Socrates, a Greek philosopher, born in the immediate neighborhood of Athens between 471 and 469 B. C, died in that city in 399. He was the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and of Phcenarete, a midwife, and was trained in his father's art. Tradition ascribed to his chisel three draped figures of the Graces which in the time of Pausanias were shown at the entrance to the acropolis. As a philosopher he called himself self-taught, and referred his knowledge sometimes to books, but more frequently to intercourse with distinguished men. Though traditionally represented as an old, bald-headed man, it is probable that his extraordinary peculiarities were early manifested, and it is certain that he was famous both among wits and the populace in 423, when the "Clouds" of Aristophanes was first exhibited. Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes offer different phases and estimates of his philosophy, but agree in the outline of his personal qualities and habits. With remarkable physical strength and endurance, he trained himself to coarse fare, scanty clothing, bare feet, and indifference to heat or cold, aiming thus to reduce the number of his wants, as a distant approach to the perfection of the gods.
He had a flat nose, thick lips, prominent eyes, bald pate, squat figure, and ungainly gait, and wandered about the streets of Athens, standing motionless for hours in meditation, and charming all classes and ages by his conversation; so that Alcibiades (in Plato's Symposium) likened him to an uncouthly sculptured Silenus containing within the images of the gods, and declared that " as he talks, the hearts of all who hear leap up and their tears are poured out." Though a sage and a martyr, he was wholly removed from asceticism, exemplified the finest Athenian social culture, was a witty as well as serious disputant, and on festive occasions would drink more wine than any other guest without being overcome. Few events of his life are recorded. Of his wife Xanthippe, all that has passed into history is that she bore him three sons, that she had a violent temper, and that he said he married and endured her for self-discipline. He was an enthusiastic lover of the city, within which alone he found instruction, and beyond the walls of which he never went, except once to a public festival, and again to serve as hoplite at Potidsea (about 431), on the outbreak of the Peloponnesian struggle, at Delium (424), and at Amphipolis (422). At Potidsea he went barefoot over ice and snow, surpassed all other soldiers first in the cheerful endurance of hunger and then in the apparent enjoyment of plenty, and saved the life of Alcibiades, to whom, instead of himself, his own request caused the prize of valor to be awarded.
His composure and bravery were alike distinguished at Delium and Amphipolis. He sought influence neither as a soldier nor statesman, and once only discharged a political office. In 406 he was one of the five prytanes of the senate, when the illegal sentence of death was proposed against the victors at the Arginusae; and he, being epistates for that day, refused to put the question to vote, despite the menaces of the yeo-ple and the assembly. With four other citizens he was summoned by the thirty tyrants to go to Salamis and bring back Leon to punishment; and he alone refused. Engaged as a missionary in the service of truth and virtue, he was warned from participating in public affairs by what he called a δαμόνιον i. e., an internal voice, which he professed to hear from childhood in the way of restraint, but never in the way of instigation, and which he was accustomed to speak of familiarly and to obey implicitly. This demon or genius of Socrates, which was not personified by himself, was regarded by Plutarch as an intermediate being between gods and men, by the fathers of the church as an evil spirit, by Le Clerc as one of the fallen angels, by Ficino and Dacier as a good angel, and by later writers as a personification of conscience, or practical instinct, or individual tact.
Nor was this the only way in which he thought he received the special mandates of the gods. By divinations, dreams, and oracular intimations, he believed his peculiar mission to bo imposed upon him; and when the Pythian priestess pronounced him to be the wisest of men, he was perplexed between the decision of an authority which he deemed worthy of all respect and his own estimate that he had no wisdom whatsoever on any subject. With this sanction, he struck out the original path of an indiscriminate public talker for the sake of instruction. His disinterestedness, poverty, temperance, easy affability, and unrivalled sagacity, as well as his plausible and captivating voice and manner, commended his conversation. He spent the whole day in public, in the walks, the gymnasia, the schools, the porticoes, the workshops, and the market place at the hour when it was most crowded, talking with every one without distinction of age, sex, rank, or condition, discussing with politicians, sophists, military men, artists, and ambitious youths, eager to get self-knowledge and to awaken the moral consciousness, striving to win now Alcibiades and now Theodota to virtue, never accepting money in return for wisdom, attracting listeners during his later years even from the remoter cities of Greece, but founding no school, teaching in no fixed place, and writing no books.
