. Kerferd, G. B. The Sophistic Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  7. Stone, I. F., The Trial of Socrates. New York: Anchor Books. An overview of the politics behind the trial of Socrates, 1989.
  8. Wilson, E., The Death of Socrates. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. An extended meditation on the death of Socrates,2007.



I Pravat Ranjan Sethi finished my studies from Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi, at present teaching at Delhi University. The keen area of interest is Modern History in particular Nationalism, Political History& Critical Theory and Social Theory.


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