His custom was by systematic cross examination to convict every distinguished man whom he met of ignorance. Thus, after hearing the oracular eulogy from Delphi, as reported by Plato in his "Apology," he set out to examine the men whom he deemed wiser than himself. The politicians, the poets, and the artificers were in turn affronted as he attempted to demonstrate their conceit of knowledge without its reality, their skill without wisdom. His irony, or assumption of the character of an ignorant learner, till he involved his opponent in contradictory answers, added zest to his discussions. But he differed from the sophists, though he was ridiculed as the chief of them, in that, whether serious or humorous, he was ever seeking a positive basis for truth, while they for the most part denied the possibility of truth, and could ply the sophistical art with entire indifference to it. In his conception, virtue was as intellectual as vice, and he let slip no opportunity to engage with the masters of sophistry, to follow them through their subtleties, to unravel their captious inquiries, and to wield the weapons of rhetorical adroitness in the interest of truth.
He exhibited undisguised contempt for the rulers, proclaiming that government was a most difficult science, and that men, who would not trust themselves in a ship without an experienced pilot, not only trusted themselves in a state with untried rulers, but even sought to become rulers themselves. He thus naturally and necessarily made for himself enemies in every direction and among all classes. Attached to none of the political parties, ridiculed in turn as a buffoon and as a moral corrupter, at once satirized by Aristophanes and hated by the thirty, especially odious from his intimate connection with Critias and Alcibiades, only a decent pretext was wanted to bring upon him the vengeance of power, and this was found in a charge of impiety. An orator named Lycon and a poet named Meletus united with the demagogue Anytus in impeaching him for despising the tutelary national gods, for introducing other and new deities, and also for corrupting the youth. The details of the accusers were, that he worshipped a demon unknown to the mythology, that he contemned the existing political constitution by ridiculing the practice of choosing archons by lot, that he taught young men the habit of depreciating the entire mode of life of their fathers, and that he quoted and perverted passages from the poems of Homer and Hesiod to favor aristocratic doctrines.
He approached his trial with no expectation of acquittal, though he had always obeyed the laws, and even in religious opinions was identified with the public mind of Athens.
He commented upon all the imputations, and denied some. He mentioned his blameless life, his divine commission, and the consequent antipathies which he aroused, refuted the charge.of irreligion, maintained a calm, brave, and almost haughty bearing, and declared his solicitude rather for the good repute of the Athenians than for himself. He heard without surprise the sentence of condemnation, which was passed by a majority of only five or six in the Athenian dicastery of 567 members. It is probable that the prosecution was designed rather to humble than to destroy him. Xenophon affirms that the defiant and fearless tone of his defence was the direct cause of his condemnation; and it is certain that the capital sentence which followed it was the consequence of his libera contumacia, as Cicero expresses it. The penalty of death having been pronounced, he declared himself satisfied both with his own conduct and with the result, calculated that his bearing on the trial would be the most emphatic lesson which he could read to the youth of Athens, and predicted that his removal would be the signal for numerous successors in so worthy a work.
An interval of 30 days was allowed for the annual Theoric mission of the sacred ship to Delos, which he passed in prison, with chains on his legs, in conversation with his friends. The Platonic dialogues of "Crito" and "Phredo," in addition to their historic value, may be regarded as imitations or developments of his last arguments on the duty of obedience to the laws and on the evidences of immortality. There is no authority but. that of late and untrustworthy writers for the statement that the Athenians lamented his. fate and punished his accusers. - The Memorabilia of Xenophon and the dialogues of Plato have been supposed to represent an exoteric and an esoteric Socrates, and there has been a long controversy as to which contains the most complete and true history. The former professes to record actual conversations held by him, and was designed as an apology; while the Socrates of the latter is the spokesman of theories which may or may not have been the opinions of the master as well as the disciple. But the two pictures thus presented are in the main accordant. Socrates marks the epoch in Greek philosophy when speculation turned from physics to ethics. He directed his attention to human relations and duties.
Astronomy he pronounced a divine mystery; geometry he valued only for land-measuring; general physics he discarded altogether as having furnished and promising nothing but hypothetical, contrary, and useless results; human practice alone, with the knowledge pertaining to it, was esteemed the proper subject of human investigation. According to Cicero, "Socrates called philosophy down from the heavens to earth, and introduced it into the cities and houses of men, compelling men to inquire concerning life and morals and things good and evil." - The most complete discussions concerning Socrates are in general histories of Greece and of philosophy. See also Moses Mendelssohn's life of Socrates, prefixed to his own Phaedon; Nares, " An Essay on the Demon or Divination of Socrates" (1782); Wiggers, Sokrates als Mensch, Burger und Philosoph (1811); Schleiermacher, Ueber den Werth des Sokrates als Philosophen (1815-'18); Lelut, Du demon de Socrate (1836); K. F. Hermann, De Socratis Accusatoribus (1854); and Zeller, "Socrates and Socratic Schools" (1868). Ueberweg's "History of Philosophy" (1872), vol. i., pp. 80-88, contains a full list of works.